Archive for the ‘Explaining Middle Eastern Culture to Americans’ Category

My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat

March 20, 2012

I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.

Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.

The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same.  I couldn’t tell people apart.  I thought something was wrong with me.

More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program.  In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.

This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”

Kenya is a black majority country. When I first arrived, I had trouble noticing differences between people's faces.

After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart.  I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember.  It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race.  Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.

Burundi

When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.”  When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”

Tutsi boy

This person was a Tutsi.  At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi.  Now, many years later, the differences are clear.

Agathon Rwasa, a Burundian Hutu Militia Leader

Now I live in North Africa.  When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language.  He doesn’t speak Berber.  My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”

A Berber man with his daughter

I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers.  Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not.  But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains.  That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before.  Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears.  It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”

Atlas Mountains

I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition.  In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics.  Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics.  People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.

In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way.   Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up.  We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race.  If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.

America - the nation of immigrants

One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales.  So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village.  Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well.  In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring.  For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from.  But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.

Animal micro-recognition is similar.  Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal.  They all looked the same to me.

Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences  in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake.  Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.

New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness.  People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends.  The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen.  These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.

Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.

My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years.  But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty!  Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.

–Lynne Diligent

Understanding North African Work Behavior: A Comparative Analysis

February 4, 2012

Europeans criticize Americans for working too much....

Where do the different work attitudes in different countries come from?

Americans are criticized by Europeans for “working too hard,” and “not having any culture.”  Americans in Europe often criticize Europeans for having anti-business attitudes and being cultural snobs.  The Asians, on the other hand, make Americans look extremely lazy!  In French-speaking North Africa, we have a curious mixture of pro- and anti-business sentiments.  Business and money are extremely respected, yet nothing works well.  Businesses are extremely inefficient, and services are terrible (including government services).

There are now a number of good books written on  differing work attitudes in various countries.  Three of my favorites are The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Working for the Japanese:  Inside  Mazda’s American Auto Plant, and Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French.  But these books don’t explain where these attitudes originated from.

The answers are to be found in the historical experiences of various countries.  The major difference which sets America apart from Europe, in work attitudes today, is that America has no history of feudalism.

European work attitudes, with their emphasis on free time for workers and quality of life came directly out of peasant attitudes and revolts against feudalsim.   Peasants were the lowest class of society, were highly oppressed,  heavily taxed, and were at the mercy of justice systems operated by the social classes who took advantage of them.  When we study Feudalism as a system, we do not normally address how the peasants felt about it.  In fact, peasants did not passively accept the situation, century-after-century.  Peasant uprisings and revolts were a common occurrence.  Later, as Feudalism’s authority began to weaken, the new urban workers widened the base of the lower class, against the princes and the lords.  The upper classes used nepotistic practices to maintain their control over the bureaucracy.

The remnants of these attitudes are found today in European attitudes toward work, where laws and the public demand that workers have plenty of free time and are not “taken advantage of” by those in management (the old lords and princes).

Promotions into management are not awarded to competent workers; rather only people who are from certain families, or who went to the top categories of schools are permitted into the management tracks.  Decision-making in French corporations follows a strict hierarchy, and authority belongs to the office a person holds, rather than to the individual.  French managers tend to make the decisions and collaborative teamwork is discouraged.  Co-workers tend to feel in competition with each other.

New York offices of the French Investment banking company, Calyon.

American work attitudes, in contrast,  were not not born out of feudalism, but out of freedom, individualism, and capitalism.  One of the main reasons Americans left Europe was because they rejected the class system.  (This is why American bosses occasionally make the office coffee, to demonstrate to workers that they are not “above” others in social class.)  In America, one’s social standing at birth does not prohibit one from rising to a prominent position (whether Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama).

