By Caroline Stevenson
There are a vast plethora of subjects I could blog about that I have observed while being in Israel for the past week. In the simplest description, Israel is a land full of diverse cultures, religions, and identities. It is a land that attracts people from all corners of the world to come visit and experience what it has to offer. One aspect of the culture I have extremely enjoyed while spending time in Israel and Palestinian territory is Arab hospitality.
Arab hospitality is something that is completely foreign to American culture. One afternoon in the village of Ibillin Donna, Jenna, and I had a most memorable experience with Arab hospitality. Our group was in the village staying at the Mars Educational school which was founded by an Arab Israeli man who saw the need to bring Arab youth, Jewish youth, and Christian youth together in his community to create peaceful relations among them. His school has become a landmark in the small village and a symbol of hope for the majority of families in the village.
It was a Sunday afternoon and Donna, Jenna, and I decided to venture from the school into the center of the village for a nice walk. We began to approach the center of the village when Donna spotted the sign for a bakery so we decided we would like to go to it. We walked towards the sign but could not find the main entrance for the bakery when we came upon a man and woman standing at the edge of a driveway. They asked if we were visiting from Mars Elias and after we responded affirmatively, the man and woman began to engage in very friendly conversation with us and quickly invited us into their home for coffee. I was caught by surprise. They wanted us, strangers from another country who they know absolutely nothing about, to come into their home and enjoy coffee. I was intrigued and agreed to the invitation because I was accompanied with Donna and Jenna.
The man and woman (who are husband and wife) walked us into their patio, brought us chairs, and began to just chat with us. I was amazed at the genuine kindness and interest they gave us. They wanted to know why we were in Ibillin, why we were in Israel, what we are doing with our lives, about our families, and about our homes. They did not ask us about our lives because they felt they had to create meaningless small talk, if they had felt this way I suppose they would have never invited us into their home to begin with. We asked about their lives, families, and work and they openly shared.
In a short matter of time the mother of the man came out with coffee and homemade coffee cake. She gave it to us and greeted us with a warm smile. Soon after this, their extended family members began to arrive—brothers, sister-in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces. Each extended family member greeted us with the same genuine kindness that the man and woman had first extended to us. Our time with this family was so pleasant. We chatted and sipped on strong Arabic coffee for about an hour until Donna, Jenna, and I had to head back to the school. In that short hour, we shared our lives with each other. We created a moment in time together with individuals in the community that was something I had never experienced before. By the time we left the man and woman’s house we had been given the family recipe to a delicious local dish, we had been served, we had been extended a hand of friendship, and we had exchanged Facebook account information to stay in contact.
I did not have neighbors until I was eleven years old because up until that age I lived in the country on my family’s ranch. I did not know what it was like to grow up in a community with neighbors living next to you only being separated by a fence. Before I moved into town I had hopes that my family would become friends with our neighbors not just because we lived next door, but because we shared the same space; we would be living our lives together in an area of close proximity. I was greatly disappointed when I discovered the norm was to not say hello to your neighbor. I have lived in the same neighborhood since for almost ten years now and despite my family’s attempts, there is no desire from other neighbors to really get to know each other. I could never see my next-door neighbors coming over for coffee or just having a friendly and lengthy conversation.
The hospitality of this family in the village of Ibillin blew me away. I was completely in love with the generosity and pure intentions of these complete strangers to give us a moment of time in their lives, well knowing that we will probably never see them again. They did not care that this would be our only interaction ever in our lives. I think that to them inviting us into their homes for some coffee was not even a thinking matter, they just did it. Why? Because that is their culture, that is there way of connecting with their community and with the people who come into their village. They showed us the most intimate place of their life and the dearest people to them with no hesitation. The hospitality and friendliness they showed us was beautiful. I do not know what other word to use to describe our experience except for beautiful.
Only two days after we had this experience, the great significance of Arab hospitality was further explained to me. Our group met with a Jewish Israeli man whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. Instead of responding with great bitterness and hate towards the Palestinian people, the man has chosen a path of friendship and the advocacy of establishing peaceful relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. The man went into the West Bank to meet with Palestinian men who had in the past been terrorists against Jewish Israelis because they wanted to. The man did not fear for his safety because he knew that the culture of Arab hospitality would protect him from any harm. Arab hospitality does not just mean serving coffee to houseguests, it means protecting and honoring the guest who are in your house even if you have been past enemies. The meaning of Arab hospitality allowed for the men to share their stories of victimization and better understand the deeper meaning of conflict, which was that for the Palestinian men violence was the response of previous victimization. This story of Arab hospitality speaks of the great value and meaning that Arabs extend when they offer hospitality. I desire to live out such hospitality in my own life.