Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Lines Not Drawn – and Invitations of Sailors #digciz

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It’s serendipitous (or rather extremely stressful, but coincidentally useful to reflect upon) that the week I am co-facilitating a #digciz conversation (w Kate Bowles) with a hospitality focus turns out to be the same week I have an actual iftar at my place with 35 guests.

I don’t think it’s obvious to other people, so let me spell this out

  1. Iftar (during Ramadan) is the most stressful kind of “entertaining” because you have a hard deadline for when food needs to be on the table (sunset time)
  2. Iftar is often a social event with family, sometimes friends, but recently younger people like us don’t do it as often
  3. It’s more stressful to entertain your spouse’s friends than your own. Your own friends are more likely to help out and less likely to judge
  4. 35 is a huge number given the size of our apartment. It isn’t a small apartment, but still!
  5. Getting the house and meal ready while fasting is extremely exhausting, even if you have help, and especially when you have a young kid and unhelpful partner 
  6. For some reason, the moms on both sides get involved and it’s extremely exhausting 
  7. It’s hard to be hospitable to 35 people especially when you know some of them better than others

So that’s sort of a backdrop to what I was working on this week and finally transpired today. So something funny happened. Here’s the short story

When you invite folks to iftar, they will usually either bring dessert, or a gift for your house. Usually if they’re visiting for the first time, they will get a house gift. So if you know many people are NOT coming for the first time, you expect lots of dessert. And usually you don’t buy/make any. But it’s kinda hard to just not do anything, so I made a fruit platter. I forgot to take a picture because I made it on this pretty two-tiered plate ppl use for English tea things… Anyway. I made it with apricots plums peaches and grapes. And I expected no one to eat from it, so I put very little fruit in there, just artfully arranged.

My husband says the platter looked so pretty people thought it was decor! Like the only reason he knew it was real is that he knows I was making one and that he bought grapes today. People liked the grapes so much I had to replenish the platter (that, despite 6 kinds of other dessert on the table, desserts more commonly used in Ramadan).

Side note: i was a little naughty. I assumed no one would really eat the fruit, so I put in some plums that added nice color but which I knew didn’t taste great. Ooops. 

So… That. And also today I tweeted about it and referred to an Egyptian expression “invitation of sailors”, which means you invite someone, or offer them something, but you don’t really mean it, or it’s something they can’t really accept. Because imagine a sailor, already at sea and you can’t reach them physically, holding out their meal and offering that you share it. Yeah. They don’t REALLY mean it. 

I was wondering if I was genuinely expecting people to eat the fruit, would I have arranged the plate differently, added more or different fruit? I mean I am happy people ate the fruit, but my primary intention was to offer the looks of having included a dessert without really competing with the “real” desserts others had brought (it’s kind of part of the etiquette to open all desserts others bring with them and offer it back to guests).

After this was all over, I engaged a bit on Twitter and read a couple of #digciz blogs. 

First point regarding lines not drawn (the title of this post) is a really important one. Aaron Davis wrote, referring to his rhizo14 experience 

“it felt as if you knew you had crossed the line even if there were none”

It made me think of Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness and how she shows us that not having explicit structures, hierarchies or lines doesn’t mean they aren’t implicit. It actually really means that only a small number of people have power that others aren’t privvy to. That structures exist or at least evolve or become even if we don’t set out to create them, and with them comes power: power of knowing and power inherent in any structure or hierarchy or lack thereof. And also,  i would add, not creating structure in a space does not remove any power dynamics that come from the macro power external to it, like race, class, gender, etc.

When we talk about hospitality and citizenship, even though borders aren’t explicit in the ways nation-states now have borders, there are boundaries each of us draws in their minds. Sometimes you wish to not draw,these out a priori, but to develop them in community. Kate and I talked about the importance of doing this early on in our DigPedLab track – asking folks to highlight their own boundaries in a way, things that trigger them they wish others not to touch upon, and things they’re ignorant of they would like others to be patient with them as they learn. Or something. We’ll figure out a way with our participants… I think it’s important to both allow for a group to set these, but also as individuals. 

In a discussion on citizenship, I think, it makes more sense to allow these lines to be drawn by the community rather than to have them drawn top-down, because of course we don’t have laws and such like countries, but also because citizenship in countries need not be defined by abiding laws, but can be a much more critical/resistant role/action.

One of the difficult invisible lines, when anyone invites you to anything, is finding the delicate balance of critiquing politely. Adam Croom recently wrote something (re digciz) about how my writing somehow challenges him without offending him or something. He wrote (about me)

has always been incredibly accepting to varying perspectives and challenges them in ways I don’t feel threatened by

And it made me think of how I worked on my tone a lot, after my first year blogging, to make sure I could critique and be heard at the same time. Because I know as a listener and as a critic, it’s difficult to listen to criticsm, but tone makes a big difference. I’m not as good at finding that tone in f2f meetings with lots of hierarchy where i am critiquing people with more power than me, but online I think I have mostly found it. And maybe f2f for a Western audience. 

