Raving about her recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, Kathrine Frygtloes, a Dane interested in Afghan dancing, credits it all to her young Afghan host, Abdul Waheed, who safely steered her through "so many soldiers and weapons everywhere."
"It's nice that members from France can visit members in the USA," says Veit Kühne, a German who founded the club when he was in college and now works with it full time. "But what I've always really wanted to do is bring people from more 'difficult' places, like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia, and Palestine, in contact with people from outside those areas.... Once you know someone in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, once you have friends on the 'enemy' side, you understand that those people are human beings just like you, and it's much harder to demonize them."
As soon as you enter Haj's living room, his elderly mother, in a long embroidered gown and head scarf framing a careworn face, immediately appears with a tray of fruit and strong cardamom-flavored coffee. "You see?" he smiles, "Palestinian hospitality already." We shiver in the chilly, unheated room, furnished in "Arabic baroque" with a mural of a blazing sunset vista.
In the eight months he's had his profile on the website, he's had dozens of e-mails and has hosted several travelers. "I first joined Hospitality Club in order to make new friends abroad," says Haj, who visits Germany frequently because the small youth center that his nongovernmental organization, Karama, runs receives funding from charities there. His effort to meet HC members in Germany received no answers, he says, unsure if it was the result of an unfavorable image of Palestinians in the West. "Instead," he adds, with genuine puzzlement, "people started to e-mail me, asking if they could stay with me."
Despite limited means, Haj refuses to accept payment for phone calls, food, or lodging. It's a matter of pride to even the poorest Palestinians to welcome even strangers with open arms.