Richmond Eustis writes: In my first class on “The Odyssey” at the University of Jordan, my students surprised me with readings far darker than any I’d encountered in my classes in the U.S. I have taught this work in translation perhaps a dozen times. In teaching the work, I like to focus on depictions of terrain: lush Ogygia, rocky Ithaka, the perilous wilderness of the wine-dark sea. And still smoldering on the shore behind them, the ruins of Troy. There are nymphs and witches, seduction and intrigues, gruesome violence and angry gods. There is an awkward adolescent becoming a man, a clever hero taking vengeance on his enemies, and a crafty wife thwarting the designs of boorish suitors. There is the joyful reunion of a loving, long-parted couple, and the restoration of order to a troubled oikos. “The Odyssey” is romance and comedy.
But that’s not how my students in Jordan read it at all. Many of them are Syrian, or Iraqi, or Palestinian refugees. In their written responses to the first three books, much of the class wrote some variation of: “We know this story. We know what it is to be unable to go home, to show up with nothing at the door of strangers and hope they greet us with kindness instead of anger. We know what it’s like to wonder about the fate of family members, caught up in wars that seem to go on forever, and to hope that one day we will see them again.”
In its depiction of Odysseus’ journey, “The Odyssey” is a survey of the Ancient Greek practice of xenia—reciprocal hospitality. But for my students, it depicts the exile’s anxiety in a world in which the principle of xenia is threatened, in which the stranger’s welcome is in doubt. Odysseus asks himself many times about the inhabitants of the unknown islands: “Savages are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk who know and fear the gods?” Today, this set of questions from an ancient work has surfaced again in the political debates in the U.S. and the rest of the world: What is the morally appropriate way to respond to a stranger in need, a person from a distant land who arrives on your shore in need of aid and shelter? What obligations do civilized people owe to the destitute stranger in a world aflame with slaughter and destruction? And how are we to think about those who refuse to acknowledge any such obligations? [Continue reading…]