Being now in Europe and away from the Middle East for almost a month now, it’s hitting me the stark differences in ways of life from here and there. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently and thought it’s time to organize it in writing to share as well.
I wouldn’t read this expecting an argument for one or the other, as both society’s and ways of life have their pros and cons, beauty and disgrace, good and bad. What I do want to point out are the main and little things that I notice that distinguish the two.
So feel free to bring up all the misconceptions and nationalism you have in your mind here, and see how it holds up.
Middle East Life
Wow, where does one start? How about in clarifying what is considered “Middle East.” For our context here, it would be Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan. These are the places I’ve visited so far extensively and can speak on from experience. It should be mentioned that Israel is actually more closely equated to Western life than Middle Eastern given its highly advanced, economically powerful and structured society. It should also be mentioned that each place is quite different from the other with its own flavor of life, which is lovely.
To generalize for our purposes though, Middle Eastern life is very simple.
There isn’t a rat race to start a business, make lots of money, obtain fame like no other, or be someone of importance. People are generally happy with the family and friends around them and spending the most time with them in the downtowns, eating dinner, watching soccer, chatting in the streets, or smoking shisha (i.e., hookah). They love hearing about what you did over the weekend besides smoking a pack of cigarettes, sitting outside your door doing nothing, working, or doing the same exact thing you did all week. They seek the experiences and stories of others as it spices up their life a bit. You can tell by the fact that both the young and old gather in restaurants and streets every night just to “shoot the breeze” as we say in America and pass the time together, not at home in front of your TV away from everyone, until late in the morning. Along with chit chatting comes eating, laughing, dancing to hip-swinging Arabic music, wandering around the city, and overall having a good time. This all, by the way, is without consuming alcohol as it is generally not allowed outside of foreign hotels. The West could take a lesson in that alcohol is not required to have a good time.
Also, people are not constantly constrained or worrying about mortgages, car loans, student loans, etc; because if they can’t afford something then they just don’t buy it. Debt is not the foundation to financial life there, to my knowledge, like it is in the West. If you need something, like money to send your kid to a good university, a lot of communities have a “social contract” of sorts where everyone pools money together to give to your cause (in the bigger cities it’s more rare). Your needs are met by those around you, because in a sense everyone knows each other and considers each other family. I can’t tell you how many times a day I saw people calling out to each other from windows, shops, taxis, buses, streets and more. It’s a breath of fresh air and perspective to see people intentionally enjoying each other’s presence, knowing their community, and living day by day not worrying about what they will amount to in the future. As a wise Man once said, “don’t worry about tomorrow, as each day has enough trouble of its own.” It’s easier to live that teaching there than in the West.
In the Middle East, life is mostly about relationships and your social reputation, not about monetary success and your level of comfort.
While this collective and basic humanitarian way of life is very beautiful, to me at least, it can have a dark side once legalistic religion is brought into the mix. Islam’s influence is pervasive throughout the whole region and its dogma is imposed on everyone in one way or another. If you do something that is considered haram, which means sin or forbidden, your social reputation will be ruined. This may not sound like a big deal to people in the West, but when you consider that families are huge there (8-10 members in one nuclear family is average), and everyone basically knows you and your business through the town gossip, your ability to peacefully and freely co-exist in the area is now in jeopardy. You have a big target on your head as the trouble-maker who will either bring disgrace to your family, school, work, mosque, or town, and people will avoid you.
With this social stigma constantly over your head, people–especially the younger more liberal folk-feel like they can’t completely express themselves in public or in front of their parents. When they’re with a foreigner like me, however, the doors of their mouths, minds and hearts are unlocked. You get to know them and see they have the same desires people do in the West and want the freedom to express such desires. But shhh. Outside of the pain of suppressing creative expression, however, I actually feel that in certain aspects the imposed stigma is actually good because it provides a chance for someone to think through their actions, repent, and or decide “do you really want to do this;” as opposed to the impulsive “do whatever the heck you want and feel, and people who disagree with you can piss off” mentality in the West. It’s childish.
