October 21, 2005
The Arab World's Least Attractive Feature
During my half-a year time in various Mideast countries, east of and including Egypt (and decades of knowing Arabs up close and personal), I found precious few Americans over there, and this was around the millennium, pre-9/11 and post-Oslo. I am not speaking of absolute numbers, I mean relative to other westerners/Europeans. And I am not speaking of tourists, but American would-be ex-pats of various types who hang out looking for opportunity and adventure. (But I do mean native-born Americans.)
I present my own theory why that is, and I think it is based on what is the most truly onerous aspect of most Arab MENA society, something which I think puts off Americans more than other issues. I will get to what that is only after saying what I do NOT think the problem is.
The problem of absent Americans is not simply the general fact that America is a people-importing country and there are no large numbers of people wanting to settle elsewhere, especially in underdeveloped areas. Nor is it solely the result stereotypes of violence and disorder, very removed from daily reality as people who have been there know.
Other problems I do not think explain it entirely. The heavy sexism is real, but up close and behind closed doors and in many areas it is muted and not at all like the sensationalized image. And despite the public puritanism of the area, one can party hearty with just a little clue where to look, and even socialize with the opposite sex and enjoy too many good drinks; and in places like parts of Lebanon, it’s downright easy. So there is fun too. While religiosity is stronger in the region it is not pervasively oppressive, at least in most private situations and outside of Saudi Arabia. And Americans like religiosity, anyway, to an extent.
Nor is the obnoxious family-centered system of society a serious problem for American ex-pats. A foreigner can find that quaint and tolerate it. Weather can be an issue but it is more bearable than Arizona, often and in a lot of places. Poverty can be evaded in some areas like the Gulf. Politics is also not usually a problem despite the oppressive systems and anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism, even where felt, is usually politely put aside to accommodate guests. And unless you are there to make trouble, the governmental tyrannies will leave a foreigner alone.
No, there is one thing that I think is truly "off" and I think it affects Americans more than other Western foreigners, leaving behind to stay only a minimum of American business people who are there of necessity, diplomats/US AID types, and missionaries. (Once again I am speaking of a pre-9-11/pre-Iraq invasion time.)
The problems is also a problem of underdeveloped societies generally, not just Arab ones.
The ill I speak of is this: the pervasive class consciousness and class system.
Spare me the dissertations. Yes, it's true that Americans have income classes and social classes, but the flaunting and awareness of that is socially discouraged. Americans who do forge on as settled expats in the Near East often have ancestry in the area or are often naturalized US citizens or citizens raised elsewhere.
But in the Arab world the class system is painfully oppressive, especially in the mores and manners called for. I know more than one American who was chastised by local colleagues for speaking respectfully and as-social-equals to the "help". Meanhwile there are only so many times one can view nannies riding like chattel in the back of large vehicles before wincing. Andhearing people using honorific terms of address to social "betters" in education, power, and family status, eg servants and fellahin who sound like Jim Crow-era African Americans who might refer to individual white children named John or Daisy as Mr. John or Miss Daisy.
You can accept the sexism, the conspiracy theories, the simplistic generalizations, the religiosity, and the ignorances as quaint and old-fashioned. (Granted, not when it gets out of hand as in honor killing, etc.) One can gently chide and roll one’s eyes at the retardate bigoted anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism as products of politics and disputes in which Arabs have been victims of others. But the sheer upfront disdain towards broader masses of people – towards the industrious subcontinentals/Filipina workers in the Gulf states, also towards the urban proletariat and fellahin (usually the same crowd) is profoundly unpleasant with no redeeming qualities.
It makes the region a place one doesn’t want to be for long. Yes, yes, we ‘mericans have it too, especially, though no longer as openly, in matters of race and certainly a form of it directed today against Arabs and Muslims. But there is a real special sense of ugly classism that makes the normally endearing Arab world profoundly unpleasant. And it is not totally mitigated by the region's top-of-humanity level of social graciousness in interactions, and many other personal and geographic virtues.
I suspect that Americans of foreign rearing and Europeans have a lingering sense of classism that makes them factor in their experience of the class vice as being a quaint old-fashionedness. Native-born Americans with no family ties to the region are more likely to find it simply unabashedly repellent.
I think that will also also explain why there won’t be an old fashioned empire of Americans in the middle east – Americans won't go there en masse. We are the descendants of people who came to escape class-ridden societies, it is in the genes by natural selection or intelligent design to find classism just plain alienating, without even the merit of quaintness.
Perhaps I am wrong, but still, the issue I raise (the problem of the class system) is, along with its mutually supportive cousin, the extended family unit (at least for al-Sharq – the east), the real internal resistance to social, political, and economic progress.
