Sunday, January 12, 2014

Preparing for cultural encounter

We host many groups in Qatar throughout the year – some educators, others politicians, and from many different countries and cultures. With Qatar’s Grand Mosque having opened a couple of years ago, I’ve included a tour of the Mosque on several itineraries, relying on Funar Islamic Center for guides to take us through the building as well as to explain practices within Islam and its relationship to other religions. These visits generally go very well, with participants expressing great appreciation for the opportunity. One of the things required in order to visit the Mosque is that guests have to be dressed conservatively, must remove their shoes before going inside, and females must cover (both Abaya and scarf).

I recently had a very different response from some participants in a tour. The tour unfolded in a different way than is typical – due to the time overlapping with regular Muslim prayer. This overlap resulted in our being able to observe a group of men in actual prayer but this also meant that the females in the group were separated from the males, something not typical in other tours. The combination of females covering and being separated resulted in one participant commenting that the experience was highly politically charged and suggesting that it was not appropriate as part of a professional academic program. Part of the reaction, as noted by the participant, was that females were not informed in advance that they would be asked to cover and said that the organizers had not fully thought through the political and personal implications of the experience.

My immediate reaction was to accept that, yes, preparation would have been helpful. Certainly, preparation would have helped as preparing for a new experience almost always improves the chances that the participants will be more receptive. However, on further reflection, I began to wonder if educators and others as well might need to begin to take more responsibility for their own preparation and receptivity to cultural experiences. Reflecting on my privilege as a white American, I choose where I go and I am generally well received anywhere and anytime I want to go. Sure, there are some cultural settings that are a stretch but I can totally avoid these if I wish. By contrast, international visitors to the U.S.A., or cultural minorities in the U.S.A., don’t have the option to make the same choice; they have to negotiate the new cultural territory with or without guidance or assistance, even when there are aspects of the new culture that may be very uncomfortable to them – they just have to “deal.” Even in a setting such as Qatar, some westerners adapt to Arab/Islamic cultural norms (for example, modesty in dress) while others do as they wish, assuming that their western ways will simply have to be accommodated.

I am conflicted in coming to a conclusion about preparing people for cross-cultural experiences that might be uncomfortable for them. In general, preparing, guiding, and context-setting should probably be provided for everyone engaging across culture. On the other hand, the wonderfully complex world in which we live likely means that preparation will not always be a luxury that we will have. When preparation is not readily available, perhaps it behooves all of us to understand our relative place of privilege in the world and take responsibility to prepare ourselves, especially if it is an experience that is completely new and potentially fraught with personal and political implications. Privileged individuals may have become somewhat passive, expecting others to help prepare them, when those without privilege just have to “deal.”

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