It’s a sweltering August morning in Berlin, and Priya Basil is sitting outside a café in Mitte sipping an apple-carrot-ginger juice when a young woman stops to greet her effusively.
The young woman, Carolina Assad, is the managing director of Wir Schaffen Das, the nonprofit organization that Basil helped found in 2015. It was named after Angela Merkel’s exhortation, “We can do it,” which was widely seen as an encouragement to Germans that they would be able to handle the large influx of refugees from Syria and other countries in the summer of 2015.
The two haven’t seen each other in months due to the pandemic. Just before the virus reached Europe, Basil, the author of two novels and a novella, published her first work of nonfiction, Be My Guest, there. The book, which Knopf will release in the U.S. in November, is a philosophical meditation on the meaning of hospitality in forms large and small. It was directly inspired by Basil’s experiences with that nonprofit, founded to help refugees who arrived in Berlin at the climax of the refugee crisis.
Basil’s background—she was raised in Kenya in an Indian family and educated in England—bubbles up in her fiction. She deals with themes of love and family dynamics, often following characters in the Indian diaspora in Africa and the United Kingdom. Her first novel, 2008’s Ishq and Mushq, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, among other accolades, follows a young Indian couple from Kenya who move to London. Her second novel, 2011’s The Obscure Logic of the Heart, is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet featuring a devout Muslim girl and a Sikh boy, and set in Kenya and London.
She first moved to Berlin in 2002 and for the past few years has divided her life between London and the German capital. Married to a German journalist, she got her German residency status seven years ago. Then, in the wake of Brexit, she decided to apply for German citizenship. “I was shocked to find attachment to this country,” Basil says, laughing. “Also [the process of getting citizenship] was so welcoming; it was powerful to feel wanted.” Further cementing her sense of belonging, Basil and her husband, together with a group of acquaintances, built an apartment house, where they live in a kind of loose community with their neighbors.
Basil was raised in the insular Indian community in Kenya, where both her maternal and paternal sets of grandparents had moved to work on the Uganda Railway, which stretched from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Her childhood experience of living in this bubble of Indian culture within Kenya was, in a sense, good preparation for her life as an Anglophone expat in Germany. In Be My Guest, Basil muses on her parents’ attitudes as Indians in Kenya who had lived through British colonization in India as well as in Africa. “We saw ourselves as victims and therefore somehow absolved [ourselves] from any duty to others, however much worse their plight,” she says. “On our tables there was plenty, but our minds were impoverished, our imaginations limited.”
When Syrian refugees first started arriving in Germany in 2015, Basil writes in the book, she was chagrined to find within herself a disconcerting resistance and fear to their presence in her adopted country. What if the presence of all these new foreigners somehow chipped away at her own hard-won status as a foreign intellectual, even replacing her?
Be My Guest, a slim yet powerful collection of theories on hospitality both given and received, grapples with these questions. In it, Basil works through her own memories and experiences as a child, then a young woman hungering for the comfort of her mother’s cooking, and, finally, a grown-up learning to extend generosity to those in need.
Basil ultimately quieted her anxieties about displacement by helping to found Wir Schaffen Das. She then went to work aiding refugees in their adjustment to their new lives in Berlin, doing things like organizing communal meals and pairing refugees with Germans to help them with bureaucratic appointments. The act of hospitality itself made Basil realize that the scarcity mindset wasn’t serving her or anyone else. Helping others allowed her to see the link between hospitality, abundance, and generosity. Now it’s clear to her that the big difference between her life in Berlin and her parents’ in Kenya is that she’s determined to reach out and bridge the gulf that can exist between longtime residents of a country and newcomers, especially those who arrive in desperation, having lost everything.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, radically changed the global understanding of hospitality. Gone are the days of intimate dinner parties at home. Birthdays are now celebrated as drive-by parades. And perhaps the kindest thing people can do at the moment is keep their distance. Basil, however, has spotted a glimmer of light in all of this.
“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to think of different ways to be hospitable,” she explains. She sees doctors, nurses, and other essential workers, who continue to do their jobs despite the risks, as embodying a type of uplifting hospitality. She sees this behavior as something that has made people look at each other differently. “We’ve been given an opportunity to find other ways of taking care and helping each other.”
As soon as Basil realized that “you have to start thinking of your body in relation to other peoples’ safety and bodies,” she says, it became easier for her to inhabit this unsettling new reality. “At the beginning, there was this terrible feeling of everyone being a potential risk. I hated that feeling of being in the world, and I’m so glad that phase has passed. Now I want to only think of what I can do to help other people feel safe. I want to be healthy so that I can be a better citizen, a better friend, and a better daughter.”
The pandemic has magnified the stark disparities between those who get taken care of, those who get to feel safe, and those who really don’t, Basil says. She was surprised to find deep consolation in the fact that she now, in more ways than one, belongs to Germany, which has ably demonstrated the beneficial power of the hospitality of the state while shielding its citizens from the worst of the pandemic’s effects. “It was really striking to feel suddenly grateful to a government that you’re used to looking at really critically and complaining about all the time.”
Despite the fact that she writes exclusively in English, Basil was surprised to discover that she has, over time, become more of a German writer than an English one. It is her life in Berlin, and her exposure to its history, that has given her the ability to reflect more critically on all of her past experiences. Her writing life, her inspiration, and the various work opportunities that have emerged from living in Berlin are emblematic of the beauty of hospitality itself, as they illustrate the ways in which hospitality enriches the lives of both host and guest.
Be My Guest came out in German before it was published in English, so Basil found herself doing press events in German, which was both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing. “Finally coming to grips with the mechanics of German was quite a challenge,” she says. “It was really interesting, but agonizing as well.” Basil sees herself as still learning the language, but feels like she’s finally at a point where she can comfortably converse about most things. “It’s a really magical moment when a foreign language becomes accessible. That’s very motivating. I just never thought I’d be able to speak in German. I thought I’d understand more and maybe be able to read a bit.”
The hardest thing for her was getting over the anxiety about making mistakes. “Once I was able to do that and just not care—that was a really important psychological barrier to overcome,” Basil says. “This new place of being opened up for me, and it also gave me new eyes on English. Thinking about sentences and thinking about structure made me much more alert about writing in English. And that has changed the way I write. There’s a certain freedom in English, a bit of looseness and ambiguity. The attention to every single word was something that I didn’t have before.” There is no better proof that the act of hospitality is a gift that goes both ways.
Luisa Weiss is a Berlin-based writer and translator; her most recent book is Classic German Baking (Ten Speed).