North Africa, West Asia

For expats in the Middle East

A quick guide on how to avoid accidental racism when discussing your problems or experiences living in the Middle East.

Janine Rich
17 February 2016

Press Association/AP/Osman Orsal. All rights reserved.It’s a new year, and as of yet things are not off to such a great start in Turkey, my adopted home. Or anywhere, for that matter. There is insecurity about the future everywhere, and conversations about political and social life here are becoming increasingly difficult to have.

However, as someone who firmly believes that the way we talk about things determines the way we view ourselves and our societies (both native and adopted), I believe that even the most seemingly trivial conversations can be hugely important. After reading a slew of hair-raisingly offensive comments on online forums such as the Foreign Women of Istanbul group (Istanbul women, avoid it at all costs! There are other, better ways to find information!), I figured it was time to write a quick foreigner’s guide on how to avoid accidental racism when discussing your problems or your experiences living in the Middle East. If, on the other hand, you are intentionally being racist, then there’s not much point to reading this, so continue along your merry way.

1) The “everything is bad because I’m in (insert country/city/region)” dialogue:

If this is actually true for you, and you simply hate being where you are, then I extend my sincerest condolences, and hope you find a much happier place for yourself soon. But in general, most places are not all bad or all good. Choosing a place to live is very similar to being in a relationship with someone: you choose the set of problems you’re willing to deal with.

That is not to say that you have to take whatever life (or your new home) gives you without complaint. By all means speak out, challenge the things that bother you and be active in the areas of society where you wish to see change. But while you’re doing that, remember to stop and consider if it really makes sense that the answer is as simple as “I am angry because of this place.” If a man is behaving like a creep on the metro, is that really because all local men are creeps? If a woman is rude to you, does it makes sense that the cause is that all “native” women are aggressive? When you inevitably end up confused by the dizzying maze of paperwork required to establish residence, is it because the region is simply a disorganised nightmare? Well, maybe, but it is by no means unique in that respect. As anyone who has ever tried to understand US tax law can tell you, legal bureaucracy is a hellish mess anywhere and everywhere.

2) The “Turkish/Arab/Muslim people are......" explanation:

If you hear yourself starting a question with the phrase “Are/do people here.........?” you should immediately question your question. “People here” are people, and much like the everyone else, it is impossible to say what “they” do or don’t do as a group. Suggesting that all members of an ethnic, national, or religious group are in some way all bound to do the same thing is essentialist, and it makes for some pretty iffy assumptions.

Perhaps the most ironic question ever posed on the previously mentioned Foreign Women of Istanbul site read, “Are Turkish people racist?” To begin with, this query is impossible to answer. No, not all Turkish people are racist. Yes, some certainly are, just like everyone else. And more importantly, the original poster apparently missed the obvious point that asking a question that generalises a hugely diverse community down to one single behavioral “type” is, in fact, racist.

3) The “culture” complaint:

If you have lived as an expat in the Middle East for more than a few weeks, chances are you’ve heard another foreigner use the explanation “it’s just their culture” to answer for something they’ve observed, whether positive or negative, during their time in the region. But take a moment and answer this: what is culture?

Instead of trying to tell people what they should do and how they should feel about their communities, try asking questions and listening. You might be surprised what you can learn.

If you can define it easily, then you are singularly more intelligent than this author. While it is a word that we casually throw around as a one-size-fits-all explanation for everything, it is actually a very difficult and complex concept. And the biggest problem with the “culture” explanation is that generally, “culture” is assumed to be something unchanging, a fixed status quo that people act in accordance with, without much choice of their own or much say in the matter.

Equally problematic is the idea that there is such a thing as one overarching “Turkish culture”, “Arab culture” or “Muslim culture”. When we think about it critically, it becomes almost immediately clear that this fantasy does not match the reality of every day life in any society. Does a person living in a conservative, rural neighborhood have the same “culture” as a person living in an upscale urban neighborhood? Does a woman who spends her days selling tissues in the street experience her “culture” in the same way that a wealthy teenager attending a private school on the same street does? Probably not, and yet we still talk about “culture” as if it is a legal code that all people from a given area follow blindly.

But cultures are not static – they are constantly changing, altered by politics, economics, media, popular sentiment, international events, and about a million other complex factors. They are built and created by people, who are perpetually in the process of changing them. The next time you wish to easily dismiss something as being “cultural”, stop to consider what exactly that means.

4) The “us vs them” perspective:

There has been a disturbing amount of dialogue recently that rests on the assumption that “we” (foreigners) are somehow more liberated, more enlightened, or more self-actualised than “them” (non-western people in general), and thus it is our job to teach them the error of their backward ways. This is not an innocently inaccurate assumption – it has its roots in Orientalism, or the history of the west studying the east as if it were a land of mysterious, sensual yet fundamentally backward foreignness. This discourse has justified an unbelievable amount of violence throughout the past 200 years, and it is seriously uncool to replicate it.

Bear in mind that things are rarely a simple case of “our ways” vs “their ways”. Similarly, remember that when you perceive a problem with the society in which you now live, you are definitely not the first to notice it. Give credit to the local citizens, activists, scholars, public figures and everyday people who’ve been fighting their whole lives to enact the changes they wish to see in their societies. And instead of trying to tell people what they should do and how they should feel about their communities, religions, or daily practices, try asking questions and listening. You might just be surprised what you can learn.

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