But I digress.

I meant to say that one of the invisible lines of any invitation, of any hospitality, is that no one’s hospitality is unconditional, unbounded. 

Sure I had 35 guests today and I tried to spend time with them all. But some are close and old-time friends and some are not. The ease of talking to some is different from others. It is assumed that people will stick to certain parts of the house and not others. It is assumed that some people will take their plates to the kitchen but not others. It is assumed that I will put their desserts on the main table. It is assumed that people will NOT comment on how bad any food is, but that they WILL comment on how good SOME of the food is (at least) and to thank me for hosting them (and for me to say it was nothing). I had a great time today. I love hosting people. 

But here’s something important to add. We had a water problem in our building today. The water was cutting in and out. This made things really complicated. While getting ready all day (including making food but also not being able to take a shower before ppl came – NOT fun) and the stress of water cutting out while people were here (fortunately it worked out mostly ok in the end, but STRESS).

Sometimes there’s something in the background that’s causing stress to the host. But nobody knows it but them. And it’s something that could blow up and create huge problems, but you hold the fort and hope for the best. And sometimes you get lucky. Occasionally you don’t. 

So some things related to digital hospitality 

  • When someone invites others to critique, they’re definitely not inviting snark or antagonism or abuse, though people have different levels of tolerance for these.
  • When you invite openly or large numbers, there will also always be people you can give more attention to than others. Sometimes this is intentional because some people need more of your attention. Other times it’s unintentional, just that you spend more time with the people you like more or who are talking about what you enjoy more. It’s like…normal. As long as no one is all alone, as long as someone else is talking to them, I don’t really feel the need to necessarily engage them (I got lots to do anyway, besides engaging with guests, right?) 
  • Sometimes you know an element of your identity isn’t welcome in a space. E.g one person today who was a smoker recognized he was the only one and he went outside to smoke and came back. I loved the sensitivity of that, whereas others just smoke in the room without caring about others. My husband probably told him “it’s ok, stay” but he knew it was a polite, sailor’s invitation. It’s similar in digital spaces, i think. Sometimes your favorite thing to do is not the thing to do in this context even if it’s ok in others. And we should all be tolerant of that. Even public spaces have context.

Some other notes from today? These tweets


Also – one of the most touching blogposts I have read in a while (and that’s saying a lot because so many touching posts this week alone!) by Chuck Pearson – so much beauty there and exploration of what it means to leave home or stay and (just read it). This quote by Isbell from Chuck’s post:


Which also kinda reminds me of this post I read earlier today about how an Egyptian-Canadian (Pacinthe) recreated Ramadan community when she was away from her family. Worth a read – heartwarming one.

Oh and yday at #nmc17, this hangout w Gardner Campbell and Christina Engelbart touched on hospitality and belongingness and how we are changed by our interactions with the other.


Right. Gonna call it a night. 

7 Comments

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  2. aha! the three times rule. so the first invitation to be polite would be the “sailor’s invitation.” Fortunately, I learned the rule in Spain (in a remote provincial capital rarely frequented by English speakers) before living in Egypt.

  3. First of all, congratulations on surviving your party! It certainly sounds like a lot of work & stress. I can’t imagine preparing all that food without eating or drinking!

    Second, it’s striking how the unspoken rules of hospitality vary so much from one place to another. Even in the United States there’s huge regional variation. My wife is from the South, I spent some time there with here and at times I was totally mystified. As someone who moved from New York City to North Carolina put it: “In New York, if I ask someone what time it is, they’ll say ‘Hey, do I look like a f***ing clock?.’ In North Carolina they say ‘Oh, let me give you my watch, and please, come on in and have a bite to eat.'” (And of course – you don’t take the watch, and protest you just ate and you’re not hungry!)

    I’m sorry i haven’t had time to participate in #digciz, seems like a fascinating dialog; and as I’m sure others have observed already, you could have tagged it just #ciz instead based on what I’ve seen so far.

    • I hear you on all of it, esp the last part. I think the difference maybe w the dig is just that we (some of us) spend so much time online and so much of our actions and activism have a digital component that is somewhat different from just our ciz. In our ciz we don’t regularly face the same amount of diversity (unless we work in the UN or something) with that regularity… So that’s the intercultural dimension Kate and I were focusing on. Other weeks may have a more digital focus that’s more distinct.

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  5. john a powell on spaces (being welcome) and belonging, public and private, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UinX4iPaBYc

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