First and foremost in terms of professions I am an American soldier, an artilleryman, but secondly I am a student of history, especially military history. Within that broad category I have a niche carved out in Arab military history and culture. In fact I have a fondness for all things Arab, despite the fact that I never learned to speak Arabic as well as I would like. Part of that is the many years of standing too close to the Howitzers firing “battery six rounds.” We did not wear hearing protection in those days, considering it somewhat sissified. No safe space in those days!!
But when I wrote about my fondness for all things Arab in one my articles, I drew a number of sarcastic ripostes as I seem to be very critical of Arab culture, especially their military culture. Well indeed I am because it is well deserved! On the other hand were I writing about our American culture I would be far more critical of what our wise historian, Victor Davis Hanson calls a civilization in decline. I find much to lament in looking at the current crop of effete elitist young people, brought up to believe they know everything and that the State owes them a comfortable, safe, and secure life. I could go on ad nauseam but to return to the subject, Arabs, there are a number of cultural traits I have always appreciated and often admired. They are in no particular order:
- Animation: Their verbal and hand motions are so expressive, complete with tonal inflections, that despite my problem in hearing I was always pretty sure of their attitudes and opinions. American cocktail parties are so God awful boring but not so those with Arabs. Even Arabs agreeing with one another create what sounds like a fierce argument.
- linguistic skills: Many Arabs of the educated classes, especially the Lebanese, have an amazing ability to learn and use languages. Often they can draw upon several languages to use in one sentence, depending how it fits the point to be made. Arab have this innate skill to make you feel good about yourself with obvious flattery but done so skilfully that you believe. An example is being cheated blind by Lebanese storekeepers but enjoying every minute of it with their spellbinding command of English, Arabic and French, One Iraqi I worked with in Baghdad spoke very American English and I was astounded when he told me he learned it by watching American movies. This is not so unusual I have learned since. Arabs have a love of words, an old Semitic tradition beginning with the sentence, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.”
- Generosity and hospitality : The fabled generosity is true. They are generous to a fault. OK, it is true they expect reciprocity but so do we. Generosity is linked to honor and status in the social structure. They are also very warm people and easy to be friends with. And I always love their extravagant praise…(you speak Arabic better than I do). They do not hesitate to show their emotions. They will give you a hug or many kisses even though they just met you. They will cry a river when they say goodbye to a foreigner they like. I still receive long emails every now and then from Arab friends whom I have not seen for decades. As a sociologist once wrote, Americans make instant friends to whom they babble the most intimate parts of their life and a week later can’t remember their name, ( they may not have asked.)
- The future: There are many drawbacks to the typical lack of Arab plans for the future, ex. the often heard “Inshallah” factor. But in fact it is also refreshing that Muslim Arabs follow the scriptures of the Bible more than Christians. For instance see James 4:13-16 or Jeremiah 29:11, or as it is written in Proverbs, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs. 3:5). Arabs seem to enjoy life more than people of the West even with all our comforts. Maybe it is because they have so little in so many cases they have learned to enjoy what they have.
- Family life: Family is everything. Blood relation trumps class, gender, and race. Yes it leads to nepotism. “Wasta” ( having facilitators get one jobs, college slots etc), and a dozen other ills but it also enables the Arabs to weather great calamities and catastrophes. The structured nature of the extended family enables people to be secure in what they are and where they are in society. The American mobile nuclear family has undermined the function of the family giving rise to the “nanny state,” a belief that the state apparatus should provide for our welfare, not our family. We are a very mobile society and seldom put down roots unlike many Arabs who value the past and can recite their lineage back many generations. Another aspect of their family life I have grown to appreciate more and more is the Arab family abhorrence to shunting off old folks to “assisted living,” a Western method of ensuring that they do not constitute an inconvenience to the rest of the family.
- Faith: Seeing the dramatic decline in religious faith so apparent in Western life one cannot help but admire the persistence of Islam so central to Muslim Arab people. In this regard I have even more admiration for Christian Arabs who have lived as second class citizens for over a millennium undergoing various periods of persecution and continued political irrelevance ( Viewed with total indifference by the “Christian” West. Yet the dwindling numbers of Christians maintain their faith.
- Sense of Humor: Some might differ with this but the Arabs have a droll, sometimes macabre sense of humor. In view of the horrendous violent environment in which most have lived in the past decades that is not unusual. Of course the Egyptian sense of humor is famous. The Arab sense of humor is usually tinged with sarcasm and cynicism, particularly in the political arena. No surprise there either. Many of the jokes are based on hardships such as the price of fuel in Egypt. President Abdul Fatah El Sisi joked that he would raise the price of fuel (again) to stop Egyptian teenagers from doing the “Kiki”, a trendy social media dance that involves girls jumping from a moving automobile to dance in the street.
- Perseverance: David Holden, an astute Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Times , probably said it best, (as he usually did, always with panache) . He once wrote – and I am paraphrasing here- ” the Arabs always self destruct at the pinnacle of success but also inevitably rise from the ashes.” As their enemies have ruefully observed, they keep coming back for more. You can’t defeat them, only contain them.
- Food: I like their delight in food and its preparation and here of course I am not referring to Bedouin cooking which, in my day, often was simply throwing chunks of goat or lamb on a fire and eating it half raw and half burnt. Lebanese food is incomparable and the sweets throughout the Middle East are great with lots of honey. Diets and fake foods are avoided. Although among young Arab upper class women thin is in, it is not among older women and certainly not men.
- Arts and entertainment: All Arabs, by nature are thespians. They love drama and the hokier the better. It displays the dual personality of the Arabs depicted by Raphael Patai (The Arab Mind) and Ali Al Wardi the great Iraqi historian. On one hand there is the often brutal and primitive attitude of the Bedouin clashing with the urbane temperament of the townspeople. So you have the malevolent thug Saddam Hussein writing love stories! They are very sensitive to subtle nuances that Westerners miss, especially in judging people.They see through people very quickly, Their love of poetry is another indicator of their penchant for artistic talent. It’s not my thing but I appreciate people who can use it. I once watched a foreign service officer, a friend of mine, enthrall a Jordanian group by reciting Arabic poetry. I often watch Arab movies, especially funny ones like Ali’s Wedding, ( an Iraqi community in Australia) or the many Egyptian TV series. If one is attentive many cultural attributes are surfaced. Recently I started watching “Secrets of the Nile’ on Netflix with English subtitles, an Egyptian soap opera at which they excel. I doubt if i’ll get through all of it since it has over 30 programs. But after watching the first few the good and evil characters have already been sorted out and the story line is easy to follow.
Well these are the ten I can think of off the top of my head but of course there are many others one can enumerate but I’ll leave that for another time to interperse with my trenchant criticisms