More than half a decade ago, while I was studying at a small college in south-east Tennessee, I spent the summer doing an internship in Beirut, Lebanon. And it occurred to me either then, or shortly after, that there are quite a number of odd parallels between Arab and American Southern culture. I actually considered writing a blog post about it then, but since at that point I’d really only spent a year in Tennessee—and less than two months in the Middle East—I figured I would be criticized for making generalizations about things I had very little experience with. So I put it out of my mind, until in 2014, I moved back to Lebanon for what was to become nearly two years of life there, abridged only by stints of travel throughout the rest of the Middle East and north Africa. At that point though, I felt pretty far removed from the five semesters I’d spent in Tennessee, so a post comparing Arab and Southern idiosyncrasies felt neither-here-nor-there. But now, having just moved to north Florida for the foreseeable future, I think it’s time at last that I put pen to paper about it.
As to my qualm about generalizations, I can only qualify this by saying that am talking about societies in general, not people specifically. Indeed, I know many people from the Arabic speaking world to whom none of these things would apply, and many people from the American South for whom the same could be said. That said, I still feel qualms about it. In the end though, my excitement about making this list outweighs the qualms. Really, these are two parts of the world that I think terribly misunderstand each other. I think this is almost certainly due to the fact that their only interaction has been when they were conscripted by their national governments to fight each other, when in reality, they have so many things in common. So without further ado, Southerners and Arabs:
- Put alarming, tooth obliterating, diabetic-coma-inducing amounts of sugar in their tea
- Just can’t get enough of shows in which people phone in to ask a religious authority for advice on issues that have no apparently obvious connection to religion
- Are paradoxically ultra-patriotic AND…
- …deeply suspicious of their own governments
- Love guns
- Think the blinkers on the corners of automobiles have no other utility than expressing celebration
- Are Young-Earth Creationists
- Looooooooooooooooooooooooooooove fried chicken. Particularly in a sandwich
- Would like to see prayer back in schools
- Drive huge trucks/SUVs
- Express public, vocal, and often political opposition to things that they themselves frequently do in private
- Fried chicken again for emphasis
- Would probably feel they were being persecuted if less than 2/3 of the radio stations were playing sermons at any given time
- Like to have strong leaders
- Share a concept of Honor that is lost on people from almost anywhere else in the world and that isn’t worth even trying to explain short of a dissertation, but safe to say is in the background of almost every aspect of life. Perhaps because of this….
- …are exceptionally friendly, BUT…
- …things can go sideways horrifyingly fast if you break the rules
- Have an amazingly strong concept of Heritage and connectedness to an idyllic past
- Believe that keeping that connectedness alive is vital and worth fighting for, even when it’s challenging to contextualize it in a global and post-modern world
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed it, and if I die suspiciously tomorrow, you may as well just call it an accident, because the list of suspects will be hopelessly long.
In all seriousness though, I do think these are real. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that everything is the same. There are several notable areas where there is a 180-degree difference (etiquette in line for the grocery checkout is a major one that comes to mind). Still, as major world cultures go, I think the similarities are very interesting, and I almost wonder if somewhere down the road it would be possible to do some sort of exchange program. Then again, that might be a bad idea. But who really knows?