By: Jonathan Henderson
Ever been so embarrassingly ignorant about something or someone? If you have then you’re in good company. Before interacting and then befriending my first Arab friend in the States, I didn’t have much of a concept of Arabs. To me, they were all dark skinned, Muslim, ate weird food, and if they weren’t Saudi or a prince of some kind then they were poor and lived in tents. As you can imagine I was in for a few surprises.
The first came in Michigan when I met a Syrian college student who was paler than any Scotsman I know. In my head, I thought, “Where’s my tutor?” Thankfully, I caught myself before I insulted my future language partner who also happened to be the son of a Sheikh, an Islamic religious teacher. Needless to say, Arabs come in all shapes and sizes.
Something to note about Arabs before proceeding is that they are very hospitable with foreigners, especially the ones trying to learn their language. I say this because after my first language session with my Syrian tutor, he invited me over to his house. At first I was confused and caught off guard, so I declined. The next day he asked me again despite the fresh rejection; but because I felt that he would persist in asking, I acquiesced. Never have I seen more food for two people nor have I seen such a beautiful presentation of food. There was no way I was going to leave with any space in my stomach. I left a very happy man. Arabs have an age-old tradition of treating their guests as royalty.
Before arriving in Amman, I was a fairly concerned about my living situation, specifically, what I would eat, how I would find things since I didn’t know Arabic, what things are available, etc. Ironically, I was staying in Bayader, an area of town with many Arabs and foreigners who speak enough English. Not only that, but the apartment I came to call home for the next 8 months was comparable if not better than what I was used to in the states. As most would expect in any big city, Amman offers just about anything you could want or need, from clothing to food to entertainment to transportation etc. Even though they cherish their cultural and historical traditions, Arabs have kept up with the times.
The biggest surprise came as a result of delving in to their language. Since studying at a language center in Amman, Jordan called Shababeek, I have been taken aback by how much deeper I’ve come to understand their culture just from stepping into the world of their heart language, Arabic. Language unlocks the humor of a culture, as well as traditions and beliefs to which the outside observer would miss from a cursory glance. Learning Arabic has not only humbled me but has furthered my understanding of Arabs.
In conclusion, I have grown tremendously in my appreciation of Arabs and their culture from just interacting with them and having the mindset that they’re not wrong but different. Consequently, I’ve come to love this people despite what we hear about this region on the news. Considering the current political climate, the world would benefit greatly from this winsome people if we just decided to take the time to understand them.