Thursday, March 15, 2007

Culture Shock - Part 3 of 3

Anything worthwhile is going to be difficult, and living in Israelis no exception. The daily frustrations we may experience here are just part of life, lest we forget that living back in Tennessee also gave us daily frustrations of a different sort. One can sit around and dwell on what all is hard and tedious; or one can acknowledge some of the differences are really blessings that one couldn't experience back in the States.

Getting used to the food here can be difficult at times because we miss our familiar comforts. But let's face it, Middle Eastern food is very good. It is not without reason that probably billions of Middle Eastern people throughout history have eaten it on a daily basis. Some of the most famous people in the world preferred it to anything else: the Pharaohs, Abraham, Moses, King David, Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus, just to name a few. That's a pretty good endorsement.

Ok, there are beaches in America, but no matter where you are in Israel you are never more than an hour away from the nearest beach (unless you are in the middle of the desert, of course, where you are only about 2.5 hours away, at most). For us land-lubbers who had to travel a solid day to the nearest beach in America, it's pretty exciting to be only a few minutes walk to the ocean.

Some people consider Middle Easterners aggressive and very direct. This is true. It is not necessarily a bad thing, though. As with any culture one must adapt – “When in Rome…” Maybe Americans are just more reserved, in general. Neither is necessarily good or bad, and neither is better than the other. It is just the way people in different places live and express themselves within their shared culture.

When Rima came to live in America, she was shocked at how sometimes people (while trying to be nice and thoughtful of her feelings) did not do or mean what they said to her. On the other hand, some people were taken aback when she would be honest with them about something like, for example, a kind of food that she didn’t think was very good. One culture says that when given a food that doesn’t taste good, when asked, one should always say something complementary (even if nothing good can really be said of it). Another culture values frankness. There have been times that I have been “American” here and said I liked something when I really didn’t, and was later chided for not being honest (like, “Why did you say that you liked that when you didn’t??”). People really want to know what you think and will talk to you like you are their close friend, even if they hardly know you. That’s just a small aspect of this multi-dimensional culture, but, in short, it’s a very fun and interesting way to relate to people. And you can’t help but love it.

The Arab hospitality is legendary. When I read the stories in the Bible, the visual pictures that come to my mind are closest to the way Arabs act and live (don’t read too much into that statement than is intended because the differences are plainly obvious). Regardless, one of my personal observations is that, in Arab culture, food = love. If you have the privilege to experience Arab hospitality, you will see that no holds are barred at making you feel like royalty. You will be fed until you can eat no more. Then the main course is served. There have been times that I have felt like I wanted to cry because the food seems it will never stop.

I say that because it seems as if the greatest sin in Arab culture is that one might feel the slightest twinge of hunger at any moment. Ok, I admit that I’m, well, “skinny”. Some might even say that I have a “weight problem”, that I don’t “eat enough”, that I could use to “put on a few pounds”. For Arabs, they see me as a problem that is their mission in life to fix. Believe me, I can spot that look in their eye a mile away when they see me coming.

Sometimes my weight is seen as a poor reflection on Rima as an Arab wife. How many times have we visited relatives and Rima experienced Arab version the Spanish Inquisition about why her husband looks so bad? When Arabs get married, they put on weight. This is the external sign to everyone that the marriage is good and husband and wife are happy (whether that is true or not). Because I have not bloated up with 7+ years of “marital bliss” around my waist, in the eyes of the Arab Rima obviously must not be making her husband happy enough. After all, like I said, food = love. She tries to tell them we are happy and I’m just genetically skinny, but that doesn’t stop them from firing up a personal smorgasbord for me in order to try to fatten me up on the spot.

If my theory (food = love) is true, then I have another theory that this could be part of the problem here in the Middle East between the Jews and Arabs. Due to the fact that Jews keep kosher and can’t properly interact on the fundamental culinary level that Arabs require, the two sides just can’t make that vital connection. Hence, we have an ongoing war. Ok, I know it sounds a little far-fetched but there might be something to it. Who knows?

Again, I could go on and on about Arab culture but one has to experience it firsthand to understand what real hospitality is, which is truly humbling to realize how far short we fall in comparison with our best efforts.

Ok, it is dangerous here, but it also feels a lot safer in some ways. The fact that you see so many soldiers, police, and security guards gives a measure of peace of mind. Even some women are armed with automatic weapons. It is not uncommon to see couples strolling along the beach with a machine gun on one of their backs. Not exactly a romantic picture but, if you think about it, I'm glad someone has something like that where crowds of people are. It is as if anyone tries to start trouble, it will be dealt with quickly. In truth, not much happens, terror-wise, mainly because of the high security you see, and what you don't see.

The winters feel colder here because it is much colder indoors with the stone and concrete houses that are impossible to heat. And the summers are hotter because the same stone buildings are more difficult to cool in this near-desert environment. What is nice is that the rains come only in the winter months. When they do come, it is as if it is springtime. What seemed like a sparse, sandy and dry patch of ground will spring to life after a few showers and grass and all kinds of flowers will arise from what seems like nowhere. It is always a much prettier time of the year than summer, for sure.

But being the "skinny" type, I long for the heat and am ready for the sun to fry everything. Summers are generally pretty hot, but nice. No rain at all to mess up any plans you make. No grass to mow (unless you water it). Everyone is out and about and with all of the numerous parks and nature spots where there are so many interesting things to see and do, instead of hunkered down around their heaters (like I am right now).

Semitic languages are not easy to learn, but they give you a glimpse into the mindset of people who speak them. Although modern Hebrew is quite different than Biblical Hebrew, hearing it spoken and thinking of how to speak it really gives a fuller dimension to reading the Hebrew Bible in a way that it seems more alive, as opposed to just foreign words on a page. There are no secrets to the Hebrew language - anyone can learn it if they are patient and put in a lot of work. What you get for your effort is useful in more ways than you can imagine. So hit the books, everyone!

Admittedly, I never did get into the whole “Walk where Jesus walked” thing, partly because so many of the biblical locations are disputed, uncertain, and/or just unknown. I’m not one that believes that seeing a biblical location helps to understand the biblical text better (in some cases it can actually obscure it). Nevertheless, there are many places that are known and are very interesting to see what they were like. Some places are interesting for historical reasons, while some places are interesting because they are just nice to see and enjoy. This is just a beautiful place to live. Now if only this fighting would stop...


(Walls of the Old City in Jerusalem)

(Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath)

(Golden Menorah, Jewish Quarter of the Old City)

Well, that’s my two cents, I mean, two shekels on the subject of culture shock. Hopefully you can understand in some way how our bout of culture shock has been and what the ups and downs of making life in a new place are. Most of all, I hope it was enjoyable. If not, maybe you’d like one of these across your lip.
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that)


Anonymous said...

Looks like the Arab culture has a lot in common with West Tennessee culture in the U. S. For my Mom, food always equaled love.

Hope you are doing well.


Abu Yossi said...

jk, if we could only get arabs to learn how to make fried chicken and cornbread, i could stay here forever.