The Arab Qualities I Admired Most During My Travel in the Middle East
By: John P. Mason/Contributing Writer
I am a non-Arab American anthropologist who has plied the Libyan Desert and other corners of the Arab World. I have lived with Arab Muslims in Libya and with Muslim and Christian Arabs in both Egypt and Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Wherever I travelled in the Arab World, I have always been welcomed and made to feel comfortable by the diversified peoples of the region.
I was made to feel comfortable and happy despite wars, dictatorships, religious and ethnic conflicts, which have disrupted the people’s lives. I do not personally see Islam as the cause of the constant turmoil at play in today’s Middle East and have tried, in fact, to counter such a popular belief.
It is known that there is a mounting anti-Arab fervor, much of it manufactured. I have attempted to put a human face on people of the Arab World and change their image from caricature to people worthy of serious consideration and respect.
In my early experience of Libya’s Arabized Berbers in a desert oasis, I found their adherence to faith as if they were living in some utopian moment. They were a peaceful, harmonious people whose lives in a difficult desert setting were deeply shaped by their adherence to their faith, and more specifically, to their creator.
I have extracted from my almost half-century of contact this series of thoughts about my admiration for them. Here they are:
1. Helping those in need
On our journeys in the Arab World, my family and I were always being helped in one way or another. One poignant example occurred after we had left Libya at Colonel Gaddafi’s invitation in 1970 (another story). We were traveling across the Algerian Desert, away from the coast deep into Algeria’s interior. We hadn’t accounted for the khamaseen, a wind that blew relentlessly, bringing steady waves of heavy blinding sand northward from the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa. This sand-laden wind was so fierce I could feel our little VW Beetle resisting, slowing, while at the same time the gas gauge plummeted towards empty.
I vividly remember that one day, when I was on the verge of running out of fuel in the middle of the Algerian Sahara, I pulled the car to the side of the road. I then flagged down a big tractor trailer truck coming in the opposite direction. Wind and sand were swirling all about this monster truck. The driver stopped abruptly, without hesitation. It was the very first vehicle traveling on the Desert road since we had stopped. The truck driver braced himself against his door, forcing it open into the sharp attack of wind. I briefly explained our situation which he understood instantly. He returned to his truck, pulled a gas can from the cab, and returned to share its contents. I offered to pay him for his gasoline, but he said, “It is not a problem,” then waved us on. I used all of my religiously-layered Arabic to profusely thank him.
It was not just being saved from our immediate dilemma that was a relief; rather, it was the demeanor of the truck driver that had struck us. He was at once matter-of-fact and unquestioning. His generosity was unforgettable.
2. Hospitality: Did you know it’s rooted in an old Arab Bedouin tradition?
My family and I have experienced almost universal hospitality, across North Africa and into the Middle East, from Morocco to Iran. We have found Arab and, generally, Middle Eastern hospitality widespread and readily offered almost everywhere in the region.
One explanation of hospitality in that region is that it grew out of the very harsh conditions of the Arabian Desert.
In this harsh desert setting, the practice was that if you cross into my tribal territory from outside, you will be offered three days of the tribe’s hospitality, that is food, water, shelter, and rest. This would be enough perhaps to get you back on your Desert route.
3. An Arab “will give you the shirt off his (probably not her) back”
I’ve found that in the presence of Arab friends if I expressed admiration of some object or piece of clothing, it might just become mine, whether I liked it or not. That is unless I was very careful in how I expressed my admiration.
This quality of giving is evident also when it comes to food. If my host notices that I liked a particular food, most probably, the remaining in the platter would be packed for me.
They would also express their generosity in lending me items I might need or give me a ride or, simply, just to help resolve a crucial matter at hand.
4. They never personally discriminated against me
As I did my fieldwork in a Libyan Desert oasis, I found it empowering that the people there were never critical of me personally just because I was an American. They were simply very tolerant of my different ways of thinking and performing.
In the late 1960s, following the Six Day War of 1967, my friends saw America as a negative force in its support of Israel and its occupation of large parts of Palestine, but they did not lump me in that category. I saw this as a positive gesture by my oasis friends since it made my life personally more comfortable. What impressed me most, however, was their predisposition to distinguish an individual from her or his nationality. Most of the folks there were not highly educated in any formal sense. But they were very smart people by any standard. They were strongly criticized by the anti-American rhetoric of Arab governments, including their own. Nevertheless, the people there took me as I came to them, warts and all.
