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According to the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, the nation with the highest ranking of kindness to strangers is Iraq, a war-torn country fighting to end their occupation by ISIS. Indeed, such is the power and longstanding tradition of hospitality in Iraq that in the last month, despite desperate living conditions, eight out of ten Iraqis have helped someone they don’t know.
Hospitality is a bedrock of cultures and countries across the Middle East, and it manifests in ways that would likely take Americans by surprise. While there are many ways people show it (more on that later), perhaps the grandest expression of Middle Eastern hospitality is—surprise!—through food.
Take a simple meal at a restaurant. It’s a given that if you are invited out to eat by an Iraqi, it means the person who invited you really wants to feed you and pay for everything. “Even if twenty people are invited to the meal. Even if it means giving up a month’s pay,” explains Sara Leana, a first generation Iraqi and lifelong Los Angeles resident who writes the insightful addalittlelemon blog on Iraqi food and culture. “I remember in college arguing with my cousin over the bill and she went along with the argument, but she had already given her payment upfront before anyone had even ordered!”
In Syria, when you go to dinner at a restaurant, it’s as personal as if you were eating in someone’s home. According to Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee and the chef/proprietor of the beloved Yassin’s Falafel House in Knoxville, Tennessee, “people go to the same restaurant every time because you build a relationship. You meet the chef, you know the servers. You’re not just a customer.” And in the home, it’s even more important to make a guest feel welcome: “If you are invited in by even a very poor family, they will spend all their money and all their time to prepare the most labor-intensive food for you,” Yassin says. “Making you feel welcome makes them feel proud.”
It’s the same in Iran, where having people over means making more food than could possibly be consumed by the number of guests. This includes but is not limited to, as Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American political commentator and the author of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay explains, “a table with no less than three completely different dishes as well as a bounty of sides. A bowl of fruit piled impossibly high, and placed in front of every seat, little plates and knives for peeling the various offerings.” These are some of the exquisite details that go into the Iranian art of hospitality, she says: A dance of politesse and ritual that makes a guest feel welcomed in your home. Iranians even have separate, superior dishes used exclusively for guests.
But Majd believes that all the fuss over guests actually developed as a survival skill: “Iran has been invaded multiple times in the last two millennia, and each time has managed to avoid losing its Persian essence—kill your enemies with kindness, could be the operative phrase!” In Iran, as in other countries in the Middle East, hospitality holds an element of one-upmanship, wherein you try to treat your guest better than he or she has treated you. A lavish meal embodies character traits like generosity and selflessness that are valued by Iranians, but it also shows that you have sacrificed time, spent money, and are a good cook. “All important facts that your guest will recognize, and will be obliged to reciprocate,” Majd adds.
Funny enough, the most striking example of Iranian hospitality from my own experience doesn’t actually include food. When I visited Iran, my cousin Ezzy, an ophthalmologist, insisted that I let her examine my eyes, and afterwards bestowed on me a beautiful pair of Tiffany-branded prescription glasses. Truth be told, I would rather have been exploring Tehran during the hours I spent sitting in a chair while she lovingly tested every facet of my eyes, but she would not take no for an answer. This was serious old-country civility that is unheard of in the West.
Although the customs of hospitality are similar across borders, the special dishes that you serve to honor a guest differ from country to country. For a Syrian feast, Yassin Terou recommends oozy – yes, oozy! – filo dumplings stuffed with rice, vegetables, and meat, or shakriya, a slow-cooked stew of lamb and spices in tangy yogurt sauce. Sara Leana would choose the show-stopping Iraqi dish quozi, a full slow roasted and stuffed lamb atop a bed of bejeweled biryani rice. In Iran, while a meal prepared for guests must include various stews, an appetizer, and dessert, the most important thing to Hooman Majd is making sure the guest has the pick of the tahdig—crispy burnt rice.
When you have time, maybe on a Sunday, make one of these dishes, and try entertaining Middle Eastern-style. Serve a table full of food, put out sweets, and pour tea so you can linger long after the meal. Slow down time by living in the moment for an afternoon: I promise you’ll feel more kinship with Middle Easterners after exploring this sensuous side of the culture. Many immigrants are feeling frightened by the White House's talk of stepped-up deportations, whether it affects them directly or not. So, if you have the opportunity to do so, include among your guests someone from a foreign land who might enjoy some extra company and a meal among friends. More than likely they will be your most helpful guest, and show you a thing or two about hospitality. And of course, afterward, everyone will be obliged to return your kindness.
In response to the recent proposed immigration ban, Louisa will be holding a Persian dinner March to benefit immigrant and refugee rights non-profit organizations. For details on the dinner, visit lucidfood.com.
Louisa Shafia is our Writer in Residence this month—read how writing her cookbook brought her closer to her Iranian heritage, about the Middle Eastern origins of ice cream, and about Nashville's Little Kurdistan. Stay tuned for more from her on the site.