It is a bright winter morning and sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of the reception room in Beirut’s Moukhtara Palace, illuminating a scene of intense activity. Men in suits clutch reams of paper as they weave between chatting women with perfectly coiffed hair. Sofas support older gentlemen in traditional Druze dress: a small white hat or head wrap, a black jacket and black trousers with signature baggy crotch.
Palace staff offer hot Turkish coffee with the clink of china cups and the usual Arabic pleasantries echo throughout: “Kifak; shou akbarak”; “Sabah al kheir; sabah a-nour.” The group circulates through the room, everyone greeting each other as they eddy their way closer to the centre of attention: Teymour Joumblatt.
It could be a lively brunch but in fact this is a centuries-old weekly ritual in which residents of the Chouf region descend on the home of the Joumblatts, the Lebanese Druze political dynasty behind the country’s Progressive Socialist party. All are welcome at the open house, whether to voice a complaint, ask for a job or simply say hello.
“These receptions are more of an open house,” says Joumblatt, a tall, slender man of 33 with a strong jawline and the quiet confidence of a true scion. “They are important because they allow me to stay connected to my surroundings, my constituency and their concerns.”
It is a rare gesture for a major politician and yet it embodies the tradition of Arab hospitality. Although the ancient nomadic custom of looking after strangers seeking shelter is no longer necessary, life in the Arabic-speaking world still revolves around accommodating guests in every way possible. Nothing exemplifies this better than the commonly heard refrain “Ahlan wa-sahlan”, which means “Welcome” but can be translated as, “You are among family, be at ease.” This attitude extends into politics and unsurprisingly Joumblatt believes the key to the open-house sessions is ensuring people “feel at home”.
“It is extremely important for them to be able to share their concerns,” he says. “Moukhtara Palace has been dubbed the ‘house of the people’ and I would like to keep it as such.”
For Joumblatt’s sister Dallia, having so many strangers in her house on a weekly basis is part of life. “I used to wake up and run around in PJs and then a random person would be in front of me and I’d be like, ‘Hey, sorry! Just woke up, I didn’t know there were people here,’” says the 26-year-old, running a hand through her shock of pink hair.
Across the room beneath a large painting of Soviet cavalry trampling banners bearing the Nazi swastika – socialist beliefs run deep in the family – Sheikh Abu Ali waits for his turn. He is 90 and has been coming to these receptions since he was young. “It is better to be received in their house than in an office,” he says, his moustache twitching as he talks. “This is where they are based. I would receive them in the same way.”
Whether it’s time, food or energy, people here share what they have without explicitly expecting anything in return, merely trusting that if one day they called on you, you would return their kindness.
Joumblatt’s 66-year-old father, the iconic political mastermind known simply as Walid Bek (the latter word is a term of respect attached to a leader of a tribe), stopped hosting these open houses last year as part of a transferal of power to Teymour. Hospitality, however, remains central to the way he does business. “It’s part of our culture,” says Joumblatt senior. “Traditionally, when you knock on the door and you present yourself, for three days I have to greet you and accommodate you.”
For his son, learning the ropes as leader of a small but powerful community in a politically combustible country, emulating this particular aspect of his father’s behaviour comes easily, as evidenced by the laidback atmosphere of the events.
“With Arab hospitality you need to modestly let your guests feel as if they are the actual owners of the house so they can feel at home,” he says. “One should keep in mind that people form great bonds over food and drink; breaking bread is key. Arab hospitality is not a spectator sport. The best way to explain it is to practise it.”