Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

“GOOD NIGHT, MADAM!” Was the Shocking Greeting I Received….

November 17, 2011

When connecting for the first time with a  foreign female English speaker on Facebook, GOOD NIGHT, MADAM!  was the momentarily shocking first greeting I received.  I soon realized she didn’t speak English very well and thought she was being polite.

After speaking with her for some time, I suggested a better greeting the next time she spoke with a native English speaker would be something like, “Hello, how are you?”  I explained that, in English, “good night” actually means “goodbye” and that a “madam” is a woman who runs a house of prostitution.  I explained that I understood these were not her meanings, but suggested other greetings, nevertheless.

Madam Dee Flowers

She was quite surprised at this information.  She asked me if “madam” in English is not the same as “madame” in French.  Since she’s from a French-speaking country, women one does not know are always addressed the the single word “Madame…” as a form of politeness.  She mentioned some very old-fashioned English novels (from mid-1800’s) which also seemed to use this form of address.  I explained that those novels were just about  the only place you might find that form of address used these days.

She said she’d never heard the other meaning of the word “madam.”  I asked if she’s had an instructor who taught them to say that in English.  She said no, that it was her own idea of what she might say to be polite.

She asked me if “madam” was not correct if there was a word she should use instead.  I explained that we don’t usually use a word to replace madam, except when we actually know the person’s name, in which case we might add “Miss Green” or “Mrs. Green,” for example.  She was surprised and thought that every language must use such a word to address anyone as a form of politeness.  I did say that in the American South, they sometimes use “ma’am,” which is an abbreviated form of the old-fashioned word “madam,”  but that it is mostly a regional usage.

This is a perfect example of how someone from one culture can go out of their way to be polite, yet achieve disastrous results.  Someone else might have taken immediate offense and not taken the time to think about the speaker’s intention.

–Lynne Diligent

Reflections on Poverty in Saudi Arabia

October 23, 2011

American Bedu wrote about a video-blogger-journalist who was arrested in Saudi Arabia for this short, but extremely well-done documentary on poverty in Saudi Arabia.  I especially liked that the journalist tried to offer some positive suggestions for help to the poor at the end.  The reason he was arrested was for violating the Arab cultural norm of never speaking out in public regarding in one’s own country (or any other Arab country); speaking out publicly is considered more shameful than letting a shameful situation continue.

However, in this video, I was somewhat surprised by a couple of things.

First, having lived in the Middle East for the past twenty years, the level of poverty shown in this video is not nearly as bad as what is current in some other parts of the Middle East. The people shown in this video as living in extreme poverty in Saudi Arabia are living at the same level as much of North Africa’s lower middle classes today (excepting Libya), for example.  For example, I noticed all these homes had TVs and hot water, as well as refrigerators, even if they are in bad condition.   (The poor in other places have none of these things.)  The kids in the poor neighborhood were all dressed in the latest sport shirts.

Clearly, what makes people feel poor is not how their life is compared to poor people in other countries, but how their life compares to those around them in the same society. The wealthy in Saudi are living at such a high level compared to other countries, that even their poor are living at a high level (when compared to some other Arab countries).

The second thing which struck me about this video was the attitude about what should be done about these problems. Unlike in America, there was no talk of any personal responsibility. One man shown in the video explained that he was married to two women, and that the first one had six children, while the second one had five children.  Whatever is a poor man like this doing with two wives and eleven children? If he had one wife and even two children, he would not be poor with what he stated his income was in this video.  Furthermore, each person interviewed in the video just asked for the government to “give” them a house. It seems to be the norm in that society to just ask others to give people what they don’t have, rather than taking any personal responsibility for one’s life, and planning accordingly.

Saudi Journalist-Blogger Feras Boqnah, Arrested for Documentary on the Poor

Saudi Journalist-Blogger Feras Boqnah, Arrested for Documentary on the Poor

Oddly (to a Westerner) the journalist never suggests anything about working harder, or looking for better paying jobs, or improving one’s skills, or even being responsible about how many wives a man chooses to marry, or how many children he chooses to have.  At the end of the video, the journalist makes suggestions that charities be especially organized to regularly assist poor people with their lives in all the poor areas.  It’s clear that ideas of personal responsibility don’t even occur to the interviewer, indicating that what these people are asking for seems “normal” for Saudi Arabian society. It’s just an interesting contrast with the values and ideas of the Western world. Many people in Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East assume that they are not at all personally responsible for how their lives turn out; they view themselves as victims of fate and circumstance and God’s will, or as victims of “bad luck.”

In America, by contrast, people are seen as being about 90% responsible for their own fate. Perhaps this is too much. But in Saudi, where people seem to believe that they have no personal responsibility for their fate, this is too little. People should make an effort to “help themselves” and not just wait only for charity from the government, or from others.

–Lynne Diligent

Can the Arab Spring Be Equated to the American and French Revolutions?

