Textures of Hospitality in Homes of Refugee Women in Istanbul: Tactile and Affective Dimensions of Sociality and Agency

Susan Rottmann and Maissam Nimer

As Sima buzzed me (Nimer) into the building, the scent of garlic, red pepper and thyme enveloped me in the narrow staircase, and I promptly climbed up to the second floor. When I had first met her the day before in a community center near Taksim Square in Istanbul, and asked her for an interview, she had insisted that we have the interview in her home. Despite my insistence that I did not want to bother her or create more work for her (and my offer to meet her in a coffee shop instead), she was intransigible. I arrived the next morning carrying some sweets to her small flat, situated in proximity to a children’s playground, in an area that is home to many migrants because apartments are still affordable. Sima, originally from Idlib, Syria, has been a refugee in Turkey since 2015, one of nearly 4 million. She greeted me warmly with three kisses, took my jacket and introduced me to her 5-year-old daughter and husband. She was not wearing the veil I had seen her in at the center, but rather a chic home outfit, a red and white, loose-fitting pants-set. I was led into the living room, which had an open floor kitchen on one side, modern-looking sofas on the other side and a dining table in the middle.

Photograph: Maissam Nimer

The dining table was already topped with so many food items, it seemed enough to feed a group of 10 people. Smells of cumin and melted ghee filled the room. There were different varieties of each kind of food, including fava beans and tahini sauce, hummus dishes, some specialities of Idlib with green chard and garlic, a mixture of hot dishes and cold dishes. She kept going back and forth to her kitchen to add more dishes, which she would somehow fit on the already fully colorful table. Each dish was tastefully ornamented with peeled vegetables, radish, parsley and tomato. The whole experience was a feast for the sight, smell and mostly palate. The late breakfast lasted long and was accompanied by stories about Sima, how she had met her husband, and her experiences since coming to Turkey, while her daughter went down to the playground and her mother kept an eye on her from her window. I also shared about my own past and experiences in Turkey, and we compared our favourite dishes and different ways of preparation. She shared some of the recipes, proudly presenting certain dishes as the specialty of her region; some she had learned from her mother-in-law, who had been like a mother to her in the absence of her own mother after she came to Turkey. The meal was followed by desserts, home-made baklava, that she had herself freshly prepared that same morning, despite the short notice. As such, the box of sweets which I had brought in with me remained in the corner, unappealing compared to the variety of other foods Sima had presented. The difference between interviewing her in a coffee shop or experiencing her hospitality could not have been greater. Throughout the meal, I saw her in the context of her family, and I saw how she demonstrated her connection to her family history through recipes. Her hosting me was a form of self-expression and a sensory experience for me. As a migrant, her hospitality is an act that ties her to the past and to her new happy, home life and which also connects her to me, her guest.

This experience, as special as it was for me, was not a unique occurrence in our fieldwork. As we carried out interviews with Syrian families in Turkey, we were invited on several occasions into the homes of our participants for tea, coffee or similar meals. We were in all cases taken aback by the display of kindness and generosity. The hospitality in Syrian homes evoked multiple senses (smell, taste, sight through colors of the foods, the comfortable setting, sounds of laughter etc.) as well as types of interactions (manners, greetings, exchanges of food) and relations (business, family and friendship) that are formed. We feel that our host’s actions create a texture, a palpable atmosphere or feeling that the two parties want to be together. Naturally, there are also goals for the relationship, hopes of potential favors in the future, and possibly a level of competition and control, but the texture of the moment is warmth, acceptance and mutual honor. Eduardo de la Fuente (2019) argues that the concept of texture should be reclaimed by sociology because it enables us to more fully analyse the tactile and affective dimensions of human experience and sociality. We agree, finding it important to relate the texture of this experience in detail for several reasons.

First, engaging with textures allows us to go beyond theories of differential value of social capital (e.g. bridging and bonding) in the sociological literature on migration. Through describing the texture of our experiences with migrants like Sima, we can illustrate the myriad and subtle ways migrants construct social relations of belonging. Hospitality is a topic that came up throughout our interviews with women, and often in a negative sense whereby they expressed sadness that they could not participate in hospitality relations with neighbors. This was upsetting for them because hospitality is widely valued by both Turkish and Syrian communities and is an important social performance for women (Chatty, 2017; Rottmann, 2019, Dagtas, 2018; White, 2004), as individuals have a “social and sometimes religious duty to provide hospitality/generosity to the stranger” (Chatty 2017: 178). In a paper currently under review, we have tried to understand Syrian women’s inability to participate in hospitality as related to the Turkish political context and the positioning of Syrians as temporary guests. While this is a valuable way of elucidating the situation of Syrian-Turkish relations, by attending to texture, many other important dimensions of Syrian hospitality are highlighted, and importantly, these are dimensions that are centrally important to the women themselves. Hospitality is not simply an idea or a concept, but a practice, an action, and it is a sphere of agency for Syrian women. The concept of texture allows us to highlight the ‘complex textures of human agency’ (de la Fuente 2019, p. 7), to explore the conditions and the processes through which migrants navigate spaces. Examining hospitality through a texture approach, we could see first-hand how it is used by Sima to revalorize her role and the social status of her family and to renegotiate subjectivities that are imposed upon her as “guest” in Turkey, by becoming a host, and an excellent host at that.

Viewing the textures of these spaces is a way to comprehend what Henri Lefebvre (1996) has called lived space – the complex combination of perceived and conceived space. It represents a person’s actual experience of space in everyday life. Lived space is not just a passive stage on which social life unfolds but represents a constituent element of social life (Lefebvre, 1991; Soja, 1996). Therefore, social relations and lived space are inescapably hinged together in everyday life. Presently, participation in various aspects of state decision-making and use of public space in Turkey and elsewhere is largely based on national citizenship, thereby excluding migrants. In Lefebvre’s conception, however, enfranchisement is for all those who inhabit the city. This means that it is essential to study how migrants inhabit spaces (including their homes), and especially to try to grasp the textures of their lives.

Hospitality includes specific acts, but it also creates a feeling, a relationship that can be understood in terms of its texture. The literature on hospitality generally examines the meaning of the hospitality act in terms of the giving of time and space to others (Dikec et al, 2009), as a mechanism that “regulates social behavior and cultural performance” (Andrikopolus 2018, 289) or as a means to create and strengthen social bonds between family members, neighbors and sometimes even strangers. Researchers have examined the social, ritual and cognitive structures within which acts of hospitality take place. But texture allows us to analyze the “important ‘temporal’ and ‘spatial’, as well as ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ dimensions, of how the world is shaped and sensed” (De la Fuente 2019: 553). It enables us to more fully analyse the tactile and affective dimensions of human experience, agency and socialities as it points to the interpenetration of space, social relations and affect, which are dynamically changing in each new situation. This is particularly useful when studying what hospitality practices mean for refugees themselves. As they are forced to move from one context to another, their social relations are severed, their social standing is compromised, and they – often women – have to rebuild their lives and networks in a new inhospitable context. A textural approach can help qualitative sociologists to move beyond their primary focus on interview texts. It enables an affective-sensory description of all essential dimensions of hospitality and thereby creates a more complete object of sociological analysis. Texture gives researchers access to new perspectives for representing the social, including insight about previous experiences, family histories and individual trajectories. It allows sociologists to place the experiences of refugees more fully into the wider structures of the societies in which they are seeking to create new homes for themselves.

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