“Aha, so you’ve decided to criticize again,” Tamer responds accussingly after I announced my new topic of the article, which I’ve been mulling over for about a week.
“No! It’s not a critique. It is more about raising awareness… ”I can already predict the reactions of my readers from Slovenia and the Balkans:
“So what? We have these ‘same’ polite phrases.”
I dare to even prophesy the objection of a local or an expat who will be offended and claim that I am wrong. Let me explain – this comes from my experience after two years of living in the Arab world and after reading many current debates on social media networks. What the article describes, of course, cannot be applied to just about every courtesy exchange in the Middle East and North Africa.
Allow me to begin by asking a question. With all the travel blogs overflooding the internet, have you ever come across anything like these two statements below?
“The Bedouins slaughtered a sheep just for us and served it for dinner. They wouldn’t let us pay. The hospitality here is exceptional! ”
“A stranger at the airport offered us a ride to the hotel. He didn’t want to take any money. The Arabs really are hospitable!”
First, let’s ask ourselves, why do we equate hospitality with something we can get for free? Is this really the only kind of hospitality that can accompany travelers on their journey back home with the impression: “we will surely come again, because they just gave us everything for free”?
I shall continue by raising some doubt: why would people who are proverbially famous good sellers (“they can sell sand in the middle of the desert”) gift tourists with goods such as transportation services and food? We can only consider extraordinary situations in today’s world when it comes to influencers, who are obviously meant to spread the good word about the country’s tourism. One of the internationally known travel bloggers, for example, in the vast majority of countries continues to point out how he is “not allowed” to pay at the stalls and how he was hosted in this and that restaurant for free. To put it mildly, this is a false story about hospitality, which should therefore be expected by all travelers and tourists. Is it really that hard to attribute smiles and free snacks to parading around with a camera, a drone, and a small technical team?
I can finally get to the core of the post, tackling the title. Fishermen’s invitation is the naming of a cultural phenomenon characterized by a tireless exchange of courtesy phrases, gifts, and promises. Let me illustrate:
The name of the custom is known in Arabic (دعوة مراكبية pronounced Da’wat Marakbiyah) mainly in Egypt and Sudan, where fishermen from boats would invite people on the shore to join them for tea. Since no one really intends to dive into the water to reach the boat, it is clear that the invitations are only polite and cannot be taken seriously.
Yet this type of politeness is very much alive among all those who stand firmly on land as well. The “fishermen’s” philosophy is also present in money transactions. Of course, one cannot point out any insincerity of the fight “who will pay for lunch for the whole table” between friends. Wrestling for the check is known in many cultures (also in our country, isn’t it?), but the Arabs go an extra mile when it comes to bragging about this kind of generosity (hospitality?).
The story gets complicated when it is necessary to pay for a service to a complete stranger. A taxi driver can say, “No need, it’s on me,” (خليها علينا pronounced Khaliha Alaina). Are you going to believe him? You are to accept an invitation to a dance, the steps of which can be quite unpredictable and exhausting, especially for those of us who swear by a more direct approach to everything in life and “do not waste time”. Back and forth. Twice, even three times you have to insist on paying. Why? Because it’s a culture! Many people think (I am many people), if they don’t want it, they have themselves to blame; why play this game of hide and seek, am I right?
Those who have not heard of the “fishermen’s invitation” may be more familiar with the Persian word ‘tarof’ (تعارف pronounced ta’arof), which also denotes cultural exchange, etiquette in the area of present-day Iran. It is a similar principle, but an even more complex set of rules of conduct. Empty promises and tireless exchange of courtesy gestures are cultural dance steps we must be prepared for.
Once again, invitations and free lunches are something completely different between friends and acquaintances. If someone invites us to their home, we can hope for genuine hospitality. But let’s not forget to return the favor and invite them for next time!
This post is not intended to offend any party. When I first pitched this to my friend Rebecca from the U.S., who had already visited Saudi Arabia as a tourist, she was scratching her head, thinking – did she perhaps unknowingly owe anyone any money? It sounded funny then and it still does today. I first opened the debate with a critique of some two American bloggers in the Kingdom, who shamelessly share posts about how so many things are simply given to them and attribute it to the famous hospitality or kindness of the nation. “But when I ask a guide, how much does a weekend camping in the desert cost, I get an an estimate of 400 EUR per person,” I was bitching to Rebecca and anyone else who was willing to listen to the stingy Slovenian. At the time, I just didn’t know what this cultural exchange was called. I got the answer last week on social media and asked my beloved Sudanese about it in more detail.
So let my monologue serve as a kind reminder to all who may find themselves at this end of the world and naively take a souvenir from the hands of a vendor at an Egyptian bazaar who insists at all costs that it is a gift. And when you are about to leave the shop without a clue, your husband from Sudan pays for it and thus knowingly completes the dance steps of the “fishermen’s puzzle”.