- Rana Dasgupta
- 30 Oct 06, 05:43 AM
The beginning of a folktale, which all of us know:
A weary traveller arrives in a town at night. He is a stranger from afar, and he is alone. He knocks at doors, asking where he can stay, until he finds someone who has room to house him for the night. He is given food and lodging, and stories are exchanged: stories of here, and stories of there. The traveller leaves again in the morning to resume his journey.
Perhaps the traveller reveals himself to be a king, or a magician, and the host family receives an astonishing reward. Perhaps he is a figure of darkness, a disturbing new presence in the town's otherwise humdrum life. Either way, a tale can begin from there.
Contemporary, capitalist, society is conspicuous in its indifference to the virtue of hospitality, which has lain at the centre of most other cultures. Across history, and in many different places, the idea of providing food, shelter and cash to strangers in need has played an obvious and important economic role. More than this, it has brought together strangers in intimate settings, and provided a vital channel for news, culture and ideas to be exchanged.
The magnificence of many of the caravanserais built across the medieval Muslim empires lay not in the private quarters provided to travellers, but in the prominence of the poets, musicians and philosophers who congregated in the courtyards to talk to guests and provide entertainment. Through the sarais, musical styles travelled across enormous geographical zones, politics and new technology were transmitted and discussed, poems and stories were spread, and philosophical ideas were communicated.
The ethos of hospitality was considered to be central to those earlier forms of globalisation, not just because it made journeys economically viable for those who could not afford to pay for weeks or months of accommodation, but also because it demanded a certain openness of spirit, both in those who provided hospitality and in those who received it. It demanded that both parties expose themselves to the foreign and walk away, possibly, changed.
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