ARAB CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY

ISLAM AND ARAB CHARACTER


Unlike Judeo-Christian archetypes that stress individual strengths and Japanese archetypes that emphasize groups working together towards a common goal, Muslim theology stresss individual virtues that are collectively expressed and are ultimately seen as expressions of the divine. Value is placed on obedience and cohesion.

Converts to Islam are often attracted by the ethnic diversity of its followers and the strong emphasis on justice. Many American Muslim who travel to the Muslim world find the people they meet to be much less devout than expected often to a level of hypocrisy, with many more interested in shopping, night clubs and dating than in going to the mosque and studying the Qur’an.

Islam is regarded as a way of life (“din,” sometimes translated as religion) that predates Muhammad and goes back to the creation of man. Muslims are expected to submit to Allah and the divinely-revealed laws of in the Qur’an, Islam's holy book. These laws cover a wide range of activities. Muslim beliefs are based on what is found in the Qur’an, which is regarded a revelation of God's Will. Mankind is expected to show their respect and gratitude for this. The Qur’an does not contain a system of doctrines per say. Mostly what it offers are general principals.

Muslims believe in direct communion with God and submission to his will. Muslims believe that Muhammad transmitted the will of God to mankind, and that each individual stands alone in direct relationship with God, surrendering himself ( aslama ) to His mercy. The relationship is often compared with a master (God) and slave (believer) with the master making demands and the slave having no rights. Those who follow the demands are given privileges. Non-Muslims are regarded as people who have not fulfilled the demands and thus are not entitled to the privileges.

Islam has been described as “a prescription for harmony in everyday life." The Qur’an promises “peace” to this who follow the “straight path." It and the Hadith offers rules and advise on everything from what to eat, how to raise children and wash oneself. The day is divided by prayers and scriptures memorized from the Qur’an are central to education, weddings, funerals and holidays.

Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ;

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org

See Society

Bedouin Culture and Arab Character


Bedouin musicians

Arab and Muslim culture, customs and character is widely influenced by Bedouin (Middle Eastern desert nomad) culture, customs and character, whose traditions are in part shaped by adapting to living in a harsh desert environment and includes strict codes of proper economic and social behavior. The harshness of some aspects of Islam to some degree has its roots in the harshness of unforgiving desert life.

Traditionally, Bedouins moved often, lived in tents and earned their living as animal breeders, transporters or traders. The nomadic way of life encourages people to be self-reliant, and adaptable to outside forces, namely the weather and engenders a spirit of working together, helping out one’s neighbor in times of need and offering hospitality.

Bedouins have complex customs of revenge, loyalty and hospitality. They are famous for their hospitality. There are stories of Bedouins slaughtering their best camel for a guest only to find out that guest was willing to buy the camel at any price. National Geographic photographer Reza said, “I have been shooting pictures for 35 years and have traveled in 107 different countries, but nowhere have I enjoyed greater warmth that I experience among the Bedouin. Exhausted after a long day driving...you’d approach a tent, and suddenly someone would appear with a coffee and a beautiful carpet to sit on---yet they’d never ask you who you were or where you're from. I sometimes wonder if the rest of us have forgotten such values."

Village Life and Arab Character

According to the Encyclopedia of Culture: “Villagers live by tradition and lack the incentives, knowledge, or security to make changes. Change is seen as a disruptive force and threatening to the harmonious relationships that Arabs have established with their environment and their fellow villagers.”

“Village values stem from the ideal values of the nomad. Unlike the Bedouin, villagers relate to nonkin, but loyalty to the group is as strong as it is among the tribesmen...The villager lives in an extended family environment in which family life is tightly controlled. Each family member has a defined role, and there is little individual deviation.”

Feuds and concepts of honor and hospitality are strong among rural people as they are among Bedouins. As with Bedouins, villagers find security among family members in times of hardship and in old age. The system has been weakened as men and young people go off to the cities to find work.

Predetermination, Fate and Free Will


Allah

Muslims regard all the events of their lives as God’s will. After many statements Muslim’s say Inshallah, “It is God's will”. Inshallah has become a response to almost everything. It is often used in place of “I don’t know.” Because God controls our destiny, Muslims regard it as bad luck to talk about the future or announce anything before it has been absolutely finalized. People that talk a lot about plans and dreams are sometimes regarded as loony.