Who you were at birth has nothing to do with who you will be, or might be.  In America, it is “up to you” to make what you will of your life.  In America, no one cares who you ARE.  They care what you have DONE, what you have ACCOMPLISHED.  This is why Americans generally give the highest pay, promotions, and status in business to those who accomplish the most (rather than those who went to impressive schools, but who do not perform once employed).  Anyone can reach the top tier by becoming rich, if they are smart enough, and willing to work hard enough.  This is what every American teaches their children from the time they are two years old.

Management by Objectives chart

These attitudes are seen today in the American tradition of Management by Objectives, which involves participative goal setting, then choosing a course of action, and decision-making in line with those actions.  Employees are measured against these standards.  Unfortunately, American managers often find that management by objectives does not work well in many other parts of the world, such as in North Africa.

Satchel Paige - a victim of American racism in baseball

In America, the problem has been racism, not classism.   The class-based problems and conflicts of Europe have been replaced in America by race-based problems.   While minorities have now been absorbed into society through the past battles of Martin Luther King, past affirmative action (preferential hiring practices based on race), and by becoming members of the professional and middle classes, some disaffected groups and individuals are still very anti-white.

These individuals feel a group solidarity against the white culture.   This same feeling also applies to certain religious groups and groups of new immigrants from various nations to America throughout our history.  They were discriminated against on the basis of national origin until each group became well-integrated after two or three generations.

In the same way, many Europeans and North Africans feel a class-solidarity against those above or below them, which influences work behavior in those countries, in the same way that race conflicts affect work attitudes among anti-white groups in America.  (The Arab Spring movement is partly about hope of the middle classes in the North African countries for abandoning nepotism and moving toward meritocracy.)

America continues to work on these race-based conflicts, but in reality, skin color and culture do continue to be a barrier to certain groups.  White Americans, using the example of Abraham Lincoln, have always told their children since the age of two, “You could grow up to be president.”  However, since the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, now for the first time, black Americans can also tell their children the same thing.

Barack Obama

Today in French-speaking North Africa, there are remnants of attitudes from both the feudal system and modern French systems.  Work behavior of employees and managers here is extremely confusing for North Americans.  While some people work hard and well, these people are rare, and should be especially appreciated (and rewarded).

Instead of being helpful to customers, and cooperative with employees or co-workers, most North-African employees (especially those not in management) tend to set up little “fiefdoms” and act like little Napoleons within their sphere of influence.

If someone comes to them with a request or a problem, instead of facilitating the process, they act as “gatekeepers” and often try to create problems and obstacles where none existed before.  (Yes, some of them expect bribes, but even those who are not looking for bribes tend to behave this way.)  Instead of sharing information so that the organization can function smoothly, both managers and employees are extremely secretive with information, insuring that the organization lurches along from crisis-to-crisis, and problem-to-problem.  This seems similar to business practices in France, in some ways.

There seems to be a sort of “class war” going on between management and employees in most North African companies.  Managers generally come from certain families, and have gone to certain schools.  Employees, neither from important families nor important schools,  have little stake in making the organization function well, and their main interest seems to be in working slowly and inefficiently, specifically making sure that no employer “takes advantage” of them by making them work “too hard.” Employees’ interests seem to usually be diametrically opposed to management’s interests, and many employees (not all) come into a job the very first day with the attitude that they expect an employer will try to exploit them.

Queuing at a government office in North Africa

When employees or co-workers are asked why they don’t give their best effort and take pride in their work, they often answer, “What will it get me if I do?  I will not get paid any more.”  Yet, most say, if presented in theory with a theoretical doubling or tripling of salary for a given job, that the work effort would be exactly the same, that this would not solve the problem.  Therefore, the real problem lies in the attitude behind the work.  Employees immediately assume that their personal interests are in opposition to their employer’s interest, and that they must do everything they can to “protect themselves” instead of everything they can to “do the job right.”

