Islamic Dialogues: 4 The Arab View of Manual Labor, Reality, and Respect

December 31, 2009 at 7:47 PM 3 comments

Written by Lewis D. Eigen 

The Setting

January 14, 2005: Bethesda, Maryland.  The office of Dr. Esmaeel Hamzah al-Dira, a Psychologist.  He serves as an employment counselor for Ultimate Creative Technology Inc. (UCT).  Under the company’s Employee Assistance Program, he is seeing , a computer programmer from UCT who has had some difficulty getting along lately.  Farhard Bassim has introduced himself and is clearly not happy about being in the doctor’s office.

The Dialog

“Why are you so unhappy about seeing me, Farhard—may I call you Farhard?”

“Yes, of course.  The reason that I am not thrilled to be here is that it was not my idea.”

“Not your idea to see me, or not your idea to get help from anyone.”

“I don’t need any help; I don’t want any help.  I’m here only because UCT insisted that I come.  It is the worst form of discrimination.  With the American Hysteria about Muslims, none of us are free from this.”

“They told you then that I too was a Moslem?”

“Yes, but that does not make it any less insulting.  I am not crazy and not in need of psychotherapy.”

“I you were, I would not be the man to do it.  Although I have been trained and am licensed, I personally don’t do psychotherapy.  I am a counselor.”

“They sent me to a psychologist to humiliate me in front of my colleagues.”

“What about your family?  Do you feel humiliated before them also?”

“You are also an Arab and a man.  So you understand.  Of course I have not told such a thing to my family.”

“No, I don’t suppose you did.  You know in America most people discuss their work-related problems with their families.  Most of us American Arabs have learned the value of such a thing.”

“You don’t think that it would be shameful for me to tell my father or the head of our family his older brother, Uncle Saud, that I am seeing a Psychologist.”

“Not necessarily.  They are experienced men of the world.  If you told them that you were having a little difficulty at the office and asked their advice, they might be able to suggest some things that would help.”

“But then I would be shamed in front of them for looking like I am failing in my job.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that you were not succeeding.”  He picked up the manila folder on his desk, opened it, examined some papers.  “No, I don’t see anything about failing.  Do you think that you are failing as a computer programmer?”

“It is not what I think.  They are the ones who have the power.  So they must think that I am failing.”

“Do you know how much they pay me for seeing you?”


“It’s $125 an hour.  Why would they waste that on an employee who was a failure?  Why not just fire you?”

“They are just building a case so that they can make my job impossible for me and building a record so that they can fire me.”

“If they wanted to fire you, they could easily have done that.  I understand that you had a little altercation with your supervisor.  That’s all they needed.  But instead they sent you here.”

“My boss, Edna O’Conner, started the problem by insulting me.  She thinks that just because I am assigned to her unit that she can disrespect me, and humiliate me.  Well you understand our ways.  No man can be insulted and not retaliate.”

“Because she is a woman?”

“That only adds to the insult.  If she were a man and insulted me, not to retaliate would be shameful.  No man can allow himself to be abused for others to see.  If I had done nothing my family would be shamed.”

“What would happen if you lost your job?  Would that not have been worse?”

“Losing a job is not shameful when a large corporation with great power so decides.  There is nothing that any man can do.  It is beyond human power.  It is the will of Allah.  But to be insulted publicly blackens my face.”

“So by insulting Mrs. O’Conner in return and threatening her, you have whitened your face?”  Farhard Bassim nodded.  “How long have you been in America, Farhard?”

“A little over a year now.”

“Yes, and I see in your record that the company brought you into America on an H-1 visa, the one by which a foreigner who is skilled in a critical labor shortage area and very well trained can jump the queue and get an immediate job here.”

“Yes, I have a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from the University in Amman.  One of the other employees at the company told them about me, they interviewed me in Jordan, and did the paper work to allow me to come.”

‘So, the company took the trouble to send someone to interview you, paid for a lawyer, did all the government paperwork, brought you over here, and employed you to do computer programming.”


“So, they might think that they have an investment in you, that they want to recoup  They might want to have you as an employee.  Your friend who recommended you.  Is he a Moslem too?”

“Yes, a Syrian fellow.”

“And are there other Moslems in the company?”

“Yes, but they are not Arabs like us.  They are Pakistanis and Turks.”

“I know one of the Turks.  He is a Vice President isn’t he?”

“Yes, but he works in a different area from me.”

“My point is that the company does not seem to be biased against Moslems.  As a matter of fact, they have more Moslems than there are proportionately in the American population.”

“Then why would they try and humiliate us so?”

“Let’s look at that.  Who was humiliated?  Just you?  What about your Moslem friend, the Syrian?”

“We were both shamed.”

“But only you made a big fuss over it.  He didn’t, did he?”

“No, but he comes from a tribe with little honor to uphold…at least I think he does.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because he didn’t respond when insulted.  He just groveled.”

“Could it be that he did not feel insulted?”

“He had to be shamed.  He knew what I thought.  Today, I no longer have a very good opinion of him.”

“OK, let’s talk about that.  I understand what you were feeling.  We Arabs are particularly susceptible to problems involving shame.  When I was a little boy in Lebanon, I remember that the avoidance of shame drove much of our behavior.”

“Of course.  That is fundamental.  It is natural, is it not?”

“That it is fundamental to our Arabic culture, there is no doubt, but I’m not sure that it is natural.  Different cultures are responsive to different forces.  For example, here in America, I find that among Catholics and Jews, they do not respond much to shame, as a matter of fact they do not feel shame the way we do.”

“They have little honor.  If the Jews had any honor, they would not have invaded our lands and humiliated our people.  And the Catholics did the same in the Crusades.”

“I’ll let that pass for now, but consider that the Catholics and Jews seem very much to be influenced by guilt—not shame.”

“I’m not sure that I follow the difference.”

