The Ethics of Hospitality
Across the annals of travel literature past and present, the Caucasus is known for the premium local inhabitants place on hospitality. It was not, however, a desire to conform to stereotypes that led a young student at Grozny University by the name of Timur to give me, in the summer of 2004, a gift I never asked for or expected and to place me in a debt it has taken over a decade to discharge.
It was my first trip to the Caucasus. The second Russo-Chechen war (1999–2009) had only just begun to yield to an unstable peace. Russian conscripts were still being sent to the front, often against their wills. My destination was Grozny, but my American citizenship meant that there was no legal way for me to enter that war-ravaged city that had only a few years earlier been reduced to rubble.
I opted to stay in a nearby and much safer city: Nalchik, the multi-ethnic capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which shares a border with western Chechnya. After passing several days with Chechen refugees at a boarding house in Nalchik, I decided to try to get closer to my goal. I said goodbye to my landlady and purchased a bus ticket for Nazran, the capital of the Republic of Ingushetia.
For most of the Soviet period, Ingushetia joined together with Chechnya to form the Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia. The two territories were divided in 1992, following the declaration of the independent Republic of Ichkeriia (Chechnya) by the newly elected Chechen President Jowhar Dudaev, who was assassinated in 1996 by Russian forces. Unlike their Chechen neighbors, Ingush politicians pursued a policy of amelioration as they cooperated with the Russian administration.
Chechens and Ingush speak similar languages and belong to the same ethnic group, known as Vainakh, a term that simply means “our people” in both languages. They share in common a cosmology, a pantheon of pagan deities that merges syncretically with Islamic rituals, and a history of intense persecution by, and confrontation with, imperial rule. Even though Nazran was not Grozny, the large number of Chechen refugees who resided here during the war made my visit worthwhile. In addition to Nalchik’s refugee population, a larger number of Chechens resided in the tent camps (palatki) that encircled Nazran all the way to the Chechen border.
I had come to the Caucasus to speak with Chechens: to interview them, to hear of their suffering and their plights, and to find out what I, an American visiting for the first time, could do to help them in their plight. The young Ingush student who sat down next to me on the bus that was to take me from Nalchik to Nazran was not, however, interested in lamenting his people’s tribulations. We exchanged only a few words, mostly based on the questions he asked me:
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
When I told him I had recently graduated from the university, he asked me what I studied. I said simply, “Literature.”
And that was enough conversation as far as he was concerned. He smiled politely in response to my inquiries, but, beyond nodding absent-mindedly and telling me that he studied engineering at Grozny University, he kept silent.
I told him I was a student of Russian literature, travelling through the Caucasus. He declined to ask the obvious question posed by so many others: Why was I there? When he noticed that I was holding a blank notebook in my lap, he asked if he could write in it. I handed it to him, expecting I would never get it back. Instead, he scribbled in it a message and returned the notebook to me immediately. The message read:
Меня зовут Тимур. Это мой номер. Позвони мне перед
отъездом из Назрани. Мне есть что тебе дать.
[My name is Timur. This is my number. Call me before you leave
Nazran. I have something to give you.]
Beneath these words, Timur wrote a number. When I asked him what he planned to give me, he didn’t respond. It dawned on me that Timur might have good reasons for not wanting his words to be overheard. Frustrated into silence, I abandoned my attempts to draw him into conversation and simply waved goodbye when we arrived in Nazran and went our separate ways.
I spent my first night in Ingushetia in a shelter near the Nazran bus station. The shelter was in the basement of a local Ingush businessman who had opened his home to Chechen women from Grozny. Having fled Grozny for Nazran, these women had been living for the past few years at the shelter, sharing memories of what they had left behind. The following night, I moved to a tent camp on the Chechen border. Ironically, this camp was known as Sputnik (meaning “traveler”), a term most famously associated with Soviet explorations into space. I spent the night with a refugee family who drove me to their abandoned home in Grozny the following day.
Observing street after street of rubble was as devastating as it was unforgettable.
In the early 2000s, those who had lost their minds from Russian bombing campaigns roamed through the ruins of Grozny, unable to recognize their former acquaintances. A night in the tent camp plus a day travelling through Grozny hiding in the back seat of my host’s car, viewing the aftermath of war through the hood of the winter coat that covered my eyes, had taken its toll. It was time to go home. I made my way back to the Nazran bus station, from which I called Timur, not expecting that he would answer the phone.
“Yes?” said a young male voice on the other end of the line after the first ring.
“Timur?” My question was followed by silence. “This is Rebecca,” I said.
Then, realizing that he never asked for my name, I added, “You asked me to call you before I left Nazran. You said you have something to give me.”
“Yes,” he said. “Wait ten minutes. I’ll be there soon.”
I sat down and began waiting. How could he possibly arrive within ten minutes? The bus station was far from Nazran’s center. I closed my eyes and began counting. Before five minutes had passed, someone was tapping on my shoulders. I opened my eyes and looked up. It was Timur, holding a big black plastic bag in his right hand. He set the bag down beside me, smiled politely, and walked away. “Thank you!” I shouted after him. I waited for him to turn around. I wondered why he entrusted the contents of this black bag to me, whom he barely knew, for safekeeping. As it turned out, he did not return. The bag was intended for me: a gift.