                         

While most Americans view themselves as working hard for a chance to get ahead, and believe in more possibilities in their future, employees in class-based societies usually don’t believe they will be able to get ahead, or be rewarded for their efforts, no matter how hard they work.  Their societies are not meritocracies, and this accounts for their reluctant attitudes at work.

recalitrant employees, passive-agressive employees

Many employees in North Africa behave in a passive-aggressive manner at work, saying "yes," but secretly sabotaging their employers.

North African  employees’ typical productivity is about one-quarter to one-third of an American worker (not everyone–there are some very hard-working North Africans; and certain regions have these problems more than other regions).  Their jobs are “protected” by labor laws which prevent the employer from replacing them no matter how poorly they work.  It can be done, but it is extremely expensive and indemnities increase for every year the employee was with the company.  There are only three acceptable reasons to fire an employee:  being caught stealing, showing up drunk, or not showing up at all repeatedly.  Those reasons do NOT include being habitually late or doing poor work.

Looking at French-speaking North Africa as a whole, unfortunately, from the employee’s  viewpoint, exploitation is rife throughout every level of the society.  Few businesses are corporations.  Most are individual or family-controlled enterprises, large and small.  Nepotism is the order of the day, from finding a job, to being promoted, to getting anything done in the society.

French-speaking North Africa

Business owners tend to exploit anyone working for them who is not a family member, while non-productive family members often have a title and a salary, while doing little.  People are less often employed for their skills than for who they are, or who they know.  Of course, this makes services notoriously bad for consumers.  But even those who lament the exploitation of workers in their own workplace often come home and exploit the labor of those below them.

One secretary, who previously in tears because her boss overworked her and treated her poorly,  turned right around and did exactly the same thing to the assistant she later got.  Some in the middle classes cry over being exploited at work and turn right around and exploit their own maids at home.  As a teacher, I saw over-and-over young students complaining about adults and older children who spoke to them rudely, using insulting words.  But the minute they become older themselves, they turn around and do the same thing.

All this exploitation is about power, which seems to be the main point of interest of each person in the society.  Everyone wants to know precisely who has the authority for what, and authority is never delegated to others as it is in American culture.  This also may be similar to France, but even more extreme in North Africa.

Every time a new employer-employee relationship is created (whether in an office, or a housewife at home with a maid), most employees are not thinking about if their new boss will be kind or provide them with reasonable working conditions.  It is already assumed that they will not.  Instead, they are thinking, “How powerful will I be able to be in this relationship?”  (This may be starting to change with some of the younger generation who are becoming educated and, after the Arab Spring, are hoping for meritocratic changes to take place.)

This concern about power is where foreign managers and expats run into trouble.  American managers aren’t generally thinking about using power and maintaining it.  They are thinking about how to facilitate cooperation, collaboration, and effective problem-solving.  Unfortunately, kindness and consideration (even in speech) is viewed as “weakness” in North Africa, and immediately, the subordinate maid or employee with the “power interest” mentality begins to take advantage, secretly sabotaging the goals of the manager.  The most serious dilemma for the expat manager becomes how to treat employees well (a sincere desire), while at the same time getting them to put forth a good effort toward accomplishing the goals which are important to the manager or employer.

–Lynne Diligent

What We Can Learn About Africa and the Middle East Today from the Colonialization Experience of Canadian Aboriginals

December 12, 2011

Taiaiake Alfred, the world’s foremost expert on the effects of colonization on indigenous peoples, speaks about the ongoing anger felt by people who have been victims of colonization.  Listening to Taiaiake speak on the today’s ongoing colonialist experience of Aboriginals (formerly called Inuits) in Canada,  I found his points relevant to what is happening today in the Middle East and Africa.

As a Westerner arriving in the Middle East  some years ago, I was shocked to find Middle Easterners and North Africans describing the Iraq Wars in two ways–as Americans leading a new Christian Crusade against Muslims, and Americans as neo-colonialists out to “steal” Iraq’s oil.  “Why else would a country do these things?” I was told, when I tried to argue with people.