Becoming a Muslim entails giving up a sense of being in control and letting things be decided by fate and God's will. Predetermination and submission to fate have been cornerstones of the Muslim faith, with the Qur’an stating that God “guides who he will and turns astray who he wills” and it is he creates and men and creates all they do. According to Muslim scholars, "Every person's life span is determined by Allah, when he is still a fetus in his mother's belly. Allah also knows how every person is to meet his or her death. He does not however cause an accident fire or disturbance. It is people who do that." [Source: Arab News, Jeddah]

The concept of pre-determination is summed up by the expression "inshallah," meaning “it is god's will." This is often represented as a kind a blithe, fatalistic attitude in which people do what do without worrying about consequences---because the consequences have already been predetermined. Repeated injections of “God willing” into statements is an expression of Muslim submission to fate.

People put their hands in God because they believe he helps rather punishes. Sometimes, it has been suggested, that if something awful happens to a Muslim he asks Allah what he has done to be punished rather than seeking justice or making changes to prevent the awful thing from happening again. Muslim believed that you can not save yourself from death. When your time comes there is nothing you can do about it. It has been suggested that people living in dangerous places are comforted by this belief.

Fatalistic Arabs are good at waiting and putting up with reckless drivers. The is an old Arab saying that says the Jews celebrate their feasts around gardens, the Christians celebrate theirs around kitchens and the Muslims have their around graveyards.

Sunni Predetermination Versus Shia Free Will


Shia prayers

Predetermination is primarily a Sunni belief. Shia affirm man's free will. Some Muslims believe “God determines all things, but humans are responsible for acquiring the possibilities God creates for them." There are a number of Qur’anic verses that proclaim human responsibility and declare that men will be rewarded or punished on the Judgment Day depending on the deeds they perform in their life.

The Shia belief is essentially as follows: “Human reason is competent to determine good and evil, except in such matters as religious obligation. Men do not themselves possess the power to create actions which belongs to God alone, but they are invested by God with volition whereby they can chose to do good or evil actions, and thus everyone is liable to reward or punishment in future life." [Source: Encyclopedia of the World's Religion, H.A.R. Gibb]

The beliefs that free will and reasoning have a place in Islam were advocated by scholars influenced by Greek philosophy. Some of their ideas — such as reasoning contradicts revelation — undermined the very foundation of Islam. Conservative Muslims argue against free will, stating that to do so is second guessing Allah and reckoning that someone other than God is involved in the act of Creation. Some go even farther and say that anything that comes into existence as a “consequence” of human action is an allusion and the consequence exists only because God allows it. In doing this God creates beliefs and non-beliefs, piety and impiety as well as concrete things like people and animals. These beliefs remain at the heart of Sunni beliefs today. Tied in to these argument is a suspicion of applying reasoning to the Qur’an and matters of faith.

Hospitality in the Muslim World

Muslims have a "powerful hospitality instinct." They consider hospitality to be their sacred duty and guests are honored and held in the highest regard. Any traveler or stranger, even a non-Muslim or an enemy, is considered to be "the guest of Allah," and should treated accordingly. A man who has eaten his host's bread and eaten his salt may claim sanctuary for three days.

Hospitality is expressed with warm welcomes and giving guests the place of honor at the table. Hosts are expected to be totally selfless and offer everything they have. Sometimes foreigners are welcomed into homes of even the poorest families and treated to a feast with the head of the household while other members of the family just look and watch. Sometimes a family will stretch their resources and slaughter a sheep. The British traveler and diplomat Freya Stark wrote that “Years of Arab courtesy spoil us for the rough and tumble of the Western World.”

The tradition of hospitality originated with Bedouins in the desert. Visitors were rare and they are always welcomed and offered food and drink. Travelers in the desert depended on others for food and protection. The reasoning went that if someone helped them they should help someone else. In villages there are special guest houses for visitors. In the cities, displays of hospitality are often a sign of status.


