Hostility or Hospitality?

Still from Mary Meets Mohommad via

Still from Mary Meets Mohommad via


“When faced with the stranger, do we open or close the door? Do we reach for a weapon or extend an open hand?”

-- Boston College Professor Richard Kearney

Mary Meets Mohommad

Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick had just arrived back in Tasmania after years overseas when she saw a news report highlighting a community’s polarised response to the opening of a detention centre just north of Hobart.

Upon hearing that a local knitting group was considering making beanies for the asylum seekers, Kirkpatrick began attending their meetings. Some knitters wanted to welcome the men, who were all from Afghanistan, while others worried that the men would cause further financial strain on an already struggling community and questioned why these men should be shielded while Australians were losing their lives in Afghanistan.

Kirkpatrick’s debut documentary ‘Mary Meets Mohammad’ focuses in on Mary, a widowed pensioner who views the asylum seekers with a hefty dose of suspicion and scepticism. But although she chooses not to knit for the men, Mary is too curious to miss the opportunity to see for herself who these people are. The film follows her journey and the unlikely friendships that develop as the knitters get to know the strangers who have become their neighbours.

On the recommendation of several Tasmanian friends, I saw “Mary Meets Mohammad” when it screened in Sydney earlier this month. Both independently created and distributed, the film has been nominated for a Walkley Award and is screening at select cinemas.

My Own Experiences

Watching the film brought back memories of my own experiences volunteering with refugee families from Afghanistan when I was a newcomer in Australia from the US.

The families I helped support have since integrated into Australian culture, with many transitioning from illiterate in their native language to fluent in English. Girls who arrived in Australia having never attended primary school are now completing university degrees.

The film reminded me of how these friendships added value and meaning to my life at a time when I was a new graduate struggling to find work here....a stranger welcoming other strangers…

Hostility vs Hospitality: Linguistic and Philosophical Links

Watching Mary transition from hostile to hospitable also reminded me of a powerful radio interview I heard last year, in which philosopher Richard Kearney explained the linguistic link between those two words.

Hospitality and hostility both stem from the common root word “hostis,” which could mean guest or host, friend or enemy.

In an essay published by the ABC last year, Kearney outlined French linguist Emile Benveniste’s analysis of this double meaning.

“He [Benveniste] claims that originally the notion of hostis involved someone in an equal, reciprocal relationship demanding trust, a laying down of one's weapons, a conversion of hostility into hospitality,” Kearney writes.

Only later, when communities evolved into large sovereign states, and interpersonal or intercommunal relations of trust were replaced by abstract relations between impersonal states, did the meaning of hostis take on connotations of enemy, he continues.

Kearney argues that this is more than mere semantics:

“If we don’t acknowledge hostility as emerging from the very same root as hospitality, then the risk is that it becomes a matter of grace and sentimental utopianism, rather than a major a struggle and wager to bring hospitality to a stranger,” he asserts. “Hospitality is never a given; it is always a challenge and a choice.”

It’s a point perfectly illustrated in the storyline of Mary Meets Mohammad. And it’s one Kirkpatrick hopes the film will help more people make.

How do you navigate this choice? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

See the film:

Mary Meets Mohommad screens at Sydney's Chauvel cinema in Paddington from 28 November to 4 December.

To find out about other screenings in Australia or for more info about the film, see

For more info:

Richard Kearney on Hosting the Stranger and the link between hostility and hospitality.

Find me at BeyondTheMapStories on Facebook or at @nomadlynnette on Twitter.