North African and Middle Eastern people are still focused on the Crusades as a recent memory (in the way that Westerners focus on the two World Wars as a recent memory) because  of their very recent memory of colonization.  Recent colonialist experience colors the judgement of a people about everything in life.  This altered mentality creates a way of thinking where they feel that no one ever acts altruistically, that no one (nor any country) ever does something unless they will be able to “benefit” from it personally.

The reason it’s difficult for Americans to understand this colonialist mentality is because our own colonialist experience happened so long ago, and anyone with living memory of it died more than 100 years ago.  I would posit that for a society to rid oneself of the colonialist experience and mentality takes at least 150 years.  If we could go back and look at American society , post-1776, I think we would see lingering attitudes from the Colonialist experience up all the way until World War I.  Those born in 1770, some of whom presumably lived until about 1860, would have told their own grandchildren and great-grandchildren about their memories of the colonialist experience.  Those grandchildren born in 1830-1850 would have lived until the early 1900s.   I would say that sometime between 1900 and WWI, those old attitudes would have been overcome by other events, and forgotten.

So, how does this extrapolate to Africa and the Middle East today?  In my experience, people in the Middle East and Africa seem to have a love-hate relationship with their former colonial power.

by John Frederick Lewis, British Orientalist Painter

A love-hate relationship often exists between the colonizers and the colonized.  (Painting by John Frederick Lewis, British Orientalist Painter 1830s to 1860s)

In fact, parts of North Africa were united under nationalist governments for the first time in the 1950s. Prior to this time, these areas existed under feudal warlords.

Viewing the independence dates of African countries in the map below, and adding 150 years, shows us that it will take until at least 2100-2130 before Africa is able to begin to shake off its colonialist heritage and the lingering negative effects of the colonialization experience.

Decolonization Dates / Indedpendence Dates of African Countries

Decolonization Dates / Independence Dates of African Countries

A recent colonialist experience creates an anger among a people over their own native culture having been repressed, that no amount of material “goodwill” can ever assuage.  In the Middle East and Africa (without mentioning specific examples) there are instances of lands and people being absorbed into a national culture of which those people consider to be a foreign power; these national governments have spent a great deal of money on improving the infrastructure of the absorbed areas–highways, schools, telecommunications,  transportation, and modernization–without obtaining any loyalty from the part of the local populations.

New Highways Built for Local Populations in the Deserts of Northwest Africa

Why not?  Because these materialist “offerings” do nothing  to address the real problem of “forced” assimilation.  Native peoples remain alienated.

New Empty Towns Built for Local Populations in the Deserts of Northwest Africa

No doubt this process of forced assimilation and alienation has taken place all over the world, throughout history.  But it is not an easy process to recover from, and the effects linger in each locality for up to 200 years afterward.  During the North African Spring we have heard much talk of the different tribal areas in Libya, and the problems of forced assimilation during the Gaddafi regime which are now bubbling to the surface. In the past decade we heard of Kurdish problems in Iraq and Turkey.  Sometimes we hear of problems with groups in the Sahara.  Elsewhere, China has built new infrastructure in Tibet.

New Road Built by the Chinese in Tibet

According to Taiaiake Alfred, colonized peoples–such as the Aboriginals (formerly called Inuit) and other native peoples of North America–especially believe in treaties, because treaties show respect between two peoples, or two nations.  National governments of various societies, on the other hand, believe in integration and assimilation based on social justice principles. The main agenda of national governments is to make formerly colonized peoples into fully-functioning members of society through providing language, education, and job opportunities; however, they show a lack of respect to native peoples by trying to assimilate them.  Education is used everywhere as an assimilation tool.  “Native peoples living independently is also a threat to national governments because if they live independently, they control more land.  This makes less land available for mining claims, for other citizens,” Taiaiake says.

Modern Inuits in Canada Dealing with Effects of Colonialization

Native leaders who try to work within the national system to obtain more benefits such as land claims and self-government for native peoples are usually viewed as illegitimate leaders by the grassroots population.

