It is interesting to think about the different ways in which cultures honor and preserve values and knowledge.  Often the "repositories" for these social treasures lie in totally different categories from culture to culture.  Missing this basic reality can sometimes lead to harmful or invidious comparisons.  For example, the Western heritage of painting and sculpture of the human body (think ancient Greece or Michelangelo) is not often paralleled in Middle Eastern art for reasons cultural and theological.  But to simply note the "lack" and move on would be to miss incredible riches of other types in the Middle Eastern cultural repertoire.  One example among many would be the art of Arabic calligraphy.  (For an example from a contemporary local artist see the site:  http://kamildow.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=4) 

Or, think of the field of medical knowledge.  In the West our minds immediately run to the arena of books, medical school, academics, and, of course, doctors.  (Mind you, I am all for everything in that series.  I am also quite fond of plumbing, antibiotics, and iphones.)  What about in the Middle East?  My purpose here is not to claim that the "scientific" approach to medicine is exclusively the preserve of the West.   However, what has been interesting to observe in Middle Eastern life is the many traditional, time-honored approaches to health that still persist in Arab culture,* even here in a developed, urbanized setting.  I think for example of the dozens of herbal teas and remedies that our friends can offer for conditions ranging from infertility to upset stomach!  My wife is wondering if there is a herbal therapy for "husband's forgetfulness with respect to shopping chores!" 

Though our neighbor lady knows less than her grandmother from the village would have, she still knows quite a bit about these things and has her own herb garden here in the city.    My wife is trying a bit of a "caffeine fast" presently, which is certainly a challenge as it deprives her of her daily elixir--tea, lemon, and honey.  Anyhow, the other day she went down to visit the neighbor, and sure enough, she came back with an assemblage of herbs (= grasses, weeds, and other nondescript greenery I would have walked right by) with which to make caffeine-free "teas."

Cultures also differ with respect to recording and transmitting wisdom and basic skills for living.  Once again, on the subject of "wisdom," my Western instincts run towards the arena of books, lectures, teachers, etc.  Especially important to me are written records, studies, scholarly books.  But when I think of the modes of expressing wisdom in the Arab world, the difference is striking:  in many respects the Arab world remains an oral culture.**  My point is that, literate or not, people do not simply rely on books for the transmission of knowledge and wisdom.  If we were to remain solely focused on the written, the formal, and the academic, what vast reserves of insight and understanding--preserved through millennia--we would miss.  Here, so much knowledge is transmitted orally.  Whether we think of stories, entertainment, poetry, or history, so much is passed down from one generation to the next in the "telling" more than in the "writing and reading." 

Middle Eastern speech is florid, vibrant, and even hyperbolic in a way that we rarely experience back home.  Poetry resonates deep in the hearts of the people.  Phrases are expressed with an intensity and passion that is highly imagistic (compare these portions of other ancient Middle Eastern books:   Psalms 42.1-3; 129.3; Proverbs 30.17).  For, example, where we might have told our local friends that we "missed them dearly" while we were away for a few months, they are more likely to say to us, "With you gone, our very heart was gone!" 

The power of the tongue, of oratory, is highly prized.  I have heard our pastor give illustrative examples in a sermon of a hypothetical "well-educated person."  I, the American, might describe this persona as being "learned, educated, bearing degrees, etc."  Our pastor spoke similarly.  But then, he added a descriptor I never would have thought to add, "He is intelligent, educated, and a poet!"

The poetic bent surfaces even in everyday speech.  One fascinating facet of speech in Eastern culture is the use of proverbs.  We have our share of proverbs in English as well, but the sheer volume and currency of proverbial expressions in Arabic is astonishing.  These sayings are matchless when it comes to lilt and rhythm, creativity, and sheer pictorial charm.  Here are a few quick examples:

ركّبناه  على الحمار,  مد ايدو على الخُرج

We gave him a ride on our donkey, and he helped himself to the contents of the saddlebag!   (Some combination of "biting the hand that feeds" and "give an inch, they take a mile"….)

لسانك حصانك  ان صنته صانك وان خنته خانك

Your tongue is your horse; if you care for him, he also for you, if you betray him, so he will you.***   (Guard your words for they often determine the direction of your life.)

Obviously, the rich oral tradition of the Middle East is hardly a new phenomenon.  In fact the classic elements of this tradition were to eventually become "en-texted."  (Many parts of the Bible itself began life as "utterances."  The oral origins of the main religious texts are quite evident in the classic books of Judaism and Islam as well.)  So, let's go back three millennia, hear the word of God,  and let King Solomon have the last word:

 מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ׃    Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.   Proverbs 18.21 (ESV)
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*  I deliberately leave off discussion here of the "magical" and "spiritist" approaches to such issues, which too are prevalent, but which I find problematic in whatever guise, Western or Eastern.

**  Across the region, literacy is regrettably low; thankfully, that is not typical in all areas of the Middle East (literacy is good in ours, for example).

***  This proverb has wonderful rhythm and rhyme in Arabic which is lost in translation.


By Brent Neely
Vice President of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary and Lecturer in New Testament