The Qur’an says: "Whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter (i.e Muslim) must respect his guest: and whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter not incommode his neighbors; and a Muslim must speak only good words otherwise remain silent." To get hospitality you can say Ana dheef Allah ("I am a guest of God"). To refuse an offer is regarded as an insult. If you do it try to seek hospitality somehow do it as diplomatically as possible and provide your potential hosts with away to save face.

Hospitality obligations often have priority over time concerns. This means that an Arab man may spend hours drinking tea and coffee and eating food with a stranger and show up late or miss and appointment with friends.

Sunnah on Hospitality

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

The Sunnah reads: “When a man cometh into his house and remembereth God and repeats his name at eating his meals, the devil saith, to his followers, "Here is no place for you to stay in tonight, nor is there any supper for you." And when a man cometh into his house without remembering God's name, the devil saith to his followers, "You have got a place to spend the night in." [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]

“Whosoever believeth in God and the day of resurrection must respect his guest, and the time of being kind to him is one day and one night, and the period of entertaining him is three days, and after that, if he does it longer, he benefits him more. It is not right for a guest to stay in the house of the host so long as to inconvenience him.

“I heard this, that God is pure, and loveth purity; and God is liberal, and loveth liberality; God is munificent, and loveth munificence: then keep the courts of your house clean, and do not be like Jews who do not clean the courts of their houses.

Bedouin Hospitality


Bedouins (Middle Eastern desert nomads) have traditionally lived in the arid steppe regions along the margins of rain-fed cultivation. They often occupy areas that receive less than 5 centimeters of rain a year, sometimes relying on pastures nourished by morning dew rather than rain to provide water for their animals.

Bedouins are expected boil their last rice and kill their last sheep for feed a stranger. Whenever an animal is slaughtered for a guest it is ritually sacrificed in accordance with Islamic law. It is customary in some Bedouin tribes for a host to smear blood from a slaughtered animal onto of the mouth of his guest in a show of hospitality.

Hospitality is regarded as an honor and a scared duty. Visitors who happen by are usually invited to sit and share a cup of thick, gritty coffee. Guest are ritually absorbed into the household by the host. If a conflict occurs the host is expected to defend the guest as if he were a member of his family. One Bedouin told National Geographic, "Even if my enemy appears at this tent, I am bound to feast him and protect him with my life."

Honor and Shame in the Arab-Muslim World

Honor is an important concept in the Arab and Muslim world. Honor has traditionally been a male thing that came from defending one’s property, family, clan and tribe. Particular attention has been placed on protecting the women in a family—mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Women were expected to be pure and modest so as not arouse other males and disrupt the harmony of the society and bring shame to the dominate male.

A family’s reputation is of utmost importance. For one person within a family to stain that reputation, especially a female who is perceived as acting immorally, is an almost unforgivable sin. Breaking an oath of loyalty is one of the gravest sins and most serious taboos.


Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, a Palestinian Arab nationalist and fighter in 1930s and 40s

Arabs are very proud and tend to shun offers of help even if they desperately need it. Dignity, honor and saving face are important. Never attack or criticize an Arab person in public. This is regarded as an attack on their honor and an unforgivable affront that must be avenged.

For an Arab, losing one's dignity is like a Chinese losing face. The humiliation of losing dignity is something to fight or to got to war over. Dr, Eyad Sarraj, an Arab psychiatrist, wrote in Tine, “Shame is the most painful emotion in the Arab culture, producing the feeling that one is unworthy to live. The honorable Arab is one who refused to suffer shame and dies in dignity...Helplessness and shame give way to anger.”

See Women and Honor

Humility, Face and Envy in the Arab-Muslim World

The Qur’an says: "A tribe must desist from boasting of their forefathers; if they will not leave off boasting, verily they will be more abominable near God, than a black beetle which rolleth forward filth by its nose; and verily God has removed from you pride and arrogance." It also says: “And do not covet that by which Allah has made some of you excel others; men shall have the benefit of what they earn and women shall have the benefit of what they earn.” Ostentatious displays are regarded as in bad taste and offensive to God. But still that doesn’t stop a lot of people.

Face is important in the Arab-Muslim world as it is other places in Asia. In Asia, it has been said that "face is more important than truth or justice" and losing face is often an individual's greatest fear. Face is essentially respect in a community and is a crucial underpinning of society. Loss of that respect threatens the relations of individuals with almost everyone in his or her world and is hard to get back once lost and thus is avoided at all costs.