“Shame is outer determined, while guilt is inner determined.  For example, you were initially shamed because your friend had observed the incident.  You felt that both of you had been insulted, so you felt he should feel shame.  What if you were not there to witness the incident, and he went through it alone?  Would he then have felt shamed?”

“Not as much, I guess.  But he still should feel shame because someone might find out.”

“Right, because someone might find out.  But what if no one ever found out.  His face would not be blackened would it?”

“No, of course not.”

“That is my point.  Our Arab concept of shame is dictated by what others will or will not perceive.  A hermit could never feel shame.  Guilt, on the other hand, is felt by us individually.  Its presence or absence is independent of what anyone else thinks or might think.  Shame is dependent on an audience—someone to be shamed before.  My shame or the lack thereof depends on what others think…my family, friends, and colleagues.  My guilt depends only on me.  Your’s, on you.  But our shame is determined by each other and other people’s perceptions as well.  Jews and Catholics feel shame, but not as profoundly as we do; we Arabs however, feel guilt but it not so critical in our lives as the avoidance of shame is.”

“What is the point?”

“The point is that different cultures behave differently.  Like it or not, you and I have chosen to live and work in a Judeo-Christian culture.  Our culture may make things very difficult for us compared to Americans or for that matter to other immigrants from Europe—Westerners.”

“How can behaving honorably make things difficult for us?”

“Let’s consider the example you gave at the beginning of our conversation.  I asked if you had discussed the incident with your father or your uncle—the head of the family.  You replied that you would never do so because you would be ashamed to tell them what had happened to you.”

“Yes, of course.”

“And you would never discuss this with your co-workers.”

“For the same reason.”

“But that places us Arabs at a real disadvantage in the workplace.  The others here in America, if they had a difficulty at work, would discuss it with the people they knew who could perhaps give them ideas on how to deal with it—especially those people who were older and more experienced.  They would discuss it with their fellow workers or with the union representative or ombudsman if there is one.  UCT has ombudsmen don’t they?”

“Yes but I’ve never met them.”

“That is exactly my point.  The company pays for these people to be a resource to the employees.  Other workers take advantage of that; you don’t.  Other employees might get very good advice on how to handle a situation from relatives who have had similar experiences.”

“They might do so for some things I suppose, but I doubt that they would tell these others that they had been humiliated.”

“Ah, but they would.  You see, they do not feel the shame if their boss has done something wrong.  Their view is that the boss should be ashamed if they had done nothing wrong.  They in contrast however, might not want to share their experiences if THEY were feeling guilty.  The typical American who had thought he had been wronged and who felt no guilt, might make a formal complaint, ask for a hearing, or even sue the company.  You would never do such a thing would you.”

“That seems total madness to me.  Instead of being shamed before a few people, I would be shamed before the whole world.”

“But that is the point.  Our culture has used shame as a survival mechanism.  In the Arabian desert the conditions were harsh, and there was no government.  No one could survive without the protection of others—the extended family or the tribe.  That was the only way to organize enough manpower to defend against raiders who would steal their livestock or their women.  These families, clans, and tribes were not very large groups, and each man had to be depended on to do what had to be done.  So from early childhood all Arabs were taught that their identity was a group identity.  That bravery and aggressiveness toward enemies and potential enemies and submissiveness and gentleness within the clan or tribe was honorable, and the absence of those things shameful.  And if an individual was shamed, the family, tribe or clan was shamed.  One of the major purposes was to maintain the core concept of blood revenge and retaliation.  The major protection from harm to the group was for strangers and others to be respectful of the strength of the group and be inhibited from attacking them.  And our concept of blood was the most critical tool for accomplishing that.”

“You mean blood honor?”

“Yes.  Other people refer to it as revenge or retaliation.  But it is much more than that.  It is a duty like no other duty for the Arab.  If a member of the family or clan is slain, revenge will be exacted upon the killer and if he cannot be found, another member of his family will do.  In America, that can get you put in jail for life.”

“Americans have no honor.”

“It’s not that they don’t have honor.  They have had the luxury of not having to survive in a harsh desert environment where everyone will steal from anyone they meet and are able to do so  Where there is no government—there is no law.  The Americans came close in the old West, and they developed their own code of honor.  But the big difference was that the frontier Americans were loners.  Their immediate family was their unit.  Revenge had its place for the family members for a while but with organized law and order, the Americans and most Westerners don’t even recognize or allow revenge for an attack on a family member.  They don’t need it.  The legal system will generally punish the transgressors, and there is no burden on individual family members to devote their entire being to avenging the wrong—society has more resources, does it better, and keeps people productive instead of wreaking vengeance all the time.”

“Well we never had that kind of law and order.  Our societies were too poor and unorganized to provide revenge for others.  Even today, who would trust the government or the police in a matter of blood.  The guilty person or his family will bribe the police and get him off.  If the guilty man is particularly strong or powerful, the police will not go after him, and the judges can’t be relied upon.  If they were from his tribe and not yours, there would never be any justice.  Only a family member or members, who will not rest until blood has been avenged with blood—who will expend the last once of strength and their last penny—will keep others in fear of attacking the family or clan.”

“I think that unfortunately is right in too much of the world.  But let’s face it, it is not really necessary here in America.”

“I do not claim it is.  I accept the fact that the authorities will deal with these matters in this country.  I do not claim a right of blood here.  I know there are a few, especially if a woman of the family has been dishonored, of our culture that take the law into their own hands here in America, but I do not condone this.  I’m a modern man.”

“Don’t you?  I don’t mean literally, but the culture has taught us things from the time we are little children—things that are not easily erased.”

“Such as?”

“Such as never let an insult go unanswered.  If we do not answer an insult, even a slight verbal one, who would believe that our family or tribe would follow them to the ends of the earth—across generations if necessary—to avenge something much more serious?”

“I never thought about answering insults that way.  It’s just that if you don’t respond, you will lose honor and be shamed in the eyes of your own family.”

