Cultural bridges must run both ways

May 7, 2003

One of the things I’ve discovered as a part-time resident of the Middle East is how easily things such as cultural nuances can hide in plain view.

See what I mean by counting the Fs in the following sentence. Note your answer before moving on. (Don’t cheat.) “Files on foreign nations are the result of years of scientific study combined with the expertise of spies.”

Our brains often miss the F in “of” or see it as a V. Congrats if you saw all six Fs. Most folks don’t — it’s an example of how reality isn’t always as we perceive.

Looking to Iraq, this means we need to show some cultural sensitivity while helping to rebuild the country. Let’s not be like the stereotypical American crossing the border to Canada with snow skis in the middle of summer.

A friendly Arabic “asalam allykum,” a common greeting meaning “peace be upon you,” will go farther. Yet in all you’ve seen on your TV in recent weeks, have you heard a coalition soldier use that, or any Arabic phrase, even once? What does this say?

By the way, it cost about 75 cents US to kill a man in Caesar’s time, $3,000 in the Napoleonic war, $5,000 in the U.S. Civil War and $21,000 in the First World War. It’s now taken about $50 billion to blow up Iraq, and at least another $100 billion is needed to occupy and rebuild it over several years.

So while the cost of killing each other is going through the roof, language lessons are a steal. In Yemen, my part-time home, you can get Arabic instruction for $10 US an hour.

That means $100 million, the amount of aid Ottawa is offering Iraq, would pay for almost seven million hours of classes.

Of course, aid groups such as the Red Cross and CARE Canada need some of these funds. But trust me, learning Arabic takes plenty of time. Arabic script, which runs right to left, is a world of confusion in itself. Phonetics are incredibly strange. And with regional dialects, even native Arabs are constantly learning of their evolving tongue.

The language lessons I refer to, however, entail much more. They require understanding a culture’s soul. We wear cowboy hats to Calgary’s Stampede, not a tuque from Quebec’s Winter Carnival. Likewise, Middle East society has its own garb.

Westerners value freedom, youth and individual rights, while Arabs value status, age and duty to community. Westerners underscore private wealth, are future-oriented and reward individual merit, while Arabs underscore hospitality on request, are past-oriented, and reward you for who you know. Westerners value romantic love, while Arabs negotiate status matches.

The list goes on. And such lessons are learned best by rubbing shoulders with other cultures in the classroom of everyday relations. To some extent, our generation realizes this. Recently, 800 youths from across Canada and 15 other countries gathered in Ottawa for the first-ever Canadian International Model UN Conference. Unfortunately, there were no youths from the Middle East.

Similarly, Arabs and Muslims get short shrift in U.S. cultural programs. About 25 per cent of Earth’s 6.2 billion people are Muslim, but just 10 per cent of participants in U.S. state department exchange programs are from Islamic countries. And, not surprisingly, for every four foreigners in the U.S. on exchanges, just one American goes abroad.

While bringing outsiders to North America is fine, we need to leave our bubble and learn the lingo of others on their turf. Cultural bridges need to run both ways. For starters, it seems to me many Iraqis honestly would appreciate a simple “asalam allykum.”

Anything less than that, I’m afraid, is like crossing Iraq’s border with skis. It’s a vacation from reality. And a great way to pile Arab resentment even higher.

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May 7, 2003 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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