Guest, host and stranger: practicing 'unconditional hospitality'

Priya Basil says when we welcome people into our homes and our countries, we strengthen the larger community and everyone benefits. Her new book, Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity, is a meditation on what it means to both give and receive hospitality.
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

When most people think about the idea of hospitality, they often paint a very sentimental picture. You can imagine a warm welcome at the door, friendly conversation and, of course, some food and drink. 

But according to writer Priya Basil, hospitality is about much more than just making someone feel comfortable in your home.

Her new book, Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity, is a meditation on community and what it means to give and receive hospitality. Basil begins at the kitchen table and expands to nation states, exploring the ideas of host, guest, and stranger in both intimate and global contexts. Be My Guest offers timely reflections at a moment when many families are politically divided and there is widespread anxiety about immigrants and refugees.

Priya Basil is a writer based in Berlin, by way of Nairobi and London.

In a conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes, Basil argued that receiving people -- even strangers-- into our homes and communities is mutually beneficial. We offer shelter and welcome to others, and our communities are strengthened by their presence. 

Priya Basil (Copyright Die Hoffotografen GmbH Berlin. Nutzungsrechte sind entsprechend unserer AGB übertragen.)

Mary Hynes: You dive into this by observing that 'hospitality' -- the word -- is awfully close to 'hostility', which is a connection I've never made before. What does that proximity say to you?

Priya Basil: Both words come from the Indo-European root word ghos-ti, which meant host, guest and stranger simultaneously. And this was so moving to me because I thought, these are the three roles which in some way or other -- consciously or unconsciously -- we [occupy] all our lives. And also this proximity between hospitality and hostility is so interesting, [in] the way that they kind of rub up against each other. I suppose, in my life, I experienced this quite intensively in my grandmother's kitchen because she is a very passionate cook and feeder of people. And her hospitality is really exaggerated. She makes too much, she pressures you to eat more than you want to the point where her hospitalities are kind of an imposition because she's so greedy for love and approval and respect and the way that that is affirmed for her isn't how much you consume of what she's made. 

MH: Where do you see the stranger fitting in with the with the host and the guest? What is the stranger's role?

PB: I would say that a society's greatness is measured [in part] by how it treats the uninvited stranger. And for me, this took on very concrete form in the year 2015 when many refugees arrived on Europe's shores, mainly from Syria because of the war there. There was real resistance in many European countries to allowing these people through their borders, and Germany was one of the few countries along with Sweden who welcomed these people. [So] in 2016, around 800,000 refugees arrived in Germany.

In a time where we have rising nationalism, rising xenophobia, and an ever narrowing definition of who belongs and who's part of us, the idea of unconditional hospitality just seems to me a necessary vision.- Priya Basil

It was really interesting to see at the grassroots level how many people turned out to receive these people and to say "there is a space for you here." I mean, perhaps you remember scenes of Germans at train stations with flowers and teddy bears welcoming the arriving refugees. And then this translated into around 15,000 initiatives, NGOs and other small associations being started up to work with refugees and to help them, and a large proportion of these 15,000 had something to do with food. We're all about bringing people together for meals, cooking together and eating together so that the strangeness element was somehow reduced. 

It [also] became about being guest and host together and these roles blurring, because when you invited the newcomers to cook for you, to be in the expertise of their own culture, and to have their own food and to share that with you, it opened up a different way of being together. And this is the beginning of working out how we can be together in a broader sense as well, even if at the moment we don't share a language and we don't really know very much about each other. It's like a signal and it's a sort of statement of intention as well. A very powerful one.

MH: You mentioned scenes of welcome at train stations with bouquets of flowers. There were also scenes of a violent backlash in a number of countries saying "no, the stranger does not belong here. This place is not for the stranger." What does that say to you about the various roles and who belongs in the context of host, guest and stranger?

PB: These changes also unleash the darker forces in our societies. And I think change of any sort, whether in our personal lives or at a societal level, is really destabilising, and it makes us insecure and it makes us doubtful. 

And I must confess that I too, felt insecure about the change in Germany. I found myself for the first time in a society where I was was one of the ones receiving and having to think about what I would do to accommodate all these new arrivals. And I think that doubt and insecurity themselves are not are not bad things. They're things that we all feel and have to deal with, and I think we probably need more forums to express these things and to support each other through them. 

But sometimes these doubts express themselves in very, very ugly ways. And we did see a rise in attacks against foreigners and the question of 'who is a foreigner' became very loaded again. 

For me, one of the ways that I found to try and counter it is in the French philosopher Jacques Derrida's idea of 'unconditional hospitality', which he himself acknowledges is impossible and yet which he nevertheless puts forward as a form of orientation, a goal or vision or horizon to which we might aspire. And I think in a time where we have rising nationalism, rising xenophobia, and an ever narrowing definition of who belongs and who's part of us, the idea of unconditional hospitality just seems to me a necessary vision to set against that.

One of the ways in which I've tried to do this is through political engagement. I was the founder of an NGO in Germany called Wir Machen Das, which means "we are doing it." And we founded this NGO because our sense was that there's so many people who are already active, who are already working with refugees and other migrants to reshape our future.

MH: You've written about a tourism campaign in India for which the slogan is "the guest is God." And there's also an old spiritual teaching that when you entertain the stranger, you do it right because you may be entertaining angels unawares, or indeed you could be entertaining God unaware. What does that mean to you in the context of Wir Machen Das and your work with with the group?

PB: The idea that you never know who the stranger is -- what they might bring you, what they might hold -- I think is a really powerful one. And I think in English, [we hear] the word 'stranger' for the first time probably as children when we're told "don't talk to strangers." It already comes loaded with a kind of suspicion. And these ancient ideas that you never know who the stranger is, treat them with the utmost utmost respect, is so beautiful. 

I felt like I belonged because I could participate-Priya Basil

In the context of Wir Machen Das, it basically meant that we invited newcomers and refugees to work with us on the different projects that we established. I think to look at the stranger as somebody who could bring something to our lives that we could be enriched by and surprised by, gives us the possibility for discovery.

MH: I'm wondering whether this is a two-way street potentially. Do you see this as people bringing shelter to one another in some way regardless of who is arriving and who is already in place?

PB: I think that reciprocity is absolutely a fundamental part of the idea of hospitality, that there has to be something on both sides to make it work successfully over the long term. And I always think of my experience in Berlin as being quite instructive in this regard, because I arrived in the country not speaking the language, not knowing anybody, and not really thinking that I could belong here in any way. I didn't really imagine that I could be a part of this society in a truly profound way. 

And then I found that as I became involved with different political initiatives, and I was invited to do that despite the fact that I didn't speak the language, despite the fact that I wasn't fully up to date with the latest political developments and all the history, really made a difference to how I felt. I felt like I belonged because I could participate. And the more I was able to participate, the more I felt I belonged and the more effort I wanted to make to belong. It was a very interesting dynamic that was at play and one that I never felt anywhere else that I'd lived. And this notion of belonging as a political condition, as a commitment to working together to uphold certain values, really crystallised for me there. And that was me as a guest in this country, having a chance to host in a way, by joining with others to be politically engaged.