“Precisely, that is the mechanism for training for and maintaining the blood code.  We are attuned to meet every threat with equal or greater force.  That’s what you did.  You were insulted, so you made sure that the person who insulted you would not go unanswered—that you and your family can not be attacked with impunity.  If you didn’t, your face would be blackened as we say.  Worse, the insult to any member of the family or clan blackens the face of the entire group.  Not just you.  The only way you could whiten it again would be to respond and retaliate—make sure that your family is protected.”

“I really didn’t think of it that way.  I just reacted naturally.”

“Of course you didn’t think about it that way.  If you did, you would say to yourself, ‘This has nothing to do with my family.  No matter what this boss of mine does, he—she in your case—is not coming after my father, my mother, my wife or children.  And if I do not respond, she will not get the idea that she can steal my family’s property.’  That is so unreal that you would think twice or three times.  But as you say, you didn’t think.  You just responded exactly the way you have been taught to from childhood, exactly the way your grandparents, and their parents before them were taught in their childhoods.  That is the evolutionary mechanism we Arabs used to survive.”

“Well it did work.”

“Yes, in the Arabian desert 2,000 years ago.  Perhaps, in the Arabian desert of today, although I think that it causes more problems than it solves.  But it sure doesn’t work in the 21st century in the United States of America.  In most cases you would lose your job, and with your H-1 visa status you would be, as they say here, up the creek without a paddle.  Did you consider at the time that you and your family might be sent back to Jordan as a result of your defending the whiteness of their face or protecting your honor? “

“No, I didn’t even think of that…although I did afterward.”

“That’s the problem.  We Arabs don’t think.  We act—sometimes irrationally.  That’s what our culture has trained us to do.  What is important is that we understand that and realize what is driving us, and break the cycle when it is detrimental or dangerous.  You’re not the only Arab who does counterproductive even destructive things.  It’s one of the great problems of our culture in the modern world.”

“I can’t believe that reaction is always negative and counter to the Arab’s interest.”

“Of course it is not always so.  But it is true sufficiently often that we harm our own cases frequently.  Look at the situation in Palestine.  Some 18 year old Israeli is drafted into the Army and assigned to a checkpoint on the West Bank.  He’s told to check everyone’s papers to make sure that only authorized people can enter Israel.  So he does so, and a 65 year old Arab man, the head of his family and clan, is in the line with his grandchildren.  The kids are impatient having to wait and say to him, ‘Grandpa, why are we waiting for this young boy.  Tell him who you are and tell him to stop making us wait.’  Well, Grandpa is now really insulted.  He may be the head of the family, but the Israeli kid has the Uzi machine gun.  So he does nothing—for the time being.  He goes home and the grandchildren have told their parents what happened.  The Grandfather is shamed in front of his son, daughter in law, wife, and who knows how many others of the family or extended family.  Now should he have taken on the Israeli kid with the machine gun?”

“No.  The code of honor recognizes that to hold silence in the face of overwhelming strength or odds is not only acceptable but desirable.”

“Right, the mechanism is supposed to protect the family, not have its members commit suicide.  But the family’s face is still black.  He must whiten it.  So what does he do?  So he lets the Hammas use his garage in which to make rockets.  Now does he do that in silence as a rationally thought out political act?  No, he does it and tells all who will listen what he has done—remember if he doesn’t broadcast it, the act will not whiten the family’s face.  Not that anyone else ever knew about the insult with the 18 year old Israeli that started the whole thing.  He is doing this so that in his head, the rest of the family will still have confidence in him and he will not have been shamed.  And the parents use this as an object lesson to the children as to how their wonderful grandfather does not allow the family to get insulted.  Of course, one of those grandchildren, so proud of Grandpa, tells his friends and they go and throw stones at the Israeli soldiers.  Now luckily the kids are not killed or injured, but the family honor has already endangered the man’s own grandchildren.  If the grandson does get hurt, will Grandpa blame himself for riling up a 12 year old to maintain the dignity of the family and his extended Arab family?  Not at all. He will place all blame on some other 18 year old Israeli kid who sees one of his fellows get hit on the forehead and crumple with a concussion.  So he fires his rubber bullet and sooner or later, it hits a stone throwing Arab kid his younger brother’s age in the eye and death or serious damage results.  All worth responding to an insult?  I don’t think so.”

“An occupied people has the right to resist occupation.”

“I understand that, and agree.  But my point is Grandpa did not look at the history of the Middle East, weigh the respective claims of Arabs and Jews to Palestine, consider the history of all the Arab Armies attacking Israel the second the United Nations voted the Partition in 1947, consider whether or not negotiations would better achieve Arab objectives, consider all other alternatives, and then decide to volunteer for Hamas to fight the occupation.  No, he was insulted and he reacted.  That was it.  Now the Israelis find out about the bomb factory in his garage and bulldoze the garage taking the building to which it is attached in the process.  He is arrested and serves two years in an Israeli prison, and three generations of his family lost their home.  All to avoid shame.”

“Put that way you make it sound tragic.”

“It is tragic.  Fortunately in your case there was much less at stake and the risk is much less, but structurally you did the exact same thing.  You did not weigh the actions of your supervisor, consider them against the norms of the company, the pressure of the moment, the American culture, with the advice of more knowledgeable colleagues and then make the rational decision to take your supervisor on.  Your choice of methods would have been considered from a range of telling her off to filing an official complaint or even suing the company.  That would be the rational, and I might add, effective way to deal with the problem.”

“In that light you make it seem so foolish.”

“It was foolish.  Understandable, yes, but foolish none the less.  By the way, exactly what did she do that was so insulting.”

“She treated me like a common laborer.  She humiliated me.”

“But what precisely did she do to treat you like a common laborer?  You are a computer programmer are you not?”

“Yes, and she wanted me to function as a human camel and transport her computers.”

“I’m not following you.  Please start at the beginning of the incident and tell me what happened in time sequence.”

