Arabic Culture, Traditions And Customs
Anyone learning Arabic or visiting Arabic-speaking countries should make it a priority to acquaint themselves with Arab culture, traditions and customs. Not only will this benefit your interactions with the people, but it will help you make more sense of the language as well.
Whatever the reason for your travel to the Middle East or North Africa (language study, tourism or business), you'll find the following points on Arab customs helpful.
NOTE: Every country is different, and some rules may be more applicable in certain places than others.
Arabic culture, traditions and customs
Religion as the foundation of Arab culture, traditions and customs
You cannot separate Arab culture from religion.
Speaking generally, Islam has (and continues to have) an enormous influence on Arab culture, customs and traditions. Arab religious identity is the core of each individual and there is no such thing as separation of religion and state. Life revolves around one's faith and its daily outworking (e.g. prayer multiple times a day).
Muslims are generally fatalistic, which means that everything is "God willing".
In most Arab countries, Sharia law is not implemented (most legal systems are fairly secular), however Islam still has a lot of influence over judicial decisions.
When visiting a mosque, you should remove your shoes, not wear anything revealing, not walk in front of people when they're praying and refrain from photography.
Some Arab countries are also heavily influenced by Christianity and local, pre-Islamic cultural traditions.
The centrality of family in Arab culture
Like many other cultures, (e.g. Mediterranean cultures), family is extremely important in Arab culture.
Unlike the more progressive Western world, Arabs make family and children their highest priority after religion, and traditional gender roles are protected and revered by most. The father is the head of the family and the final authority on all matters.
Beyond the immediate family, Arabs tend to have large, extended families with many cousins and relatives. Throughout the year, there are many occasions and events that involve large gatherings where everyone is present.
Arab greetings and manners
Here are some general rules for greetings and other manners:
- It's quite normal for Arabs to get in close proximity with you when talking.
- Never make physical contact with the opposite sex. In some countries, handshakes and distant hugs may be acceptable in certain contexts.
- Handshakes, including for extended periods, are normal and expected.
- Hugging and a kiss on each cheek is common for friends and family.
- Holding hands with members of the same sex, including interlocking fingers, is normal in many Arab countries and has no sexual connotation.
- Don't point at people.
- When motioning someone to "come here", face your palm down toward the ground, not up (which is offensive).
- Don't stare at a woman.
- You should never ask a man directly about his wife or sister.
Arab values and traditions
- Rather than affirming or refusing something, it is common to say "insha'Allah" (God willing).
- Arabs will typically go out of their way to accommodate a request, no matter how difficult it is.
- It's quite common for Arabs to be late, even when a strict time is given. Don't be surprised by this.
- Arabs are extremely social by nature. Introversion or "alone time" is a mostly foreign concept.
- It is common for a simple, quick errand to turn into a full day out socializing and visiting. Be prepared to have your day unexpectedly changed at the drop of a hat in Arab culture.
- Humiliation is one of the worst things an Arab person can experience. Never do anything that may cause shame or embarassment.
- Never, ever take a holy book (Quran or Bible) or other religious item into a toilet or bathroom.
- In some parts of the Arab world, it is customary for pregnant Arab women to stare at beautiful children as they believe that by doing so, their unborn child will also be beautiful. This is a superstitious practice that is still widely believed.
- Hospitality to visitors and strangers is a sacred duty in Arab culture.
- As a guest, you are under the protection of your host. If anyone gives you trouble, expect your host to defend you like family.
- Always take your shoes off before entering a home.
- You should always bring a gift with you when visiting a home, even if it's just fruit or some sweets. Never turn up empty-handed.
- It's customary to be offered a lot of food, including seconds and thirds. Accept it all.
- Eat with your right hand.
- Never put feet on a table or point the soles of your feet in someone's direction.
- Keep your hands visible and don't hide them in pockets or covered in long sleeves.
- Expect a long meal and even longer for talking. Don't be in a hurry to eat and leave. Arab hospitality typically goes on for many hours.
With the advice on customs, culture and traditions in this article, you should now be more confident when visiting an Arab country. To learn Arabic yourself (and see the application of these points in the language), use the sign up button below to get started.