The other day in Arabic class, I was struck by how much I can learn about a culture simply by learning its language. For example, in Arabic, there are two words for shame; one for “soft shame” and one for “hard shame.” Salwa, our teacher, gave us examples to help us understand: the word for “soft shame” would be used for something mild yet still shameful, like a girl wearing shorts or a tank top (considered very immodest here). On the other hand, the word for “hard shame” refers to something extremely shameful, like a Christian girl running away with a Muslim man.
Also, adults here are never referred to as Mr. ____ or Mrs. ____. Rather, they are called “the father of ____” or “the mother of ____” (the name of their eldest son would go in the blank). For instance, my dad would always be called “The father of Daniel.” Our teacher goes by “The mother of Sami.” If you knew your father and mother would always be known by your name, would you act differently?
Both of these little nuances in the Arabic language speak volumes about the honor/shame culture here in the Middle East. People act the way they do to bring honor to their families and avoid shame at all costs. This idea of honor, shame, and the importance of family and community are much different from our Western emphasis on individuality, personal success, and guilt.