Culture Shock in the Middle East

This is a true story as told by a conservative American Family from a small town in the Midwest. The Johnson (not their real surname) in the early 90s decided to visit Egypt. It was their first visit to the Middles East. The Johnson family was of the father, the mother and their two children.

Due to the long trip and because they reached their hotel in Cairo late at night they decided to have dinner in the hotel and sleep afterward. The next morning, all the four family members were so happy and excited of what they are going to see and experience; the pyramids, the desert, the camels, the souk, and the new faces and culture of course. The parents thought it will be theย  journey of the lifetime for them and for their two children. Before even anyone go to freshen up the mother opened the curtain so they all can take a glimpse of what they are going to explore specially after hearing the loud sound of people and carsโ€™ horns. The family stepped out onto the balcony which has a view of the downtown.

After couple of minutes of excitement, Mom and Dad werenโ€™t as happy as their kids. They saw something they could never imagine it could happen in a conservative Muslim country, at least not in public and that excessive. Both parents were in shock, they asked the kids to go inside to freshen up so they can go to eat their breakfast. They just wanted to distract their kids while they think what they are going to do. Closing the curtain was the first thing the mother thought of.

The Johnson spent almost two days inside the hotel not going anywhere until another tourist explained to them that the public display of affection among men and among women should not be interpreted as homosexuality rather it is a culture thing. It is culturally accepted for men to walk hand in hand and kiss each others on the cheek in public and it is the same for women.

Upon understanding this weird culture habit the Johnson family was ready to enjoy the magnificent Cairo and they did.

And for this unexplained culture behavior, rarely you see Arab men kiss on the cheek in America and almost never on the streets. Instead, hugging is used as the preferred method of showing affection. Also, at no time you can see two heterosexual Arab men walking hand in hand on the downtowns or beaches of the USA because they know how this behavior is interpreted here.


13 thoughts on “Culture Shock in the Middle East

  1. Great true story and topic! A Moroccan psychiatrist I know gives lectures in international conferences to psychiatrists and other mental health workers about not misinterpreting culturally normal behaviours like this as homosexuality.

    I find it amusing to watch groups of Arab (or African) male students greet each other in the library. They stand closer than Westerners do and shake hands longer, or pat on the back, not quite a hug (heterosexual men hugging is more common in the US). A lot of greetings, repeat greetings, all in Arabic, big smiles. It is infectious!

    If I see 2 Western men walking hand in hand, or arm in arm I assume they are homosexual; 2 Arab men, I assume they are not (statistically only 3-5 % of men are homosexual, so most likely they are heterosexual). Of course, as this happens in public, in social circumstances it is none of my business. In the clinic it is an issue, if it is an issue for the patient.

    I also found interesting how culturally unaware the family you describe were. This is a common problem for tourists, and perhaps particularly American ones, but also for expats. Much of the shock and awe is from having limited cultural experience in their culturally homogenous lives before taking up a position elsewhere.

    Great post! Thanks!


    1. Living in the US for 8 years I got used to hugging men instead of kissing them on the cheek (it doesn’t look right saying it ๐Ÿ™‚ ) as a way of greeting. The problem is that some new Arab comers to the US get annoyed that I always pull my ahead away and initiate the hugging instead of the kissing. Of course this lead some those new students to think that I am trying to keep a distance and not befriend them or may be getting Westernized ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for your informative comment.


    1. Did you? I would never imagine such thing to be discussed in those tourists guide books. There is some much to learn about this small world.


  2. I think its about the time for the westerns to educate themselves more about the Arabs. We Arabs who never visited a western country know so much about western culture cause we truly want to understand them and the world around us, and I think they share a responsibility to understand our culture at least to clear any misconceptions.
    do Americans still believe that we ride camels and eat falafel all the day?


    1. I agree with you that we know more about their culture than they know about us. But it is not because we are an educated nation that read. We know much, although to some extent it is distorted truth, about their culture because our TV channels show American, English and French movies and series everyday. We actually have TV channels dedicated to screen American movies. On the other hand, how many Arab movies or TV series are screened in the US? ZERO. But then they don’t screen European movies either unless it has some Oscar potential then it will be screened on some selective theaters for couple of days only. The reason Americans don’t know much about our culture is the same reason we don’t know about Nigerian and Argentinian culture; whatever that reason is.
      With all the badness that 9/11 caused to Americans and the world, it made Americans way more educated, mostly in a good way, about Muslims and Arabs than before. The number of universities that teach Arabic classes are on the rise. I meet many students who are veterans and were in Iraq. They were very happy to talk to me and some of them were very excited to practice their Arabic with me. I meet many Americans who are absolutely against the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.


      1. That was a great response, Jaraad. It is a detriment to Americans that most of what is known about us is from unreal TV programs. Arabs face the terrorist stereotype (which is rarely used in films anymore) and we face the sexual promiscuity, rich lifestyle stereotype.

        I agree…none of us knows much about Argentina!


  3. lool so funny, i can’t imagine 2 men hugging, i guess they r gonna considered 2 b gays in the middle east:) which reminds me of something i read on a Jordanian gay blog long time ago. Two Polish friends of him came to Jordan, when they saw how men r kissing on the cheek they said to him: “WOW” it seems that all u ppl are gay!!


    1. I can imagine how people might misinterpret the kissing among guys.
      Actually saying it makes me laugh ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. I think these immediate assumptions on observing behaviours speak to how culturally programmed we are. Fortunately most are flexible enough to learn the distinctions by culture. Before Arab men were a topic of interest Mediterranean–Spanish, French, Italian, Greek–men kissing, hugging, and crying were the topic of conversation. I have talked to older Jewish colleagues about their need to behave in a more inhibited Anglo manner in order to be accepted. Even they way people laugh is different, which they also modified.


  4. hi,
    thanks for the response but, excuse me I have o disagree.
    I won’t deny that the majority of us know about the west because of TV but some of us do read and I am one of them, we visit newspapers online and you can find the ‘ NewsWeek’ translated to Arabic on bookshelves . may be those who read form a small percent but we read for a reason, to know the others and what do they think about us, why they call us Terrorist and why they were engaged in so many wars, and when I talked about sharing a responsibility I believe that they should ask themselves: do they deserve to be called like that? or why we took the war option?
    I’m glad that 9/11 made a lot of people more educated in the good way and for the both sides actually east and west, and I hope that one day we will accept ‘the others’ and be able to survive with them in peace on this planet.


    1. I actually didn’t mean to generalize. I am very sure there is a cluster of people in the Arab world who like reading. I actually read many Arab blogs more than I read Arabic media because of the wealth of information they provide. You are right that the Arabs, in general, read more international news than Americans. They actually found in a survey study that only people above 40s watch news in the US. But again the media anywhere in the world is a business corporation their first priority is to make money. Unfortunately, making money is not generated by broadcasting dull news. They know people will read and watch them when they have Bad news. That is why New york mosque and the pastor who wanted to burn the Quran were the best money making, in the past couple of weeks or so, to the media especially in the US. In every nation there is the good and the bad and that is what we need to know and deal with accordingly. As you said accepting others is the key for peace.


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