“OK.  Our company occupies two buildings in Bethesda.  All our servers are in the old building where we work.  The new building has just been completed and there is a new modern, temperature controlled, server room, with a diesel generator if the power goes down in a storm or something.  The computer servers had to be disconnected, moved across the parking lot to the other building, reconnected, and tested.”

“That sounds reasonable so far.”

“So she paired us in two’s and assigned each pair some servers to be responsible for.  That would have been fine, but she wanted us to disconnect them.”

“What’s wrong with that.  You understand the computers.  She wasn’t going to allow the laborers in the Mail room to do that.”

“I had not problem with having the responsibility.  But she wanted us to back-up each server specially, power the server down, and disconnect all the cables and wires, and …

“Wait a second.  I’m losing you.  From the tone of your voice, I gather that you did not think that assignment appropriate.  What was the problem?”

“In the first place, I am a computer programmer and a systems analyst.  I am not an operator or an installer.”

“So you don’t know how to perform those specialized functions.”

“No, of course I know how.  It’s just that lower level people do these things normally.”

“So why did they not in this case.”

“There are only two of them.  There are 36 servers.  It takes two people ten to fifteen minutes to complete the process for each server.  I understand that if the technicians did it, the process would take nine hours.  She wanted in done much faster, so she assigned all the programmers and developers to do that low level work.”

“And what did you do?”

“I told her that perhaps she should, if she wanted to move the servers quickly, use a temporary agency that has plenty of technicians who are trained and do that sort of thing.  That the negative effect on morale of the programmers and developers would not be worth the little money that would be saved.”

“How did she react?

“She said it had nothing to do with saving money.  That the hassle to make arrangements to have the people brought in, orienting them, and then having to supervise them was just too much trouble.  Also, these servers had our most important applications on them and she didn’t want to trust them to strangers.”

“And how did you react to that explanation?”

“I suggested that we take a full day to do it and have the existing staff move one server at a time.  She didn’t want to do that she said because then there would be critical functions that would not be operational all day long, and that staff would not know which applications would be operating, and that the servers which handle our big consumer web sites would be down a lot and we would have to notify the 20 or 30 thousand people who would hit that web server every day.”

“They seem like rational reasons to me.”

“And I actually was persuaded myself.  If we all pitched in we could have the whole thing done in less than an hour.  And if we did it at 4 AM Sunday Morning, very few people, inside or outside would be inconvenienced.  I didn’t like it, but I figured if the other programmers would get themselves dirty pulling and connecting cables and doing scut level backups, I could probably do it too.”

“So what happened?  It seemed to me that you made a rational decision and even understood why your supervisor wanted to implement her plan.”

“I did.  We all came in Sunday in the wee hours of the morning and started on the backups, shutdown and disconnects.  Then we were ready to have the computers moved across the parking lot.  So I looked for the truck and there was none.  So I assumed that the technicians would actually transport the computers in their special wheeled carts they had for the purpose—to move computers from one location to another.”

“They weren’t there either.  The two of them were doing what we were doing and shutting down other servers.  So I called the supervisor and she came right over and actually told me that I was to pick the computer up and personally carry it in my arms across the parking lot.”

“And your colleague, your Muslim friend?”

“He was to carry the monitor and the keyboard, mouse and power filter.  We were being told to become pack animals.  Six years of university training, two degrees, successful experience as a programmer and she wants to turn me into a donkey or a camel.  All I could think of that someone might see that.  And when my family found out that I was a porter, a fellaheen—even a camel driver does not load his own camels.  I lost it, I guess.  I was so angry.  I was so ashamed.  I was even more angry because she was trying to bring shame upon me.  That she should have it in for me to try and humiliate me so.”

“And what did you say?”

“I probably shouldn’t have said it.  I can hardly remember my exact words.  I was angry and humiliated, my heart was pounding and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up I think.”

“Do you recall the gist of what you said?”

“That I was not going to be intimidated by her unreasonable demands, that I am not some dumb pack animal that she could lead around by a harness, if she didn’t stop that she would regret it.”

“Is that all you can remember?”

“Well the expression on her face drove me into I frenzy.  I guess I went to far.  I told here that if she didn’t stop this, she would find that even pack animals if ill treated will bite their tormentor.”

“That did it.  When you first got angry, you were merely inappropriate.  The biting was over the top.  You physically threatened your supervisor.  No wonder they almost fired you.”

“Certainly I would not have physically hurt her; after all she is a woman, although she rarely acts like it.”

“I believe you when you say that.  Because I know our culture.  But why should she believe that?  Or the company administration.  They come from a culture where people often mean what they say and say what they mean…not always, but in this context many people have zero tolerance for threats of violence.  I know that we are all poets and orators, we get carried away with our words.  We are romantics in that we have wishes and dreams..

“The Americans all seem to have wishes and dreams.  They are always talking about following their dreams.”

“Yes, all people dream.  But relatively few people get so carried away so that the dreams and reality blend into one.  We have a tendency to do that.  You are trained as a computer programmer, and in your field reality is essential to take into account.  If you would not have hurt your supervisor, what was the point in threatening her?  The logic of your profession does not carry over into your personal behavior.  Most Arab professionals have a similar conflict, but we’ve got to work to keep it away from our work and professional activities.  You remember Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi government spokesman at the beginning of the invasion of Baghdad.  He told the world’s press that American troops were being cut to pieces outside of Baghdad and no American soldiers had entered Baghdad.  While he was on camera telling this to the world, American shells were exploding right in the background and everyone could see that he was lying.  What was your reaction at the time, not about the war, but about Bagdad Bob?”

“Not much I guess.  I thought that he was in a difficult situation.”

“Why difficult?”

“Well it was his job to put things in the most positive light from the Iraqi point of view.  The fates had ordained that Baghdad was to fall.”

“OK but did you feel that he and done something terrible?  That he was a despicable liar?”

“No, he was in an impossible situation.”

“All right then.  There is the heart of your problem.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“You would not call him a deliberate liar who was deliberately misleading the world, would you?”

“No, he was hoping for a different outcome that Allah would bring to pass.”

