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Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I have read some good books in preparation for my year in Beirut, including Helena Cobban's The Making of Modern Lebanon, a history of the country, and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the classic meditation on leading a reflective life. But the most interesting thing I've read has been Understanding Arabs by Margaret Nydell, a Georgetown Arabic professor who regularly leads workshops on Arabic culture for various western organizations.

Nydell's book came highly recommended by a friend named Colleen, who Nicole and I met years ago at the University of Detroit Mercy and who shares many mutual friends with my sister Anna. Colleen and Anna and their families are coming to our house this Friday for Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

I have found lots of insights in the book about differences between "Western" and "Arab" culture. Of course no single, monolithic thing called Western culture or Arabic culture exists, but Nydell's analysis nonetheless speaks volumes about why westerners have confounding experiences in the Middle East. Here are some key ideas. Arabs tend to value dignity very highly, and image and familial reputation are both part of "dignity." Projecting a negative public image (behaving badly) harms one's dignity and the dignity of one's family. Arabs can seem fatalistic to some westerners because they tend to emphasize how much is in the hands of a higher power. An example: the term "Insha’Allah," which is used constantly to mean something like "God willing," though I think of it much more akin to my grandma's old favorite: "we'll see," which she would say whenever somebody implied that something was a sure thing. It's bad luck to get too confident or to forget about fate.

Arabic culture tends to focus less on the "individual." Failure and achievement reflect not so much indidvudal merit or lack thereof as much as the family, clan, or community from which one comes. To that end, Nydell writes, friendship and interpersonal connection can seem more intense in the Middle East compared to the West. Friends don't refuse reasonable requests and they are intensely hospitable to one another. Even a business relationship is personal and business meetings should always begin with casual conversation, which can seem like a waste of time to westerners. Even strangers, who ask directions from or even just meet the eyes of a new "friend," can be the objects of hospitality/generosity (e.g., the invitation to a meal), which can seem, well, wierd to outsiders.

Nydell writes that meals with guests are large and that one should never decline the offer of a beverage. My brother-in-law Mazin told me that some Arabs feel like a visiting a home where you're not offered a beverage is like visiting the cemetery. Who but a dead person doesn't have a drink to offer a guest? Here's a cool tidbit: you should take care not to praise an object in someone's home because the person may then feel obligated to give it to you. Here's another: some feel that telling someone his or her baby is cute is bad luck, akin to what my grandma (Italians and Arabs--very similar!) used to call asking for the evil eye. Anyway, as a rhetorician, I think language is the most telling signifier of values, and here are some words that Nydell says are important at big meals:

1) "Ahlan wa salam" or "marhaba" = welcome!
2) "Alhamdu lillah" = thank God (may be used to decline food once you're stuffed)
3) "Dayman" or "Sufra Dayma" = always (i.e., thank you, and may you ALWAYS have the means to be such a generous host)
4) "T'eesh" or "Bil hana wa shifa" = cheers/live long and prosper (the response to "Dayman"

Thanks, Colleen, for suggesting the book. Everyone else, ma'as-salam, and, in anticipation of next time you are my guest, marhaba!

1 comment:

  1. Man so much to retain and be conscientious of. I feel such a need to make small talk when I am in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable surrounding, I think I'd break the one about complimenting people's belongings constantly.

    I don't think I could handle it; but then again, this is precisely why you are going isn't it? To learn and experience these aspects of a culture.