February 07, 2016

On Dogs and Clash of Cultures

Ramlet el-Baida on a Sunday morning, 8 AM. Quite a difference from last week photos. It was all summer-like then. Now we're back in winter-mode.

Europe is 'struggling' with its Syrian refugees. Everyone is up in arms about the influx of hundreds of thousand of them. One million crossed into Europe in 2015 alone.  About hundred fifty thousand of them have claimed asylum in Germany. Estimates however are that only half of them have registered. Holland has taken in about 50,000. And the local population is groaning. Voicing your opposition against refugees has become  acceptable .
The population of Holland and Germany is vastly larger than Lebanon’s, so if anyone would have the right to complain, it would be the Lebanese. They have acquired over a million Syrian refugees on a population of some 4 million. (Here’s an interesting clip on where the Syrian refugees are)
Dogs on the beach. Two of them are 'local' dogs; they live on that beach.
However, I think there are some genuine concerns. For instance, on New Year’s Eve in Germany, there were a number of incidents of sexual harassment that involved refugees. In some places they have banned male asylum seekers from visiting the public swimming pool because of sexual harassment complaints.  It is the behavior of European women, which they are not accustomed to, and their own sudden freedom, which they do not know how to handle well, (according to this Syrian psychiatrist in Holland), which seems to  cause conflict.
A  simple case of clash of cultures. And it is what Europeans struggle with.
I kind of get that, the clash of cultures thing.
When I just arrived in Lebanon, I noticed that Lebanon women walked with a perpetual scowl on their face, a look of utter contempt. I, on the other hand, would walk with a smile and look people in the eye.
That this would invite complete strangers (always men, though), to turn around and follow me and engage in weird conversations, did not dawn on me, until I walked with a Lebanese friend. I mentioned this constant harassment to her, and blamed it on me being foreign.
No, it’s because you invite it. You smile to them. That’s a sign you wish to communicate. Look at me. I do not smile, I look straight ahead and avoid eye contact. And if they still try, you have to be very strict. Do not be polite, but say “Fuck off right now!” It works.”
Remainder of the summer
And indeed. It worked.
The eye contact and the smile is - in the more traditional Arab culture - an invitation.
In Europe, it is not.  And so now I also often walk around town with a so-called ‘ bitch face’. When I see foreign women on the street, I can sort of judge, from the smile on their faces, how long they’ve been in Lebanon. It’s not a big issue. It’s a matter of knowing local customs.
Some cities have now started with the familiarizing of refugees with European customs. A carnival committee in Holland, for instance, has handed out pamphlets that remind visitors to the annual carnival celebrations that they need to respect to local rules of engagement. ( Houdt de normaal gangbare fatsoensregels in acht). And so a woman may be dressed (in non-Dutch eyes) provocatively during the carnival festivities, this is by no mean an indication that you are free to touch them (Arabic version here).
Lebanese culture is very similar to Syrian culture, at least in the eye of a foreigner. And so the influx of one million and some Syrians should not be an issue of cultural confrontation here. It can create friction because of the shared services (schools, medical care, infra structure), or the perceived competition on the job market (source), but behavior-wise, they’re one people.

A scooter that flushed ashore during last night's stormy weather
But this morning I walked my dogs on Ramlet el-Baida, Beirut’s public beach.
 The choice of the beach is deliberate, as I - these days – tend to avoid walking my dogs during day hours on the street. Lebanese in general do not care much for dogs, but are not afraid of them.
Syrians, however, seem to greatly fear them, even the puny little mutts that I own. I do not feel comfortable walking my dogs, when entire families deliberately cross the street when they see me coming, having grown men ‘shoe’ them away, or otherwise display behavior that would indicate I am walking around with a rabid wolf or something. And I have them on a leash!
My husband is way worse; he lets them walk freely, and when walking past someone who is clearly afraid, he pretends they’re not his.
It was not always like this.  
The life guard's platform
You may argue that the dog shit is an obnoxious issue. Absolutely true, but we clean up after them. You may argue that dogs in Arab culture are not favorable viewed. I will disagree with that. This is an issue with the more conservative muslim culture, but Lebanon is a country of religious - and therefore also cultural - diversity.
Last week, when our housekeeper walked with the dog, a man kicked it, saying it was ‘wissig (dirty). He was rather surprised that she lashed back at him.
And this morning, when I was at the beach (where several beach chair operators own a number of vicious looking dogs), I meet this lady who walks her dog there as well.  And she tells me how on Saturday, this Syrian gentleman, on the beach, berated her for her dog. “Take the dog away. You should not walk with a dog here, there are people walking.
I would agree with him if it were summer, and people are lying in the sand. But it’s been raining cats and dogs (poor choice of words), so who goes to the beach? She was indignant. “I am in my country, and I am being told by a foreigner how to behave?

With the influx of a different culture, is the influx of different habits. And so it seems we (as in Lebanese) are experiencing a (minor) cultural clash here as well. And as you can see, we 'struggle' with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's really interesting to hear. I wonder if Lebanese women have experienced any issues with Syrian men. Lebanese women don't tend to dress the same way as Syrians (grave generalizations I know) and they tend to enjoy a little more freedom, so I'm curious if this has translated to them having issues. Have you heard anything?