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Interesting. Other possibilities: distance from MENA, and the low visibility and numbers of Arabs in the US. In other words the lack of familiarity with the culture compared to other countries.
Posted by: zurn at October 22, 2005 04:47 PM
We are the descendants of people who came to escape class-ridden societies, it is in the genes by natural selection or intelligent design to find classism just plain alienating, without even the merit of quaintness.
Just where do you start? I will spare you the dissertations but to assume that American society has no class/race issues AND heritage to deal with goes beyond generalisation and into the realm of the delusional. By all means do criticise MENA for it's allegedly barbaric classism but why people feel the need to do that in relation to the West or some much more advanced Anglo-American culture baffles me. It is simplistic and obfuscates the issues within both regions. I do acknowledge the author's inoculation against accusations of generalisation but I'm afraid that with a title as generous as 'The Arab World's Least Attractive Feature', a dissertation (or at least a piece free of such howlers re the endemic class distaste within embryonic American society) is what people expect to read.
Posted by: Meph at October 22, 2005 06:13 PM
Hmmm. My husband is from working class Cairo (Shobra) and his family all lives there and we lived there for 5 years, but my work involves mostly the upper classes - worse, I have to deal with judges who are really super snobby - yet when I visited the States I found a lot of classism that I was kind of taken aback by. I think the States has gotten more classist than it was when I was a kid (70s - 80s). White liberal types would say things like "the problem now is that non-college material go to college" and other things like this without a qualm.
I think you have a point in that most expats who come to the Middle East live in an upper class cocoon and see the snobbiest possible group of people 24/7. Speaking only of Cairo (I am sure others here can supply parallels from other cities) - They should all go to visit Shobra on their weekends instead of hanging out in Maadi and Zamalak.
Also, I find your characterization of the family-oriented nature of Middle Eastern society as "obnoxious" to be really wrong, in the moral sense. It is like the 'distance' thing, these are not things you can judge, they are just differences. They just are. If you want other societies to be like yours, DON'T TRAVEL at all.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 23, 2005 02:28 AM
Well, this is an interesting question, and I believe I know what you refer to.
Now, the phrasing might have been a little better, but sometimes poking the bee hive is useful.
In that connexion let me disagree with the prior commentator's reactions - which are rather a bit too ... well I will be nice.
First, of course I am not sure the premise is right (that an issue keeping Americans out of emerging markets is the difference between class structues and the like), but it is an interesting question as to whether Americans (not some Americans, but in the aggregate) have a harder time adjusting to more structured class systems.
I have no idea, myself, although I suspect that in fact American insularity, aversion to risk and generally (all things being equal) lack of exposure to non-US culture(s) are more limiting than the class structure issue.
Indeed reflecting I am not sure I find the proposition generally convincing, although it could be an input.
Now, turning to comments, I should say that regardless of the existence of class structure in the US it is quite evident that the US is indeed lass "structured" than Europe or ... well most of the rest of the world, and the ideological affinity for the idea of mobility is high.
The empirical question of whether it is lived up to, is of course a seperate issue, but certainly the ideological commitment dampens certain kinds of public behaviour.
This aside, of course, in making comparisons one does have to make them against something, either implicitely or explicitely. Often explicite is better, one knows where the real benchmark is being made.
Now as to the issue of family orientation and MENA society, and obnoxiousness - morally wrong? Rubbish, mere expression of personal taste. A bit Lounsbury-esque in its brutality, but I frankly myself find family things obnoxious - least loved part of the entire culture for me really but what can one say, nothing is perfect. One can certainly judge differences against one's own preferences and sometimes against abstract benchmarks - if one doesn't one is left with the namby pamby meaningless drivel of "they're just different" which says nothing.
Of course I do not either care for simple minded superiority complexes and the rather too typical Expat sneering at the bloody wogs and their idiotic habits, but one can reasonably (although here my man Hogan may be a bit off the rails with the theorising on class difference and American habits) make comparative observations. I feel no compunctions against railing on about the shitty driving habits of the cretins here and making snide comparisons with proper driving habits in the West - I am also well aware of the reasons for the shitty habits that are not essential to Arab or whatever blood, but a broken system of oversight in driver training, poor police systems and the natural evil of man.
But then I am an optimist.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 23, 2005 09:09 AM
Although it does occur to me that with respect to the issue of class, I never had a problem being called Basha or Sidi or Mu'allem (although Mohendis irritates me).
