Values & Beliefs

Arab culture refers to the following basic values and beliefs that cross national, social, ethnic and religious boundaries:

  • Fatalism Open or Close

    The belief that people are powerless to control events, is part of traditional Arab culture, and this belief refers the control of life events to God. Although this belief is less prevalent among the educated elite of the Arab world, it remains a much held notion amongst many Arabs, irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

    For Arabs, fatalism is based on the belief that God has direct and ultimate control of all that happens. If something goes wrong, or right, the cause can be assigned to God’s will. Indeed, too much self-confidence about controlling events is considered a sign of arrogance tinged with blasphemy. Fatalism in Arab thought is most apparent in the ritual phrase “Insha’Allah”, meaning “God willing”. This phrase is used frequently and reflects strongly the belief in God’s control over all events.

    If you are working with clients and their families in planning for future service provision and goal setting, you can expect to hear references to God’s will as an integral factor affecting future developments.

  • Honour Open or Close

    While self-reliance, individuality, and responsibility are taught by Arabic parents to their children, family loyalty is one of the most important values taught to children in Arab families. Arab society emphasizes the importance of the group. Arab culture teaches that the needs of the group are more important than the needs of one person, or the needs of one individual family member.

    In Arab culture, the individual person is viewed as an extension of their family and their behaviour and reputation is considered a direct reflection of their family and their family’s honour. Individuals and their achievements, or failures, are associated to their families. For example, if a young man achieves educational attainment or enters successful employment, this is attributed to his upbringing and the contributions or efforts of his parents and other family members. Similarly, if a young woman marries against her family’s wishes, her actions are viewed as dishonourable to her family and cast shame on her family members.

    Our understanding of the individual in modern Western societies has little point of reference in the Arab culture’s understanding and value on the individual as part of a collective, that of the family or the clan. Consequently, the individual’s personal preferences and interests take secondary place to the family’s collective preferences and interests. Most Arab families believe that reputation, honour and respect are everything. In fact, if a person loses his honour or dignity, he is ruined in the eyes of his family and community.

    This cultural value dictates that people always behave well in public and try to leave the best possible impression on others. Similar to this concept is the importance Arabs place on appearances and politeness, which is why a polite response of “Yes” to your question, may not in fact be the accurate response from a client who does not wish to disappoint you.

    Importantly, for service providers who work with young people of Arabic speaking clients, the Arab culture’s value of honour needs to be considered in the delivery of programs and services. The Australian cultural framework which underpins our focus on the development of the individual’s personal aspirations may come into conflict with traditional notions of the individual as an extension of the family as the primary focus of identification. See Engaging Arabic Speaking Youth for strategies on how to work effectively and in culturally sensitive ways with young people.

  • Hospitality Open or Close
    Sharing a meal in Morocco
    Sharing a meal in Morocco. Source: Lucyin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Arabs are generous in the hospitality they offer to friends and strangers alike, and they admire and value the same in others. Generosity to guests is essential for a good reputation and is a highly regarded value in Arab culture. The word for “generous, hospitable” in Arabic is kareem, and this concept is so highly valued that its meaning extends to “distinguished, noble-minded, noble-hearted, honourable, respectable”.

    If you are visiting a client in their family home, you can expect to be treated as a guest and in a very hospitable manner. A guest in someone’s home never stays long without being offered something to drink. You should accept and drink at least a small quantity as an expression of esteem and respect.  To not accept a drink could be viewed as disrespectful. If you are offered any food, you can respectfully decline and explain that you will be having lunch with colleagues after your appointment.

  • Modesty Open or Close

    In Arab culture modesty is perceived as a positive trait and particularly pertains to women. Although dress codes and customs vary from country to country, the majority of women are required to cover themselves differently than in the Western world. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women usually wear niqabs in public, which cover most of the face. In other countries, women wear burkas, which cover the entire body from head to toe. And in other countries, women wear hijabs, which only cover the hair. In some modern Arab countries, such as Qatar, women and men wear modest, western-style clothing.

