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Understanding Arabs: A westerner's guide Print E-mail
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Understanding Arabs: A westerner's guide
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By Kate Mitchell » Most people, especially in the West, have a pre-conceived idea of what constitutes an Arab. These ideas usually fall into the 1970s western image of the urban Arab as excessively wealthy, or the more romantic desert Arab portrayed by Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. These images may be mixed with those of religious fanaticism, often rendering the visitor nervous or anxious about what he is to behold.


Often there is confusion between Muslims and Arabs. Simply, most Arabs are Muslim but not all Muslims are Arab. As examples, the Muslims of Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran are not Arab. Within the Middle East, there are some wide differences between nations but the fact they share a common language, albeit with dialectic differences, brings cohesiveness, as does the shared sense of identity as both Arabs and Muslims.

Throughout history these nations have had many occupiers and colonialists but few have managed to make any impact on the culture of the country, with the possible exception of the French in Lebanon.

As a Westerner, it is simple to notice, and therefore be aware of the differences of traditional Arabs in the village environment and thus avoid faux pas in etiquette or social formalities. However it is easy – and often wrong – to assume similarities to the urban Arab who may dress similarly to a westerner and appear to live a similar lifestyle.

Basic Arab values are quite different to those of the Westerner. Whilst people in the West value independence, self-determination, subjectivity and privacy, in general the Arab thinks quite differently. Because of the fact that most Arabs are followers of Islam, there is a crossover between religious and cultural attitudes, appearing most clearly in the belief in fatalism. This comes from the belief that God has ultimate control and that we should accept his will. Hence the constant use of the phrase “Inshallah” (God-willing) throughout conversation.