”Face” can be equated with honor. Maintaining dignity and avoiding embarrassment is at the heart of maintaining face. Some people describe the West as a guilt-based society where people's behavior is dictated by their personal hang-ups. In Asian societies, on the other hand, are often described as shame-based society, in which behavior is often defined by fear of losing face. It is considered very bad taste to publically criticize a person since it results in a loss of face within the community. Necessary criticisms and suggestions should be made in way the that no one is blamed and shame is not cast upon any individual.

Sunnah on Vanities and Sundry Matters

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

The Sunnah reads: “The angels are not with the company with which is a dog, nor with the company with which is a bell. A bell is the devil's musical instrument. The angels do not enter a house in which is a dog, nor that in which there are pictures. “Every painter is in hell fire; and God will appoint a person at the day of resurrection for every picture he shall have drawn, to punish him, and they will punish him in hell. Then if you must make pictures, make them of trees and things without souls. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]


“Whosoever shall tell a dream, not having dreamed, shall be put to the trouble at the day of resurrection of joining two barleycorns; and he can by no means do it; and he will be punished. And whosoever listens to others' conversation, who dislike to be heard by him, and avoid him, boiling lead will be poured into his ears at the day of resurrection. And whosoever draws a picture shall be punished by ordering him to breathe a spirit into it, and this he can never do, and so he will be punished as long as God wills.

“O servants of God, use medicine: because God hath not created a pain without a remedy for it, to be the means of curing it, except age; for that is a pain without a remedy. He who is not loving to God's creatures and to his own children, God will not be loving to him. The truest words spoken by any poet are those of Lebid, who said, "Know that everything is vanity except God."

“Verily he who believeth fights with his sword and tongue: I swear by God, verily abuse of infidels in verse is worse to them than arrows. Meekness and shame are two branches of faith, and vain talking and embellishing are two branches of hypocrisy. The calamity of knowledge is forgetfulness, and to lose knowledge is this, to speak of it to the unworthy.

“Who pursueth the road to knowledge, God will direct him to the road of paradise; and verily the angels spread their arms to receive him who seeketh after knowledge; and everything in heaven and earth will ask grace for him; and verily the superiority of a learned man over a mere worshiper is like that of the full moon over all the stars. Hearing is not like seeing: verily God acquainted Moses of his tribe's worshiping a calf, but he did not throw down the tables; but when Moses went to his tribe, and saw with his eyes the calf they had made, he threw down the tables and broke them.

“Be not extravagant in praising me, as the Christians are in praising Jesus, Mary's Son, by calling him God, and the Son of God; I am only the Lord's servant; then call me the servant of God, and his messenger. It was asked, "O Messenger of God, what relation is most worthy of doing good to?" He said, "Your mother"; this he repeated thrice: "and after her your father, and after him your other relations by propinquity."

“God's pleasure is in a father's pleasure, and God's displeasure is a father's displeasure. Verily one of you is a mirror to his brother: Then if he see a vice in his brother he must tell him to get rid of it. “The best person near God is the best among his friends; and the best of neighbors near God is the best person in his own neighborhood. Deliberation in undertaking is pleasing to God, and haste is pleasing to the devil. The heart of the old is always young in two things: in love for the world, and length of hope.

Friendship and Lack of Privacy in the Arab World

Arabs are social and like to be around others. People are expected to not want to be alone. People who like to be alone and seek privacy are sometimes regarded with suspicion. Arabs often don’t seek personal space like Westerners. They usually seek out other people. If there is a near empty theater, beach or viewpoint in the mountains, they will often go where the other people are rather than find a place to be alone.


socializing at an Aleppo cafe

Arabs like to talk and use flowery language, elaborate expressions and hyperbole. Conservation is a popular pass time. Men like to sit around together at tea houses and cafes, talking. Women often sit around chatting with their children and with friends at their homes. Discussions can get heated and last for hours. What may sound like shouting and arguing is simply people talking in a normal tone of voice. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]

Arabs have different senses of privacy and space that Westerners. Arab men are often very close together when they talk and look each other directly in the eye and frequently touch one another. This makes some foreigners feel uncomfortable. Even so, foreigners should try not to back away if away they can help. If they do they might be perceived as rude. Foreign men should not look Arab women directly in the eye.