The kissing of my hand thing does irritate though, but luckily the Big Cheese seems to be moving this habit out.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 23, 2005 09:18 AM
Yes, Lounsbury, in fact I also find the family oriented nature of the society at times stifling and definitely irritating to someone who is from another type of society - like me- but the problem I have with his comment is that these differences really truly just "are." They are like the distance principle (which also heavily irritates me). So I find it problematic for an outsider to use a judgemental label for it.
Another main difference in values that I notice between Western society and Arab society is the shame vs. guilt thing. Which will never make any sense to me at all and seems to me awful and whatever judgemental label you like, but it is pointless for me to judge it, don't you see, because it would be like criticizing rain because I am used to sun.
As for the driving issue - littering - corruption - of course anyone can critique that! (And Middle Easterners usually do critique the drivign of everyone else, while driving like maniacs themselves.)
As for the things you mention, I absolutely refuse to use the "siyadtak" label for the judges I have to work with, although I use "hadritek" for everybody (including those like taxi drivers and shop keepers which sometimse gets me some looks, but I am being an American egalitarian as much as I can). I hate Basha, Bey (which we HAVE to use for all the judges) and "maaleek". And, my half-Egyptian son insists on kissing my hand though I keep trying to make him stop. :)
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 24, 2005 02:21 AM
Well, in the context of the issue raised - succinctly Americans proposed poor fit in developing countries I suppose - one rather must criticise, eh no?
The difference may just "be" (although it may not) but one can certainly raise it in the context of tensions and "fits."
Further to that, some things may need to be changed - of course I am not approaching this with the "They need to be Westerners" assumption, I do tend to operate on a daily basis on as "when in Rome basis" but stepping back and noting the manner in which some things get done is useful (and I further note that whether "family centric" or "shame culture" that leaves quite a lot of room for different expression - thus again I would say merely pointing this out for criticism is not "not accepting" but one should be aware).
Overall I am afraid though that my man Hogan didn't specify this quite well enough.
Posted by: lounsbury at October 24, 2005 06:16 AM
OK, sorry if I am beating a dead horse here. I was not commenting on his *bringing up* differences. I was only commenting on the word "obnoxious" to describe the family oriented nature of Arab societies. I thought it was over the top given that this is such an ingrained cultural value. I think the distance thing is another example of something ingrained. Yes I can call the Arab (same-gender) tendency to get too close to each other silly names, given that it irritates me (particularly in the women's car on the Metro during the Ramadan rush hour), but to what end?
(Also, I heartily agree with you that if things need changing, yes that is legitimate and I am not saying culture is static. But if we have specific things that we think Arab society should change, e.g. regarding family oriented aspects, then, as you said, we need to be a hell of a lot more specific about them.)
And, of *course* we can discuss what the main cultural differences are and how difficult it is for Americans or other Westerners to deal with them. I am not saying not to discuss it. Next time I will try to express myself better too.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 24, 2005 06:31 AM
I'm actually more interested in Hogan's isolation of the extended family unit as an accomplice and resistor to change. I think it is a more universal phenomenon and is subject to fewer differences across the region. There is something oppressive (not to be confused with obnoxious) about the supremity of the extended family and its values, heritage etc particularly in the East and this may translate into a wider pattern that self-reproduces hence keeping society static with all the power structures and values intact.
The class system I'm afraid is so variegated and can be broken down into social, economic, ethnic and racial and I hence I am reluctant to give it the dual significance of being the most unpleasant thing about the Arab world AND the real hurdle against change. (Especially as the latter opens up discussion of societies that have developed remarkably while sustaining very clear and brutal class structures.. since we are using benchmarks).
Units that have clear micro-values, principles, customs and even reputations to maintain are more clearly identified within extended family dynamics and I think maybe HERE, Hogan may have come upon one sel-perpetuating microcosm that can maybe say something about Arab society as a whole. Whether this is the MOST unpleasant feature of the Arab World I am also reluctant to say, it is however. undesirable if one would like to see more dynamism in the Arab World and also if one (since we are all in the spirit of being more specific regarding 'family oriented aspects') would quite like to piss off and choose to be with a white Western man without being made to feel that she is destroying the very fabric and structure of society.
Posted by: Meph at October 24, 2005 10:14 AM
Got caught up in a big report, so no time to get back. So bullet points below.
• I am not a cultural relativist, so I think some things are SUPERIOR in some cultures to others, and this is true even if more arrogant cultures and persons at times say so.
* Obnoxious = oppressive; Goodrich/Goodyear; purple/violet, all the same sense, not intended to have a subtle meaning.
* Examples of cultural superiority: in graciousness, care and respect for the elderly, and in family warmth (mostly), Arab society is SUPERIOR to American society. (Unlike The Lounsbury I have a sentimental taste for and belief in many of those things, and even religiosity.) Not merely different, superior.