“You understand, I understand, most Arabs understand, and a few others in the world understand that he was desperately hoping for a different outcome.  At the same time he psychologically could not bring himself to say that the entire Iraq Army including the elite Republican Guard had just abandoned the fight; that they did not even try to defend their homeland from the infidel.  His hopes and dreams became his reality, and at the same time the real reality was so shameful that he would not even allow it into the equation of his consideration.  At the time he said those things, he believed them.  However, the rest of the world, and some of the more modern Arabs saw him as a vicious, irresponsible liar.”

“I can see how the journalists were pissed off, but why call it vicious and irresponsible.”

“The Westerners look at all the factors, what they want and what they do not.  They try and often do a good job of keeping their own personal desires our of their professional analysis.  The first two things the Western journalist would ask himself in Bob’s place before issuing any statement were:  Is it true? And second, what affect will my statement have.  Bob’s statement was not true, but that is not why he was and is today so much despised.  It was the potential consequences of his statement.  What if a handful of Iraq patriots were hiding in the outskirts of Baghdad, having decided that the American forces were overwhelmingly superior, and resistance was tantamount to suicide?  How would they react?”

“They would not be as depressed as if they had heard the truth.”

“Just so, and if the Americans were being shredded all over the outskirts of Baghdad, then they were not so invincible and could be beaten.  Now if I do not fight them, I and my family will be shamed.  I no longer am up against impossible forces.  So he and his fellows run out in the streets and get killed, leaving more widows and fatherless children.  All because Baghdad Bob couldn’t separate what he wanted and hoped for from what was.  To us he was doing what any of us might have done; to the Western media people he was irresponsibly risking the lives of thousands of his countrymen.  In the case of your job problem, an Arab colleague might tell you that he admired the way that you would not let yourself be pushed around and made a fool of—that he would do the same thing under like circumstances.  But they would be giving you terrible advice for working at UTC in America in the 21st century.  It would be irresponsible of me to give you that advice because that might easily get you fired, your career destroyed, and have you and your family face deportation proceedings.  We’re not only in the West, Farhard, but we’re in America which is the ultimate vanguard of modern Western thought.”

“So what should I do now?”

“What do you think that you ought to do?”

“Apologize to that woman who had no respect for me and my professional attainments?”

“We’ve discussed the non-rational part of your behavior and put it into a context here.  Let’s turn to the rational part.  The part that has you being transformed into a pack animal.  Do you think the other programmers were concerned about the assignment demeaning them.”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t discuss it with them.”

“Well I can tell you that they didn’t.  After you stormed out of the office, your boss picked up your server herself, and with your Moslem friend carrying the monitor and other stuff, they crossed the parking lot and installed the computer on the other side.  All the programmers and developers did the same.  The whole job was completed in less than an hour, and your boss took the entire department out to breakfast to celebrate.  Morale was terrific, all the servers were operating and with the exception of everyone wondering where you were, everyone had a fine time.  Let me ask you something.  Did you ever do any manual labor?”

“I work very hard, no one at the company will not say that I am one of the hardest-working people there.”

“I didn’t ask if you work hard.  Did you ever have a construction job, or a farm job—when you were a kid or to make some extra money while in school?”

“No.  I worked in an office.”

“There’s another big cultural handicap for our Arab People.  There is a long tradition of despising and avoiding manual labor.  When we were a desert people only, our culture despised manual labor and especially farm work.  The only exception was tending, camels which was a noble and important activity for a man.  But other than that, he would not labor heavily unless he absolutely had to.  Physical work was a lower class activity that no self-respecting Bedouin would do if he could possibly avoid it.  Settling in a city was almost as bad as working in agriculture but as society evolved, white collar office work became acceptable along with professions.  Even today I see it.  Arab immigrants are referred to me to help them get a job.  They will make $7 an hour as a filing clerk in an office rather than $18 an hour as a Xerox operator and hauling cartons of paper and tinkering with the machinery and getting their hands dirty.  Even students who need money will refuse construction jobs paying 5 times what a cashier in the dining hall gets paid and handle money as opposed to cement, bricks, or other building materials.  Even an artisan—a goldsmith or a painter is frowned upon.”

“Would your parents not be shamed if you were not a professional man and unloaded trucks all day?”

“I think that they would have been—they are dead now—but yes, they had the bias as well.  But notice that the Americans do not.  In your field, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs when they were young, took manual labor jobs at Xerox Park, doing exactly the kind of thing you just refused to do.  They not only did those jobs but thought they were wonderful.  They built computers with their own hands.  You are a computer programmer.  Have you ever built a computer?”

“No, your point is well taken.  I admit it.  That’s they way I have been brought up.  I don’t build physical things.”

“Understanding that is the first critical step to solving the problem.  You at least understand that this is a cultural bias that is at odds with most other cultures—especially the West which seems to be full of tinkerers and inventors.  Kids here love to tinker with cars.  American men spend billions buying garden stuff to mow their lawns, plant trees, fix cars, make furniture, redo basements.  Can you repair your auto?  I personally went to a school to learn how to change my own spark plugs and then the new cars don’t have them.  I was trying to get away from this Arab paranoia about manual labor.  You’ve got to also if you are to be successful.  Tragically, our people really suffer from this problem and most of us don’t even know that it is a problem.”

“Why is it a problem if we can make a living doing something that our society approves us rather than looks down upon?”

“I used to ask that very same question of one of my professors—the one who convinced me to learn to change sparkplugs.  The biggest problem is that the lack of working with our hands is felt in our heads—not in the sense that we somehow miss it psychologically.  But we do not develop with a technical or mechanical mentality.  Your boss came up with a brilliant managerial solution which solved a big problem fast, cost almost nothing, and with the exception of you, was a big morale booster for the department.  You would never have thought of it.  Even your Syrian colleague who has shed his shame of doing physical labor, would probably never have thought of such a solution.  Do you know Lars Kinsman at your company?”