August 22, 2011

This picture was taken at the 2010 "Arab African Summit" in Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown. The four leaders in front: Tunisia's Ben Ali (deposed), Yemen's Saleh(soon-to-be deposed?), Libya's Gaddafi (deposed) and Egypt's Mubarak (deposed).

The American and French Revolutions happened two centuries ago.  Living in the region of the Arab Spring, I feel I am living through a similar groundswell movement, which is just happening in another part of the world.

Just as living through the American Revolution, for Americans, must have been a time of great uncertainty about the future, many have hope, and others have fear.   Most people want democracy and an end to corruption.  Those who fear democracy fear it because they feel a strong man is needed at the top to control this corruption.

Having lived in the region for 20 years, I feel they are wrong, that a strong man can control corruption.  Corruption does not come from the top, down.  It comes up from the bottom, only getting larger and larger as power and opportunites increase near the top.  In societies that rely on external forms of control (as North African and Middle Eastern societies do) instead of internal conscience (as northwestern European and American societies do), fewer people feel a responsibility to act with high standards.  It’s easier to rationalize, “Everyone else is doing it, so I better get mine, too.”

One of the biggest problems in Middle Eastern and North African societies is endemic repression and corruption.  The people hope to stamp it out by cutting off the head of the problem.  But I say this problem comes up from the bottom. This is why so many countries have had the experience of having one dictator after another, each promising to stamp out the corruption in the administration before.  This just doesn’t work.  For REAL change to happen, every person must be motivated to change their own personal behavior and attitudes and behave with the highest ideals in order for this problem to disappear.

Not everyone in North Africa and the Middle East behaves badly.  I do know plenty of honorable, decent people.  I believe it’s a matter of how a child is raised in his own family.  As a teacher of young children for over two decades, I have seen that the values of honesty and integrity are somewhat set by the age of seven or eight, and well-set by the age of ten.  If teachers at school discuss honesty and integrity with students they can have some influence, but that influence is nill if the family promotes the opposite values at home.  I see religious education happening in the school curriculum, but that mostly centers on correct religious practice, as opposed to attitudes and beliefs.  Training in integrity and honesty really comes from the home and one’s family.

Another problem with promoting honesty is the problem of entitlement.  So many people steal or are corrupt just because they feel entitled.  The person of a higher class feels entitled to take because he feels he is better than others.  The poor who steal do it because they feel entitled to steal from those who are better off (dishonest maids or office employees, for example).

The middle-class bureaucrat or public servant who takes daily bribes justifies it by feeling he is entitled because of his “low salary.”  These societies are rigid, with little class mobility, which reinforces this mindset–almost like having a chip on one’s shoulder–a “me-against-them” mindset.

These attitudes need to change from the bottom-up in order for corruption to truly be stamped out.  The younger generation (under 30) is the first generation in most of the region to have a very high percentage of their generation be educated and literate to some degree (maybe 80 percent), so I have high hopes that by the time this generation hits their 40s, (in 20 years) that the Arab Spring will indeed have created functioning democracies with reduced corruption.

–Lynne Diligent

Why Foreigners Sometimes Think that Americans View the World as Geography Cartoons Depict

July 18, 2011

What Americans are first taught about the world as children. This looks like a 1970-2005 point-of-view.

These maps represent what Americans are first taught about the world as children.

For a majority of Americans (speaking as an American now overseas) these maps are maps about feelings, rather than about knowledge.

It’s true that there are some Americans who never progress beyond this viewpoint, but the majority of American adults are not quite this uneducated.  Among those who are, it comes from the “We’re number one!” mentality that pervades what children are taught about America (or at least were until recently).

This view of the world looks more like how Americans felt in the 1950s and 1960s.

No matter how knowledgeable we become, it’s true that we can look at maps like this and understand the reasons they are drawn that way immediately–from our first knowledge as children.  That’s what makes them cartoons, that some of those feelings stay with us forever,  in spite of our knowledge.

Anyone who lived through the Reagan years certainly remembers the country feeling just like this!

–Lynne Diligent

Middle Eastern Children Explain a CULTURAL Reason Why Moderate Muslims are Not Denouncing Extremists

May 11, 2011

Why don't moderate Muslims speak up against terrorism?

Living in the Middle East, I often get asked the question, “If all Muslims are not extremists, then why aren’t the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims not publicly denouncing the extremists (or their behavior, and/or their interpretation of Islam)?”

A chance comment to me by a Middle Eastern student made a very important reason clear to me, which I have never seen discussed anywhere.  The reason is CULTURAL.

Middle Eastern and North African societies  are cultures where people are divided into in-groups and out-groups.  This is a completely opposite type of thinking from what we have in the United States and some other western countries.

I had an interesting conversation about this with some 11-12-year-old students I know.  We were discussing some bullying problems that have been going on in their North African classroom, when one student asked me, “Mrs. Diligent, why do our American teachers at our school think we should help people (other students) who aren’t our friends, when our parents teach us not to?”  Having lived in the Middle East for 18 years, I understood immediately what they were talking about, as well as the confusion and frustration of their American teachers.

