Even as a rabid student of geography, I must admit I had very little knowledge about the cycle of daily life in the Middle East prior to beginning my first teaching job there. I thought of the region as the ultimate exotic location–the land of Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor and genies who magically appeared from shiny lamps. So, before I can begin to share my overall impressions about Arabian Gulf culture through the eyes of my Omani friends and students, let me explain a bit about my own first impressions.
While I was studying at the University of Edinburgh in 2003, I met and became friends with student teachers from Oman and Syria who forever changed my view of people from this region. I found the Syrians to be very Western in both appearance and outlook as they mixed easily with the Europeans in the program. My Syrian friends were from wealthier families in Damascus and were quick to proclaim they were not religious. In contrast, my Omani friend, Abdul, openly bristled in social situations outside class and appeared to be generally ill at ease.
Following US President Donald Trump’s first visit to the Middle East, it’s a good time to take stock and refresh our collective memories about past foreign policy decisions (those of the USA as well as others) and the effects they’ve had on the ground across this vast region. Learning from past mistakes certainly seems prudent since current events in the Middle East occupy a prominent place in the discussions that determine the foreign and domestic policies of Western governments these days.
In this series of articles, I want to address three areas: 1) the collective Western image of the Middle East and its people, 2) observations I’ve formed based on academic research and discussions with both locals and expats who call this region home, and 3) the effects of past and current Western influence and interference in the governments, and therefore the lives of the people, all across this region.
I had just snapped some pics when I heard what sounded like GUNFIRE ring out. As I turned, I saw the security guards from all the surrounding restaurants run in the direction of the sounds. At the same time, all the Colombians turned quickly and ran in my direction and away from the sounds. I immediately ‘got’ that the locals recognized the difference between the sound of exploding firecrackers and gunshots so I turned and ran as well. I don’t know any details but as I hurried out of the area, police units were arriving from every direction–what an incredibly quick response time! This took place this afternoon as I was walking in the Lleras Park area of Medellin, the city’s most well-known entertainment district. It’s located in a very upscale neighborhood near the apartment I’m renting for a month.
Some of you will say ‘stay inside and be safe,’ just as I’ve been repeatedly warned by American relatives to ‘please return to the USA.’ This was especially true during the eight years I lived in the Middle East. I suppose it’s normal to feel more comfortable, and therefore safer, when we’re close to the place we call home, regardless of the reality shown by statistics.
In my zeal to discover myself as I move from place to place around the globe, I often find myself cringing at my own behavior. Yes folks, this roving lover of all things cultural has been known to behave badly at times when faced with challenging situations in distant lands.
Oh, how I wish I was one of those travelers who could eat anything without upsetting my stomach and fall asleep on a rock. Unfortunately, I’m extremely sensitive to many of the external forces that I encounter as I drag my bags from one country to another. I also started my life of international travel late—in my early 40s—at a time when many people want a bit more predictability and comfort in their lives. As I age and health problems begin to creep in, the challenges of constantly being on the road grow for me as well as those dear souls unlucky enough to meet me in one of my worst moments.
Having been brought up by very humble ‘salt of the Earth’ parents who taught my sisters and I to be both generous of spirit and empathetic with all others, I’ve never really understood the way media coverage of an international disaster—plane crash, terror attack, earthquake–tends to focus on the nationalities of the dead and injured. Of course, I understand that local and regional media outlets depend on viewership and ratings for advertising revenue which therefore dictates that their reporting remains relevant to the local viewing population. But what about international news organizations and their wider responsibilities?
During my years of working and living in the Middle East, I often got my TV news from BBC World, Al Jazeera or Euro News because I wanted news coverage that included more stories from Africa, Asia and Europe than CNN International either deemed necessary or had the courage to air. These major world news organizations, however, do share one thing in common–when reporting on major disasters with casualties, they tend to place more focus on the number of Western lives lost, even when the number of Western casualties is significantly lower than the number of those killed or injured who just happen to be citizens of poorer developing countries. This bias in reporting has been most evident in media coverage of bombings and shootings labelled as ‘terrorist attacks’. I could mention a litany of both major and minor events that took place in the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Australia, Israel and others where the international news coverage exhibited this Western-Centric bias.
While reading about other cultures is valuable, it has limits as an educational tool and doesn’t fully prepare you for the experience of actually ‘being’ in a different culture. You can do research online or by reading travel guidebooks, but you will still remain in your comfort zone without the emotional changes and challenges that take place once you find yourself alone and surrounded by a different culture.
I remember walking the streets of a lesser known inland Chinese city and suddenly being startled by cries of “laowai, laowai” coming from across the street. I understood the meaning of laowai–foreigner–in Mandarin Chinese, but I was still surprised that it was considered acceptable to yell that at a foreigner in public. Of course, many of the other locals on the street at the time (which was everyone) stared at me, which of course made me feel more than a bit conspicuous as I picked up my pace to pass everyone with a smile and wave. You see, all the research I had done before going to work and live in China hadn’t fully prepared me for dealing with such an awkward public situation, but it did make me aware that keeping a sense of humor would be a valuable asset in future encounters which might otherwise have turned out to be uncomfortable for both me and the locals I encountered on a daily basis.
Gaining some degree of cultural awareness doesn’t depend on having advanced degrees or being highly intellectual, but in my view it’s accessible to anyone with a keen sense of ‘personal’ awareness and who’s willing and able to spend time living within a foreign culture. Skillful observation of the target (foreign) culture as well as critical examination of your own cultural upbringing are also prerequisites. At its heart, cultural awareness rests on an individual’s ability to ask the right questions about both their own culture and the new one.
Even for those of us who grew up in less traditional cultures where it isn’t unusual for individuals or entire families to scatter and move the breadth of a continent, our cultural roots run far deeper than we might imagine. If the American presidential election in November 2016 clearly indicated anything, it’s that citizens from different states in the USA continue to harbor quite different world views despite two centuries of mass immigration from abroad and 150 years of region to region migration within the country.
Statistics also indicate there are further differences between urban and rural world views and priorities within each given state when it comes to voting patterns and proposed government legislation. If citizens from the same country can’t seem to agree on most important issues, what hope is there for agreement among the diverse cultures on our planet?