Archive for the ‘African Culture’ Category

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

Europeans Ask: “Why Don’t Americans Like Intellectuals?”

August 3, 2011

American expats are continually called upon to explain to British and European friends the perplexing trend of anti-intellectualism in America.

The overriding reason why Americans tend not to like intellectuals is that it goes against the grain of the principles our nation was founded on.  Even though we have rich and poor in America, one of the most basic tenants of American society is that great social mobility is available to all who work hard enough to better themselves.

In America, we believe in equality of educational opportunity (even though that doesn’t always happen in practice).  However, we always have many avenues open to further our education and improve our circumstances (jobs and social position both), which are never closed off completely to any individual who applies himself.

In contrast, in Britain, Europe, and many other parts of the world, this is just not so.  Education remains an elitist experience where students are sorted into tracks very early  (by American standards).  Only the “cream of the crop” attend the top educational institutions, which have extremely selective admissions criteria.  If a students do not get in on the first sorting, there is NO chance to get in later.  To Americans, unfortunately, it is not readily apparent why this a problem.

What Americans don’t realize is that in Europe, it’s all about what school someone graduates from.    Those who graduate from top schools have perpetually  higher status in society than those who graduated from a lower tier of schools.   One French graduate from a top engineering school told an American colleague, “Essentially, it means I’m set up for life.” (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 80)

In France, poor performers at work who graduate from top schools are forever on a higher salary track than those who are stellar performers  who graduated from more ordinary schools.  In France, new hires come in to a company in a particular “band,” and the graduates of the top schools start out in the highest band.  These graduates stay perpetually within the same band which continually rises on a higher level than the other bands.  All bands rise in terms of salary with time; however, it is never possible for someone from a lower band to reach the top levels of the company, no matter how stellar his performance and knowledge.  (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 83)  Also, there is never any mobility from a lower band to a higher band.

French Salary Bands, Gilles and Mastron, "Au Contraire!", p. 83

In America, it’s less as much about which school you graduated from (except that  a top school improves your chances in finding that first job,and in meeting future useful contacts); it’s more about what you DO and ACCOMPLISH with your degree once you’ve got it.  A few years down the line, employers and people in general are less interested in which school you went to that what you have DONE.

In France, what you have done since you received your degree is of little importance, compared to WHICH SCHOOL YOU WENT TO.

Elitism - The biggest "faux pas" in America

To Americans, these sorts of attitudes smack of elitism, which is the biggest “no-no” in American society.  This is why in America, you sometimes see a boss who arrives early occasionally making the coffee for the staff.  It’s not because this is his job, or that he has nothing better to do.  It’s because, in American society, it’s important for the boss to appear humble, NOT ACTING AS IF HE IS BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE.

This is the same reason why you see even American presidents acting in humble ways from time-to-time, to demonstrate that they are also “just ordinary folks,”  which earns them the respect of the ordinary voter.  This behavior is very confusing to Europeans, who view such behavior on the part of a president (or company boss) as being completely inappropriate.  What Europeans don’t understand is that anyone who acts in an elitist manner in American society is not respected.

In America, intellectuals are equated with elitists.  Therefore, anyone who is truly an intellectual and who does not want to be despised by others, makes a great effort to be “down-to-earth.”  This phrase, often heard throughout American society, means that an individual is practical, sensible, and without pretense.  It also generally means that the person is a problem-solver, and does not talk in theoretical rhetoric.  Talking in inappropriate depth in a social setting is viewed as showing off, and as elitist behavior.

In America,  one has neither the right to act superior to others, nor to have the law or rules applied differently depending upon who one is, or upon who one knows (which seems to be the de facto way of doing things in much of the rest of the world).  The recent debacle with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a case-in-point.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - with a sense of "entitlement"

What most disturbed Americans was that he seemed to think that because of his position and who he was gave him license to act above-the-law.  What Americans read in reports from France indicated to them that this was how he got away with such behavior in France for many years.  It was brushed under the carpet because of his social position.

For anyone interested in reading further on these issues, I highly recommend the book Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French, by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron.  It is one of the best books available on intercultural issues, and is available  HERE in America, and HERE in Britain.

–Lynne Diligent

Three Reasons Why North Africans Often Speak French to Each Other (Instead of Arabic)

June 23, 2011

Outsiders are often surprised to hear North Africans from the Maghreb speaking to each other in French, rather than in Arabic.  There are several reasons for this.

One reason, explained to me by native-speakers,  is that among the educated, French is considered a higher-class language than the local varieties of Arabic.  In some cases, people want to demonstrate to others, by speaking French, that they themselves are well-educated and of a high-class.

French language

This situation came about because most uneducated speakers do not understand Modern Standard Arabic (also known as Classical Arabic).     Therefore, the local dialects of Arabic are reserved for speaking down to the lower classes (maids, guardians, storekeepers, or casual conversations).

Another reason, explained to me by native-speakers, is that local varieties of Arabic tend to be quite poor in vocabulary when compared with French.  For example, I have often heard children who speak English in North Africa make a statement such as, “My foot hurts.”   What they mean is their knee hurts, or their upper leg hurts.  The reason they are using the word “foot” in English is that they are thinking in the local variety of Arabic and translating into English.  In the local Arabic dialect, anything below the hip is called “foot.”   This is only one example of how the local Arabic is extremely imprecise in terms of vocabulary and communication.

Precise words DO exist in Classical Arabic (the version of Arabic used in the Koran, in print, and on television newscasts).  However, according to native speakers, if someone were to know the precise words and use them, those words are not generally known in the North African region.  Therefore, the Classical Arabic tends to be less useful than French (in general conversation)  in the Maghreb regions of North Africa.

Koran Verses, Coran Verses, Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic

A third reason, also explained to me by native speakers, why two people from the Arabic countries of the Maghreb might be speaking in French is that their original relationship actually developed in French.  Many times people from North America are not aware that our relationships with people actually develop in a language.  Change the language between friends or family, and you actually change the relationship.

When I first moved to the region, I had heard that many in the upper classes often speak French to each other, but I didn’t really believe it.  One day I went to a party, and I heard the husband and wife speaking together in French, even though they were North African.  I asked about it politely, and they told me that they had both met as students while attending the same French school.  Therefore, their relationship developed in French, and French then became their family language.

–Lynne Diligent


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