“I’ve met him a few times, and talked to him now and then but I don’t really know him.”

“Well you know his reputation as a great manager, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes.  Everyone says he is the best.”

“I was talking to his wife at a company party a few months ago, and she told me that Lars goes to the training classes to fix every machine he ever puts into his operations.  He knows how to repair the air conditioners, the Xerox machines, the trucks in the company fleet, the telephone switch, the PC’s, everything.  He rarely if ever has ever fixed anything.  But apparently he was able to pass the county electrician’s examination.  He wanted to add a sunroom onto his house and thought he might do a little of the electrical work himself.  The county told him only a licensed electrician could do the work or a homeowner who passed the same exam.  So he studied and tinkered, passed the exam, and did all the work himself.  But he learns to do and fix the things so that he understands the critical problems for the operators, the weaknesses in the system, the interaction between the employees and their machines.  He’s at home with machinery and technology.”

“He sure is.  He was the one who did all the specifications for our backup diesel generator to keep our servers going even if the power goes out.  The contractor wanted to put it in one way and Lars told him it was not as efficient even though he had never installed a generator in his life.  He came to our meeting to suggest that we might want to rethink what our contractor was doing.  And none of this was in his field.  But we hired a consultant who said that he was absolutely right, and we fired the contractor and got another, and my supervisor’s boss asked Lars to oversee the operation.  He did too.  The system works great.”

“That was just one of the examples.  We are an interesting people when it comes to technology.  We love it—using it and benefiting from it that is.  We adopted all the Western technology despite our love/hate relationship with the West.  We get good at using it too.  You’re a good example.  You are a first class programmer.  But while we are good users, we are poor maintainers, developers, inventors and innovators of technology.  Can you think of three significant inventions that were created by Arabs?  You probably cannot think of even one?  Is this because we are stupid? Or lazy? Or we don’t care?  No.  It’s just that very few of us have the type of interactive history with mechanical or electrical things that a good inventor needs.  There are almost no inventors who have only invented a single thing.  Inventing is a way of thinking based in a set of experiences with reality constantly impinging on the work.  It’s hard to study for three years and become an inventor.  Unless you have had that history of these experiences.  And until we get those, the History of Arab Inventions will be one of the thinner books in the library.”

“So I gather that you think that doing this manual labor is somehow good for an individual’s development?”

“Yes I do.  The Westerners really buy into it.  Whether it’s the result of the Protestant Work Ethic, or the Jewish tradition of constant inquiry or the drive to attain power over others or dozens of other reasons.  But they’ve got it, and we don’t.  That would be fine except for the fact that we really want the benefits, and unless we soon start to produce our share of the great innovations of this world, we are going to be second class world citizens.  You are close to a potential break out.  You have the education, the intellect, the love of use, the opportunity, and the greatest inventive culture in the world is your workplace.  What is stopping you is your head.”

“So what should I do, go to Home Depot and get the stuff to finish my basement?”

“Yes, or something like it.  Get over this aversion to manual labor.  Try and see the rewards that people from other cultures get.  If you are lucky, you’ll be supervising others some day, and your job will be to encourage their inventiveness.”  He noticed that his new patient was a little distressed.  The body language was unmistakable.  “Have I said something that upsets you?”

“No, Doctor, but you have gotten me thinking—and when you mentioned me as a supervisor, it hit a nerve.  You see I’m not really doing that well in my job as a programmer.”

“Tell me more about that.  I have some information on you and I understand that you have recently been selected as the tester for the other people’s programs in the department.  When they think they are ready, they go to you for the final OK.  That sound’s pretty good to me.”

“That’s because you don’t understand programming, Doctor.  Actually, it’s kind of a big putdown.  Yes, I got a raise at the end of the year, and I have this new assignment, but that’s their way of saying I can’t hack it.”

“Are you sure that this is not another cultural paranoia of sorts.  Why do you think that you got this assignment?”

“Because my programming just was not good enough?  And the reason that Mrs. O’Conner really got my goat is that she is the one who shunted me off into this role.  She told me herself that my programs didn’t cut it.  At first I was sure that this was a stupid, young woman, who didn’t like Moslems.  But she is awesome in terms of producing material that people really like.  We do web development and run many web sites.  This is a different kind of programming.  The programs must not only work, but people have to like the way they work or they just click you off and never come back.  My programs work, but my work does not attract the audience.”

“The good thing is that you are facing this and not blaming the supervisor or the audience as we Arabs are always want to do.”

“In this field it is hard not to face things.  Every hour of every day we know how many people have come to the web site and we know how long they stay.  If you revise a section, and within two days, people are spending half the time they used to, you know something is wrong.  If within a few days, many more people are coming there, you have done something very right.  I can’t seem to write material that attracts and holds an audience.  I couldn’t understand it at first.  I carefully studied the better sections that other people had done, and tried to make my programs function the same way.  They did, but they still were not as popular as the originals.  I concluded that I was just not very creative.”

“What about your Syrian friend?  Does he have the same problem?”

“Yes, he does.  But it doesn’t seem to bother him as much.  He became the specialist in programming the parts of the programs that the audience does not see—the parts that work in the background like managing the data base by which the material will be presented.  Other programmers use him to do their housekeeping programming and they concentrate on the dynamics of what the audience sees and interacts with.”

“That’s a reasonable solution.  But it sort of ignores the fundamental problem.”

“We have discussed this.  At first we both had the same experience.  We worked very hard to make sure that all the bugs were out of our programs—that everything worked as it should under all possible circumstances.  Then when it seemed to be perfect, we went live as we say and the audience would rarely come and not stay very long.  At first, we thought that the person who gets the web statistics was fudging the data.”

“That’s a typical cultural reaction for us.  Question the data.  Blame the source of the information.  Historically, many is the messenger who brought the Caliph or other powerful figures bad news and thereby lost his head when the anger and frustration was turned upon him.”

