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Hospitality in Saudi Arabia

Written by ESLI
Published on 2017-04-11
To begin, a lesson in English. Most language learners will recognize "hospital" as the root word of "hospitality." A hospital is not a place one thinks of with positive feelings. To the contrary, hospitals are usually discouragingly antiseptic, abnormally bright, and insultingly malodorous. Yet, the word "hospital" comes from a Latin word that means "to host." In hospitals, medical staff host the infirm with the goal of treating and nursing them to health. Hosting, in all cultures with which I've interacted and studied, is an honored tradition. In many countries, the guest is offered the most comfortable seat, is served the best piece of meat, and is afforded all of the best the host family has to offer. A conscientious guest, however, is not off the hook. Before I left for Saudi Arabia, I spent hours reading about and discussing with my Saudi friends how to be a guest in a Saudi home and in an office setting. Having worked with students from Saudi Arabia for a number of years, I had been a guest in countless apartments with both men and women. These were my former students and friends though; I had never been in the homes of their families and was worried about offending those who had graciously invited me into their homes.

Hosting, in all cultures with which I've interacted and studied, is an honored tradition. In many countries, the guest is offered the most comfortable seat, is served the best piece of meat, and is afforded all of the best the host family has to offer. A conscientious guest, however, is not off the hook. Before I left for Saudi Arabia, I spent hours reading about and discussing with my Saudi friends how to be a guest in a Saudi home and in an office setting. Having worked with students from Saudi Arabia for a number of years, I had been a guest in countless apartments with both men and women. These were my former students and friends though; I had never been in the homes of their families and was worried about offending those who had graciously invited me into their homes.


Here is what I knew: I should avoid showing the bottoms of my feet to anyone when sitting. I should only accept and give items with my right hand. I should use eye contact but expect some men not to look me in the eye out of respect. I should not reach across a platter or plate, except my own of course, to retrieve another morsel of food. I knew it didn’t matter if I finished everything on my plate…mostly because I knew the servings I had been given in the past and the near impossibility of me finishing them. I knew to don my abaya in the streets and to feel comfortable in homes. I knew all of the above, but I was still nervous and excited about meeting students’ families in their own homes.

During my time in the Kingdom, I visited six family homes, and for the purposes of brevity and privacy, I will conflate these experiences. First things first: none of the above rules mattered. From the start, I learned that the guest in the Saudi home can essentially do no wrong. I did not test this theory by putting my feet on the table, chewing with my mouth open, or reaching for items on the other side of the exceedingly long tables at which I ate; however, I did make mistakes. As an American, I reach for and receive things with my left hand all of the time, and I did the same there without anyone batting an eye. At a lunch at one apartment, I knocked over a glass of water and was made to feel as if it should be celebrated. In other words, I was not to feel apologetic or ashamed of my faux pas. I probably made mistakes I didn’t even know about, and I was none the wiser.


In every household of every size, I was offered countless rounds of dates, tea, coffee, and sweets before and after the meal. Family members of all ages and English abilities did their best to ask me questions in English or through a translator and listened intently to my answers. Both men and women engaged me in lively conversation about the region, politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and culture. My opinions were considered and debated in a respectful manner with supportive comments and interspersed humor. Children showed me their schoolwork, talked to me about their goals, and took goofy Snapchats with me. Most evenings ended in music, singing, and, in the case of all-women parties, dancing. I was taught traditional dances and, in turn, ended up teaching a group of Saudi women the Electric Slide. I was given gifts, offered more of everything served, and told at every turn that their house was also my house. And I felt it.

It was exceedingly difficult to say goodbye after each visit. I told people I was having American mornings and Saudi nights. To that, I was waking early to conduct business before the noon break and spending my evenings eating, talking, laughing, and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. The sleep deprivation was worth it.

Talk about the Middle East in U.S. media outlets is contentious, and current American leaders have demonstrated short sightedness when discussing norms, mores, and news coming from the area. What I experienced is certainly typical of many cultures. We should not be defined by the decisions of our countries’ leaders but by the choices the individual to welcome a stranger into his or her home, offer the best there is, and engage with that person no matter what differences they may have. This is perhaps the truest meaning of hospitality.

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