• I actually jammed two or three separate subjects into one – the absence of Americans from Mena even in good times, the issue of class distinction, and the significance of that issue.
• My argument was actually tautological: I think the ending of class systems is the desired end of social progress, though not in the Marxist sense, but the liberal one. I also don’t believe it is our (USA) job to go around trying to impose such changes.
• American society, with the exception of race, really is less class conscious than a great many others, and far more so than many “underdeveloped” ones. This has something to do with the self-selection of a relatively recent capitalist settler-state. It is not very debatable if one has been around with open eyes. It may be hypocritical in practice but the sense of it – or rather the lack of it -- is quite pervasive in sentiment and habit.
* I think most societies advance – materially and socially and politically – in inverse proportion to the loosening of rigid class systems.
• Yes, indeed, my main unspoken point is that the obnoxious tribal-family social system is the main means to the disturbing reality of class consciousness. What I notice in MENA is that one does not shed either the class system or the family system behind closed doors the way that prudery, sexism, and other social ills or characteristics can be shed.
• An informal sample of American-reared persons I know who actually know and like the MENA and its peoples (including Americans of Arab heritage) usually express gut revulsion over two experiences over there – the ill-treatment of the Palestinians in their daily lives by Israelis; and the class structure of Arab society and mores. Sexism is also griped about especially by women, but with less irritation than the class system.
• The obnoxious extended family system is not obnoxious IMO because of family issues of cohesiveness per se – unlike The Lounsbury, I simply think a kinder-gentler version would be good, perhaps even exemplary. But a system of class-family-failure relationship is best illustrated by the fact that Palestinians are still led by the same major families despite the physical and political destruction of their society. The tribal system is the real power structure for most Iraqis. Family loyalty detracts from social responsibility and a sense of empowered individualism; hint: individualism is a good thing. Literally the fact that many Arabs prefer to spend an inordinate amount of time with family rather than community is disempowering except for the elite families and reinforces the clas system. And at least in al-Sharq, family interaction is almost ludicrous – family are the dominant single set of co-employees/business partners, socializing friends, MARRIAGE PARTNERS!! (enough said there alone), insurers, bankers, advisors, mentors, etc.
* I don’t use the word barbarism for class systems, I don’t think. Class systems while vile at their worst are very civilized. Honor killing is barbaric; but here we have domestic violence and date rape to balance the barbarism.
* The class and family system are the main reason for the rise of Islamism as Islam is the only authentic cultural force which can challenge the vices of each with legitimacy and heartfelt moral passion.
* Part of what I wrote was actually looking sideways at the drooling buffoons and their stereotypes of the MENA region here in N America and to dismiss those stereotypes by introducing a different view while playing to their sense of American superiority, where it might be correct. It does bother me that the issues of excessive family focus in MENA (at least in Sharq) and of the rigid class hierarchism are totally avoided as areas of discussion, with a preference for discussions of religion and political structure and gender relations. These are important, and much more nuanced than stereotype, but they each are shaped according to the nature of the first two factors – tribalism and class.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 25, 2005 03:24 AM
"I have no idea, myself, although I suspect that in fact American insularity, aversion to risk and generally (all things being equal) lack of exposure to non-US culture(s) are more limiting than the class structure issue."
Insularity? This is strange. Would you call an Englishnmen insular who only travels to Spain, Romania and Russia insular because he only interacts with Europeans? This is like calling an Indian or a Chinese insular because India or China is his whole ambit.
American aversion to risk? Hnh? Been off-planet for the last couple of centuries?
"lack of exposure to non-US culture(s)"
This is vague to the point of nothingness. What would a non-US culture be? A culture not found in the US? There aren't that many left, after so many waves in immigration and only partial assimilation and acculturation.
You are on to something though. I too feel that class has come back as more of presence since the 70's. One piece of evidence is the strength of the redneck reaction in the form of country music on the one hand and evangelical religion on the other. But I don't think this is a linear development. There is a continual tug and struggle between East Coast class snobbery and resentment and Midwest and Western egalitarianism. After WWII the ethos was very egalitarian after the experience of a huge mass army with people from all backgrounds, both class and ethnic, in the ranks. After that all sorts of people went to universities on the GI Bill and enetered the middle class, and rubbed shoulders. Then the pendulum swung back a bit in the 80's with hippies turning into yuppies.
Here's a suggestion: Compare the regions and countries where Americans do go to live against the ME. That would be Japan, France, Germany, UK, Thailand, Mexico. Japan, Thailand and Germany were areas where there was significant military involvement. The UK and France get job migrants and students. Mexico is Mexico - close. None of these apply to the ME.
Posted by: Jim at December 7, 2005 03:57 PM