“Well, it was very easy for us to check the data for ourselves.  The company is pretty open with its data.  All of us programmers have access to those servers and can analyze for ourselves.  So it turned out that the person in charge of the data was not out to get us.  It was right there.”

“Well its really good that you faced up to it.  I’ll bet the next thing you guys thought of that it was fate.”

“That is so.  Allah has written in the book for each man, and this seemed to be our destiny.”

“This tendency towards fatalism allows a population to endure much travail, but is not very conducive to changing the world and making your own reality—something the Westerners do much better than we, and the Americans seem to be the masters of that art.  They accept nothing as given or even natural for that matter.  They not only want to predict the weather and understand it, but they want to control it as well.”

“But we tend to think that we are invading Allah’s province.  My friend says that if Allah had wanted him to write the other kind of programs, he would have made it so.  Allah’s plan for him is to do the background work.”

“An example of our culture protecting him so he is not discontented with his lot on earth.  But we pay the price of accepting the status quo.”

“That’s what Nancy O’Conner told me.  I thought that she was just giving me a hard time.  That she was trying to get me to do something where I would really fail and be shamed.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She told me originally that I was paying too much attention to avoiding bugs; that I was basing all my work on known acceptable models.  That I should loosen up and not worry so much about the little things.”

“And did you try?”

“Not at first.  I thought that she was trying to trap me.  If I let down my guard, I would make mistakes and have bugs.  Then my program would crash at some inconvenient time and everyone would know that it was me.”

“There we have it again.  The external valuation driving our behavior.”

“I wasn’t succeeding my way, so I tried her way but I found it impossible.”

“In what way?”

“Well she tells everyone to forget what you have been told or taught.  She says that the field changes so fast that if we learned it in school, it is surely obsolete.  If we have enough experience with a technique to understand it well, then it too is probably obsolete.  The public wants new things—not the old.”

“That is an American trait.  Fashions and tastes change all the time.”

“I discovered it’s more than an American trait.  We get people on our websites from the world over.  Japan, Europe, Africa, the Middle East.  They seem to be as fickle as the Americans.”

“Perhaps that is what is natural—to want newness all the time.  But countries and cultures work against this.  On the Internet every one is free of many of the external restraints that are usually upon them.”

“That may be true, but I just couldn’t do it.  I have always prided myself on getting good grades, not making errors, and understanding what I was doing before I did it.  Here I was trying something different, not knowing where it would end—not having any clue as to where I was going.  So I would look back to what I knew and try and do a variant of that.  It was better but not good enough.  I would actually start to sweat because I didn’t know whether or not I was writing bugs into the program. So I would stop and test the program to make sure that I would not be found with an error.  When it checked out, I would write some more code, but before going very far I would have to debug it again and get the new errors out.  And there were many errors as I was doing things that I had never done before.  At the end of the day, I had not written very much.”

“Was you supervisor understanding?”

“Too much so.  She kept telling me to forget about the bugs.  Write the program as it comes and the bugs can be eliminated later.  She even said, ‘think of the waste if you spend all that time debugging a program that no one would want anyway.’  I told her that I was not constituted to show anyone unprofessional work that would have bugs.  That it put too much pressure on me.  She told me what you did…about not letting what other people think of me control me.  ‘Just worry about what the target audience thinks about your program, and forget what anyone else thinks or says about you.’  As you know that is virtually impossible.  I told her that, and she used Stanley as an example.”

“Who is Stanley.”

“He is another programmer and developer.  At first I thought that he was not very good.  His programs crashed in the worst places.  I even helped him fix some of his bugs.  But he has that touch with the audience—especially the young people.  It’s like magic.  Whatever he writes, the audience loves.  His website was named Yahoo site of the day when he was only with the company for six weeks.  He keeps winning all these awards and he can’t write 10 lines of clean code.”

“What does that mean?”

“He can’t write much program material that is error free.  His stuff is riddled with errors.  We catch the most obvious but after he goes live we are constantly getting e-mails about different errors and problems.”

“So what happens then?”

“We fix them and wait for the next ones to be uncovered.  No one seems to mind though.  Even the critics who write about his websites say they are terrific and mention a few minor bugs.  For my websites the few bugs I have are lambasted.  I understand now.  My boss says that I am using too much energy to do things right and not concentrating on doing the right thing.”

“You know there is a parallel to what some of the Sufis say about the Shiite and Sunni practice of Islam.  That we spend so much of our time worrying about avoiding incorrect behavior that we lose sight of how we really should behave.”

“I’ve never paid much attention to their dissident clap-trap, but they may have a point there.  I finally brought myself to tell Nancy O’Conner that I just couldn’t do it.  I could never be like Stanley who would laugh when I found an error in his program.  He would actually slap his forehead and say, ‘How stupid I was.’  He would actually thank me and not be in the least ashamed or even embarrassed.  I felt sorry for him, and he just laughed.  That’s when Mrs. O’Conner came up with the testing idea.”

“Which was?”

“That since I was good at finding bugs and fixing them, I should function as the quality control for the group and check out everyone’s programs.  She said that I would contribute what I was good at and it would free up the other people to be more creative and not have to worry about what she called the ‘nuts and bolts.’  So that’s how it happened.”

“That doesn’t seem too bad.  She recognized that you had a strong skill area and came up with a way to apply it across the group.  That seems like a win-win-win strategy.  You win, the other programmers win, and the company wins be having a more productive team.  Many supervisors would not have been that flexible and creative.”

“But what all the programmers know, and I know is that I couldn’t hack it at the important part of the job.  I have a fancy new title but everyone knows that it was the result of my weakness, not my strength.”

“First, I would challenge your assumption.  Everyone does not know.  I didn’t know.  Your personnel office does not know.  The President of your company did not know.  From your description a person would have to very quite sophisticated to even follow the issues.  I think that you are making real progress.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well the classic Arab mentality of shame is outer directed.  Here is a situation where you have no problem with your extended family—as far as they know you have gotten a raise, a new title and are doing just fine thank you.  There is nothing that they would ever find out that would bring shame to anyone in the family.  The same is true about the rest of the people at the company except for a few programming mavens who can follow this subtlety.  The typical Arab would be home free.  As long as the community does not find out, there is no problem.  But you are still worried.  I think that’s terrific.”


