A responsible student of any foreign culture recognizes that barriers exist between themselves and the people they wish to study. Some barriers, such as the physical type, can be easily overcome with a simple visit or move. Yet others, such as cultural or linguistic barriers, require much more focused and disciplined methods. Within my own study of Mesopotamia, easily identifiable barriers exist between me and the people and culture I try deeply to understand. While differences in language, education, and history are easy to recognize, the method to overcome these barriers is not.
The difference in language between me and my contemporaries in the Middle East appears simple: I speak English and they speak Arabic. However, personal experiences in Iraq highlighted the ignorance of this simple thought. The language barrier is much deeper than the spoken word. The body language, personal space, metaphors, and colloquialisms of the Iraqis I met were all different than my own. Despite my best efforts to learn Arabic, the depth of this barrier makes it difficult to overcome.
The education of a boy in central Pennsylvania is not unlike the education of a boy in most areas of the United States. It is however, vastly different than the education of a boy in Baghdad, Mosul, or Basra. The way I view the world around me is inherently based on an understanding of the physical and social sciences that I learned in school. The education of many young Iraqis ends with primary school and those who study though high school certainly experience a different curriculum than my own. The education system in Iraq certainly influences the perspective of Iraqis much in the same way that I was influenced in school.
My generation of Americans remembers the 1980s for its big hair, Ronald Reagan, and MTV. Iraqis of the same generation remember the 1980s for a brutal and bloody war with Iran that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. For me, the 1990s we a time of change as my mom started her own daycare, my family moved to a house in suburbia, and I took my first job at a local grocery store. For Iraqis my age, the 1990s brought war with the United States, a devastated economy, and crippling sanctions that made basic needs such as food and medical care scarce. The historical circumstances of my life and the life of Iraqis my age create a barrier to our understanding of each other.
To overcome these barriers requires more than learning a new language, school subjects, or personal histories. To overcome these barriers I must move beyond learning ‘about’ the Middle East. This method inherently assumes an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude. Instead, to gain a deeper understanding of the Middle East, I must learn to think ‘like’ a Middle Easterner. Many aspects of Middle Eastern life and culture will never make sense if viewed through the lens of my experiences. To overcome barriers such as language, education, and history I must strive to view the Middle East more through the lived experiences of Middle Easterners and less through the cloudy lens of my own.