Suffice to say, power in the Middle East (outside of the political realm) is not so much in money as it is in network. If people like you and consider you a good man or woman, you maintain respect and the doors are open for you everywhere you go. Go against your family, friends, neighborhood, mosque, or Islam, and you are pretty much screwed.
To wrap up here are a list of things I miss, and don’t miss.
I miss hearing the call to prayer several times a day no matter where you are. It reminds you of the presence of God in your life and that he is always watching over you. It doesn’t hurt to give the Lord of Heaven and Earth a few minutes of your time to give thanks and praise throughout the day.
I miss the kindness and hospitality of people. In the streets, in stores, in restaurants, in mosques, everywhere. Even as a Christian with a cross around his neck I was treated like a brother and friend by complete strangers. We talk in America about not needing to agree with your neighbor to love them, but in the Middle East people live that principle, so long as you don’t publicly disrespect Islam. “What’s done in secret can be discussed and forgiven in secret.” And even talking in Arabic is music to the ears; guttural sounds, tone of yelling and all.
I miss the food. Oh my Lord, I could eat falafel, hummus, shawarma, lentil soup, mansaf, maklouba, koshari, fattah, kebab, etc for days on end. While in France and the Netherlands I always kept my eye out for Arabic food so that I could eat there at some point.
I miss the simplicity of life. Meaning, if you want to cross the street, just cross it. Why wait for a cross walk? If you want to throw something away, just toss it to the side of the road (I don’t condone littering of plastics nor do it myself, but for biodegradable stuff like fruit skin, seeds, or bread crumbs go for it). If you’re in a hurry and need to buy something, just assert your way to the front. Why wait in line? Lines don’t mean much there. If you don’t like the price of goods in a street shop, bargain and or walk away. There are a hundred places to buy the same thing, or there are many taxis, so if this guy won’t lower his price maybe the next guy will. So simple.
I don’t miss the heat. Especially in summer, it’s at least above 100 degrees Fareinheit everyday. Try fasting for a whole month from sunrise to sunset during that heat. Which leads to my next point.
I don’t miss the inconveniences that religious observances impose. Such as the closing of grocery stores, restaurants, public transport or administrative offices on certain days or times of the month. I completely understand the value of having a day off for family and rest, but when you are trying to travel to another city, resolve a situation, or just eat, it doesn’t help that everything is closed.
I don’t miss not being able to drink clean water from the tap or fridge. You have to buy and carry bottled water all the time. That said, there’s nothing like a cold drink of water or a cold shower on a hot day. You learn to appreciate the scarcity and value of water. I’ve stopped taking one hour showers like I did at home.
Last but certainly not most least, I don’t miss being treated as if because I am American I just poop money like crazy. “You want this product or service? 10x the normal price please.” Even though, relatively speaking, I was still getting fair prices compared to home, this treatment began to get on my nerves after a while. I had to remind myself that I have a lot of blessings to count that many of those people don’t, so I tried to keep perspective. And I should not fail to mention that this treatment was counteracted by the radical generosity I received from locals I met along my journey. It all balances out.
Western Society Life
Contrary to the collective and basic humanitarian way of life of the Middle East, the West is an individualistic “dog eat dog” type of world. It’s all about money, pleasure, and fame; as displayed so prominently in music, movies, and books. Those who contribute to genuine relationships, meaning in life, and a sense of family and community are the few while the many are apathetic and or self-centered (and then people wonder why they feel lost or alone even with a lot of virtual followers, fans, or friends).
Contrary to what you may think based on my writing here or my actions, I actually firmly believe that America is the greatest country in the world bar none. I’m a student of history, and the Founding Fathers were men beyond their times (minus their ownership of slaves and their predecessor’s barbaric treatment of Native Americans) with a vision for a country that could be the beacon of the world. If you don’t think they succeeded, you are ignoring substantial historical and current events.