North Africa and the Middle East

When I first moved to the Middle East with my Middle Eastern husband, one evening I was out walking with my husband through a tight area of the old city, and a line of parked cars were outside of a restaurant.  Someone had parked their car and left the lights on.  A man was standing there, who appeared to me to possibly be the parking lot attendant.  As we were passing right next to him, I asked something like, “Excuse me, this car has its lights left on, do you know where the owner is?”

My husband immediately got upset with me and asked, “Why are you asking about this?  It’s not your business!”

I replied that perhaps the person would come out of the restaurant to find their battery dead, and that if the owner could not be found, perhaps we should just open the car door and switch off the lights for the person (we were in a very small city, with an atmosphere of a very big town).

Again, my husband said something like, “It’s NOT your BUSINESS!  We don’t get involved in other people’s business like that!”  (or similar words, recalling the conversation 18 years later).   My husband then actually apologized to the the parking lot attendant for my having “disturbed” him, and told me to be quiet as we walked away.

My husband is NOT a jerk, by the way…so you can imagine my shock and surprise at this incident.  This is just how the American teachers are feeling about the way some of the students are treating others at school.  It is also just how many Americans are feeling when Muslim terrorists commit atrocities and the so-called “moderate” Muslims are not speaking up by publicly denouncing their behavior!   Thus, many Americans are WRONGLY concluding that the “moderate” Muslims actually are secret extremists, and condone those people’s behavior.

So, what is the explanation here?  The explanation is that most of these Muslims were raised in “in-group” cultures.

In an “in-group” culture, children are taught to normally offer help ONLY to other members of their in-group (your family or very special friends).  (So, woe to a person in the Middle East–foreigner or country national–who doesn’t have a large family in-group to “help” them every time they have a problem!)

Some students told me that if someone witnessed a person being harrassed by others in the street, the correct response would be to ignore them and not get involved.  Children are told, “That’s their business, it’s none of our business.  Stay out of it!”  (The logic is that in “in-group” societies, one is neither obligated nor expected to help others.  Why?  Because those people have their own in-groups to help them.)

So, if students witness another student being bullied on the playground or in line, their usual reaction is to ignore what is going on, rather than to offer help, unless one of the participants is their own friend–in which case they enter the conflict on the side of their FRIEND, rather than necessarily on the side of the person who is being bullied.)  This is the behavior which many American teachers have tried to fight, usually unsuccessfully, because the whole culture is like this.

This same idea contributes directly to international intercultural misunderstandings.   The subject often comes up when discussing Israel and Palestine, and America’s support of Israel.

I find many people in the Middle East absolutely convinced that the United States is a Jewish country.  When I ask what percentage of America they think is Jewish, I usually get an answer of between 50-80%.  When I inform them that the actual percentage is around 2% (actually the 2010 figures say it is only 1.4%, while the Muslim percentage in 2010 was about 1%) I get absolute disbelief.  Sometimes after discussing it for about fifteen minutes, I make a little headway in making them doubt their former opinion.  But in ALL cases, the response is, “If they aren’t Jewish, why would they help Israel so much?”  They usually reply that he only reason they can see for providing such aid to others would be the selfish reason of helping one’s own blood relatives;  thus the assumption that most people in America are Jewish!

Is America Jewish?

Now we turn to the question of why moderate Muslims are not standing up and publicly denouncing terrorists.  Most of these people are either living in countries that are in-group societies, or have moved to the United States from such countries, and were brought up with such values.  Therefore, when someone does something really bad, they might declare privately to people who are friends, “That’s terrible!  That person calls himself a Muslim, but he most definitely not acting like a Muslim, or in accordance with Muslim values!” (This is what is meant when moderate Muslims comment, “That person is not a Muslim.”)

When people are brought up to STAY OUT of any conflicts, and not even to help their neighbors or classmates who have problems, and are even DISCOURAGED from doing so, is it any wonder that as adults they continue to behave in accordance with those values?  It does not mean that they agree with that behavior or condone it in any way.  It is more like they want to keep their head down and avoid trouble.

One reason for this is that reprisals can be very severe in their own cultures for either speaking up or getting involved (in some cases such as a person might just disappear and never be heard from again).  So yes, they are afraid of reprisals, but this is not the whole story.  It’s the idea that , “You are only responsible to people in your own in-group.”  That in-group (unlike in the West) does NOT include either strangers, or the whole society.

Lastly, this doesn’t mean that no one ever helps others.  They do.  However, this help is rare compared to the number of people in the West who offer such help to others.   In the West, we don’t have in-groups, and every individual is considered to be equally responsible to all others in the society–such as to enforce no-smoking sections; to speak up if people butt ahead in line; to help someone who is having a problem in the street; or to speak up publicly against behavior which is to be condemned by society.

–Lynne Diligent


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