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Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society

3.71  ·  Rating Details  ·  279 Ratings  ·  49 Reviews
Perhaps now more than ever, Margaret Nydell's "Understanding Arabs" is a must-read. The fifth edition of this classic introduction to Arab culture has been completely revised and updated to help readers understand the complex issues playing out on the world stage such as the Arab Spring. "Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society" is a handbook accessible t ...more
ebook, Fifth Edition, 320 pages
Published March 23rd 2012 by Intercultural Press (first published December 31st 1996)
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Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

This is one of those books about foreign culture that I like the best, where someone will both detail the various things that everyday people in another area of the world might do that might seem strange to us Americans, and explain why they do them; and it's especially fascinating in this case, because of
Jan 07, 2010 Daniel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title of this book made me hesitant to read it, despite the great reviews by prominent Middle East scholars. I finally decided to read it after hearing Ms. Nydell talk about her extensive research on colloquial Arabic. I realized she was the real deal.

She gives an excellent overview of Arab and Muslim cultural norms and mindsets in the Arab world. This isn't your run of the mill, antiquated, presumptive, fearmongering, Islamophobic manifestation of the beloved War on Terror that we are so u
♥ Ibrahim ♥

When you talk about us Arabs, you are talking about people? So why the academic hogwash? I had higher expectations from the author. The first 14 pages are dry and completely unnecessary. The book is written as if it is a study of cultures or something. This can easily make a book boring. Look at Edward William Lane and his book on Egypt. He lets you feel as if you are living with the Egyptians and they are real people. But Margret here talks about Arabs as a case study, not people of flesh and b
Oct 10, 2011 A. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: islam
While this book isn't about "Islam" per se, it does have chapters about Islam and makes a point of not conflating the word "Arab" with "Muslim" (hence why it's on my "Islam" shelf). This text is primarily aimed at people from from a U.S. cultural background who work with Arabs or will be working in the Arab world. It is intended to educate the reader about general and specific Arab social and cultural practices in the interest of promoting cultural understanding.

It also attempts to educate read
Mar 10, 2012 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author makes many broad statements and uses the word "always" a lot in this book, which usually discredits the author. However, having been able to verify first-hand her statements I must agree with most everything she says in this book. For those who wish to understand Arab society and culture, this book is a must-read. The author denounces classic "Arabists" as being too old-fashioned in their thinking to properly analyze modern Arab society and she offers keen insight into the Arab world ...more
Nancy Lewis
A good overview of the diverse Arab population, though I don't know how much of it is accurate versus sweeping generalization, or merely the opinion of the author. For that reason, I hesitate to give it a rating. I would like to know what Arabs themselves might think of the book.

I teach English to international students at my university, most of which come from the Middle East, so I appreciate even the merest insight into where my students are coming from culturally. Perhaps this book will help
Mar 03, 2013 Hamza rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My goal of reading this book is to see how the west would see our nations. The book is good and it does show different aspects of my people's life that I was not aware of (let us say from differnt point of view). However, I think the author was bias against Saudi Arabia's social life and probably she has not been recently there. other then that, I would recommed this book for reading.
Aug 09, 2015 Charles rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of t ...more
Jun 10, 2009 Becky rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone going to an Arabic country or trying to undestand the Arabic culture better
Recommended to Becky by: brothers Arabic teacher
I thought this was a VERY good guide for westerners to understand the Arab culture and society. I enjoyed Nydell's writing style and use of applicable examples.

"Believing as it does that the true aim of education is to produce men who have faith as well as knowledge, the one sustaining the other, Islam does not thing that the pursuit of knowledge by itself without reference to the spiritual goal that man must try to attain, can do humanity much good. Kno
I'm not sure how to rate this book, as I have little experience in Arabic-speaking countries or with people from said areas. It's an interesting guide with elements of history and linguistics to explain possible reasons for general guidelines of etiquette and thought in Arabic-speaking areas. I can't speak for its accuracy, but it does bring up some interesting ideas, such as how Arabic-speakers perceive current events in the Middle East and attitudes toward foreigners, both from within the regi ...more
Apr 07, 2011 Amir rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book caught my attention in a library a few weeks before the "Arab Spring", triggered by a vendor's self-immolation. I liked the topic because it makes an attempt to describe the ways of Arabs to the Westerners. I borrowed the book from the library some time later and read the 1987 edition of it, which I suppose may not be as "clean" and politically correct as the later editions. Since I myself come from a culture that bears many similarities with the Arab culture, I found the author's astu ...more
Esther K
Feb 20, 2008 Esther K rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book had been beside my bed for a long time. I pick it up and read a section at a time. I do not feel the need to read it straight through. I just digest the information. It is a wonderful book. I am a belly-dancer, so I deal with Arabs on a regular basis and am, generally, not respected. I have found that this book has taught me ways to gain that respect without sacrificing my own manners.

