Language & Culture

January 4, 1994
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Asalaamo aleikum!

For the non-Arabic speakers amongst you that means: peace be upon you!  Asalaamo aleikum is the usual greeting for all occasions here; the correct response is: wa aleikum salaam which means "and peace be upon you also."

I haven't taken an Arabic course yet - I went to enroll before Christmas and found out that the course ran Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. from November 16 to December 29, which would have put a real crimp in our weekends and party time over the festive season, so I decided to see what they have to offer in March.

In the meantime, I continue to pick up words here and there and listen religiously to my learn-conversational-Arabic tapes whenever I'm driving.  Listening to the tapes is slow but sure going, I'm still on Lesson 1, Dialogue 2.  Nevertheless, what I've learned to date is enough to say hello, good morning, how are you, I'm fine thank you, goodbye, and to generate a stream of Arabic from whomever it is I've engaged in conversation.

A Useful Tool

They invariably express surprise and delight at my Arabic language skills, which is a bit embarrassing – just because I can say hello, they assume I can speak the language fluently.  Still, they seem to love it when one makes an effort to speak their language, which is incredibly complex and oh-so-difficult to pronounce with lots of guttural sounds to which English-language speakers aren't accustomed.

Usefully, giving it a go usually helps break the ice in situations in which expats may get the ‘runaround’ (e.g. border crossings).  Many expatriates don't take the time to learn even the basics, so the locals really appreciate it when one makes even a token effort.

The more I see of the "Arab" culture the more fascinating and frustrating I find it.  I put Arab in quotation marks because of course there are huge differences between the many nationalities that make up the Arab world.  To lump together the multiplicity of cultures would be like describing a "North American" culture - sure there are some commonalities, but a Newfoundland fisher(person?) and a New York bond broker?  They may as well come from different planets.

Different, Yet The Same

So it is with Arabs. Egyptians differ from Syrians, who are different than Jordanians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Omanis, Yemenis, and Lebanese.  It’s not unusual to hear one defaming another (just as bigoted as us westerners – it seems we’re the same in that way at least), although they are all a part of the Muslim brotherhood.

From what I’ve observed, some Arabs seem to disfavour their Palestinian, Iraqi, and Iranian brethren (the latter are Persians rather than Arabs, but they are Muslim for the most part), though I've no idea why. Of course everyone would deny his or her prejudices in polite company. (As above, it seems we are all alike in some ways. Just one big happy human family.)

There’s a wonderful sociological study called "The Arab Mind" (Raphael Patai), which attempts to describe the characteristics and behaviours in Arab societies.  Despite having been conducted almost twenty years ago it still makes for interesting reading, even more so when one can observe the behaviours and characteristics first hand.  I highly recommend it to those of you who might be interested in learning more about the Arabic/Islamic culture.

Susan notes in 2008: I’m ashamed to say that I never got very far learning Arabic. After 15 years in the UAE my vocabulary is still limited to a handful of words. This is my biggest, and only regret with respect to my experience in the Middle East. I wish I had taken the time to study, learn and practice Arabic so I could have more thoroughly understood the Arab culture, which is still in many ways a mystery to me.

However, regardless of their country of origin, I have found Arab people of all nationalities to be warm, friendly, and engaging. In fact, it’s been my privilege to meet and befriend people from all over the world during my time in the UAE, and I have found that each culture, as well as each individual, has some special gift to offer the world.

Since I first wrote these letters, I have learned a great deal more about how cultures differ. I’ve also learned that BOTH our differences and our similarities are cause for celebration.

With respect to business customs in the Gulf region in particular, I highly recommend Don’t They Know It’s Friday? Cross-Cultural Considerations for Business and Life in the Gulf, by Jeremy Williams. For a historical perspective on Abu Dhabi, many people enjoy the semi-autobiographical Rags to Riches, which I ghostwrote for Mohammed Al Fahim in 1995, and which has since been translated into six languages. Both are available through the AWR bookstore.