By Linda S. Heard
The Arab world had greatly benefited from the West in terms of technology and
trade but are Western influences eroding their time honoured traditions and
For instance, there was a time if someone was in
trouble everyone from friends to strangers would rally round? Sometime ago I sat
next to a group of young Arab men in a coffee shop and couldn’t help noticing
that one received a call from his housemaid to say his home was on fire. He
jumped up; made his excuses and left. The surprise was this. His ‘friends’
merely said “no problem”, wished him “luck” and carried on with their coffee and
chat. For a while I sat totally bemused.
At one time everyone on the table would have rushed to help their friend in his
time of need no matter the inconvenience to themselves. This kind of attitude
may not be prevalent. It could have been a mere one-off but, nevertheless, it
started me thinking about the days when business was done on a handshake and
hospitality meant taking in strangers for up to five days.
As someone who has lived in various parts of this region for over 25 years, I’ve
seen many changes. Since the first day I stepped foot on Arab soil in the early
1970s to work in Algeria the buildings everywhere have got taller, the traffic
more congested and the countryside greener.
Almost all Arab societies have embraced the 21st century with vigor together
with its accoutrements such as computer notebooks, I Pods, and all-singing,
all-dancing mobile phones.
In wealthier societies, youth are handed the keys to spanking new automobiles
almost as soon as they learn to drive. Children are driven to school and to all
their extra-curricula activities, unlike their parents who often had to walk
miles in all temperatures.
Italian-style coffee shops have replaced cafes where old men once played
backgammon and contemplated life as they puffed on their water-pipes. The
heart-grabbing emotional strains of Umm Kulthum have been drowned out by the
gyrating Nancy Ajram.
For the late explorer, photographer and author Wilfred Thesiger, who in 1946
crossed the Empty Quarter with two young Bedu companions, these changes were
This is called progress and like the tide it cannot and should not be turned
back. Thesiger might have found a certain romance in a hardy existence but if
they are honest few locals miss those days without air-conditioning when
families were driven to sleep on their roofs during hot summer nights.
But we should not forget that while the old days were tough the people were
tougher but inside they retained a certain human to human sweetness that isn’t
so evident today, although it could well be lurking under the surface.
There is almost tangible beauty in the Arab character, based on centuries of
tradition, which I hope will somehow survive this fast consumer/computer age.
For instance, I can never forget the Bahraini taxi driver who in 1975 waved at
me in the street to return an expensive camera I had forgotten in his cab three
months earlier. Or the Egyptian driver, who, some years later, drove all the way
back to Alexandria from Cairo when he discovered that my gold bracelet had
slipped down the seat of his taxi.
I will always be grateful to the Algerian family who took me into their simple
village home after I was involved in a car accident. The lady of the house had
given birth to a daughter the day before but that didn’t deter her from tending
to my wounds and covering the table with food while her husband towed my car to
the nearest town for repairs.
During 16 years in Dubai, I was the recipient of countless kindnesses; too many
to mention. Total strangers would urge me to participate in their wedding
celebrations. Every time my car had a flat tire, tens of vehicles would stop,
their drivers eager to help.
When I fell ill with the flu, neighbours would turn up bearing chicken soup,
pastries or old-fashioned remedies.
When Kuwait was invaded in 1990, Dubai opened its doors and its pockets to
Kuwaiti refugees, who were housed and given monthly living allowances. Many
hotel and apartment owners put their properties at the disposal of Kuwaiti
visitors without thinking of reimbursement. It was a fine example of brotherly
love, which is rarely seen in other parts of the world.
Just the other day I saw a report on Fox News about an American woman who lay
dying on a petrol station forecourt. Apparently three people stepped over her.
Nobody offered any help. Something so callous and uncaring could never happen
During these troubled times when the Arab way of life is often viciously
attacked by the Western media I often feel my blood boil that there is so much
ignorance out there.
They like to portray Arab women as being mistreated when most are treated with
the utmost respect and are queens in their own homes. And where else in the
world do men still open doors and pull out chairs for ladies?
They often scoff at the concept of Arab ‘karama’ or dignity when this is surely
all that a man has when he loses everything, and without it he is not a man.
They like to paint Arabs as backward when the West should be grateful to the
Arab world for mathematics, algebra, science, astronomy, medicine and written
It was here that man first cultivated grain, raised livestock, and established
great cities. It was in this region that the world’s great monotheistic
religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – originated.
And it was the Bedouin who created a time-honoured code that lives in the veins
of all Arabs today. These people who endured so much hardship as they wandered
throughout the harsh desert sands from oasis to oasis were perhaps the most
honourable of all.
One thing I pray will not be sullied by globalization is the respect and love
which Arabs famously show to their parents. At one time, children would kiss
their parents’ hands each morning and would never dare to raise their voice to
either their mother or father. That may not be as true today, but just last week
I was pleasantly reminded of its ongoing existence when a young Egyptian man and
his elderly father turned up to paint our house.
I noticed that the younger man, who has worked for us before, regularly downed
his brushes before disappearing into the furthest recesses of the garden. I was
later to learn that his outdoor sojourns were spent smoking far away from the
eyes of his father, whom he told me he respected too much to ever light-up in
front of him.
Arabs have every right to be proud of their heritage and way of life. It is true
that there are certain customs which require change in keeping with the
modern-day world but there are so many others that have stood the test of time
and should be preserved if at all possible.
In March this year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu
Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces urged his fellow Emiratis to
uphold their age-old traditions, which he said should be inculcated in the
younger generation to help mould their identity.
In April, Sharjah staged “Diving Deep into Culture”, a 16-day event, which
brought to life traditional UAE customs and showcased the country’s traditions,
history and heritage.
In 2003, the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History began a nationwide hunt for
senior citizens “whose lives are a testament to the traditions, culture, society
and daily life in the days before economic development got into full swing”.
This was done with the aim of preserving and documenting the country’s history
and culture “to create a balance between original and contemporary life”.
Those are valuable efforts made by people who value their past, appreciate their
roots and are taking real steps to ensure the next generation know and value
This people of this region may have their eyes on the future but as long as
their hearts are firmly grounded in the values of the past, there is light.
Over the decades this part of the world has become my home. But the glossy
high-rise, the theme parks, the swish boutiques, the marbled malls and the
elegant hotels aren’t the main attraction for me. Far more captivating is the
warmth of the people and their inherited values they hold so dear.
Indeed, I feel a sense of privilege that for so many years I have been allowed
to share those values together with their innate sense of hospitality, dignity
and love of humanity. I thank them, all of them, for hopefully making me a
better person than I once was.