This article was originally published by EMAJ Magazine April 24th, 2012
When welcomed into Palestinian homes I always find myself on high alert, constantly scanning everyone else’s behavior to copy them and seek to show respect for their norms and customs. Am I greeting everyone in the right way? Pronouncing people’s names right? Eating in the same manner? Seemingly small things, but I have noticed that for instance just my very proper use of knife and fork sparks snigger and comments in many places around the world from the US to Palestine.
As the session at EMAJ (Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists) yesterday centered around misunderstandings and clashes in social and cultural norms in Northern Europe and the Middle East, I was discussing my experiences with Kübra, who is German but of Turkish descent.
She told me, how she had always tried to ask German friends to explain the social codes to her, to make sure she did not to offend anyone. But people would just smile and tell her “no no, don’t worry, that’s OK”, after which she would realize that she was breaking a number of social codes.
As a Dane living and working in an Arab society I am still after one year – or maybe especially now after one year – continuously aware of the cultural norms that I don’t pick up or don’t understand.
Most often I simply feel like an elephant in a porcelain store.
And I suddenly saw that my experiences of being a Dane in an Arab country is almost identical to that of being a Turk in Germany – or an Arab in Denmark.
This might seem like stating the obvious, but being from a very blond and blue-eyed (in several meanings) part of Denmark, I have only known a few foreign immigrants and refugees and therefore have reflected very little on their everyday life and the struggles in having to fit in to a society so different from the Arab one. But as I was talking with Kübra, I realized that I am now walking in their shoes.