Cultural Definitions of Hospitality
If you come to Azerbaijan, one of the things you will read and hear about almost everywhere is the famous hospitality of Azerbaijanis. They are proud and vocal about their qonaqpərvər quality. And the people who are a witness to this hospitality know it’s value. I’m a proud recipient of such hospitality. But this brings up a great opportunity to reflect on what we think of as hospitality. I hadn’t really thought of it before, because I always had one idea of what the core principles of hospitality might be. Yet coming to Azerbaijan shows how hospitality can mean different things to different people.
In America, and I think probably similarly in Europe (can anyone confirm?), the basic idea of hospitality is that you cater to the needs of your guest. As the host, you always have options available, and it’s a guest-directed situation. When I greet a guest, I want to know what they want, like coffee or tea or whatever. And there’s a certain protocol that’s met, usually meaning that when the guest is eating, I too am eating. For me, visiting friends and family also involves a lot of conversation, whether it’s about everyday things or about the big ideas of the day.
Hospitality in Azerbaijan, while accomplishing similar goals, seems to come at the guest from a different angle. Instead of an experience where the guest is given a sort of free reign over the direction of the situation, Azeri hospitality is a distinctly different experience, where you, as the guest, are brought into the life of the host. The Azeri host is showing you a bit of their world. There is still a degree of freedom, in that nearly any Azeri host is going to cater to what you say you would like (A nap? Food?).
Yet, there is always a time in the guesting moment where the Azeri will show you a bit of their life. It could be anything. I’ve had experiences where I’ve been shown family pictures and talked about family history. On the other hand, I’ve watched television just to flip through the satellite channels and see which language they were broadcast in, or watched a three-plus-hour amateur wedding video. I’ve also been given a cellphone to flip through the photoshopped pictures saved on the phone, or to flip through the short clips of music stored there. In terms of food, for an American, it can be kind of awkward to be the only one eating at a host’s house, yet this is not an uncommon occurrence in the Azeri guesting experience. And of course, there is always plentiful tea and candy to go with whatever is happening.
So why is this worth a blog post? I think it’s worth a blog post because it sheds a little light on how even subtle differences in how someone invites another into their home can shape thoughts about an entire culture. I think it’s fair to say that many an American would experience a few guesting outings and could easily conclude that what Azeris call qonaqpərvər is not hospitality. And likewise probably going the other way. It is, instead, a slight shift of conception. Both can be enjoyable and valid conceptions, but the differences are an interesting shift from one culture to another.