It is arguable – particularly by Americans themselves – that the type of “rugged individualism” that is often attributed to American culture is something to be admired. It is perhaps more of an image than a reality, promulgated by a commercial corporate media primarily as a sales tool as well as “action movies” with actors such as the late John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and others. In her essay “Individualism as an American Cultural Value,” Thai author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel notes that such “rugged individuality” is a trait that American parents attempt to instill in their children from an early age. The fact that many middle-class American children often have the luxury of a bedroom of their own, American teenagers have access to an automobile (if they do not own one outright) and even American eating customs in which each individual has his/her own dish or set of dishes – these are all indicative of the value which Americans place on appearance of “individuality” (even if this is more image than substance), and in fact may be a luxury that the relative wealth of Americans permit (Natadecha-Sponsel, 2002 ).
In Arab culture such as is practiced in Jordan, one may find some of the superficialities of American culture; the angry young Muslim demonstrating against American imperialism may be wearing Nike tennis shoes and carry an Apple i-Pod upon which he is listening to American “rap” music. Nonetheless, traditional Arab culture centers strongly around the clan, or immediate family group, followed by the tribe. It has been this way for thousands of years, long before the time of Mohammad; as one might expect, Arab families in Jordan have a strong tendency to discourage the kind of individualism that Americans in the U.S.A. take for granted.
Culture is first and foremost a survival mechanism; it is no more than a set of rules developed over time by a group of people that advance the cause of preserving life and continuing the existence of the clan or tribe. While it is doubtful that the early American “mountain men,” pioneers and settlers so often romanticized in Hollywood film were truly “rugged individuals” (considering that living
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conditions on the American frontier were very harsh and required co-operation), the amount of wealth and resources that Americans have historically taken for granted do seem to have allowed them the luxury of individualism as Natadecha- Sponsel suggests.
Arabs on the other hand have long existed in one of the most inhospitable climates on the planet. Mastery of this harsh desert climate requires that an individual surrender his/her own desires and tendencies for the good of the group, or survival will not be possible.
Over the centuries, what began as a survival mechanism has solidified into tradition. Even among Arab families who enjoy some measure of wealth and the luxury of living in an urban environment, this tradition of family and clan first has continued. This loyalty to the clan and the tribe among Arabs comes before even loyalty to his political nation-state. This is something that the British failed to understand when they pieced together the nation of Iraq from the former Ottoman provinces of Barsa, Baghdad and Kurdistan following the First World War. It is a major reason that pan-Arab nationalism as has been envisioned by various Arab idealists have failed (Fisher and Ochsenwald, 1990), and something that American political leaders have willfully ignored, ultimately resulting in the most recent tragedy of the current U.S. occupation of that country.
On the surface, this sort of extreme tribal loyalty may seem to be counter-productive, and indeed was one of the reasons that the regime of late Saddam Hussein was so brutal in nature (Humphreys, 1999). However, while such anti-individualism has been bad for Arab unity – particularly in the face of political, economic and military interference by the West – it has served the Arab family extremely well for centuries, and continues to do so. Children of Jordanian families experience a sense of security and protection that too many American children are denied. Jordanian and other Arab children are also taught their obligation to the family in return. As is the case with other Semitic cultures, it is not unusual for Arab children to contribute economically to the family unit in some way.
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This sacrifice of individualism serves the individual well later on however when s/he grows up and starts the next generation.
Americans have long been seduced by the idea of “rugged individualism,” but this idea has now turned to ash in their mouths. While they believe themselves to be “free,” and may indeed have historically enjoyed a large degree of political and social freedom, it is difficult to be truly “free” when a person is only one paycheck or major illness away from poverty and destitution. The tragedy of homelessness and extreme grinding poverty in one of the richest nations on the planet is a contradiction that has been caused in large part by the obsession Americans have had with the myth of “rugged individualism.”
On the other hand, the Jordanian knows that no matter what may happen to him/her in terms of employment, illness or accident or anything else, s/he can always turn to the family, clan and/or tribe.
Surrendering one’s own individual impulses and immediate desires seems like a small price to pay in return for such support and security.
R. Stephen Humphreys. Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. University of California Press, 1999.
Natadecha-Sponsel, Poranee. ““Individualism as an American Cultural Value.” Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Cultures, Third Edition. Philip R. DeVita and James D Armstrong, eds. Blemont: wadsworth Publishing, 2002.
Fisher, Sydney and William Ochsenwald. The Middle East: A History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.