Arabic Coffee and a Lesson in Hospitality

These miniature Arabic coffee pots are souvenirs from a time in my life when I traveled often to Doha and Abu Dhabi. Aesthetically, I love the curves of the shapes. I love the history — each shape is typical of a different region of the Middle East. I love the symbolism of hospitality that these coffee pots represent — a traditional offering of strong (an American might think it is even a bit bitter) Arabic coffee offset by sweet dates. The carafes remind me, as well, of one of the most profound lessons in hospitality and cross-cultural friendship that I have been gifted with.

In 2003, when the second Iraq War and the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein started, I was managing several teams of geoscientists, a number of whom were expatriates living in Doha, Qatar. While the air base the United States was using was located in the desert outside of Doha, Baghdad is 1130 km away. My company deemed that it was safe for my staff and their families to stay in place in Doha and therefore, I reasoned, it was safe for me to travel there to provide career advice and moral support.

My normal flight into Doha was on British Airways out of London and usually flew over Iraqi airspace — not possible at this period of time. So the commercial flights landed on Cyprus, refueled, and then took a longer route around Iraq to get to Doha. The approach and landing in Cyprus was dramatic — quite abrupt and quite steep.

photo by Alex Sergeev ‘Approach to Sheraton Hotel at Sunrise’ (www.asergeev.com)

We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel, pictured above, which is lovely and has an iconic pyramidal architectural shape. The hotel, no surprise, was almost empty except for journalists. The joke was that the journalists were posing for their live reports in front of the blowing palm trees of the Sheraton hotel — 1100 km away from the actual conflict.

One morning, on my way down to breakfast before going in to work, I rode down the glass elevator with a British woman and a Qatari gentleman, dressed in his traditional thobe (the white, coat-like garment that Arabic men wear) and Arabic head covering. The woman was chattering to me about how nervous she was being in Doha during the conflict and how ‘difficult’ things were. I was nodding politely, just listening. As we stepped off the elevator, the Qatari gentleman, who had not been part of the short conversation, turned to us both and, in perfect English, said “You have nothing worry about, you are guests in our home.”

It didn’t matter if we were American or British, male or female, Muslim or not — we were guests. And the most important idea this gentleman wanted to communicate to us was that because we were guests — his guests — and the rules of hospitality over-rode everything else that might be going on in the world.

I think this memory is one of the strongest of my time traveling in the Middle East. I was treated with as much respect there as I have been treated traveling in former Soviet countries, Southeast Asia, West Africa, South America, or even in the United States. My home is decorated with momento’s from my travels. Those Middle Eastern momento’s, and the memories, are treasured. In fact, the very first oriental rug (the rug is actually from Kashmir) that I ever purchased was from a shop in the Sheraton Hotel in Doha. Along with the coffee pots, my rugs survived Hurricane Harvey.