I was out of my depth, absorbed in an unusual conversation with a Muslim man about faith and culture, and in a vastly different world than what I was used to.
During this wondrous chat my sense of smell was aroused from the moment a unique blend of savoury and sweet aromas wafted through the sitting room we were in. And my stomach grumbled for food.
After what felt like an age, the curtain dividing the kitchen from our sitting room was drawn to reveal two women charmingly dressed in very colourful djellabas (traditional dress) and hijabs. My stomach leaped with joy when I saw that they were carrying what must have been the largest single plate of food I had ever seen.
This large plate was full of golden couscous. Delicately arranged on top of the couscous was a diverse array of perfectly seasoned and colourful vegetables, hiding a large chunk of slow-roasted lamb. Several side dishes and two large platters of fruit also embellished the table.
I remember distinctly the feeling that I was being treated like a king. The centuries-old and refined combinations of Arabic, Andalusian, Mediterranean and Berber cuisines were some of the finest I have ever tasted. My hosts were genuinely kind, warm and generous in providing me with such an elaborate meal.
After being asked to say grace ‘Australian style’, I paused to observe my surroundings. Our room was cramped, but bright and clean. And on what were otherwise unadorned and very ordinary white walls, there was a large canvas on which a golden excerpt from the Quran had been beautifully printed in Arabic.
While bountiful food and exquisite tea pots would suggest abundant wealth, this was not a family defined by riches.
When I arrived by bus in my hosts’ town, an hour and a half out of Casablanca, Morocco, I was welcomed by a woman beautifully dressed in a striking green djellaba with flowing sleeves. She introduced herself in broken English as my friend’s sister. Apart from simple introductory phrases, she knew no English and I knew no Arabic. We had to rely on body language and hand gestures alone.
My guide led me to her home – a slum dwelling on the edge of town. She drew aside a curtain, which functioned as the front door. We walked through a small dark kitchen, pulled aside another curtain and I found myself in the sitting room earlier described.
After my English-speaking friend arrived we enjoyed our meal over great conversation – but surrounded by deep poverty.
Three significant lessons in my understanding of hospitality were formed through this experience.
- My host was not hostile toward me during a war “against the Muslim World”
I was in Morocco in 2006, only a few years into a deeply unpopular war against Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost everyone I met, including my friend, asked me why Australia had joined forces with the United States in a “war against the Muslim world.”
Whether “a war on Islam” was Australia’s or America’s State policy or not, is beside the point. Our actions and those of our countries can build hostile perceptions, particularly when provoked by the media and political messaging.
ISIS has similarly affected many Westerners’ perceptions of Muslims. And yet, just as I didn’t have ties to the Australian pro-war establishment and so didn’t deserve anyone’s hostility in Morocco, most Muslims have no ties to radical groups and so don’t deserve our hostility.
Despite perceptions in Morocco, my friend chose not to take sides and see me as an enemy. Instead, he chose to see my humanity. He then invited me into the most intimate environment he possessed – his home. In any culture this demonstrates a significant degree of goodwill and trust by the host.
- I was embraced as a Christian in a Muslim home
My friend’s parents came home late, but I will never forget their warm greeting. I was introduced to his mother who was blind from diabetes. In a poor family, she was a liability. And yet, I could see that she was still deeply loved and respected. She held my hands in hers and described in Arabic her immeasurable pride in the fact that I had visited them. And her husband embraced and kissed me on the cheeks several times. I was a Christian welcomed into a Muslim home, as if I were family.
- Poverty didn’t stand in the way of beautiful and enriching hospitality
This meal would have been a profound financial burden for my host to provide. I learned later that families in these poor situations often have to borrow from their neighbours the food they so generously provide their visitors. This was a deeply sacrificial gesture by this family.
Ironically, if not shamefully, I had a Muslim teaching me, a Christian, what Jesus’ words truly mean – who my neighbour is and how I should treat them. The good Samaritan in Jesus’ story is also an enemy of the Jews. And yet, he acts in a way that teaches the Jewish expert in the law what Jewish law – loving your neighbor – truly means.
We still need this lesson in a modern world with increasing discrimination, policies intended to alienate, hate speech and acts of violence against “our enemies,” don’t we?
I was treated like a king, in a foreign land, by a Muslim family I barely knew. With so many people recently crying out “Go Away Muslims,” and embracing hostility and division, maybe there’s a simple counter force in the hospitable welcome of Muslims – and any other strangers – into our homes and the provision of a generous, even sacrificial, meal.