“Come on, come on!” The man in the immaculate white dishdasha (long robe) gestures invitingly to his front door. I don’t have time, and perhaps neither does the man, but that doesn’t stop him from inviting me into his house. We agree that I will visit him next time. So that we can get to know each other a little better. By simply sitting together in his majlis (Arabic sitting room), drinking tea and talking about what is on our minds. This is inclusivity at its best. And I experience it very regularly since I live in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yes, I am different from most people around me. I look different, wear different clothes, eat different things, speak a different language, have different customs and most importantly, I believe different things. My identity in Christ is unbreakable to me, as the Islamic identity is unbreakable to many of my neighbors. Yet all these differences do not prevent people from inviting me into their homes – invitations that I gratefully accept whenever possible.
Yesterday I talked about this with my wife and some friends. Are we just as hospitable as they are? Yes, if someone is at the door I try to do the same. “Tfaddel, come in!” But if it really doesn’t work out at all? To be honest, I find it difficult, if not hypocritical, to invite someone in enthusiastically when I’m super busy. That is the downside of the famous hospitality: even when you are that busy, you still have to pretend you have been waiting all day for the guest who unexpectedly knocks on the door. Receiving guests is simply a top priority in this society – even when it is difficult.
And I have more questions. Receiving guests is one thing, but where is the point where guests are no longer guests, but become friends? Where the formalities can be omitted? Even local people sometimes reach that point among themselves only after a long time, if they ever reach it. I have often been amazed at how extremely polite good friends can be with each other without a single discord. It’s wonderful, yes, but by doing so, do they really share in each other’s lives, in each other’s worries, in each other’s troubles? Is there room to integrate those dark sides of life in the mutual contact? Or is that too inclusive? And is it actually possible to be too inclusive?
In short, life here keeps me thinking. About what an ideal community looks like. About what a community of local Christians could look like. About who is welcome in such a community, and under what conditions. And about what we actually want to share with each other in such a community. Because what is inclusive for some can be overwhelming for others.
Jacob Hoekman is a freelance journalist living in the Middle East. He writes about the region for various media. He recently wrote the book “In the Shadow of the Caliphate”, about the Arab world. Earlier he wrote “Sons of Ishmael”, about the various views of the church on Islam.