By Hina Khan Mukhtar
Living in beautiful Northern California, our family is blessed with many house guests throughout the months of the year, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). I remember one year when we had every weekend from January to March solidly booked with out-of-town visitors, and I had to finally announce on Facebook that we no longer had any vacancy during the winter season, so we would be taking reservations for spring instead. I was just kidding of course. (Not really.)
Many of my friends and acquaintances are baffled at how we can deal with so many people coming through our home on such a regular basis, and they often ask questions along the lines of:
“Isn’t it a lot of work?”
“Don’t you get tired?”
“Don’t you and your husband need your privacy?”
“Isn’t it difficult for your sons to have to give up their bedrooms so regularly?”
Some (seemingly) unrelated questions that Zeeshan and I have also been asked are:
“How did your sons get to be so thoughtful?”
“How did you teach them such good manners?”
First of all: Alhamdulillah. Always alhamdulillah. Second of all: Surprise! The answers to the second set of questions are actually related to the first, believe it or not.
Being a considerate host has been the best training ground for turning our boys into gentlemen, alhamdulillah. Hosting guests has facilitated their character development in a way that no amount of lectures, classes, or book discussions could ever have achieved.
Here are just some of the lessons our boys have learned over the past years of hosting friends and family:
I don’t come first.
When boys run to help visitors unload their luggage and carry it into the house, they learn chivalry. When kids lay out a stack of fresh towels on a bed and place a carafe of water on the nightstand and plug a special nightlight into the wall, they learn thoughtfulness. When children have to give up their beds for the night (after first having changed the bedsheets and pillowcases), they learn sacrifice. In an ever-growing culture of “me me me” and “mine mine mine”, it is crucial that we grab whatever opportunities we can to teach our little ones that — guess what? — the world doesn’t revolve around you after all.
Taking care of travelers is sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him).
We emphasize to our children that there is much divine reward in taking care of travelers, and the rationale for this reward hits home when we find ourselves as weary tourists in foreign lands. After hours of traveling and after feeling vulnerable in a town or country that is unfamiliar to us and so far away from home, we suddenly find ourselves praying for and invoking blessings on anyone who takes the time out to make us feel comfortable and safe and accommodated. We often remind the boys, “Guests bring rahma (mercy) to the home.” The Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) told us that guests have rights over us for up to three nights; after that, anything we do for them is counted as charity. What a win-win situation! It’s hard to think of anyone as “overstaying his/her welcome” when you know that your magnanimity in continuing to host them is actually being recorded as charity, insha’Allah (God willing).
My parents have a lot of cool cousins and childhood friends!
Between Zeeshan and me (and both our maternal and paternal sides of the families), we have 27 blood aunts and uncles, masha’Allah (by the will of God). That means A LOT of first cousins, masha’Allah! Living 35 miles east of one of the must-see cities of the United States of America — San Francisco — means that we get a lot of relatives coming through here from all over the world. Childhood friendships — that probably would have fallen by the wayside years ago — get rekindled when long lost buddies learn that good ole Zeeshan or Hina also happen to be near their next vacation destination. The upshot has been that our children have been entertained and amused by relatives and family friends who knew their parents back when they were their (the children’s) ages. There is nothing like sitting around after dinner with cups of hot tea and plates of homemade cookies to get the storytelling session going. Of course, in order for this payback to even happen, it’s important to have the household rule that your kids don’t get to retreat to their private corners of the house with smartphones and laptops; a big part of being an attentive host is being willing to invest the time it takes to actually get to know your guests. The fine art of tactful conversation is modeled and absorbed when children are actually welcome to sit with their parents and their guests. One of the epiphanies that has surprised me the most is how much I appreciate relatives I may have once taken for granted after seeing them through my kids’ eyes. Cousins who may have been too young for me to fully appreciate back when I was younger often grow up to be very engaging aunts and uncles for my children! Our boys have also formed their own lifelong, memorable friendships with distant cousins and children of our childhood friends; they would never have known any of them if they hadn’t had the opportunity to host them in the first place.
There are a lot of moving pieces to make this well-oiled machine work efficiently … and I’m one of them.
When people ask me “how do you do it all?”, I let them in on a little secret: I don’t. Each of my three boys has specific hosting duties that he needs to take care of without my ever having to remind him. Before the guests arrive, we have a family meeting to go over the chores that each child has been assigned. It is a relief to me to know that the tasks will be taken care of and I will have just one less item on my checklist to think about. If any of them are ever neglectful of their responsibilities, the brothers know that it falls on them to help remind the absent-minded sibling. During those visits when house guests overflow the bedrooms and find themselves bunking on the carpet or sofa for the night, the onus is on my eldest son Shaan to make sure that all of the bedding is picked up and folded and put away in the morning. My middle son Ameen has the job of waiting out the morning rush and then emptying out the guest bathrooms’ wastebaskets and lining them with fresh bags. He also checks on the stock of toilet paper, wipes down the bathroom counters, and spray-cleans the mirrors if need be. We don’t wear shoes in the house, and the front entrance can quickly become overrun with a chaotic pile of boots, sneakers, and high heels if someone isn’t on top of maintaining them. This is where my youngest son Raahim enters the scene; he is diligent about constantly lining up the guest shoes in the entry and on the front porch (the mantra he follows: “shoes need to match and toes need to touch the wall”). All three of the kids take turns loading and unloading the dishwasher and helping run loads of laundry. Their favorite chore? Assisting me in baking cookies the night before our guests are due to arrive. (I don’t regularly bake from scratch, but house guests are an excuse to pull out the dusty collection of cookbooks and try something new….and the kids know it. Just one more reason to love guests!)
It is my sincere prayer that Allah (Great and Glorified is He!) allows my children to grow up to adulthood and blesses them with the ability — and the desire — to run homes that have an open door policy for guests. I am hoping that they are learning firsthand from us that you don’t actually need a lot of physical space in your house — you just need to be willing to make room for others in your heart. Once you do that, Allah then allows the walls in one’s home to miraculously “expand”, and the logistics of hosting multiple people for multiple days work out just fine somehow. May my sons personally witness the benefit that comes into their lives and into the lives of their children when they sincerely welcome in weary travelers and give them a comfortable place to rest their tired heads. May their homes be a haven for all in what is an often turbulent world. Aameen. (Amen.)