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Hospitality

- by AA -

Hospitality. That is one of the main words I would use to describe my experience in Israel-Palestine. In all of the major cities and villages I visited, again and again, I would hear “You are welcome.” Of course, some of these were meant as a sales tactic to draw me into shops to buy various fruits, vegetables, spices, or gifts. But many times the sentence was uttered freely and genuinely, with no strings attached, as an invitation to experience hospitality. While walking through the neighborhood streets of Bethlehem to an office I volunteered in, I encountered warmth from my neighbors through invitations to come inside for some food or tea or even just conversation. “Good Morning!” and “You’re Welcome!” was extended from strangers multiple times on my commute. In America, my home country, I would never oblige such requests. One is taught from a young age not to talk with strangers and certainly not to enter their homes. But Bethlehem held subversive power to remove my suspicions and the usual divide between strangers. Sometimes I went inside for tea; sometimes I stopped for a chat.

One of my favorite memories that epitomizes this value of hospitality in Palestinian culture occurred when I visited a friend’s family living south of Hebron. For the last few years, I lived in California. While living there, I became friends with a Palestinian guy who had moved to the States only a few years ago. When I told him of my upcoming visit to Israel-Palestine, he invited me to go and visit his family who had remained in the Palestinian territories. Once I was there staying in Bethlehem, he arranged for his relatives to pick me up to go and visit his family. What I learned as I drove with them to their house south of Hebron is that they had driven an hour and a half to get me and were now driving me an hour and a half back to their house. Later that night they would drive me an hour and a half back to Bethlehem and then back an hour and a half home. Six hours in total for them of driving. For a girl they didn’t know that their brother in California had called them and told them to pick up. On their day off when most other days included hours of commuting for work.

Upon arriving to their family home, I was ushered inside to a homemade feast of Mansaf, a traditional dish made of lamb, rice, and a special fermented yogurt sauce. I was then treated to a fashion show of the women of the family’s beautiful, traditional Palestinian dresses. We tried our best to converse with their broken English and my broken Arabic over Arabic coffee and playing with the kids. It had a way of making me feel like I was at home with my family. I, a stranger to them, had been welcomed in with incredible effort, from the driving to the cooking to giving up a day of their time to spend with me. I have never before or since experienced such hospitality and warmth from strangers. This experience has continued to motivate me to find ways to extend such hospitality now that I am back in the States. I hope that someday everyone will have the chance to experience Palestinian hospitality.

I began to take short one or two second videos of people saying “You are welcome.” I would hear it from strangers as I walked through the markets in Ramallah, the old city of Nablus, the busy streets of Bethlehem, and in the old city of Hebron. I was shocked that despite the fact that I was American, I was received with warmth. Even though my government has cut funding and aid to the Palestinian territories, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its embassy there, and is even now taking more measures to de-legitimize the Palestinian people and their agency in the conflict, the Palestinians I met saw me as an individual person, not as a representation of my government or country. Although I would have understood them expressing anger towards me for what they’ve endured at the hands of American foreign policy and lack of aid, they welcomed me with open arms, saying they like Americans but not always their government. Their openness, warmth, and hospitality will continue to stick with me and motivate me to embrace others as they embraced me.

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