5. They are loyal to their friends
To this day, I still have friends from the time of my 1968-70 field work in Libya. Even though Libya is in a state of turmoil, my friends who are far away in the desert seem to have made every effort to reconnect with me.
After decades of being unable to communicate with them, I recently discovered that they have obtained cell phones and internet connectivity, My main contact is with my friend Ali, from that far away period, who is now 81. His son, Salem, who is good in English, got in touch with me several months ago through the miracle of the internet. Now I am dredging up my Arabic to chat by cell phone with his father, my dear friend, Ali. Our relationship started more than 50 years ago.
6. Admiration for Arabs for “saving us from the Dark Ages”
I was reminded of the role the Arab World played in contributing to western civilization. While the “West” was sleeping in the so-called Dark Ages, the Arab World was wide awake. This thought was triggered by an event that occurred on July 20, 1969, when I was deep into my fieldwork in the Libyan Desert.
My friends and I were meeting to chat that evening, sitting on a sand dune overseeing a broad swath of desert lighted by a bright moon. The heat of the day had cooled by then- the setting was perfect.
I was listening to my transistor radio earlier that day, only to find that something spectacular was going on up there on the moon. Staring at that very same moon, I blurted to my friends, “there are men on the moon, astronauts; they just landed today, and they are walking up there right now!”
The moon landing reminded me of my earlier studies of medieval Arab history. While the West was deep in the Dark Age, the Arabs were the carriers, the conservators of Greek, Roman and Byzantine science, particularly, astronomy. Much of what we know today about astronomy was developed and transmitted by Arab scholars of the Middle Age.
My oasis friends eventually caught up with the lunar-landing news via Radio Cairo and told me that, yes, this one time, they’d let me get away with my “out-of-body” moon-talk.
7. Arabs are very loyal to their families
There’s an old saying among Arabs and those who quote them that, “I shall side with my brother against my paternal cousins and with my brother and paternal cousins against the stranger.” This quote applies well not only to tribes that are in competition for resources but also for today’s extended Arab families.
I truly have found them to have a strong sense of loyalty to family members, especially, the elderly ones. This is one reason why Arab business people have been so successful. They keep the business in the family, so to speak.
8. The “trust factor” is the glue
I have always been able to take my Arab friends and acquaintances at their word. Perhaps such trust came as a result of the mutual building of good relationships, either through friendship or colleague-ship.
I assume that being able to speak the language of my friends and colleagues in the Region has helped to seal the bonds of trust. But even without Arabic, it still seems that such good relations can happen too. Traveling, living or working in many countries across the Arab World, I’ve seen trust displayed in the following countries: in Morocco with urban planning colleagues; Algeria, a truck driver (yes, the same one); Tunisia, a mountain village community; Libya, my host community; Egypt, my neighbors; Jordan, the Ministry of Planning colleagues; and Iraq, Kurdish personal security guards.
9. “Eating from the same bowl”, an expression of belonging
One of the keys to traditionally extended family unity is that its members came together to sit around the same bowl of food. Eating from the same bowl is a concept borrowed from the Arab Bedouin, who have a saying, “It is a good sign to eat from the same bowl.” The idea of sharing food is a paramount symbol of family, clan, and tribal unity. If a tribal member had had a falling out, he would not be welcome to eat from the bowl of his kinsmen. Being unwelcome to share food was tantamount to ostracizing the wayward member. One can only imagine the sensitivity I had to exercise in asking families if they ate from the same bowl or not.
10. Arab Humor
One story of Arab humor in the face of diversity came from a fateful trip in the Libyan Desert. I was driving from the oasis to Benghazi with my summer field assistant, my landlord, and his young son. Our car got caught on a pipeline that crossed the desert, leaving the car seesawing over the pipe in midair. We tried pushing it off the pipe—with no luck. Then, along came a pipeline inspection vehicle; the expression of the inspectors’ eyes told the whole story, conveying “how in the world did you land on this pipe?” They attached their winch and towed the little Beetle off the pipe. (Confession: I was driving!) Once back on the desert trail, my landlord laughingly summarized our earlier predicament, saying, “if we’d waited much longer to get off that pipe, we might have had to find a camel.” One joke that I liked was floating around Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring, and the Leader Hosni Mubarak was on his way out of power: “The Interior Ministry was asking Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies, ‘Why? Where are they going?’”