I am a little ashamed of what happened on May 3, 2015.
That was the day that my family and I left Calgary, our home for nearly 20 years, and flew to our new home in Qatar, a small peninsula that juts out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, where I was starting a new job as the director of marketing and communications for the University of Calgary in Qatar (UCQ), a nursing faculty.
My shame comes from the fact that the day I moved my wife and three children 11,000 kilometres around the globe was the first time I had ever left North America. I’d been to New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle, but never to Paris or Dubai or Delhi. In every place I’d ever been, I spoke the language, could navigate the streets, understood the culture. I’d never had a cross-cultural adventure, so now I was jumping in with both feet and my patient spouse and long-suffering children were jumping in with me.
The world I discovered in the Arabian desert was very different than the one I left behind on the Canadian prairie. Starbucks didn’t have cream for my coffee, McDonald’s hamburgers tasted different and extreme cold was replaced with extreme heat (53°C one day). But the differences ran deeper than consumer goods and climate; they extended to the ways society was structured, the ways people thought, the ways they communicated.
Communication was a particular challenge. Shortly after I arrived, I hired Noura, born and raised in Qatar and able to help me navigate the language and culture — and to help me navigate Snapchat. Noura made it her mission to teach me a few words of Arabic. Several times a week, she would say to me, “Say XXX!” and I would try my lame best to repeat what she’d said. Then she would laugh and say, “That’s hilarious. Here, let me Snap you!” and she would share my ridiculous pronunciation on Snapchat. This happened every time I attempted an Arabic word. Every. Time. By the time I left Qatar, I was a minor Internet celebrity for my terrible pronunciation.
Incapacity with the Arabic language is a liability for someone responsible for communications in an Arabic-speaking country. On one occasion, UCQ decided to host an event for some of our alumni. I was responsible for the invitations to be sent by email with the subject line, “An Event for Nursing Leaders.” I asked Noura to translate the invitation into Arabic.
That afternoon, I was in a meeting when my phone began to blow up. It was Ian, a member of the team who did not speak Arabic, saying we had a serious problem with the invitation. An alumna had replied to our invitation, saying, “This invitation contains a word that the university should not use.” Ian couldn’t tell which word was the problem, and Noura had gone home sick, so he took the invitation down the hall to an Egyptian national who spoke Arabic. She reviewed the invitation and then pointed to the word we thought meant “leaders” and said, “This word means a man … who brings women … to other men … for sex.”
Pimp. I had created a university event for pimps.
We sent the invitation to an outside translation agency to be revised and sent a corrected version to our alumni. The next morning, Noura just rolled her eyes at me, “That alumna was just trying to make your life difficult! She knew what you were trying to say!”
Arabic is a language that has small marks around the main letters called diacritics. These marks change the pronunciation of letters or words (think about accents in French). The use of diacritics is generally reserved for specific, formal contexts and they’re not typically seen in everyday Arabic. This means that the reader occasionally has to understand which word is intended based upon the context. The words “pimp” and “leaders” are different when the diacritics are included, but look the same in everyday usage. Noura explained all of this to me with a look of exasperation. We had been played, and I was realizing that I was a long way from home.
... what was important to me seemed trivial to them, and what seemed essential to them often seemed optional to me.
Language was not the only difference between me and my Qatari neighbours — there were also fundamental differences in the ways we thought. As a Canadian and as an Albertan, I am an individualist, but most Qataris are collectivists. For them, community and relationships take priority over the individual. This difference is so profound that it’s hard to grasp, let alone articulate. It’s the kind of difference that can influence a person’s perspective on almost everything — professional goals, relationships, even the definition of “the good life.”
One of the cultural expressions of collectivism in the Arab world is the majlis. Majlis can refer to people coming together for conversation, but it’s more often used to refer to a building where those people gather — a sort of reception tent or hall. The majlis is a place where men can hang out in the evenings to drink tea, smoke, gossip and, ultimately, come to decisions for the community. The majlis is the beating heart of the community and a symbol of Arab hospitality.
I’ve only ever been in a majlis once. It was a rainy and cold (14°C!) day in February. We had a day off and everyone in the family was bored, so we decided to go for a drive in the desert. After driving on the highway for a while, we thought we’d try a little off-roading in what looked to us to be a barren wilderness. We’d only been driving for a few minutes when a Land Cruiser came racing toward us over a distant rise. When it got close to us, the Qatari driver rolled down his window.
“Come! Come!” he ordered.
I tried to respond to him, but it was soon clear that he knew about as much English as I knew Arabic, so we obeyed his orders and followed him to a home nearby. Once there, he invited us into his majlis tent, where we were greeted by his daughter, who seemed to be about 12 and could speak English, and his son who was about nine. In the majlis, the man lit a fire for us, turned on the TV, and asked his servant to bring us tea and dates. He showed us some artifacts he had collected from the land around and (through his daughter) made it clear that we were to make ourselves at home. Then he and his children left, and we were left alone to enjoy the refreshments and the fire he had provided. Eventually, we wrote a note of thanks and left. I never learned his name, but his son’s name was Sultan, so, in my mind, the man will always be Abu Sultan (father of Sultan).
When I got to work the next morning, I asked Noura about what had happened. She said, “Oh, you were on his land, and, as a Qatari, he had a choice to make. He could either be reeeeeally nice, or shoot you.”
Within our Western culture, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to relations with the Islamic world. One says, “These people are very different from us! They have different values and ways of thinking and, therefore, they are our enemy!” The other says, “These people are basically the same as we are. They want the same things as we do — peace, prosperity, security — therefore, they are our friends!”
My experiences in Qatar taught me an important lesson. The people I encountered were different from me — what was important to me seemed trivial to them, and what seemed essential to them often seemed optional to me. Abu Sultan and I probably lived our lives by different principles and had fundamentally different ways of thinking. We likely had very different opinions about politics and community and family. Yet, in that moment when he had to decide whether to be really nice or to shoot me, he chose compassion. At a moment when he had every right to be angry with me, he chose hospitality.
Abu Sultan showed me that our compassion for one another is not based on shared beliefs or values, but on our shared humanity. We are kind to each other not because we think the same things, hope for the same things or believe the same things. We are kind because we are all human beings. He also showed me that there is a language of compassion that is universal — a bit of fire on a cold day and tea and dates in the desert (like we’d offer coffee and doughnuts on the prairies).
It seems to me that this message is more important than ever.
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