Nov 16 2006

Understanding Arabs: A Westerner’s Guide

Published by at November 16, 2006 5:27 pm under Cross-cultural Training

Most people, especially in the West, have a pre-conceived idea of what constitutes an Arab. These ideas usually fall into the 1970s western image of the urban Arab as excessively wealthy, or the more romantic desert Arab portrayed by Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. These images may be mixed with those of religious fanaticism, often rendering the visitor nervous or anxious about what he is to behold.

Often there is confusion between Muslims and Arabs. Simply, most Arabs are Muslim but not all Muslims are Arab. As examples, the Muslims of Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran are not Arab. Within the Middle East, there are some wide differences between nations but the fact they share a common language, albeit with dialectic differences, brings cohesiveness, as does the shared sense of identity as both Arabs and Muslims.
Basic Arab values are quite different to those of the Westerner. Whilst people in the West value independence, self-determination, subjectivity and privacy, in general the Arab thinks quite differently. Because of the fact that most Arabs are followers of Islam, there is a crossover between religious and cultural attitudes, appearing most clearly in the belief in fatalism. This comes from the belief that God has ultimate control and that we should accept his will. Hence the constant use of the phrase “Inshallah” (God-willing) throughout conversation.

The more traditional will believe that bad times and experiences are a gift from God who only sends these things to strong people for them to be tested. It is very rare to hear the phrase “It is not fair…”

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