Monday, June 28, 2010

Hospitality 101

During my first week in Erbil, I made a grave social faux-pas which caused every Westerner in the room to suck in his/her breath in lurid anticipation of the impending drama: I admired something another person had; namely, her sandals. Now I'm not saying that in and of itself this is a particularly bad thing - but for a Westerner, no good can come of it. Yes, the dictum here is if you have to say something nice about something, don't say anything at all. I'm certain that my mother's head is reeling with that one.

If you admire something - and by admire I mean that you just happen to offer a polite
compliment (sincerity/insincerity notwithstanding) - what a nice bracelet you have - then poof! it's yours. Such is the extent of my ignorance that I don't know if this is an Iraqi thing or a Kurdish thing, but since I am in Kurdistan, we'll make the rash and possibly erroneous assumption that it's a Kurdish thing. I suppose it hardly matters.

Eastern hospitality is notoriously - well - hospitable. Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I are continually inundated with invitations for dinner, picnics in the mountains, and whatnot. Recently I met a student at the mall in town and, after our obligatory kiss-kiss, I was severely upbraided for not stopping by her house first. My explanation that I didn't know
that she lived near the mall - or where she lived for that matter - or that I had not received a firm invitation to her home withered on my tongue. It seemed churlish to add that I couldn't even remember her name I just wanted to buy my bottles of Ribena syrup and pistachios, and get the hell out of there.

After a mercifully short bout with the flu (for which I had to cancel one class), one of my students cornered Mr. This Cat and demanded to know why he (Mr. This Cat) hadn't contacted said student when I first became ill - he could have arranged a doctor and prescriptions, et al. So in addition to the joy of having to empty the contents of my entrails every 2 hours, I had a heaping helping of guilt added to the mix.

All of this is bearable. I have perfected the art of declining the Terrific Tsunami of Tea that engulfs this country. I now excel at accepting loosey-goosey invitations with equally namby-pamby acceptances. But the complimenting ... that's a horse of a different colour. The other day when I told one of my students that I really liked his eyeglass frames, he took the glasses off and handed them to me. To keep. Fuck. I remonstrated. He insisted. I thanked Allah that were no Westerners in the wings delighting in my discomfiture. When would I learn? Finally, I tried them on and further thanked Allah (not really) that my student was far-sighted rather than near-sighted as I am. The fact that the prescription was woefully out of whack for me was the only reason he accepted his glasses back. He promised to buy me the frames for me to have filled later. I know full well that they will show up any day now. I just hope he selected the right colour.

Seems silly? Behold:

I walked into Mr. This Cat's office a few weeks ago and my nose was assaulted by a most malodourous and sickly-sweet stink. What is that? I cried. He pointed to a plastic bag sitting in the far corner of the room. Knowing that I would regret it, I poked and peered inside the bag, releasing another fetid tide of Crap Cologne from this Pandora's Bag and saw a shirt.

It's a shirt, I say.
Yes, he concedes.
Whose is it and why is it here? I try to seal the bag to staunch the stench, but, as I have neither a flamethrower nor liquid cement on hand, it is to no avail.
It was Muhammed's*. He wore it to class the other day and I said I liked it. He hangs his head in shame.
NOOOOOO! You didn't!!!!! I cry.
I know, I know. He brought it in for me this morning. What was I supposed to do?
, head still hanging in shame.
Couldn't he have at least washed it? I ask.

I would add that Muhammed is 5'2". Mr. This Cat is 6'3".

In the end, the woman whose sandals I coveted admired did offer them to me. Twice. And twice I declined with a duly horrified expression of White Guilt stricken across my face - this was, after all, my first kick at the Hospitality Can. I had no idea how serious this was or that she would feel morally obliged to not only offer them to me, but ensure that I accept them. But there was no third offer. You're lucky, my Western Voyeurs told me afterwards. You really dodged that bullet!

Bitch. I really wanted those sandals.

*Requisite name change.


Snowflake said...

My gravy - that's the best one yet! Thankfully, it's not that way over here in Indonesia. What nice people you live amongst. But I they ever admire any of your belongings in the hopes of taking them home? Or maybe they don't like your stuff? What would you do if they did? It makes me laugh just to imagine!

Anonymous said...

What do you do if someone says they like/admire your husband? Or your dog? Do they offer their goods and services amongst each other? It could be a whole new civilized society.Will your husband be required to wear the shirt just to prove that he liked it? These questions can go on and on.

This Cat's Abroad said...

Yup, it does open an ethical can of worms. I often wonder if I should be offering my earrings up to a Kurdish admirer. Instead, I choose the path of ignorance & just say thank you. That would definitely hold true with the dog - and possibly with my husband as well. Anonymous, you're right: it does sound like a form of communism at its finest!

... he hasn't worn the shirt (it's 12 sizes too small) and I pray that "Muhammed" doesn't ever ever ask about it! I'm sure Mr. This Cat has already offended him.

Frisco said...

They sound like a very nice and thoughtful people. It has to be so difficult for you because you are constantly handing out compliments. I really like those coasters,,,,are you going to buy them? You should be able to find a way tap this as a secondary source of revenue. I really like your car, your house, your swamp cooler. Boy, that is really pretty money you have.

This Cat's Abroad said...

Frisco, what a fabulous idea! I believe that I'll have no problem assuring people that I really truly love the colour of their money.

tagalong said...

I'm surprised you didn't learn this in Morocco. I was there a couple years ago and with friends, one had a wallet that snapped open and shut. He was talking and snapping it open and shut and I happened to look, out of curiosity, at what he was making noise with. He saw me and said "it is yours"...I apologized for looking and told him it was rude for me to take it. He took his paper money out and handed to me. So now I own a men's wallet that snaps.