Socializing among men often revolves around smoking and drinking tea. Cigarettes are offered as a sign of hospitality and friendship. If you have cigarettes you are expected to offer them to others. It is considered somewhat impolite to refuse a cigarette but these days most Arabs realize that smoking is frowned upon in the West and accept a refusal by foreigners.

Friendship is often based on giving and receiving favors. Refusing a request for a favor from a friend is considered a kind of betrayal. Thus when an Arab asks you something you should never refuse. You can always say, “I’ll try” and you won’t be judged harshly if you are unsuccessful.

Based on this idea Arabs are adverse to saying no. Many people in the Arab-Muslim world consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a "yes" or "no" answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out.

There is little privacy in the Arab world. People live close together and often have large immediate and extended families. They are used to having people around them all the time. Wanting to be by oneself is considered kind of strange. Many social events are men-only affairs When you arrive at a party shakes hands with everyone who is there. If another guest arrives make sure you are standing to greet them.

Socializing and Sharing Tea and Smokes in a Cairo Barber Shop


Cairo barber shop in the 1800s

Traditionally men liked to gather in the shade of tents and the aroma of incense, sharing tea, coffee and fruit while conversing about camels and issues of the day. These days they like to gather in tea shops, coffee shops, hookah-smooking rooms and barber shops

Daniel Williams wrote in the Washington Post, “It was 11:30 at night, and the Professeur Barber Shop on narrow Um ul-Ghulam Street in a run-down section of Cairo was running at full capacity. Three young barbers offered haircuts, shaves, facials and flattery to customers who filled a trio of threadbare chairs and stools that lined the tiny establishment. Sayeed, a barber who had dyed his hair copper and moussed it into little waves that lapped merrily about the top of his head, waved a razor in one hand and a cigarette in the other over a client. It seemed a dangerous moment, but nothing compared with what followed. [Source: Daniel Williams, Washington Post, May 2, 2006 ^~^]

“As a bouncy tune by the Egyptian singer Tamer Hosni blared from a boombox tucked among towels and a Qur’an in a corner of the shop, Sayeed undulated and lip-synched the words that told something about the arrival and departure of a girl. It looked like he was doing a saber dance. The customer closed his eyes -- whether to avoid looking at the tiny torch and sharp instrument that Sayeed brandished inches from his nose or just to relax in anticipation of the razor's next stroke, it was hard to say. ^~^

“Lots of things go on besides barbering at the Professeur. The shop got its name from a customer who once complimented the workers there as masters of their craft, which in Egypt can be expressed by calling them professeurs, an example of lingering French influence. A night at the Professeur -- the coolness after dark contrasts pleasurably with the motionless heat of Um ul-Ghulam in daytime -- is an opportunity to sing, gossip, sip tea or coffee and smoke from a shisha, the Egyptian water pipe filled with slow-burning tobacco. ^~^

“The tangle of activities and conditions would seem incompatible with haircuts -- smoke blown in eyes, music that drowns out conversation, electric cables that twist around tubes emanating from the water pipe, boys who bring in hot refreshments and dart under the elbows of the barbers. The shop's decor adds to the feeling that at the Professeur anything goes: fluorescent lighting, little red Chinese lanterns, plastic plants, Christmas tinsel, posters of singers and models, Egyptian talismans to ward off envy and evil, and carved plaques with Qur’anic verses that describe the rewards of praising Muhammad and the promise of protection to the righteous. On this night, a cockroach navigated tufts of hair on the floor. And the barbers keep the mood light.” ^~^

Midnight Conversation at a Cairo Barber Shop

Daniel Williams wrote in the Washington Post, “ At the first chair, a man having his hair creamed with Venus brand mused about Iraq and said, "If you boys knew anything about politics, you would be upset." Sayeed answered lazily, "I'm not an expert in politics, I'm an expert in love," and everyone laughed lustily and the barbers took a break to puff on Cleopatra cigarettes. [Source: Daniel Williams, Washington Post, May 2, 2006 ^~^]


hanging at a souk cafe

“A twice-weekly advice-to-the- lovelorn radio program began. A caller said her boyfriend was studying abroad and separation was hard. "Are you tempted by others?" the host, Osama Mansur, asked in conspiratorial tones. "No, our love is deep," the girl answered, and Mansur dedicated a love song to her. The barbers ridiculed the choice and made up bawdy lyrics to it. ^~^