    Algerians in traditional costumes
    Algerians in traditional costumes. Source: Yves Jalabert from Région parisienne, France (Au revoir et à bientot) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Women of Arabic speaking backgrounds in Australia may dress in ways that uphold the traditional value of modesty, depending on their ethnic, religious and family backgrounds. In general, women of the Islamic faith adopt dress codes and wear either the hijab, the burka and less commonly, the niqabs. Women of Christian Arabic backgrounds in Australia wear western clothing, similarly to Christian Arabic women in urbanised centres across the Arab world.

  • Obligation Open or Close

    Family loyalty and obligations take precedence over loyalty to friends orthe demands of a job. Relatives are expected to help each other, including giving financial assistance if necessary. Family affiliation provides security and assures one that he or she will never be entirely without resources, emotional or material.

    Consistent with the value of family obligation, is the duty of family members to care for the sick, frail and elderly. Traditionally, the elderly have always been cared for in the family home by their children and grandchildren and this is a matter of family duty. However, Arab families who have been in Australia for many years have been challenged by the traditional sense of duty to their aged parents/grandparents and the demands of modern life.

    Accessing aged care services by Arabic speaking families may present these families with conflict and reluctance to uptake services. As the Arabic speaking communities increasingly represent a growing number of the aged cohort, service providers need to be aware of the cultural value of obligation in their work with families and when engaging Arabic speaking elders.

  • Privacy Open or Close

    Privacy is another very important cultural value in Arab culture and is related to family honour. Family issues or problems are considered the business of family members and are not to be discussed outside the family.

    If a person does talk about another family member to an outsider, they may be considered as breaching family honour and casting negative perceptions on the family. Family issues and problems are discussed and resolved between family members, which includes grandparents and uncles/aunties, and individuals are counselled by other family members.

    This poses challenges to service providers who are working with young people, women, or men and are dealing with issues that affect other family members. In particular, agencies that provide family counselling and work on issues of intergenerational conflict need to be mindful of these cultural considerations and implement strategies which are culturally appropriate and effective in engaging Arabic speaking families.

    Although family privacy is treated with sanctity, the personal privacy of the individual is not afforded the same value and is not viewed with importance as in modern Western cultures. Given that the individual is inseparable from the family, there is no cultural notion of the individual’s personal privacy. Consequently, there is no word in the Arabic language equivalent to the English ‘privacy’ – the word that has closest meaning in Arabic is “loneliness”.

  • The Curse of the ‘Evil Eye’ Open or Close
    Tunisian Khamsa hanging inside a car
    Tunisian Khamsa hanging inside a car. Source: CarlesVA on ca.wikipedia / eo.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    This is the belief that a person’s misfortune, ill-health, suffering or bad luck may be caused by the look cast upon them by another person. The look cast upon a person is believed to be that of envy or admiration for an individual’s beauty, wealth, good health, achievement or for their beautiful and successful children. The person who casts the ‘evil eye’ may do so intentionally or unintentionally, by staring, gazing, or looking enviously at a person, their possessions, or their children. The belief in the power of the ‘evil eye’ holds that the look is capable of causing misfortune and ill-health.

    There are various ways in which one can protect against the power of the evil eye. Amongst people of Arabic speaking backgrounds, the most popular way of protecting against and escaping the effects of the  ‘evil eye’ is by the use of  ‘evil eye’ talismans, symbols and jewellery. These items are used to ‘reflect’ the power of the  ‘evil eye’. The most basic design is a talisman with blue and white circles made to symbolize the eye, and in Arabic are known as the ‘nazar’.  These are used everywhere – in homes, vehicles, or jewellery, which adorn many women and are often pinned on babies.

    You will observe that many of your Arabic speaking clients (irrespective of their religion or country of origin) wear jewellery with the ‘eye’ and you may often hear clients refer to causes of misfortune and ill-health being attributed to the curse of the ‘evil eye’.

  • Time Open or Close

    Among Arabs time is not as fixed as it may be in modern Western cultures and appointments may not be as strictly adhered to. Generally, Arabs are more relaxed about the timing of events than they are about other aspects of their lives. Rigid punctuality is not considered important nor a priority.

    Given these attitudes, a client who arrives late and has kept you waiting may not realise that you have been inconvenienced and that you may expect an apology. It may be useful for you to politely explain the consequence of late appointments for your day’s schedule, so that poor punctuality does not become habitual!