04 March 2009

A Very Brief Look at Religion and Culture in the Arabian Gulf

A Very Brief Look at Religion and Culture in the Arabian Gulf
Or, How to Avoid Offending Our Hosts

[Being an piece written for Sailors during my service as a Navy chaplain,
well prior to the Bush Administration and the US’s incursion into Iraq]

© 1996, by the Rev’d Canon Francis C. Zanger

The Arab world has no more cultural rules than the American world from which we come, but since many of the rules are different, it’s important to learn some of them to avoid offending people. During port visits in the Gulf area, we are guests, and should behave as such.
Perhaps the key word in our relations with residents of the Arabian Gulf is respect. Almost all the problems that Americans have in this part of the world have to do with a perceived lack of respect, so it is important that those actions which are considered disrespectful.
A lot of the problems arise from gestures and body language. Some of the things which we think of as universal are, quite simply, not. A “thumbs up” sign (among Arabs of Persian background), or an “okay” sign, here would mean much the same as an upraised middle finger. Slouching with your hands in your pockets, tipping your chair back against the wall, leaning against things, or propping up your feet on a table are all considered very rude here.
So is sitting so that the bottom of your foot is pointed at another person. The bottoms of the feet are the lowest, dirtiest part of the body, and to point them at someone puts that other person below the soles of your feet.
Always eat with your right hand, and never touch anyone or hand anyone anything with your left hand. The left hand is considered “unclean”, and is limited to physical hygiene. The right hand is the only hand to ever come in contact with local residents.
Body distance and physical contact is also very different in the local culture. Do NOT touch an Arab woman-- not even a handshake unless she offers first. The two sexes do not touch each other in public. On the other hand, men will sometimes walk down the street holding hands.
This has nothing to do with their sexual orientation-- men who are friends touch in public, but men and women in Arab culture show no public displays of affection. Those who do so are seen as deeply offensive to traditional morals, while American men who pull their hands away from other men are seen as unfriendly. Do not mistake American “cultural cues” for theirs!
Arab men also traditionally stand much closer to one another than Americans are comfortable with, handshakes are, if not firm, prolonged. Eye contact is important-- an Arab may, by American standards, seem to be rudely staring at you. Remember, in the Arabian Gulf, people don’t live by American standards, and a refusal to make long eye contact may make you seem shifty and deceitful.
Another way to offend by mistake is to appear to be in a hurry or distracted. If you keep looking at your watch, or looking around for the bus or for your buddies, you will give the impression that the person you’re talking to is not worth your time.
The role of women in Muslim nations varies, but in the Gulf, women are generally far less socially free than in the United States. Many wear veils to protect their modesty. Do not approach, talk to, or touch a woman you do not know—not even “just to be friendly”. Such friendliness is viewed very differently here than in the U.S., and it is very easy to offend people or cause an incident by mistake.
Alcohol, too, is seen differently in this part of the world. It doesn’t take an American-style liberty incident-- an accident or injury-- to create a problem here. Just being seen drunk in public is enough to give offense.
Arab culture is different from ours, but is no less valuable-- the Arab peoples have lived in this part of the world for 2,500 years before Columbus landed in North America, and Arabs were inventing algebra when most Europeans were still illiterate. It is an old and proud culture, and if we learn just a little about it we will enjoy our port visits far more.

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