I never saw Timur again. The only token I have of crossing paths with this Ingush student are the six volumes he gave me on that day. The author, Idris Bazorkin, was unknown to me. Printed with red binding and gilded in faux gold, these volumes had been reissued by the Ingushetia-based publisher Serdalo (Chechen and Ingush for “heart”) three years prior to my arrival in Nazran.
Grateful for Timur’s gift but skeptical of its value to me, I allowed weeks to pass after my return to the United States before I removed the plastic wrapping from the six-volume set. At long last, I cracked the bindings and started reading about this author whose name I had been oblivious to during my first sojourn in the Caucasus. I learned that his magnum opus was a two-volume historical novel called Iz t’my vekov (1968), roughly translatable as “From the Darkness of Ages.”
My intensive introduction to Russian literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where I had graduated a few years earlier, had entirely omitted the non-Slavic writers of the former Soviet Union, notwithstanding their substantial contributions to world literature. While Ukrainian writers like Gogol were treated as internal to the Russian literary canon, Russophone writers from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other Islamic regions of the former Russian empire are consistently marginalized. Because this division cuts through a single language and correlates to cultural and religious differences, its bias is quite apparent. The marginalization of Russophone writers like Bazorkin is evidenced by the absence of any sustained scholarly discussion of his work in a language other than Russian.
When I finally began reading Bazorkin, my daily routine ground to a halt. I passed the entirety of the following week immersed in the text. I commiserated with his heroes, the young lovers Kaloi and Zoru, and endured the pain of their separation. I observed with anguish as the village elder’s wife connived to prevent their marriage. In her efforts to obstruct the young couple’s love, she even attempts to seduce Kaloi, her son’s rival for Zoru’s love.
I had not been transfixed by a book since I was sixteen and in the hospital, where I had been confined due to a broken femur bone. Two weeks of intense hospital reading exposed me to worlds I had never seen before and have rarely seen since: the pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, the urban squalor of Dostoevsky, and the golden pastures of Leo Tolstoy. Even more than the landscape, it was the characters who featured in these novels that transformed my soul. In the decade that has transpired since my encounter with Bazorkin, no novel has touched me as much as this one did.
Although he never revealed his last name, Timur did leave an email address. Immediately after finishing the novel, I wrote to thank him for his gift and to let him know that I had discovered its importance after I returned to the United States. My outpourings of gratitude were greeted with a silence that evoked his blank stare on the bus to Nazran. Did he fear something bad would happen to him if he responded? Did he ever receive my messages?
Did he even care? I will never know.
My encounter with Bazorkin reflects a widespread pattern of human behaviour in traditional societies that I call “hospitality morality.” Hospitality morality is particularly foundational to the ethics of travelling and hosting in the Caucasus, but can also be found throughout Asia and the Middle East. Hospitality morality views the guest as a moral compass of one’s self. Hospitality morality permeates Bazorkin’s fiction. We encounter it the novel when a village elder insists on feeding guests who arrive demanding the return of their land. Hospitality morality is also evident in the general-major’s display of hospitality to his fellow mountaineers after he has entered the service of the tsar, which is to say the camp of the enemy. Hospitality morality guides how mountaineers treat their neighbors and how they expect to be treated by others when they find themselves en route.
As glorious as its ethics may seem as a framework for human relations, hospitality morality comes with all the limitations. Hospitality morality is concerned with display. It generates the appearance of welcome rather than genuine interest in the other. The village elder’s hospitality toward his guests in Bazorkin’s story reveals that hospitality morality can coexist with contempt: it may be more concerned with the host’s reputation than with the best interests of the guest. Unlike those for whom hospitality morality manifests their own corruption, Timur was indifferent to display and uninterested in elevating himself. He did not linger over his generosity or make a point of showing me how much he was helping me. Instead, he gave me a gift I did not ask for and disappeared before I could thank him. Under difficult political conditions and without any desire to obtain something in return, without recourse to his own words, but by drawing on the words of another, Timur brought to life a perspective that could only be conveyed in the form of a novel. He purchased a complete set of the writings of Ingushetia’s greatest writer, handed it to me, and walked away.
I will never know precisely what Timur expected me to do with his gift. He never answered my questions. Perhaps, without articulating a specific wish, he simply trusted that Bazorkin’s imagination would transform my world as it had his. Knowing that literature was my passion, Timur understood that it would be impossible for me to spend serious time with Bazorkin’s novel without finding my life transformed.
Timur believed that the writer whose works he gave to me for safekeeping on my journey back home belonged to world literature and not just to the Ingush people. Perhaps he wished for Bazorkin to journey across the same ocean I would soon traverse. Only decades later would the gift I received under mysterious circumstances during my first journey to the Caucasus approached the other shore.
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