The proprietor of a tea shop across the street came to collect money for shishas and coffee he had delivered to the Professeur. Sayeed insisted he could not have ordered seven pipes that evening but paid anyway. A friend entered, picked up a razor and trimmed his own goatee. Another caller complained to the Mansur show that a lover, five years her junior, had cheated on her and treated her badly. "Let's be frank: Maybe he never loved you," Mansur said. Another acquaintance came in and rubbed some hair goo called Pure Nature Milk on his head. "Ya, Ahmed," Sayeed said, "you have a new Nokia. Let me see." He and the other barbers gathered around Ahmed and his new cellphone, leaving three customers in the chairs with half-shaved faces, half-shorn heads and partially tweezed ears. No one complained. ^~^

Sayeed returned to finish clipping the back hedge of hair from his middle-aged customer. He praised the man's shaggy growth, given his age, and said that he undoubtedly attracted young women. The man replied, "I have several secrets." Sayeed persuaded the man to let him whiten his face. He covered him with Dreams Cream Scrub, some moisturizer and a yellow substance the consistency of plaster that bleaches skin. The customer sat for an hour, looking like a Kabuki performer marooned in a Cairo back alley. "Now you will look even younger," Sayeed said, and he massaged the customer's neck. An assistant washed the customer's face. It was 2 a.m. Sayeed combed and blow-dried the hair, and a little boy held a mirror to the back of the man's head so he could inspect. Sayeed cradled the client's chin and swiveled his head side to side. "Handsome. Beautiful," Sayeed said, and planted a kiss on the customer's cheek. The client left, and Sayeed said, "Not even a tip."” ^~^

Starbucks: Home Away from Home for Muslims in Virginia

Reporting from Starbucks in a strip mall in Falls Church, Virgina, Tara Bahrampour wrote in the Washington Post: “Come closer and enter a world where Moroccans talk soccer scores, Egyptians discuss revolution and Somalis argue over politics, all in a coffee chain store that has become an unlikely hangout for immigrants seeking the flavor of home. After long days working as cab drivers, construction workers, scientists and business owners, they fill the outdoor seats each evening, mimicking old world cafes where men unwind and catch up over backgammon, hookahs and endless cups of coffee. “It’s really part of our culture, to come to the café and talk about the events that happen,” said Ellafdi, an energetic 31-year-old who works in construction and lives in Alexandria. “As Muslims we don’t drink, we don’t go to the bar and hang out; we do this.” [Source: Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post, June 25, 2011 |=|]


religions of Arab Americans

“A burly man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair walked up Thursday evening and waved. “Salaam Alaikum,” he said “Alaikum Salaam,” answered seven or eight guys sitting out front in metal chairs pulled around one table. A younger man rose and offered his seat. He remained standing as he and his friends talked with gesticulating hands in a Moroccan blend of Arabic, French and Spanish and other languages. They passed around a Blackberry playing a trailer of a new reality TV show taking place in the deserts, beaches and mountains of their homeland. |=|

“It’s a largely male scene, and the men have been gathering here since 1997, a year after the Starbucks opened. A handful of Moroccans, Somalis, and other African and Middle Eastern immigrants who lived or worked in the neighborhood began to trickle in. They told friends to meet them there, and their friends told more friends, who began coming each day to linger over coffee and cigarettes.... Abdullahi lives across the street and comes sometimes two or three times a day. He sips coffee with other Somalis, and they chew on the problems of their homeland — the pirate problem, the fundamentalism problem. “Sometimes we talk loud. When we talk about politics, we get heated,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “When native Americans see people talking loudly in a language they don’t understand, they get scared.” |=|

