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In general, Americans do not excel at hospitality, compared to the rest of the world. We do certain things well—barbecues, for example, or hanging out and eating chips and dips while watching television. But when it comes to the full on, days spent in the kitchen in preparation, slaughtering your last goat to honour your guest even though your children may not eat meat for a week as a result kind of hospitality, Americans tend to fail. The drop-ins being invited to stay and being served like honoured guests. The extra courses, the non-ending stream of complicated things from the kitchen throughout an extended afternoon/evening/night, the seven course meal, in general, don’t come out of our kitchens.

I am not boasting, but for an American I am decent at hospitality. I like to have people over. I like to have things nice. I easily pull off 3 courses, often even 4. But 7? That is beyond me.

So, when I invited my Moroccan friend and her new husband, who is a diplomat, over for dinner, I was stressed. I had to do it.  But I was worried. Would they feel honoured, as they have honoured me in the past? I knew the best I could hope for was: not bad for an American.

Part of it is not my fault. Arabs live in families. So there is more than one woman on hand to help. There are usually maids, younger sisters, plenty of people. Plus, they are used to cooking for larger numbers. They can pull it off more easily.

But part of it is my own deficiencies. The other day at the beach, my American friend Megan pulled out blueberry muffins (dried berries sent from America) and Girl Scout thin mint cookies (also sent in a care package) for my family to fall upon like wild locusts and tear to bits in our excitement. “Megan, you are so Arab!” I said to her admiringly. I have to admit that if you send me Thin Mints and dried blueberries in a care package, I will be very happy, but I will have a hard time sharing them. I will let my own family have a few, but mostly I will want to horde them and eat them myself. But Arabs will share their best, their most precious, their last—they will give to their own hurt. I am not good at this. I like to share things, but I tend to keep the Starbucks only for people I am sure will appreciate it.

Even with Arabs, there are limits of course. They may encourage you to keep eating and say things like “You haven’t eaten anything!”, but if you believe them and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat, their children will not eat that night and they will not be impressed with you (yes, we learned this the hard way, in Mauritania. We left going, “We offended them. We really didn’t eat enough.” I’m sure they were thinking, “I can’t believe how much American eat!”). It’s like a game. You don’t have to keep eating if you are full.

Tuesday was the big day and I was ready with my plan. I have a maid who comes twice a week; she does some basic cleaning and cooks the most incredible Moroccan food imaginable. She is cheerful and easy to get along with, but she is unreliable. On many instances, she has simply not shown up; she does not call. I have to call her husband when she hasn’t shown up yet again, who will tell me, “Oh she is sick” or “Oh she is traveling.” The plan was that she would come on Tuesday (she had missed her previous day), clean the house and cook her wonderful lamb/prune/apricot tagine for me to serve as the 3rd course.

The foreshadowing was enough: you are not surprised that she did not show up. I wasn’t even surprised. Apparently I thrive on stress. I spent the morning calling all my friends until I found one with a housecleaner who was free for the day. I knew I couldn’t do all the cooking plus the cleaning. Because of Ramadan, my guests were not due to arrive till 9 p.m., so I had some time.

Zohra came and did a fantastic job cleaning, much better than my normal maid. I made chocolate tarts (thanks, Kit, they were fantastic!) and a fancy roast potato and green bean salad and I roasted 3 chickens with garlic and red onion and herbes de provence, because they were bringing extended family and we were going to be 12, and my table only seats 6. I made appetizers and arranged fancy salads and chopped and decorated and filled the kitchen with huge piles of dishes, all dusted with flour.

They came at 9:30, bringing me a fantastic tray of Ramadan pastries from a fantastic local patisserie. The extended family did not come. We understood that when the call to prayer sounds at about 7:15, and the long hot day of fasting is over, they drink water, eat dates, and harira soup, the traditional Ramadan soup made with lamb, tomato and chick peas, among many other ingredients. Then they go to the mosque. An invitation for 9 p.m. should have brought us a horde of pleasantly hungry friends.

Yes, my friend agreed, that is the idea. That would be healthy, she told me. But instead, at 7:15, her hungry family eats and eats and eats. She had spent her day cooking as she spends every day during Ramadan, and her family had eaten their fill, of tagine and soup and dates and salads and bread, at 7:15 and so had not come to our house.

The four of us sat down, and sent the kids off to play. We ate hummous and pita bread, falafel and olives, dates and walnuts. Then we ate one of the chickens, and several fancy salads. Then we ate fruit. Then we ate tarte au chocolat, with coffee. They left about 12:30.

We sent one of the chickens out to the neighbourhood guardian (I hope I get my plate back sometime) and put the other in the freezer. Elliot and Abel, amazingly, stayed up till 1 and helped me clean the kitchen. Our fridge is stuffed with leftovers. Who wants to come for some roast potato salad?

But I think it worked. Even though they hardly ate anything, not in the Arab-hospitality-fussing-over sense, but in the literal American sense (because they had also eaten a whole meal at 7:15), I think they felt honoured, which was the whole point.

Which made the evening a success. In spite of my nationality.

August 2009

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