Extended Relationships in Arab and American Cultures
Relationships are a part of everyday life. Regardless of culture or ethnicity, relationships between people can be seen across the globe. It is a defining characteristic of the human race. However, there are specifics on how these relationships are formed and to what extent. There are unspoken rules that govern everything from how people greet each other to the roles that they play in society. Although the Arab people share the same culture, there are differences within the culture from country to country. In this paper, we will concentrate on similar Arab practices in neighbor relationships and student and teacher relationships in the Gulf region and in northern Africa, specifically Sudan. These customs will then be compared to the parallel relationships found in America.
Relationships among neighbors:
Relationships in the Arab world are very intimate. People tend to help each other in many ways. Neighbors help each other. They tend to share their happiness and sadness in all occasions. Arabs in general try to look at society as a whole and not as a part. There are certain times of a day neighbors visit each other to ask about how they are doing and if they are in need of anything. In the Arab world, there are customs that are generally similar but with a few minor differences. This can be seen in how neighbors greet each other, visits among neighbors, and the welcome new neighbors give each other.
Because of the hot climate in the Arab countries, especially in the summer, life becomes active in the cool times of the day. In the Gulf region, people get up with the rooster’s sounds. After breakfast, neighbors start to visit each other and see how they are doing. If one person is sick and cannot go to the hospital, one of the neighbors most likely takes care of that. If a person is in need of food and cannot afford to buy it, one of the neighbors or more than one volunteer to take care of the crisis. Usually the head of the family, whether it is the father or the older brother, goes to the next door neighbor. They greet each other by shaking hands and kissing the cheeks three times if it is between two people of the same gender. The cheek-kissing style is different from one country to another. In Iraq, for example, they give three kisses from one side to another and sometimes end it with touching each other’s shoulders. However, in Saudi Arabia the kissing style is a little bit different. They start with one cheek and then kiss the other cheek three times in a row. They sometimes end it with touching each other’s noses. Depending on the country and the religion people practice, greeting between men and women can vary. In some rural areas in Iraq, women do not cheek kiss men or even shake hands unless the man is part of the family. In cities like Basrah or in the capital, Baghdad, women shake men’s hands or even cheek kiss them because of the many religions practiced in Iraq. In strict Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, a woman shaking a man’s hand is very rare and even impossible.
Sudan is similar to the Gulf region. People rise later in the day and tend to stay up late into the night. The method of greeting is alike, though. Cassie, an American who went to Sudan to work with education for 4 ½ months, describes one of her experiences with a neighbor:
When I’d be walking home from a day of teaching, sometimes I’d see my university-aged female neighbor on the street. We’d stop in the street and greet each other. A Sudanese greeting among females consists of grasping hands or shoulders, saying “Salaam aleekum” and kissing the person’s right cheek, then their left, then their right. Then the two continue to clasp hands during the inquiries into each other’s well-being and families. After this, we would spend time conversing about other matters before parting ways.
In Arab greetings, one thing to note is the time people take for each other. The greeting is extensive and this shows that the relationship is valued. They spend at least a few minutes asking about each other’s families and health in order to show that they care. A great importance is placed on these relationships, more so than the tasks you have to accomplish. To simply wave in passing would be rude.
In America, waving is the norm in greeting. A typical interaction between neighbors could be as simple as a smile and a wave. Often, when passing each other they will acknowledge each other’s existence and keep going. If they know the person on a more personal level, they might stop and ask how they’re doing. Typically, though, the lifestyle of an American is hectic and this does not leave room for extensive greetings. In addition, many Americans would feel that lengthy questioning about each other’s families and lives would be crossing a boundary of privacy.
One cross-cultural example of the misunderstanding that can come from greetings is when I went to visit Iraq after living in the US since 1996:
I got used to the short American greeting and waving. I used the same style in Iraq but people did not like it. People thought I was arrogant, they thought I was not humble and that I did not want to take two minutes to talk to them and ask about how they are doing.
The trends seen through these greeting styles is that the Arab culture puts more emphasis on people and relationships while the American culture puts emphasis on tasks and getting things done. There is also a difference in how neighbors visit each other.
Arab neighbors tend to share life difficulties and celebrations. They support each other during the good and the bad times. In a typical visit, neighbors stop by each other’s houses. They sit down, talk about life, and have some coffee or tea to drink. All of the neighbors know each other and visit each other in times of illness, funerals, weddings and other life events. In an interview about neighbor relationships, one Saudi female said, “The neighbors in Saudi Arabia are very kind. They always help each other, ask about each other. They are beside you in every situation.”
