I’m writing this to share my experiences in the Middle East, the good and the bad, so that if the reader so chooses, they can gain a broader cultural understanding of life in the Middle East. How similar it is and how it differs; as told through anecdotal descriptions of scenarios I’ve encountered.
I spent considerable time in the Middle East in 2018. I traveled to four different countries in the region, Isreal, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia (with Egypt technically being in northern Africa). I learned a lot.
The Exposure Problem
The time I’ve spent in the Middle East has had a dramatic impact on my understanding and opinions of the region that I, along so many others, know so little about.
In the early 2000s, very few Americans had heard of Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone able to identify them on maps.
Aside from American military involvement, the only exposure (my generation) had to the region was through Disney’s Aladdin which shows life in Persia hundreds of years ago.
Today, Americans are more informed. Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia are household names. Still, our exposure is limited to that which we see on the news reels: bombings in Palestine; assassinations in Turkey; civil war in Syria.
The introduction of the Middle East through reporting on instability in the region leaves the world with a generation of Americans that can describe a region only of religious extremists in constant conflict. Countries with more infrequent strife and combat (Lebanon, Oman, United Arab Emirates…etc.) don’t receive the same exposure that Iran and Syria do.
Our press has done the American people a disservice through this very narrow depiction of the Middle East, and as a result, many of us (myself included) have been missing out on a wealth of knowledge and experiences from the region that brought the world the coffee bean.
The structure of the remainder of this article is a set of claims. supported by personal examples of my experience with the people (culture) of the various countries in the Middle East.
There is a story of American soldiers bursting through the entrance of an Iraqi home. The soldiers canvas the house (having destroyed the front door and disrupted the family’s peace and quiet, and find nothing. The family offers them to sit with them and enjoy their tea.
Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality.
While traveling across the border from Eilat to Aqaba in Jordan, a friend and I get on a minibus in an attempt to make it to Wadi Musa that night. The experience in Aqaba is somewhat of a nightmare, when getting dropped off we are surrounded by no less than 20 people trying to sell us services (all to get to Petra).
We end up getting on a minibus, but the exchange with the owner concerns me as it isn’t clear if we were going to Wadi Musa or Amman. We wait for about an hour for the bus to fill, and are the only white people present. The bus eventually departs Aqaba, and we drive north for about an hour along the highway before the roads diverge.
The path to the right leads to Amman, and the left to Wadi Musa. Sure enough, the bus takes the path to the right. At this point we are freaking out. No one on the bus is proficient in English. A passenger to our right calls his friend and passes the phone to me who translates for us, and he offers to let us spend the night at his house in Amman with his family.
Simultaneously (yes, I have a phone to each ear now), the bus driver calls a friend and hands me the cell phone and the man on the phone says they are planning on pulling over soon and there will be a car on the side of the road that will pick us up. I am skeptical. I look to the man that has offered us his home, and tell him what the man on the phone says. He shrugs. We pull over and two elderly women get off. I look again to the man, I ask him, “should we go, is it a good deal?”
It is good. Good deal, you can trust them.
We get out on the middle of the highway, and meet our taxi driver. Turns out one of the women is his mother. He is so friendly and kind, our minds are immediately put to ease. We talk about life in Jordan, and tourism. As we enter Wadi Musa, he asks if he can bring us into his house for tea.
The hospitality he and kindness he offered is an experience of I will never forget.
While working in a Pediatrics department in Beirut, I become close with three Lebanese specifically, Roula, Farah and Amina. Roula and Farah work at the front desk, while Amina is a recent college graduate from American University of Beirut, who spends her time doing research on genetic diseases with the clinician Dr. Pascal Karam.
The three take me to lunch the first day I meet them, and we eat atop the roof of the hospital. When I offer to pay, Roula is insulted,
“it is not right!”
At the end of my weeklong shift, myself and two coworkers meet Amina and her family in their town about 30 minutes south of Beirut. Amina’s family is incredibly welcoming.
Her mother, cooks us breakfast. It is an aromatic spread of savory yogurt, hummus, pita with nuts and an eggplant dish. I eat until I am full, which is a huge mistake because she asks repeatedly that I consume more. After several exchanges of refusals followed by her requests that I take more, and finally my caving to the pressure, I have to call it quits and refuse four or five times before she gives in.
This is apparently common behavior, you will be asked multiple times to consume a second or third plate.
After a delicious breakfast, Amina, her sister Nada and her father Mohammed tour us around their town and Saida. We go to a market to buy a special Mediterranean fish for dinner. that Amina’s mother cooks for us.
We cap the night with some shisha, enjoying conversations spanning a variety of topics including Mohammed’s business ventures, Lebanon as a country, and what the girls should study in college.
What stands out to me as the most remarkable experience here is the amount of time they invested in us. I imagine it would be very few Americans willing to take a stranger (let alone a foreigner) into their homes and spend an entire day with them. I’ll never forget that day in Saida with Amina and her family.
One of the biggest differences between American and Middle Eastern culture has to be the role of women in society and the relationships between women and men.
This appears to be a construct exhibited more prominently in Saudi Arabia than the Middle East at large, but there are still themes shared across the countries I visited.
In Saudi Arabia, all women must wear coverings when in public. These coverings range from hijabs which cover the female’s hair, to the burka, which hides all view of the woman’s face.
