In Praise of the ‘Classic Arab’

Let’s face it - the Arabs do not get good press in the western world. Indeed, there are problems in the Arab world that dwarf that of other parts. Four successive, UN-sponsored Arab Development Reports, show regress rather than progress. Democracy has been sorely lacking. The result of the 2011 Arab Spring has been instability, not democracy. Women’s rights, human rights, just plain being right, seems to be in short supply. Dictatorships, repression, religious extremism with corresponding brutality, and outright terrorism, are the connotations westerners have of the Arab world.

There is another side of the story. It is called the ‘classic Arab,’ also known as ‘The Original Arab’ (al Arab al Aseel). Warm-hearted, noble, generous, charming, kind, magnanimous, and superbly hospitable, it is a welcome treat to meet the classic Arab. When you are his guest, you are celebrated, not tolerated!

While I grew up with a father who fit this mold, he had to do so in an American-context. His hospitality was still noteworthy. One Australian who stayed in my father’s home made this initial comment: I stayed with a ‘real Arab.’

Let me give you a first-hand account of what it was like for me to encounter the ‘classic Arab’ during my first visit to the Middle East.

I arrived at Amman (Jordan) Airport. At least half of the visitors in the arrival lounge were waiting for me. Once I walked out of customs, people in the entourage grabbed me so I could be warmly greeted - first with hugs, then with the traditional kiss on the cheek (this is not, strictly speaking, limited to the Arabs. The French, Italians, Turks, Iranians, and Russians also greet in like manner. It is also mentioned five times in the New Testament). I was placed inside a Mercedes Benz and driven up and down the seven hills of Amman. Once we arrived at our destination - a private house - a main room was turned into a reception room. Chairs lined the walls and were filled with guests. In essence, I became the visiting dignitary and for the remainder of the evening as people came to the house to greet me. They were warm, effusive, joyful, and exceptionally welcoming. To top it off, my wallet-sized high school graduation photo was enlarged many fold, framed, and proudly hung on the wall, alongside the photo of the family patriarch. This was a very royal welcome for someone who was only 21 years old!

The classic Arab makes sure their guests or beneficiaries are well-taken care of. You never have to worry about where you are going to eat, sleep, or travel. Your classic host makes sure that all these details are attended.

Let’s not forget the wonderful food:

  kibbeh (Lebanon’s national dish),
  fattoush (bread salad),
  hummos (chick pea dip),
  lebaneh (strained yogurt dip),
  falafel (deep-fried ground chick peas, formed into a ball),
  tabouli (parsley & tomato salad),
  kebabs (cubed meat),
  shwarma (grilled meat on a barbecue spit),
  mahlubeh (upside down rice).
Top it off with an array of deserts, including the legendary kanafe, washed down with thick Turkish coffee or sweet mint-tea.  In a postmodern, therapeutic, ‘feel good’ milieu, relating to the classic Arab makes you glad you came to the Middle East.

Unfortunately, like the Siberian tiger or the Amazon rain forests, the classic Arab is an endangered species. Life in the Middle East is getting complicated and people busy. Much westernization has crept in, with its emphasis on individualism, personal ambition, materialism and even self-centered narcissism. Many younger Arabs are becoming ‘too cool to be classic.’ It is probable that urban Arabs will be ‘unclassical,’ but it is still possible to find the ‘original Arab’ in the villages. If the one thing that makes the Arab world stand out above all others, this is it. To lose it would be a tragic loss of Arab heritage for the entire world.

What can one do? If you travel to the Middle East and encounter a ‘classic Arab,’ show your appreciation. Tell them you enjoy being with an al Arab al Aseel. If they run a restaurant or hotel, tell the world what wonderful service you had through Trip Advisor and other mediums. If you are in a position to reciprocate the hospitality, then do so. Classic Arab behaviour, recognized and rewarded, will be a great incentive to help ‘Arabs act like Arabs’ and we will all be the better for it.


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