In a visit between neighbors, there are a few customs to be observed. In Iraq, for example, it is custom to send visitors away with fruit as a parting gift. In Sudan, at the end of a visit, tea is served to hydrate and as a sign that the visit is coming to a close. The length of visits should also be noted. In Iraq, a daily visit among neighbors normally takes about half an hour. However, if the neighbors haven’t seen each other for a week then they would spend the afternoon together and share a meal together. In Sudan, long visits are also usual. A visit tends to take a couple of hours and is focused on conversation. In Arab neighborhoods, the conversation can center on neighborhood news.
Apart from normal gatherings, neighbors also gather in instances of illness, condolence and celebrations. During her time in Sudan, Cassie had the following experience:
When our neighbor’s haboa ’s (grandmother’s) sister died, the mourning was a very elaborate affair and many people came to visit the family and mourn with them. As neighbors, all of us American girls paid respects by visiting the family and spending time offering our condolences. It was expected that we would visit within the first 24 hours if possible to show our support and care. The mourning period went on for about a week, during which the whole neighborhood stopped by to visit the family.
Another example of the relationship between neighbors would be the generosity among neighbors. They share everything including their food. Women tend to be more generous than men. They will sell their jewelry or valuable belongings if there is no other option in order to help their neighbor during a crisis.
In American culture it seems to be more of an inconvenience when people just drop in to say hello. They prefer things to be scheduled. If they do stop over, the visits tend to be brief. Conversations are usually light and people try to not pry. Unless a person brings an issue to the table, the neighbors will refrain from talking about heavy situations.
Gatherings among neighbors in an American context are centered on activities. These could include graduation parties, bonfires, BBQ’s, block parties and other celebrations. Kate, an American student, had the following experience:
When I was younger, my mother and the neighborhood mothers (a group of about 10) would all get together on Thursday mornings. They would bring snacks and discuss the current novel they were reading or hold a Bible study. Afterwards, they would spend time socializing and catch up on what was going on in each other’s lives without being intrusive.
Upon reflecting on American customs, it is seen that Americans enjoy spending time with other people, including their neighbors, but the occurrences are planned occurrences and the relationships are more fragmented. They have a boundary of certain times and places.
In Arab cultures, people tend to stay in the same neighborhood for a long period of time, if not for the rest of their lives. One Sudanese woman reported that she lived in her neighborhood for 32 years. Two Saudi students who attend Saint Cloud State University lived in their neighborhoods for 8 and 14 years, respectively. In Iraq, my family lived in the same neighborhood that their ancestors grew up in. All of the interviewees stated they knew every family in their neighborhood. When asked about how well they knew their neighbors, the Sudanese woman said she knew 3 of the 10 neighbors very closely and the rest pretty well. The Saudi female commented that she knew her neighbors quite well as they had visited each other weekly and discussed current life events. The Saudi male said that he knew all of the neighbors’ names and that they gathered together at different times. I, personally, knew my neighbors back home very well who lived in a close vicinity to the point that he didn’t knock on the door before entering into the house. This is significant because the culture requires a person to knock on the door to allow women time to cover themselves. However, I was viewed as part of the family.
In the case where a new family moves into the neighborhood, they are welcomed in a very special way. Neighbors cook food for the newcomers for several days until they are settled in. In Iraq for example, the new resident receives meals for seven days. Each family cooks one or two meals a day until the new resident gets settled and accommodates to the new life. Neighbors usually visit the new family every day and sometimes they visit more than once during the day to make sure the newcomers are not feeling left out or in need of anything. A Saint Cloud State student from Saudi Arabia said they offer as much as they can to the new neighbor for three days and that they “offer them transportation, food and a tour through the new neighborhood if it’s necessary”. Other Saudi Arabian students said they greet the new neighbors and hold a weekly dinner in which the whole neighborhood attends. This provision of meals is also seen in Sudan. Arabs claim that the main purpose in doing this is so the new resident feels at home, loved and like they are not a stranger. This cultural practice is also seen in Islam. In one Hadeeth, the prophet Mohammad said, “Your neighbors, then your neighbors, then your neighbors, then your home.” The prophet Mohammad emphasizes the neighbors three times, and then says your home. In some of the other Hadeeths, it narrates that Mohammad used to check if his neighbors had food to eat before he ate anything. The Sudanese interviewee made the following comment, “In Arab culture and Islamic instructions especially, one should welcome his new neighbor and receive them generously.”
People in America have different experiences in their neighborhoods. The Americans that were interviewed lived in their neighborhoods for various lengths of time. For example, one 18-year-old informant has lived in her current house for 15 years. Others reported living in their neighborhoods for 18 years, 15 years, and 9 years. While the informants did not know their entire neighborhood, they did know a significant number of neighbors ranging from 15 neighbors to 6. The extent of their relationships was different for each person. One interviewee from a small town knew most of the neighborhood very well as many neighbors were family. Another responded that she knew 3 families well. In the case of the third respondent, she stated that her family knew 3 other families very well and kept in contact with them but that 5 or 6 were not as close.