There seems to be substantially less courting in the Middle East*. The first interaction between a man and a woman can often be when he asks for marriage. The other path to monogamy is family friends setting up their children to be wed.
In Saudi Arabia, one of the women I met told me how a family friend sent his mother and sister to have her undress to determine if she was attractive enough for marriage. It did not resonate with me until one of the Saudi Arabian front desk users told me, there is no way to date in Saudi Arabia. As Salah told me,
you can’t see a woman’s face man, how you going to date them?
While the freedoms of women are substantially limited in Saudi Arabia, it’s not that way everywhere, and even the kingdom is changing. Women began driving in June 2018. They still must be accompanied by a man in public at all times, but they can drive.
I had read much about the status of women in Saudi Arabia prior to arriving. Two observations took me by surprise after spending time there:
- I expected to women to always be at the bottom of the totem pole in the roles they held at work. This is not the case. In the therapy department I worked in, women are the boss of men. Women are therapists. These important and valued roles are not reserved for men.
- Not all women hate the dynamic.
I believe that the vast majority of women want life to be different. As one might expect, the women I spoke to want their freedom and equal status in society.
Yet, not all women I spoke to dislike the dynamic, I met one woman who lived her the majority of her life in Saudi Arabia, and was a United States citizen. She knew of the freedoms from her sister who studied for two years in Canada that we possess here. And yet she chooses to stay in Saudi Arabia out of her appreciation for their lifestyle.
A girl I met in Lebanon said that she prefers dating be filtered and limited by her family because it would be “chaos” if not.
The Middle East has amazing food. Of all the cultures out there, I feel Middle Easterners have some of the best cuisine in the world. I love curries, meats cooked in yogurt, and a healthy dose of falafel.
While I feel the United States does a great job of patriating dishes from other cultures and thus expected not to see too many new dishes, I really saw much more of a balance than I expected (knafeh and many dishes cooked with eggplant, like baba ganoush, were new to me).
Food that I had before, but very much enjoyed:
- Chicken Schwarma
- Falafels (and anything falafel related)
- Pita and Hummus
- Feta cheese
The schwarma and falafel tasted much like schwarma and falafel we get in the U.S. or that you can find throughout much of Europe. Alternatively, the feta cheese and the hummus were a world of difference from what we buy in our stores
There were also plenty of new dishes I had never tried. None stand out to me like the plate of cold lamb brain (Beirut, Lebanon).
Yes, I’ll state it again so you don’t need to stop and traverse the line over, I ate cold, squishy, pickled lamb brain.
I did not like it.
Shakshuka is a meal that we had for breakfast. I find it incredibly delicious with its spiced tomato sauce, bread for dipping, feta cheese and poached eggs.
One of the biggest differences exhibited across the countries in the Middle East as opposed to the United States is their preference for tea over coffee. Tea (and coffee — known as Turkish coffee) in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and elsewhere is very sweet. It is loaded with as much sugar as a can of coca-cola.
While much of the rest of the region preferred tea, it seemed as in the metropolitan city of Beirut, the residents preferred coffee.
I can’t advocate enough for the quality of Middle Eastern cuisine. If you like salty, savory, fatty foods (like I do) you’re going to love the dishes in the area.
A common topic in the news is the strife over Jerusalem and the intolerance of the groups involved. My observation is that there is a lot of segregation, but it’s not as bad as it is made out to be.
In Jerusalem, the Old City is divided into four quarters, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Armenian quarter. While the families and areas are divided in the Old City, folks do cross from one quadrant to the next. Citizens buy goods (as far as I can tell) from the best shop, not from the “best [X religion]” shop, and I did not see a lot of tension.
At one point in the tour our guide is describing the quadrant we are in. I ask him, what do many of the people do for a living here, and he says,
“they are thieves”
I chuckle nervously because I am not sure I understand him, and ask again, and he says, they are store owners, and smiles at me slyly, indicating his first assertion was deliberate.
Another moment that stuck out to me happened when I was speaking with one of the front desk users. He looks around to ensure no one is listening and tells me (in secret), “I have a girlfriend”.
He goes on to explain to me that dating isn’t really allowed, but even if it were, he would not be able to date his girlfriend.
I ask why.
Because I’m black man. She’s white skinned. It’s not like America here in Saudi.
Another individual, a Christian in Lebanon, describes to me all the ways folks try to profile you to identify your views.
First they ask your name, Matthias or Isaac might signify Christianity, Mohammed, Muslim.
If your name is indistinct, Shoddi, for example, they will ask where you are from, as the outlying towns will shed light on your religious beliefs. If you’re from “the city” (more than 1/3rd of Lebanese live in Beirut), they will proceed to a number of other tactics to discern your views.
At a Glance
The Middle East is different from us. It’s very different, and when you land in a country, it’s very easy to tell simply by skin color or difference in dress.
But my takeaway from these travels is not how different from us they are, but how similar.
We share so many similarities I didn’t highlight above and I am convinced we are far more alike than we are different. There are folks watching their weight. There are rich and there are poor, healthy and sick.
There are children who defy their parents, or enter into star crossed relationships; and parents who attempt to pass on lessons to their kids.
They have subcultures and differences among them. They complain about their government just like we do.
And they all want the same thing: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, just like we do.