““But most customers take it in stride, either ignoring the chattering in Somali, Arabic and Amharic, or smiling at finding such diversity in the most unexpected of places. Like the patrons of Rick’s Café, the expat mecca in the film Casablanca, the Skyline Starbucks crowd tends to sit at tables defined by home region or native language. Here, Eritreans and Ethiopians — whose countries were ravaged during a 30-year conflict — sit together, talking about work and college days. “The war is over now. We don’t have to talk about it,” said Solomon Yared, an Ethio―pian computer scientist who lives in Alexandria. He sat recently with an Eritrean soil scientist who walks to the Starbucks regularly from his home in Arlington. The café is near two mosques, and many of the men have the call to prayer programmed into their cell phones, though some ignore it. When Ellafdi hears it he either goes to one of the mosques or slips around the corner to a cleaner part of the shopping center to pray on the ground. “I’m not going to pray here because there’s a lot of cigarettes here,” he said, pointing at the butts on the pavement.” |=|

Arab Nostalgia and Sense of Humor


Egyptian political related to the Arab Spring Tahrir protesters

Arabs like to use flowery language, elaborate expressions and hyperbole. They like sentimental music and poetry. Hanin is an Arabic word meaning longing and nostalgia. Some scholars believe that strong feelings of nostalgia are tied to a general sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunities to improve one’s life and the life of one’s children. Fouad Ajami, an Arab expert at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times: “There is a deep, deep nostalgia today in the Arab world. Societies looking ahead and feeling a positive movement never succumb to nostalgia.”

Muslims aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor. In the mid 2000s, a British schoolteacher narrowly escaped a prison term when she allowed her students to name a teddy bear “Muhammad” and was the target of demonstrations and teddy-bear-carry protesters. Around the same time two Moroccan journalist were almost sentenced to five years in prison sentences for insulting Islam with an article entitled “Jokes: How Moroccans Laugh at Religion, Sex and Politics.”

By all accounts it seems that Muhammad enjoyed a good laugh and had a robust sense of humor. One of his companions carried the honorific title “jester of the prophet.” According to one joke Arabic is read right to left rather left to right because of a mix up: those martyred expecting 72 virgins upon their arrival to heaven were presented with one 27-year-old virgin.

Sense of Humor, See Comedy, Culture

Conspiracies, Rumors and Suspicion

Suspicions run high in the Arab world. Arabs like conspiracy theories, especially ones that involve Jews, Israelis and the CIA. Arab “investigative” journalists will often take a few inconclusive facts and spin a wild tale. To this day in many parts of the Muslim world more especially believe that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks not Muslim Arabs. It has been said that in the Arab world that rumor is often more powerful than reality.

Pokeman was deemed religiously unacceptable in Oman, Qatar, United Arabs Emirates, Jordan and Egypt and fatwas were issued against it. Japanese diplomats rushed to these countries to try an convince government leaders that Pokemon was harmless. [Source: Michael Slackman, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2001]

In Saudi Arabia, the top religious authority in the Higher Committee of for Scientific Research banned Pokemon on the basis that it “possessed the minds” of children, promoted anti-Islamic behavior and because of its alleged links with Judaism. Pokemon merchandise was stripped from store shelves; schools set up collection points and called on children to turn in all their Pokemon cards. A fatwa was issued that warned “all Muslims to beware of this game and prevent their children from playing it so as to protect their religion and manners” and insisted that the cards contained “figures of six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel.”


frowned upon in some parts of the Muslim world

In Pakistan there were many conspiracy theories about the death of Osama bin Laden. After he was killed, Alex Rodriguez wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It was all a ruse. The killing of the Al Qaeda leader.... The Americans made it all up to convince the world that terrorism exists everywhere in Pakistan. "Then they'll come in and take control of our nuclear weapons," the 20-year-old college student said. “Such resistance to official accounts is not unusual in a country with a collective propensity to get swept up by conspiracy theories, analysts say. The profound skepticism shared by many Pakistanis is rooted in their deep distrust of the United States, their desire to protect their country's nuclear program, their impressions of world events outside Pakistan and their devotion to the preachings of hard-line clerics. [Source: Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2011]

“The Nation, a Pakistani daily historically critical of the West, asserted in a front page story that Bin Laden had blown himself up to avoid being captured by U.S. commandos arriving at his compound. An Iranian intelligence minister's claim that Bin Laden had died of an illness years ago received strong play on Pakistani airwaves and in newspapers." Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's intelligence services, told CNN he believed bin Laden died years ago and the story was a hoax. Benazir Bhutto said he was killed by Pakistani militant Omar Sheikh in 2007, [Ibid]

Swearing and Arguing

Arabs like to discuss, debate, argue and talk about politics. Some have argued that Middle Eastern Arab Muslims are more hot bloodied than their mellow brethren in Malaysia and Indonesia. Machismo plays a great role on Arab society. Fathers are very disappointed by sons who allow themselves to be bullied.

