Wow! That’s my genuine reaction after making my first visit to the Middle East. In so many ways this place is at the center of world history both in the past and in the present. Living in a place like America where we have so much freedom and no real enemies near our borders, I was not really sure what to expect.
In early November I spent time in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia (actually North Africa), and I can honestly say it was much, much different than I anticipated. All of these countries are dominated by Muslim Arabs, although there is some historical Christian presence as well. Here’s how it was different than I expected:
It was not at all scary or intimidating. Ok, I confess, even though I have traveled quite a bit internationally, I had some typical western trepidation about being in a land full of Arab people. Sure, perhaps I was a bit naive, but I realize that with all that has gone on in the world and in America over the last number of years, we have been programmed to fear Arabs and in particular Muslims.
I quickly realized that these places are full of people trying to live their life and take care of their families just like us. They are full of people who are going about their day, conducting business, learning new things, relating with people, and trying to better themselves.
At one point on my trip I struck up a conversation in English with two young Arab men who were probably in their mid 20’s. We talked for nearly an hour and I realized these are two guys that could be my good friends if I were there longer.
Family (clan, tribe, etc) seems to be the most important thing in these cultures. Perhaps nothing drives these cultures more than their commitment and responsibility to family. I was even told that for most of these people, family takes a higher value than religion. They are taught to honor, support, and value their family above all else (not just immediate family, but extended family, which could be in the tens of thousands). To disgrace or dishonor the family is reprehensible, and this is taught to them at a very early age.
I have to say I found this highly admirable. It’s certainly something we have lost in our society and it is not something I realized was so important in Arab cultures.
Arabs are very relational people. Similar to the family dynamic, these are very relational cultures. Muslims are very kind, considerate people who value relationship. In Jordan they have a cultural rule that anybody that lives within 7 houses of you in any direction is your responsibility in case of need. So if a neighbor 6 houses down is having some great trouble, you are to go and assist them. Um, yeah, I don’t even know my neighbors 3 houses down, much less 7. And I certainly don’t know if they are having big problems they need help with.
One day we were in a remote village south of Amman, Jordan, and we were up on a hill taking pictures of a key ministry site. There were kids out playing and an older Arab man on his front porch watching us. Next thing we know, a boy probably 12 years old came out of the house with a cup of coffee for each of us. They were all smiling and welcoming us and even asked us to come in. It made me think, “when is the last time I invited my neighbor in for coffee?”
In future blog posts I will share more about my time the Middle East, but I wanted to make sure you had a good first impression.