Facts About Arab Culture—Dispelling Common Misconceptions and Myths

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.

For many Westerners, the Arab cluster feels less familiar than any other cluster. We see images on the news that portray facts about Arab culture filled with conflict and unrest, but how accurate is that portrayal?

image of people in Arab cluster for the article on facts about Arab culture

This is the third article in our series on Arab culture. You can read the previous articles here:
Understanding Arab Culture—Islam and the Five Pillars of Faith
Life in the Arab Cluster—What Does it Mean to Be An Arab?

Getting Beyond the Stereotypes

When it comes to actual facts about Arab culture, It’s worth getting beyond the stereotypes. We can start by looking at a few key contrasts between the Arab world and the so-called Western perspective, which could include Anglo, Germanic, and Nordic. Perhaps I can best demonstrate the contrast between the Arab and Western perspectives by giving you a quick true-or-false quiz.

True or false? It is not uncommon for Arab men to walk hand in hand in public. It is purely a sign of friendship. What do you think? It’s true, despite a strong masculine orientation among men in this cluster, they’re often very expressive in their touch with each other.

True or false? Before commencing a business meeting in the Middle East it is customary to engage in some initial small talk. This helps create a more relaxed and familiar environment in which to conduct business. That’s absolutely true. There’s a high priority on being in relationship-building across the cluster.

One more. True or false? Arab business people emphasize written agreements, written legal contract is binding. What do you think? This one’s false. In the Arab cluster, the spoken word has much more weight than written agreements. An agreement is only final when both parties have parted. Until then it’s open to negotiation, even if the contract has already been signed.

Learn more: Culture Matters

The Left Hand in the Arab World

Arab men having tea for facts about Arab culture article
According to Islam, the left hand is considered unclean and it’s reserved for personal hygiene.

Left-handed people have a bit harder time traveling throughout the Arab world than right-handed people do. If at all possible, you want to avoid touching anyone or anything with your left hand when you’re interacting in or traveling through the Arab cluster and region. If needed it’s permissible to accept something with both hands, but never with just the left hand alone. This custom is true in some other places around the world, too, including certain places in Africa and Asia, but it’s a rule I’m most conscious of when traveling in the Middle East.

Before I travel to the Middle East, I usually try to stop using my left hand for about a week before I go; that way I’ve already trained myself to avoid using it. If you’re right-handed like I am, you might think you rarely use your left hand, but you’ll be surprised how often you go to use it, especially if you’re dragging luggage and handing an officer your passport or holding a bunch of items at the store and trying to pay. This is one of those small things, but a little effort to account for this custom will go a long way when encountering people from the Arab cluster.

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According to Islam, the left hand is considered unclean and it’s reserved for personal hygiene. Arabs traditionally use the right hand for all public functions, including shaking hands, eating, drinking, and passing objects to another person. Traditionally, parents try to teach their children to be right handed, regardless of their natural dexterity. The left hand is used to clean yourself in the bathroom.

The Role of Men in Arab Families

The family model is very patriarchal and hierarchical. The fathers and elder men are the ones who dominate the family. For an Arab, the larger the family the better; large families are believed to provide economic benefits, particularly given the possibility that a son will care for his parents in their elder years. Large families provide the father with the prestige of virility.

Learn more: Developing Cultural Intelligence

For an Arab, your family is the most important part of your identity and then next is your clan or tribe and only after that comes your national identity.

As you might imagine male offspring are the favored children since a son is expected to care for his parents in their advanced age, whereas a daughter becomes part of the son-in-law’s family. Also, a son can bring a family honor, whereas a daughter can only bring her family shame. For an Arab, your family is the most important part of your identity and then next is your clan or tribe and only after that comes your national identity. In fact, it’s striking how little nationalism plays a role in the identity of many Arabs.

The Koran and Religious Extremists

The Quran (/kɔːrˈɑːn/kor-AHN; Arabic: القرآن‎‎ al-Qurʾān, literally meaning “the recitation”; also romanized Qur’an or Koran) is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God (Allah). It is widely regarded as the finest work in classical Arabic literature. – wikipedia

It’s important to note that the extremist actions of al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups should not be equated with what the Koran teaches or the dominant beliefs of most Muslims. It’s unfortunate that the Muslim faith has been co-opted by some to fuel extremist terrorist acts. Christians, too, have to acknowledge that the same thing has happened in the name of Christianity. Koran-burning evangelical pastors believe that they are acting on behalf of the Bible and Christianity, but they’re not representative of most Christians. These extreme expressions should not be used as the predominant caricatures of Islam or Christianity.

Learn more: Identity—Individualist versus Collectivist

Tips for When Visiting the Arab Cluster

Once again, let me just conclude with sharing with you a few dos and taboos. If you travel to this part of the world or interact with someone from the Arab cluster, by all means respect the cultural norms regarding men and women. You don’t have to agree with them personally, but be respectful. Women will often socialize in rooms separate from men. Avoid extended eye contact with the opposite sex or shaking hands unless they initiate it. Keep in mind that most Muslims won’t eat pork or drink alcohol, and they’ll only eat food prepared in accordance with the teachings of the Koran, halal food. Avoid using your left hand.

Do travel to this part of the world. Talk to the locals. Learn and discover this ancient culture, roam around the market or souq, and soak in the ancient civilization. Enjoy the contrast between this part of the world and almost any other part you’ll ever experience.

Keep reading:
Islam—A Thousand and One Nights of Cooking
Islam in America — The American Revolution
The Islamic Golden Age: The Torch Podcast

From the lecture series Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are taught by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.