Everyone comes to America for freedom, for opportunity, for the pursuit of happiness, for the chance to make something of yourself, for peace. That is what the country was established for.
It’s why Lady Liberty, not Sir Supplements, designed and built by the renaissance-d French, stands tall off the coast of the former immigration office (island) of America. Of course people–especially non-minority people, usually white–need to be aware of things like the unethical military industrial complex, racist prison industrialized slavery system, economic preference for gentrification over organic stimulation of residential areas with minorities, political deprivation of adequate resources, quality food, water, air, and land from the poor for the wealthy’s agendas, etc. We have grave problems that need fixing, absolutely, but America was set up as a democratic republic that gave power to the people to work together to fix said problems through their local governments and representatives. It required an educated, involved, and charitable populace. What has happened, and it has reaped it’s consequences throughout the decades up to now, is we have evolved into a society that is uneducated, uninvolved, uncharitable, and hands that power over to the government in hopes that they will take care of everything. It’s still giving power to the few, just not in a democratic or capitalistic way. Where power goes, so does the money, and both need to be exercised somehow–why not on ego and hedonistic pleasure? Now after 241 years of this, our problems are like iPod headphones when we take them out of our pocket: all tangled and knotted up, making it hard to untie.
I digress, especially since I don’t necessarily have the practical answers to such problems. Europe, even with very different political systems, suffers from the same types of problems as well, which shows that this is a cultural, and I would argue spiritual, issue and not necessarily just a political one.
The Western world is not all chalked up with problems though, there are certainly good things we enjoy in the West that are not found elsewhere.
Don’t like your local food? No problem, thanks to trade and competition you can eat food from another state, country or continent at an affordable price. Like drinking and showering in clean water? Me too, thanks to laws (in most places) to protect the quality of water we drink and bath in. Don’t agree with your Sunday school teacher, Friday prayer imam, or Saturday synagogue rabbi? Besides maybe some personal or family circle shame, you can’t legally be punished for voicing your disagreements. The freedom of speech, both lovely and vile, is one that the Founding Fathers thought of most importance (hence it is part of the First Amendment, not second, third, fourth, etc). Have a great idea to fix a problem in society and feel the reasonable need to be compensated for it? In the West we have laws to protect entrepreneurs and their ideas from unfair patent and copyright infringements. Entrepreneurship brought Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Ford, GM, Vanguard, JP Morgan Chase, etc; into creation, not the U.S government. The internet, albeit the game changer of the millenia, is probably the only good recent technology that the government (military) can take credit for.
With all these options in products and services provided by entrepreneurs, it’s no wonder the standard of living rose and the concept of “the creation of wealth” by Adam Smith became a reality in the West faster and more substantive than in the Middle East. Even though, mind you, the Middle East and Islam had a golden age in knowledge and technology long before the West had in the European Renaissance (think 8th century). Search “House of Wisdom Baghdad” on Wikipedia to see what I’m talking about.
Both societies have their pros and cons, isn’t that what we started with? We stuck to it.
In short, I feel the Middle East is more about relationships and social reputation than the West which is more about money and power, but they both desire control and pleasure.
Neither money, power, relationships or reputation or inherently bad, in fact each are tools that can be used for the betterment of society. As we discussed here though, it can very easily be used more for control and pleasure.
This is why I mentioned earlier that these issues are not geographical but spiritual in nature. Jesus taught his disciples not to “lord over one another as that is what the pagans (referring to the Romans) do”, and He said “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” We as people can steward those four things (money, power, relationships and reputation) in a good and righteous way, but in this world we are taught by culture and those in authority to do the opposite. And it is so sweet to follow their ways, because our egos are stroked along the path. But we shouldn’t, not if we truly care about ourselves and others.
I’ll end by stating that no matter where we grow up or what region we’re from, if we don’t surrender away our hearts for disobedience and sin, and are honest with ourselves, we will all secretly harbor in ourselves the man Alfred Pennyworth described in the movie “The Dark Knight”:
Some men [people] just want to watch the world burn.