Mistrust, Indebtedness and Hospitality

Thursday January 15, 2009

Hunza valley, Pakistan

Back in 1989, on the day after my eighteenth birthday, I caught a flight to Pakistan. I had a job of sorts, teaching English in a school in Lahore. I was untrained, had no experience in teaching English (or, for that matter, anything else), and knew almost nothing about Pakistan: hardly the best qualifications. My final two years of schooling, between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, had been at a boarding school where the daily regime was characterised by an unpalatable mixture of boorish patriotism, colonial nostalgia, lusty hymn-singing, Kafkaesque regulations, petty prejudice and abject stupidity. Oh, and a school song that, belted out at the start and end of term without a trace of irony, had about it more than a whiff of Monty Python. I reached the age of eighteen, that is to say, with a dwindling faith in human nature.

Leaving aside the ticklish question of the merits of the vaguely colonial enterprise of letting loose untrained English youngsters on Pakistani schools, I think of the time I spent in Pakistan with enormous gratitude. It was living and travelling in Pakistan – a country that back then, as now, had a pretty poor press – that restored to me the faith in human nature that the idiocy of the my final two years of schooling had all but effaced. Before I left for Pakistan, I had been told all kinds of terrible stories about the rogues and scoundrels that I might meet along the way. On no account, some people counselled me, should I accept a cup of tea or a plate of food from anyone. It will be drugged and I would wake up naked with no money and no passport – if I woke up at all. I should beware of those who approached me in the street, others said: they may seem friendly, but they are interested only in robbing and cheating. Indeed, before I left for Pakistan, I had heard so many tales about the horrors that I might face, and I become so demoralised as a result of my schooling, that I was firmly resolved not to trust a soul. Such was the extent of my lack of faith in my fellow human beings that I remember writing in my diary during my first days in Pakistan that I wanted, at all costs, to avoid being indebted to anyone, as if any sense of indebtedness would somehow compromise me. I would be separate, apart and independent.

It is true that over the months that followed I did run into a few rogues and a few scoundrels, although perhaps there were no more than you would meet anywhere else (and certainly there seemed to be proportionally a good deal fewer than I had met in the aforementioned school). But alongside the few rogues and scoundrels, what I remember most is how the carapace of mistrust that I had so assiduously built up over the previous couple of years slowly started to crumble away, eroded by the simplest of human kindnesses. It started with a cup of tea, offered to me by somebody I had just met in the Anarkali bazaar, not more than a week or so after I arrived in the country. A man came over and said hello, he started to chat, and he offered me tea. I refused. He insisted. I refused again. But somehow, and despite my misgivings, I found myself sitting in a tea house, drinking tea, waiting for the poison or the drugs or whatever it was he was slipping me to kick in. After tea, he shook my hand and left. The drugs didn’t kick in. The tea was just tea. I felt a wave of shame at the extent of my suspicion. What had I been thinking? But I also felt a kind of exhilaration, a kind of freedom. Here was a man who would buy a cup of tea for a stranger… How remarkable was that?

For the rest of my time in Lahore, and then over the months that followed as I travelled along the course of the Indus down to visit friends in Karachi, and then up into the mountains, I found again and again that the mistrust that I had built was slowly broken down by kindness, by friendliness, by offers of food, shelter and assistance. In the town of Nawabshah, a hotel put me up for several days without charge, because I was a foreigner and they didn’t get many of those in town. They fed me, again without charge, in their restaurant. We spent evenings sitting on the roof talking underneath the night sky and drinking tea. They introduced me to friends and family. When I left (for Umarkot, where I did, in fact, encounter a number of rogues, but that’s another story…), they bought me a bus ticket on to the next place, and for good measure bought me a big bag of fruit for the journey. And sometimes when I travelled by bus, passengers whom I had not even spoken to would pay for my ticket. The same happened in roadside eating-houses: people would see me, a foreigner, and would simply pay my bill, acknowledging it with the briefest nod of the head and smile.

Blanket mistrust and universal cynicism simply cannot survive in such conditions. As I found myself accepting hospitality from others, accepting their kindness, the sense I had of indebtedness to the people I met – many of them almost complete strangers – began to grow, until I came to realise that indebtedness is not optional, that we are indebted whether we like it or not, and that we can never repay these debts. There is no straightening of accounts in which we can suddenly see ourselves as being separate and free. Realising this, my sense of life shifted. I started to recognise that, given that I could not balance the accounts, I had no choice other than to be grateful.

But it is not just a matter of gratitude, for I think that there is also some kind of demand here. Accepting the hospitality of others breaks down the sense we have of our apartness, the fiction that we do not need each other; it destroys the lie that we can make it on our own. And when all of this begins to break down, then it becomes obvious that the only possible sane response is to offer hospitality in return, not as the settlement of some kind of debt, but rather because it no longer makes the slightest bit of sense not to.

Here, then, is an imperative that I stumbled upon in Pakistan and that, in the almost two decades since, I have found myself reflecting upon again and again. It is neither categorical or hypothetical, but is instead experiential. It is astonishingly simple, but of all the ethical imperatives in the world, is is perhaps the one that speaks to me most. The imperative this: be hospitable.

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#1 · Kate C

15 January 2009

Very, very nice way to put it. I am traveling in Israel this week, and I am amazed and delighted at how friendly and welcoming everybody is here. The world is full of beautiful souls and terrible deeds. I think the trick is to find the first and avoid the second.

#2 · Barry Briggs

16 January 2009

Wow. Thank you for this wonderful post. I’ll put a link to it on Ox Herding.

This line stopped me cold: “There is no straightening of accounts in which we can suddenly see ourselves as being separate and free.”

#3 · Jayarava

16 January 2009

Hi Will,

This is a great story. The media are filled with images designed to make us mistrust foreigners, and being technically a foreigner here I sometimes despair of this attitude. But here it is. As mad and bad as the media would have us believe that foreign people are, be it Pakistanis or Americans or whoever, on the whole when you actually meet them they are warm and hospitable. A few rogues, yes, but there are plenty of those right here – where ever here happens to be. I find myself feeling very much simpatico with the idea that the essential thing is hospitality. I recall reading that Afghanistan was once a popular destination for road trips, not just for the excellent hash, but also for the legendary hospitality of the Afghan people.

I wonder what you make of the disintegration of communities and the impact that has on hospitality. When our “community” is defined by our Facebook friends and cell-phone numbers instead of by physical proximity I wonder if hospitality can survive, and if it doesn’t what hope have we got as a society?

The imperative is there, but do people see it do you think?


#4 · Yang-May

17 January 2009

I think it would be rare to find such hospitality and generosity to strangers here in the affluent West – sadly. Thanks for this reminder to be hospitable!

#5 · zensquared

19 January 2009

This is a wonderful post — thank you! I have encountered this same hospitality in several Southeast Asian countries. People seem to take it as a given that a stranger, a visitor, should be treated with hospitality.

Even though you know that they know you are richer than they are, they insist on treating you. I find this profoundly humbling — very different from a common Western attitude that is not as generous toward strangers.

#6 · dale

21 January 2009

Thank you for this. It brought me to tears. There is much more incidental kindness in the world than many of us learn to believe in, or to look for. God knows I’ve received more than my share of it.

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