In the first week of November 2001, a Turkish flagged boat, the Brenier, carrying 713 Iraqi Kurds and Afghan asylum seekers, broke down in the Ionian Sea. Abandoned by the crew, the ship was rescued by the Greek coast guard. The crowded boat was towed to the town of Zakynthos. As it moved towards the port, the townsfolk lined the waterfront and cheered. The local baker was waiting with sandwiches. Other residents brought food, clothes and blankets. Pregnant women and babies were ferried to hospital or housed in hotels.
Observers were stunned by this outpouring of generosity. It convinced wary officials to treat the asylum seekers humanely.
The townsfolk’s actions embodied the ancient practice of philoxenia. Unlike its counterpart, xenophobia—literally ‘fear of the stranger’— the word is virtually unknown in the English language, yet deeply embedded in the Greek. Philoxenia, ‘friend of the stranger,’ or ‘love of the stranger’ is, in the first instant, an unconditional love, a spontaneous act of hospitality. First the stranger is welcomed, clothed and fed, and given a roof over their head. Only then are they asked questions; only then are they asked for their name and business.
The ideal is embodied in Greek mythology. Zeus and Hermes, disguised as poor travelers enter a village in search of a place to spend the night. They are knocked back by everyone except a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon. They serve the guests food and wine. Baucis notices that although she has refilled Zeus and Hermes cups many times, the wine jug remains full. Their guests are in fact gods. Philoxenia, was enshrined by the ancient Greeks as a sacred bond between host and guest.
Philoxenia is a recurring ideal in Homer’s The Odyssey. When Odysseus washes up alone upon the shores of the Phaeacians, he is protected against potentially inhospitable forces, as he makes his way to the palace. Only at the welcoming feast, after he has rested and eaten, does the king, Alcinous, ask him what name he is called at home, and of his land and his people.
Alcinous proclaims: ‘And now, speak to us and tell us truly: where have you been in your wanderings? Which parts of the inhabited world have you visited…did you meet hostile tribes with no sense of right or wrong, or did you fall in with hospitable and god fearing people.’ It is only now that Odysseus begins to recount his epic tale.
Many cultures and religions have traditions of hospitality towards strangers. It occupies a special place in Middle Eastern and Arabic cultures. It is especially characteristic of nomadic and seafaring peoples. I think there is a simple, but deeply significant reason for this. Desert and island peoples know all too well that with one shift of the wind, you or I could be the passing seafarer, the shipwrecked sailor, the persecuted stranger. Understood in this way, the practice of hospitality, the host-guest relationship, is the central bond of civility—a reciprocal relationship, implying obligations on both sides, and based on an understanding that we are all, in certain circumstances, potentially ‘the other.’
As some commentators have pointed out, the essential element of philoxenia is generosity of spirit. The guest is welcomed warmly and given the best food in the house. The Greek noun ‘xenos’ initially meant ‘guest’; it acquired the meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’ at a later stage. The practice of welcoming the stranger was originally known as ‘xenia’.
This generosity of spirit has been evident in many of the advocates who regularly visit detention centres, and among the advocates who have welcomed asylum seekers on temporary protection into their homes and given a place to live. It is evident in those who have kept in desperate touch with asylum seekers marooned in offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Islands.
Philoxenia recalibrates the scales of humanity and justice. It is based on a profound understanding of life’s fragility, and the turning wheel of fortune. Philoxenia is central to our common humanity. Yes, anytime the wind can change—and in reaching out to asylum seekers, we in fact reach out to ourselves.