Arab men generally like to swear and argue. Sometimes they do it for the shear enjoyment of it. Other times it is manly test of wills. Common insults include "you son of dogs," "all your fathers are dogs," and "you donkey." Reporter Richard Critchfield witnessed one argument between two men that began with "pigs and donkey" insults, then escalated into “You pimp," "You bastard" and ended with the worst insults: the first man calling the other a "Christian" and answering back "Jew." Getting in the last word the first man grinned "Jew, am I?...Well, Allah must love the Jews, for he has given them everything." [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

It is regarded as the "utmost gesture of contempt" is fling dirt in another person's face. Sometimes it is also an insult to say someone's mother’s name in public. It is also a terrible insult to hit someone with your shoe or throw shoes at someone. Remember U.S. President Geroge W. Bush in Iraq.

See Language

Tolerance and Work in the Arab-Muslim World

Islamic has an expression of tolerance—specific rules about respecting Christian and Jews and offering them protection when in need—that is not found in either Christianity or Judaism. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “I go to a synagogue, church and mosque, and I see the same spirit and the same altar.” In India it is has traditionally been common for Hindus to visit Sufi Shrines and for Muslims to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary.

Upper class Arabs never want to be seen doing any kind of manual labor. They consider such activities to be beneath them. The manufacturing and service sector in Arab countries are relatively undeveloped, partly because no one wants do that kind of work.

Arabs use the word kaif to describe the mental state of "doing nothing, saying nothing, thinking nothing." An anthropologist once described it as "a kind of wasteful passivity." the journalist Richard Critchfield called it a "way of turning off one's mind to avoid frustration.” [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Lack of Racism in Islam and Failure to Deal with The West

Islam has "pretty much extinguished racial consciousness" say journalist Richard Critchfield in countries like Egypt to the point that villages find racism to be a "strange and alien" concept. Some Muslims believe that blacks evolved from Noah's son Ham, who defied his father's order to make friends with the animals and was then exiled to a cave where he turned black.


Hajj pilgrims


Islam Doesn't have a racist history like Christianity. "Islam expanded," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "as an extending empire rather than by colonies-at-a-distance, by conquest and occupation rather than missionary outposts...Muslim theology and the hazards of history luckily inoculated Islam against the virus of racism. The solid dogma of the equality of all believers, the spread of Islam across black Africa, the frequent marriage with slaves and concubines—all these discouraged any Muslim belief in racial levels of humanity.”

Some scholars like Bernard Lewis of Princeton has argued that Arabs have failed in their efforts to address challenges presented by the West and look upon themselves as victims. Rather than rising to the challenge and addressing their shortcomings, they made excuses and looked for scapegoats. Lewis described what has occurred in the Arab and Muslim world as a “downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self pity, poverty and oppression.”

Regional Differences in the Arab World

Cultural differences in Arab regions are related to whether an individual is from a rural area or an urban area or lives in a coastal region or an oasis, whether he or she is a long time resident or newcomers and their place of origin. Conservative rigidity has traditionally been strongest in the desert and becomes progressively less strict as one moves to villages and then towns and then cities.

The Arab culture that developed around the Mediterranean is different from the one that developed in Arabia and the desert regions of the Middle East partly because those living around Mediterranean had more contact with European culture. Mediterranean Arabs have traditionally been regarded as more open to new ideas and more comprising than their desert counterparts who are regarded as more rigid and more restricted by conservative Muslim beliefs.

Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Tunis, Algiers and Casablanca have traditionally been regarded as very cosmopolitan places, where ideas were exchanged and people could attended liberal universities and entered a number of professions.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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