Show me philoxenia

Blog by Adam Weymouth

As I walked along the European bank of the Bosphorus, I stumbled upon a small group of fisherman who were coming to the end of their dinner. They called me over, offering me grapes and raki, and I explained in my smattering of Turkish what I was up to. “Londra, Istanbul,” slap legs, mime walking. “Sekiz ay” (“eight months”).

Throughout my whole journey I had been offered hospitality to an extent I could never have imagined before I left. I had been invited to sleep in peoples’ homes, in bars, in barns, in churches and in mosques. I was fed in restaurants and at mountain passes. I was given friendship and support at times when I really needed it. Yet I assumed I would have been anonymous in a city of thirteen million people. But as we finished eating they told me proudly that the only way to see their city was from the water, and invited me out in their boat. For Muslims, they told me, the duty of hospitality is not a duty only to the stranger, but one to God.

One intention I had when I began, 3,500 miles earlier, was to challenge the culture of fear, the distrust of strangers, that seems to be a given in a world where we are increasingly denied the opportunity to interact with the unknown. With its speed and its fear, our culture robs people of the very chance to offer hospitality. Walking through villages I felt like a rare beast, and found people almost eager to invite me into their houses, to hear my story and to tell me theirs.

As I walked I came to see that under this modern, paranoid veneer, beyond the oxymoronic idea of a ‘hospitality industry’, there is a core of hospitality which is very much alive. Sites on the internet that offer hospitality are increasingly popular – CouchSurfing now has over two million members. Yet the opportunities to connect with strangers on their journeys are few, and they are decreasing. I know of no better way than a pilgrimage, secular or not, to remind us that we are dependent upon strangers.

In the Bible, the word often translated as ‘hospitality’ is the Greek philoxenia, a love of strangers. And this goes both ways, for in a hospitable relationship each is a stranger unto the other – it is about recognising both the other within oneself, and oneself in the other. The exchange feels to be something reciprocal, in a way that is hard to pin down. We share a conversation, a friendship, the age-old human act of two people connecting over a gift. Furthermore, it does not feel to be a one off exchange, but more the continuation, or a recommencement, of a circle of hospitality which increasingly needs refreshing to maintain it.

Certainly hospitality is full of contradiction – turning your home over to someone else, the risk that that entails. But as Jacques Derrida explored in his work, it is this very impossibility of defining its parameters that maintains it as an act which is vital and open. It is not an intellectual concept – it has meaning only in the doing.

We no longer seem to speak of good risks, of risks worth taking. Instead we attempt to control as much as possible. We do this, perversely, by destroying practices like hospitality that truly keep us safe. We can never know where the act of hospitality will lead us. As it says in Hebrews (13:2): “Forget not to shew love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” We would do well to open our doors more often.

Topics: Culture, Reportage