Colonized peoples don’t want to be part of an integrative relationship.  Their vision is different.  their problems are not money problems, or problems of jurisdiction.  They are angry about losing their culture and their different way of life.  This creates a permanent state of alienation.  No matter how many material goods are given, these make no difference, because those material goods never address the source of the problem, the psychological anger.

Furthermore, as these new material things become the norm, the material standard rises ever further.  This process prevents getting to the root of the problem–this psychological anger–the pain in the community which comes from losing one’s culture.  This causes a permanent state of alienation coming from not having their culture, their values, reflected in the value system of the overall society.   This is why there are so many social and psychological problems in the communities which are not being addressed.

In Canada, people wonder why, when the government injects 7. million dollars to relocate a complete band of 700 Inuits to a new location, giving them new housing and other material goods, why the same problems of alcoholism, suicide, depression, and despair emerge again.

Morgan Fawcett, an Aboriginal (Inuit) victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, has dedicated his life to making sure women think before they drink

“It didn’t work because it’s putting the car before the horse,” says Taiaiake.  “These people aren’t ready to participate in this government because it’s not a form of government which is reflective of their culture, and their values.  It is essentially an imposed form of government.   More importantly, the problem of deculturalization of these people has not been fixed.”

Taiaiake says, “When Africa was decolonized, you have societies left that reflect all the worst aspects of the colonizers in the way power is used, in the way that corruption has infused the society.”

Canada’s indigenous people suffer from a post-colonialist mentality, according to Taiaiake.  “Native peoples have been illegally dispossessed of their land and treaties have not been honored.  We have to address those things before we can have reconciliation.”

“There is always a connection between the means and the ends,” Taiaiake says.  “If you want to have a peaceful co-existence with your neighbor, you can’t use violence.”

The true reclaiming of what it means to be an indigenous person is spiritual.  This means one must return to the essence of being a true warrior, in the sense of “they carry the burden (of their heritage).”  It is about having strength and integrity inside yourself to be an authentic person, carrying yourself with a sense of justice and rightness.

“Colonialized peoples need to recreate themselves as people who are spiritually-grounded and strong, in order to withstand all those forces of assimilation and recreate the something new out of the best values of the indigenous culture.  The most impressive thing that Ghandi did was to take a stand against both  imperialism and traditionalism, and insist that people needed to create something new out of both appropriate to today.  This is really the solution.”

Meanwhile, what can be done about growing problems among youth?  There are increasing levels of drug use, violence, and family violence.  Smoking is increasing, gun and gang culture are emerging in Canada.  What about indigenous people in the urban centers?

“We need to create relationships between those people and the home communities.  However, many of those home communities themselves are problematic.”

More indigenous people in Canada are going to university and becoming doctors and lawyers.  Taiaiaka’s view is that each day of his life, no matter what job or education level an indigenous person receives, he can make the choice to support either the vision of indigenous people, or the vision of the colonizer.  Taiaiaka hopes to inspire the next generation of indigenous leaders to regenerate the culture in a political and legal manner, to force Canada into a reconciliation with reality.  He envisions a social and political agenda in Canada like the Black Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  The goal is to recover the stolen sense of what it means to be an indigenous person living the authentic life of our ancestors.

For all recently decolonized peoples, the way forward is to find a middle road which is neither the vision of the colonizer, nor a reactionary vision against the colonizer.  Decolonized peoples must take what is useful from the colonizer and combine it with a spiritual vision from their own culture to find a new way forward in the modern world–to be part of the modern world, while not “of” the colonizers’ world.

With regard to national cultures which are trying to assimilate native cultures through the use of education and materialistic recompense, I feel this strategy is far preferable to the ethnic cleansing which is happening in so many parts of the world (which is what happens when assimilation efforts fail).  While I can understand the pain of native peoples,  I think adapting to the dominant culture is probably the best middle course of action for all.

–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

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

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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