Understanding Muslim and Middle East Culture: The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai

An excerpt from the book The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai which seeks to help others understand the society and culture of the middle eastern world.

THE ARAB MIND. By Raphael Patai. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

About the book: With the emergence of the Arab countries into positions of world power, this anthropologist's study of the traditions of Arab society takes on timeliness and importance. The book offers an insight into Arab social, political, and cultural behavior.

From the book: In traditional Arab society, a man and his wife would never dream of walking together in the street, side by side, let alone arm in arm or hand in hand. Such behavior would be considered an indecent public display of intimacy whose proper place is at home, in the privacy of the bedroom. Even at home in the presence of children, siblings, or parents, the contact between husband and wife evinces the same restraint. This is carried so far that it is considered utterly bad form for a man to inquire about the well-being of a friend's wife. The very word for "wife" (zawja) in Arabic is felt to be too indelicate to use, because of its sexual connotations (it is derived from the verb meaning to couple), and is replaced by various euphemistic expressions or circumlocutions, such as imra'ati or maddamti ("my lady"); haram ("woman," "that which is forbidden," and "that which is sanctified"); umm Hasan ("mother of Hasan," if Hasan is the name of the 1st-born son); bint 'ammi ("my cousin," used by the husband even if the wife is not a cousin); yakhti ("O, my sister"); or ya bint al-nas ("O, daughter of people"). . . .

The taboo on homosexuality is not so strong as it was in America in the 1950s . . . and the active homosexual role in particular is thought of by the Arab students as compatible with virile masculinity. In this respect, the Arab attitude coincides with that of the Turks, among whom the performance of the active homosexual act is considered as an assertion of one's aggressive masculine superiority, while the acceptance of the role of the passive homosexual is considered extremely degrading and shameful because it casts the man or youth into a submissive, feminine role.

In most parts of the Arab world, homosexual activity or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private, especially since homosexual relations are forbidden in the Koran. Popular opinion, however, takes no stand against them, and despite the warnings of the Muslim schools of jurisprudence, the practice seems to be common to this day. Only in outlying areas, such as the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, has homosexuality come out into the open with the sheikhs and the well-to-do men lending their sons to each other. It is interesting that even in a place like Siwa where homosexuality is the rule and practiced completely in the open, the passive partner in the relationship is derided as a woman.

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