Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Middle East culture: not so different

When I first signed up to teach for MEET, I knew barely anything about the Middle East. I knew only what I heard from the American media. I didn't know what being Jewish really meant. I had never met an Arab. I didn't know a single word of Hebrew or Arabic. At the end of the program and after traveling the region for a few days, I feel like every American needs to come here and find out whatever truth he is looking for. 

At first, I thought the conflict would be on everyone's minds in their daily life. I quickly learned that I wasn't (completely) correct. In my experience, people only talk about the conflict when prompted, and more often than not, it's not something they will bring up themselves. To me it seemed like people were tired of the conflict, tired of dealing with it, and tired of talking about it. They wanted it solved, but they were too exhausted with their perceived futility to let it permeate into every aspect of their lives. 

The things that were most striking about the difference between Middle Eastern culture and American culture:

  • Everyone wants to help! People are friendly, open, and willing.
  • You've never really tasted falafel / shwarma / hummus until you've had some here. 
  • Cucumbers taste infinitely better when fresh and local! 
  • Olive oil goes on everything.
  • Think it's hard to get around with just English? What about three working languages!
  • Eating out is less common, since people have to balance dietary preferences and religious fasts among different people.
And then the things that are the same everywhere, with increased globalization:
  • Facebook (and social media) are a common currency
  • Runners line the streets in the early morning
  • Gas stations are all you see along highways in some parts of the region
  • Everybody likes traveling and experiencing new cultures
  • American TV shows and songs are really popular - people here know more about American movies, TV, and music than I do!
In short, I learned that the world can be as similar and as different as you want it to be. I learned how to navigate a new region (with lots of help from my fellow instructors and some MEET staff). I learned that language is a real barrier in interactions - my not knowing Hebrew or Arabic is sometimes a detriment in being able to talk to someone. 

I haven't answered all my questions about being Jewish (and what that means, and whether I want it) and what it means to live in a dichotomous society, but I was able to observe some new perspectives about how people live their lives in a society so different from the one I grew up in. Maybe one day I'll get to learn more. 

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