10 Things No One Told You About Middle Eastern Culture
There are Jewish people who can trace their roots to the Middle East.
When people think of the Middle East, Islam immediately comes to mind. And who can
blame them? After all, there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world However, many people don’t know that there are groups of Jewish people who can trace their roots to countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Sadly, because of discrimination and persecution, Arab jews fled their countries for Israel between the 1940s and 1970s. Another little-known fact is that Iran has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. According to them, they live comfortable lives and face very little discrimination.
Not all Muslim women wear a hijab.
Many Muslim women adopt a conservative style of dress as a symbol of piety. Quite often, one can identify a Muslim woman by her hijab, a type of scarf that covers the head, hair and chest. In addition to a hijab, conservative Muslim women wear a niqab which is a face covering that only leaves the eyes exposed. However, you may be surprised to know that some religious Muslim women don’t cover their hair at all. This largely depends on which country the woman lives in and whether it’s conservative like Saudi Arabia, or more open like Jordan.
People who speak Arabic don’t always understand each other.
There are nine different dialects of Arabic, including Levantine (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine) and North African (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.) Although most differences are small, allowing most Arabic-speakers to understand each other, other dialects make communication very difficult. The North African dialect is the most distinct and can be quite hard to understand, even for native speakers. On the other hand, the Egyptian dialect is the easiest to understand because of how widespread Egyptian movies and TV are throughout the Arab world.
There is not as much anti-American sentiment as some would think.
People in the Middle East are generally very curious about American culture. Many people have relatives in the US, and American TV, movies, and fast food are also very popular. Remember that due to globalization, American culture has spread throughout the world. When people from the Middle East learn to love McDonalds, Ariana Grande or the Fast and Furious films, it makes disliking Americans a lot harder.
It is common for multiple generations to live in one home.
In the United States, when someone gets old and can no longer care for themselves, their family may put them in a nursing home. When young people turn 18, it is customary for them to leave their parents’ home. If they ever have to move back in as an adult, they are looked down upon. In Middle Eastern culture, the above scenarios would be unthinkable. Family is extremely important, and people do what is best for everyone, not just what is best for themselves.
If you compliment someone on an object, they may give it to you.
When I lived in Ramallah, Palestine, I complimented a friend on her beautiful earrings and she promptly took them right out of her ears and gave them to me. On a different occasion, I complimented my student on her bracelet and she gave it to me! You see, generally speaking, Arabs are extremely generous and giving. They will invite you into their homes with the utmost generosity, giving you plenty of food and drink and making you feel right at home. In the US, when you are a guest in someone’s home, you may give a compliment as a sign of respect and admiration. In other words, Americans use compliments to be nice. However, if you compliment a Middle Eastern person on an object they own, they may feel obligated to give it to you as a sign of respect. So be careful when admiring your Middle Eastern friends’ belongings so you don’t create an awkward situation.
It is safe.
When I travelled to Dakar, Senegal as a college junior in the late 90s, I was warned of scammers who would target so-called rich Americans with bogus stories in order to take their money. One day I was approached by a man in the street who said that my host mother had been in a terrible accident and needed money for the hospital. Luckily, I knew enough not to fall for it. Fast forward, almost 25 years later to when I lived in Ramallah. No scammers targeting Americans. As a woman, I was never cat-called. I was never the victim of pickpockets who are notorious for robbing tourists in Europe. My point is that there is more likelihood of being a victim of petty crime in any large American city, such as New York, than there is in the Middle East.
There are Arabs of African descent.
Around the 1700s, Arab ivory traders from Oman travelled to different parts of Eastern Africa, where they started to mingle and intermarry with the local population. As time went on, more Persian Gulf Arabs began to arrive. Instead of viewing the Afro-Arabs as having a lower social status, as they did with other biracial people, they considered them equals as long as their fathers were Arab. More intermarriage took place, which also helped the spread of Islam. As a result, descendants of Afro-Arab families who settled in the Gulf are fully assimilated, whereas those from parts of North Africa still face discrimination today.
Muhammad, the name of the prophet of Islam, could be the most popular male name in the world.
With the presence of over 150 million males named Muhammad, it is thought to be the most popular male name in the world. Since Arabic words don’t have consistent spelling when using the Roman alphabet, there are many different transliterations of the name, including Mohammed, Mohamad, and Muhamad. No matter what the spelling is, all of the transliterations come from the Arabic word hammada which means to praise. Therefore, the name Muhammad means praised. Another interesting note is that in some Latin American cultures, the name Jesus is quite common for males, whereas in the United States, it is considered taboo or even blasphemous to use the name of the Christian prophet.
People from the Middle East aren’t all dark-haired and dark-eyed.
Think about it. Have you ever seen a Middle Eastern person in the movies or on TV who was not dark-haired and dark eyed? Probably not. Well, don’t let the media fool you. Depending on the country, there is a much wider range of physical types. For example, in Ramallah, I was surprised to see Palestinians with blonde hair and blue eyes, all the way to very dark-skinned people of African descent.There was much more physical diversity than I would have imagined.
Aside from talking to a native speaker or someone who has travelled extensively in the Middle East, one of the best ways to learn about this culture is to study Arabic. ReDefiners World Languages offers Arabic language classes to children, which would be a great way for your family to continue their cultural education.
For more information about studying a new language, volunteering or even donating to support language program scholarships to underserved populations, visit www.redefinerswl.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.