“Because you are beginning to think like a Westerner.  You are worried about the substance of the situation rather then just the image.  Even if no one ever finds out, you know that you have a problem and that is terrific I think.”


“Yes, you are dealing with reality as you know it really is—not as you wish it would be, not as it could appear if you were silent, or as others in your group would expect it.  That is good.  You are dealing with the problem as a consummate technologist.  You may or may not be able to solve it but you are not denying it as most of our people are want to do.”

“What do you think that I should do?”

“Other than apologize to your boss?”

“Yes, I’ve resigned myself to that.  If I look at it from outside of our cultural Arabic perspective, it must appear that I was acting like some kind of self-centered nut.”

“That is the heart of our problem of being understood in the world.  Everything is fine, until we as an individual, a group, a nation or a people explode with something that to us is understandable but nutty to the West and perhaps most of the Asian East as well.  Yesterday we were rational engaging with them as everyone else.  Today, we are beheading hostages, refusing to negotiate about things that are more important to us than the other side, destroying great artwork, describing something in terms that everyone recognizes as wrong, insulting people, accusing others of causing our own problems, the list goes on.  And then we get angry and defensive because people treat us like we are irrational wildmen.”

“Nancy O’Conner seems like an intelligent woman.  Share with her your insights and a little bit of Arab culture.  If she weren’t open to that, the company would have bounced you and not sent you to see me.  As for your programming problem, it appears to me that you have analyzed it reasonably and are going to try and do something about it—we psychologists call it self actualization.  Do your existing job as well as you can and catch and fix everyone else’s bugs so you will be a critical member of their team.  That will solidify your job and your living.  Talk to your boss and tell her that you don’t want to give up on trying to do the more creative web programming.  Ask her to let you have some cracks at doing some small non critical projects to work on so you can practice loosening up as you call it.  When you’re doing that, try and put your instinct aside and forget about errors.  When you’re in your quality control role, keep that rigidity and idealistic perfection that your culture has taught you.  When you’re doing the creative programming, act like that fellow Stanley—allow the errors.  Pay no attention to avoiding them.  Don’t use any models—be irresponsible in your native terms.  Just do what you think that audience might like, and if you’re not sure, just try something and see if it works.  I’m sure Stanley or Nancy O’Conner don’t always succeed with each effort.”

“No not at all.  But you would never know it.  They just say the program didn’t work and go about trying something else.”

“So you too are entitled to your failures.  That seems to be par for the technological course.  A scientist friend of mine says that there is great value in every failure.  If nothing else, you have learned that the universe of possible solutions is smaller by one.  So if that doesn’t work try something else.”

“What if I just can’t get it?”

“So you’re no worse off than you are now.  You still will have a job.  You still will be doing that well.  You might or might not win, but you cannot lose if you take that approach.  Not everyone with a dream in the West achieves it.  Actually most don’t.  But many try, and that trying is the essence of their quality of life.  You try too.  That would be my advice….that and come back to see me every week or so for a while and we can talk about how you are doing.  How does that sound?”

“The way you put it, that is certainly the thing to do.”

“See, we are both becoming somewhat Westernized, and it not only doesn’t hurt, but we can take our strengths and use those while avoiding our weaknesses.  Maybe America has it right.  Mix all the peoples of the world together who have a common commitment to living in an free, uncontrolled environment, let them go in ways their own countries and cultures never would, and then enjoy the fruits of the results.”

They shook hands as the Doctor had his next appointment waiting.


Farhard Bassim never did become a great creative web programmer.  But he got better at it and became valuable to the company by exercising quality control over all the other programs.  He even got an assistant and as the company grew, became the QC Manager for the Programming & Development Division.  Nancy O’Conner was named Woman Programmer of the Year, and left the company to start her own company.  When leaving she thanked Farhard for the fine work that he had done, and told him that as her own operation grew, she would be contacting him to come and start up a quality control group for her.  Farhard continued to see Dr. Esmaeel Hamzah al-Dirar on a weekly and then on a monthly basis.  A few years later, when Farhard’s then teen age took a job working construction as a mason’s helper, the father was able to accept it, Dr. Hamzah al-Dirar pronounced him sufficiently adjusted to America and Western ways, and Farhard only saw the Doctor thereafter socially.


Author’s Note

In an interview with the media, a Gazan Palestinian man in his young 20’s was decrying the Israeli retaliation on Gaza in 2008.  What he was most bitter about was the fact that the school which he had been attending was destroyed.  His bitter complaint was not, “I will be ignorant instead of educated.”  It was, “Now I am doomed to be a laborer.”  In most societies, professional or white collar work is more desireable than manual labor, but in the Arab culture the antipathy to manual labor is extreme.  It is perhaps most extreme in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but it is common throughout the Arab world.  While Egypt has a poor lower class worker who is at the bottem of the social heap, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries import manual labor, even while many of their own citizens are unemployed.  While Israel and the West thought that all the construction and labor jobs that were availalbe in Israel to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians gave all that up when they initiated the Indifada.  How could they give up all those jobs and destroy their livelihood and economy, many asked.  The answer was the jobs often involved manual labor and even when the Arabs took those jobs, they felt terrible and insulted doing the kind of labor that was traditionally hated.

This antagonizm to manual labor is not present in Islamic cultures in general but is almost unique to Arab cultures.  Most of the other Moslem nations view manual labor not as highly as other kinds of work, but there is not the degree of shame that many Arabs feel when they are in situations where they have to do manual labor.  Palistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh all have large contingents of workers who will willingly do manual labor.  The honor and “face” issues tend to be broader in the Moslem world, but not over issues of manual labor.  Control of female social and sexual behavior tends to be the most universal trigger for “blackening the face.”




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