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'Simples Gestures' Can Lead to Mideast Understanding

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Enjoying a Yemeni meal with villagers in 1986

Enjoying a Yemeni meal with villagers in 1986

American anthropologist explores diverse cultural landscape of Middle East

Despite decades of close U.S. involvement in Middle East affairs, most Americans know little about the cultures of the region.

Andrea Rugh, however, is an exception. In her new book, "Simple Gestures," the anthropologist explains the cultural differences and similarities she encountered during the four decades she lived and worked in the Middle East.

Rugh journeyed to the Middle East with her husband, an American diplomat, who served in capitals from Cairo and Damascus to Islamabad and Kabul. With him, she mingled with social and political elites. Rugh formed strong relationships with local families while raising her three sons. Dr. Andrea Rugh, author of 'Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East.'

Dr. Andrea Rugh, author of 'Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East.'

But Rugh is also an anthropologist who has advised development projects in Africa and the Middle East. In that role, she worked closely with community leaders, getting a view of the region that most Americans never see.

"Generally, what we see is the outrages or we see the dramatic events," says Rugh. "But you can't look at outrage behaviors without feeling an emotional content to it that perhaps leaves you without understanding the normal everyday behavior. So that is mainly what I wanted to do with this book, to give more normal everyday events and activities in these countries."

Although most of the countries in the region are Arab and predominantly Muslim, Rugh stresses that the Middle East is not a single, uniform culture. Lunching in Afghanistan (2000)

Lunching in Afghanistan (2000)

"There is certainly no comparison between, for example, Lebanon or Egypt which is maritime or agricultural societies and the societies of the gulf that are primary tribal in their origins and backgrounds."

However, she says, there is a strong sense of loyalty across all Middle Eastern societies, more so than among Americans.

"I found out that one of the important things was the emphasis on obligation or duty," says Rugh. "I think people tend to be part of their circles of obligation within the family. There are certain obligations that people feel they owe to others. In other words, you tend to respect your elders and you tend to be defferential to them and even maybe your siblings or your parents. But this is a very important concept." Andrea and Bill Rugh waiting to receive guests in the United Arab Emirates.

Andrea and Bill Rugh waiting to receive guests in the United Arab Emirates.

In "Simple Gestures," Rugh disputes the notion that people in the Middle East hate the United States. While they may dislike certain American foreign policies, the people she met and worked with had no quarrel with Americans. In fact, they admired the U.S. democratic process, higher education, advanced technologies and its artistic diversity.

Rugh wants her book to show Americans the importance of looking at other countries and other cultures in a way that is not colored by Western values.

"It is very important for us to try to understand another culture on its own terms, not simply by imposing our own value structure on them," says Rugh. "So, that is the main message; how to step back and be able to see and make sense of what another culture is doing."

That approach, Rugh argues, can serve U.S. foreign policy aims.

She points to Afghanistan as an example. If American decision makers had understood the tribal nature of Afghan society, she suggests, they would have promoted a more decentralized government.

"I would have liked to see a decentralized one, where local groups had more autonomy to govern and provide for their own development. I think it was a mistake encouraging the Afghans to so centralize the power in the hands of one person."

Rugh notes that culture is revealed most clearly in the way people interact with each other, and that understanding those simple gestures is key to understanding the society.

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