That you really get to know if you live abroad, such as „Caution, don’t smile!“
When someone lives abroad s/he will find out about the customs and habits that are not mentioned in any travel guide. For example you better not say hello smiling when entering a shop in the traditional Arabic market, the ‚Souq‘. That was my first lesson, which I learned about my new residence country in the Persian Gulf after I had entered one of these small shops filled with all kinds of goods up to its ceiling and greeted the people inside with a polite smile as per my friendly European manners.
Both Asian shop assistants would serve me straight away and smiled funnily back at me. I didn’t think of anything at that time, because they must have recognized my European origin despite wearing a headscarf and the Arabic Abaya, the traditional long overcoat. I asked for the things I was looking for and the shop assistants put the many different goods taken out of somewhere in this small and packed shop right in front of me. First I didn’t notice anything because I was amazed how all these things could fit into such a tiny shop. All of a sudden I became aware that the two shop assistants would not keep the expected distance as prescribed by traditional behaviour rules between the two genders. I was confused, had I said or done something to encourage them? I only wanted to be polite and kind.
Luckily, at that moment a native lady entered the shop and the shop assistants turned around to serve the lady, not because they were being impolite towards me, but because the lady had loudly interrupted us (which suited me just fine at that time). Following I had the opportunity to witness a remarkable lesson on local behaviour manners between a customer and shop assistant that I haven’t forgotten after all those years. The lady neither said ‚hello‘ nor ‚please‘ or ‚thank you‘. In a sharp voice without looking at any of the shop assistants she instructed her requirements like an army officer. She answered the questions of the shop assistants with a short ‚yes‘ or ’no‘ in an order type tone of voice. After she received an answer for the price she kind of barked a snappish „and last“, which actually means „and what is your last price?“ The whole treatment seemed to be normal for the shop assistants because they showed themselves totally unimpressed and reacted in a kind and polite way as normal.
The lady finished her purchase and left the shop. The shop assistants returned back to me with that big grin on their faces again. I thought to myself I can what she could and thus I stopped smiling and put on a stern look. Right away the shop assistants kept a proper distance and then I was quickly served without making a strange pass at me. Voila, a little unusual for me, but it had worked, so I left the shop and sneered. Well then, ‚different countries, different customs‘ I thought to myself, so let’s wait and see what experience I should make next.
I did not have to wait for long. As newly wedded couple we had visitors the same evening at the house of my in-laws where we would stay until our own flat was ready. The guests I had not met before were welcomed extremely friendly and I was greeted as cordially from the ladies who were very curious to meet me, the European Muslim woman they said would also speak Arabic. I was glad that among so many noisy looks we were only among women as per local customs that I knew of before. After the guests had left, my husband came to me and asked if I did not want to open the gifts that the guests had brought for us. What gifts? Nobody had presented me with a gift. My husband’s family had to giggle. Yes, they did! But the gifts were all hidden behind the door or the couch. I wondered about this strange Easter egg hiding game and then we pulled the gifts from behind the furniture.
It is custom that gifts are not presented to the person directly but they are brought in and then put quietly somewhere without attracting attention. Only after the guests have left you are allowed to uncover the gifts and share your joy or disappointment in the presence of your family who would put their oar in with a satisfactory remark or else a sneer. That is actually very convenient, no public opening of gifts in front of guests anticipating your reaction, nor the need to pretend false joy. You can thank someone for a really nice gift later either by phone or in person whenever the opportunity arises – no rush necessary. The gifts that you do not like can be given away which is not a resented but a very common practice. Contrariwise, it is extremely embarrassing to open gifts in front of the person who presented it, as my husband’s aunt had to experience when she came with me to visit my own family. The poor woman was not able in the end to open her gift and was very grateful to her European host for her understanding, as she had visited the Persian Gulf before and knew about the gift presenting custom.
Many things have changed since Western customs have become known in this part of the world through the globalization process. Modern shopping malls are copies of their Western models and favorite American soap operas and talk shows have become part of the daily evening entertainment program. However, the small shops in the ‚Souq‘ still exists and the hospitality customs in the villages too. May be I should write them all down one day before they are sucked away by modern development, which has embraced the Middle East during the past two decades at a dizzy speed.