What Makes Arab Culture So Interesting to Non-Arabs?
By: Pamela Dimitrova / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab culture has always been an appealing mystery for the people living in the West – coming from the countries that most of them have seen only in the books and movies, it is something new and unknown to most Western people. However, in recent years, people have finally learned to appreciate the traditions, the food, the music and the fashion from the countries from the Arab World and North Africa, expressing genuine interest in learning more about it.
Here is a list of some aspects of the Arab culture that non-Arabs find absolutely mesmerizing:
Even though many Indo-European languages have ‘borrowed’ different words from the Arabic language, the interest in the Western world in it was recently awoken, especially in the United States.
In the last five years, there is a growing trend of students, who pick Arabic as a first foreign language. More and more young non-Arab Americans become intrigued by it for good reasons – Arabic is a high demand language in the professional word. In the last 15 years, US government agencies have expressed a much greater need for Arabic speakers to address the complex political, military, and economic questions surrounding US engagement in the Arab World.
The same trend can be seen in the private and non-profit sectors as businesses seek to better understand developing markets and organizations work across borders to develop institutions, improve economies, and educate young people.
Another reason is to gain a deeper and more nuanced perspective of the Arab-speaking world than the typical themes found in US mass media.
Another cultural aspect that is very intriguing to Non-Arabs in the West is Arabic music. From unusual semitones and intervals to ‘exotic’ sounding musical instruments, the music from the Arab countries carry an emotional depth and is mesmerizing with its unique rhythm. The melodies are often hypnotic, and the chorus is repetitive which is quite different from Western music. It has sophisticated harmonies and uses all kinds of instruments outside of the traditional ones.
Surah Esdah, a Singaporean user at the online site quora.com says: “here’s just something magical about Arab music. There’s so much feel, so much beauty into it and the lyrics are out of the world.”.
While in the past ‘Arab dancing’ was often associated with belly dancing, more and more people become aware of the many traditional dances and the history behind them. These may be folk dances or dances that were once performed as rituals or as an entertainment spectacle, and some may have been performed in the imperial court.
Belly dancing, which is involving the movement of any different parts of the body (usually in a circular way) remains the most popular Arab dance among non-Arabs. Belly dancing was represented to the West by a group of Algerian dancers called Little Egypt, managed by Sol Bloom, who was taken to France and the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. Since then, it found its place in many movies, spectacles, and concerts.
More and more schools started to open in the United States, where women and men from different ethnicities can learn belly dancing.
Another ‘famous’ dance is Ardah or ‘sword dance’. It is performed with two rows of men opposite of one another, each of whom may or may not be wielding a sword or cane, and is accompanied by drums and spoken poetry.
A part of Arab culture that is most famous and most loved by Non-Arabs is, without question, Arab cuisine. Arab food is flavourful, diverse, and plentiful, with a lot of variety and tasty ingredients. Compared to Western cooking, Arab cooking contains a large variety of vegetables, including eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, and spinach.
Even though Arab food is only just becoming familiar with the Western world, particularly in the United States, most people are familiar with many of the traditional dishes. Hummus, a dip made of garbanzo beans, sesame seed paste, lemon garlic and sometimes olive oil, is already sold at the most major deli and grocery stores. Arab bread, known to most people as pita bread is eaten with most Arab meals.
Falafel, a veggie burger-like food made from chickpeas, onion, potato, and flour, among other ingredients, is also relatively well known to non-Arabs, as is shawarma which is also called gyros by the Greeks. Shawarma is a sandwich of rotisserie lamb or beef, wrapped in pita bread. Another popular Arab recipe that can also be found in a deli is tabouleh which is a finely chopped salad of tomatoes, parsley, onions, fresh mint, and crushed wheat. Stuffed grapevine leaves, called wrack dawale or warak enab (leaves of grapes) or doma, is another relatively well known Arab food.
Another famous dish, that has become so famous that is now on the shelves of every supermarket is baklawa. It is made from walnuts or pistachios, cinnamon, and orange blossom wrapped in a thin pastry shell and soaked in syrup. According to one cookbook (From the Lands of Figs and Olives), it used to be said that in the Arab East, no young lady would make a good wife unless she could make the baklawa dough.
Arab culture has always attracted the interests of the world, but for a long time, it was existing in the shade of old and untrue stereotypes, that have been dominant in the Western world. Throughout the 20th century, Western stereotypes of the Arab World and Arab Americans moved from the elite realms of art and literature into American popular culture. Over generalized images of Arabs have been sustained through songs, television programs, films, consumer products, comic strips, and national news media reports.
For the past couple of years, there has been a process of ‘social awakening’ and more and more non-Arabs understand the importance of appreciating (but not appropriating!) Arab culture and respecting its rich roots, traditions, and differences.