Karam: The Ancient Art of Middle Eastern Hospitality

Everything you need to know about Arabic hospitality: it's origins, cultural significance and current trends.

When thinking about the Middle East, people often imagine camels or dromedaries walking in sand dunes in the sunset. And it makes sense - domesticated camels have been around in the Middle East since 900 B.C. They were even mentioned in The Bible. One particular group of Middle Eastern people who settled around the same time as camels were introduced in the region are known for their camel and livestock herding: the Bedouin people.

The Bedouin nomads, Arabic for "Desert People", are considered as “Ideal Arabs” within the Arab community, due to their pure lifestyle of constantly moving and their society and more importantly: their extraordinary Arabic hospitality, which is the core of modern Middle Eastern hospitality.

The correct term to describe Arabic hospitality (and generosity) is “Karam”. Karam is very important in Middle Eastern society, it has shaped the way of living in the Middle East. Hospitality, passion and the ability to make guests feel at home really helped the Middle East and the rising of cosmopolitan cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“Hospitality is the Arab madness…we do karam (hospitality) to excess. We waste food and spend all our wages to impress guests…and sometimes we don’t even have enough money to clothe our children and send them to good schools” –  (Shryock, 2004)

Karam is compared to being religion itself, and it’s even somewhat of a compliment to tell a man that he’s Karam even when he neglects his prayers and instead offers his guests gracious hospitality. The Bedouin’s hospitality origins even go as far as “the natural right of hospitality”. This means that in the early days of Arab Bedouin existence, strangers on native ground were not treated with hostility, but instead with hospitality. This is rather ironic, given the fact that Bedouin people often went plundering neighboring tribes.

Bedouin and Arabic people offer hospitality in different ways. They offer their accommodation (desert tents when speaking of the Bedouin), drinks and food. Particularly the ritual of offering coffee to guests is quite important! Coffee was very difficult to obtain for Bedouin people, so offering this luxury product is an indication of generosity. The ritual of offering coffee or tea has passed over generations, and a welcome coffee or drink is still relevant. Another welcome ritual is that of offering rose water to the guests, so that they can wash their hands and smell nice!

Being a good host while offering true Arabic hospitality does come with a certain set of rules. The saying “My house is your house.” does not apply to the entire house. In fact, there are certain guest rooms in a Arabic household that separates the guests from the host and his/her family. This is an example how an Arab host is offering hospitality without losing the mastery and power of his domain (the separation between guest rooms and family rooms)

It is with the spirit of Karam, that the Middle East has become one of the central modernized hubs for hospitality. Hundreds of thousands of guests flood to cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi every year. While many of the original Bedouin tents have been replaced by towering modern skyscrapers and luxury hotels, the spirit of Karam remains!

While the Middle East has transformed in recent years, Bedouin camps can still be found all around the  United Arab Emirates and are open for visitors. You can live and breath this ancient art of hospitality from the very society that it originates from before taking it back home with your career. A placement within the Middle East will allow you to seamlessly experience both the traditional roots of hospitality and the sprawling modern masterpiece of the city today.

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