The culture of welcome in the Arabic language

PHOTO/PIXABAY - Dubái, Emiratos Árabes Unidos
PHOTO/PIXABAY - Dubái, Emiratos Árabes Unidos

When we talk about immigration, we can't help but talk about the culture of hospitality. Interestingly, in Arabic, the culture of hospitality involves not only those who offer it, but also those who receive it.

In Western languages, "ahlan wa sahlan" is translated as "welcome", but this oversimplifies the meaning of this greeting. "Ahlan wa Sahlan" literally means "you are with family and the way for you to us is open, smooth and easy". The word "ahlan" comes from the word "ahl", which also means family or people belonging to the same community.

One of the highest forms of hospitality is to tell the guest that he will not be treated as a stranger, but as a member of his own family. "Sahlan" on the other hand derives from the word "sahl", meaning "easy" or "simple", indicating that the road for the guest is open and simple to travel.

The response to the welcome greeting is "Ahlan Bik/i/um". "Bik" can be translated as "in you", so the guest, who is greeted with the phrase "ahlan wa sahlan", responds, "in you, I see my family".  In other words, since the person who hosts me has become my family, I, the guest, undertake to respect them.

That's the meaning of hospitality: opening up to the belonging of the Other, establishing a bond of family and respect between the giver and the receiver of hospitality. Consequently, hospitality policies should involve both parties. It's no coincidence that the French word "hôte" refers to both the host and the guest, as they are two sides of the same coin (i.e. hospitality).

When it comes to immigration, we often talk about what those offering hospitality should do, but little about the duties of those receiving it. Settling in a new country means redefining oneself, which involves opening oneself up to the Other and also becoming the Other. For this reason, Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf suggests that immigrants should immerse themselves in the culture of the host country. "I don't think a host country is just a blank sheet of paper where you put your luggage.

When you arrive in a country, you have rights and duties. The duty to integrate, the right to integrate," says Maalouf. After all, to integrate means to add belonging to our identity, which - as Maalouf suggests - "is constructed and transformed throughout existence".

Because identity is made up of multiple belongings, there's no contradiction if we say we love the country that welcomes us without ever forgetting where we come from. So, integration doesn't represent a loss of identity, but, on the contrary, it involves "adding a new part to a whole to form a more complete whole".

Another interesting way of saying "welcome" in Arabic is "marhaba", and the response to this greeting is "marhabtayn". In Arabic, the root of the word "marhaba" is "rahiba", which means "he welcomed the guest in a spacious place" (There are theories that the word "marhaba" comes from Syriac, but that's another story).

However, the person receiving hospitality responds with "marhabtayn" (the dual form in Arabic), which means "I offer you a double marhaba", or better said, the guest will show double the generosity that has been bestowed upon him. There's a famous saying that the guest is sacred, but the Arabic language reminds us to also bless the host who offers hospitality.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Moroccan-Italian researcher.