What I like the most about this book is that it has several editions. It was not written as a reactio
May 23, 2011 Landon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had to read this for a class I took on Middle Eastern Culture, this book was so interesting that I actually read ahead, and finished the book much faster then the class required. The book is about the culture of the Arabic world. For me, it helped me to really understand them. I could think back to times when I had interacted with Arabs and understand things that they did that I didn't understand before. Their culture is truly amazing, and very very different from the Western world. It is also ...more
Dec 11, 2010 Alina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The title may come across as both condescending and xenophobic, but it actually does what it says on the tin. While obviously no group of people can ever be 'understood' on the basis of reading one book, this does help give a clearer view of Arabic values, institutions, social structures and Islamic principles. Although I was recommended this by an officer during military training, it continues to be highly useful after, particularly when making sense of current affairs in today's climate. The l ...more
MaryAnn Keyser
Very thorough and complete guide to Arab culture. I love that it describes each country or region separately instead of just lumping them all together. Shows no bias and presents a fair and straightforward description of Arab people, customs, religion, and culture. Highly recommended!
This is one of the best books that I have ever read regarding the "modern" Arab mindset. After reading this book I can agree with the author's point-of-view. The cultural views of Arabs are something that many people can learn from. It does not make them better or worse then anyone; however, it is always important to take a step back from one's ethnocentristic views to enjoy the views of another way of life. If you are going to deal with or travel to the Middle East, then it will benefit you a l ...more
Jun 08, 2009 Davida rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty patronizing and generalizing. On the other hand, for a book that purports to "explain" Arabs, it's a pretty one-sided book, much more subjective than I would have expected. She put a lot of her own personal comments in there that didn't seem appropriate, as well as things like "Many American students have studied in Lebanon, and find it charming," or something to that effect.

I did learn some things from it though. Yet another book that could have benefited from better editing.
Mar 30, 2014 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sweeping overview for a very complex and multifaceted region that is filled with countless groups. It highlights many of the crucial cultural differences yet does a great deal to underscore commonalities. A very worthy read if you are headed to the Middle East or just interested in the people and their everyday.
Oct 23, 2007 Kyle rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone considering travel to the Middle East
This is a good book for anyone considering interacting with Arab culture, especially on a long term basis. It's a bit more involved for those just going for vacation (though still certainly useful), but has lots of good stuff about entertaining, business relationships and dealing with civil services.

While I generally appreciate the books neutrality, I feel that it is at times a bit apologistic when dealing with controversial issues.
David Bachmann
Sep 03, 2012 David Bachmann rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Given to me by a friend who finished his Libya service. Even after five years in Libya I still had some "aha" moments. Though it was first published 5 years ago, the first part is not outdated. The country description of all Arab countries in the last part becomes a bit obsolete, especially after Arab spring.
Structure and wording seem very much like an US-american college book.
Still a must read for newcomers to the Arab world.
Jamie Clegg
With colloquial vocabulary and endearingly intimate observations, Dr. Nydell does a remarkable job of transporting the reluctant learner into a state of understanding and appreciation. Because of this enjoyable read, I have a much more sensitive awareness of our Middle Eastern friends, their culture, and history. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to a country of Arabic culture, or entertaining a guest of the Arab ethnicity.
Daniel Smith
Apr 27, 2011 Daniel Smith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a great guide to understanding Arab culture in our modern time. Many things about their culture can seem confusing, but this book clears up a lot of stereotypes. Understanding 21st century Arab culture should be something on every American's list of things to do. It's extremely important for us to read books such as this one because too often we let the media tell us how Arab people think and act. Highly recommended.
I often recommend this book to those clients who are travelling to the Middle East for the first time. It helps to overcome stereotypes, builds awareness and understanding of the complexity of Arab culture, and offers insights that make the region less puzzling to the first-time visitor. The book is also a superb tool for old hands to use in brushing up their perspectives on the Middle East.
As with anything intending to describe a whole culture of people, I'll take it with a grain of salt as an opinion, but I've already seen a lot of accuracy and believe it to be well-intentioned and accurate as well as well-written and informative. A great book for a new resident of the Middle East, wanting to learn, understand and enjoy my new home and neighborhood in the world.
عبدالرحمن القصير
الكتاب موجه لغير العرب لكي يفهموا العقلية العربية في التعاملات اليومية. فكما تصرح الكاتبة تقول كتبت هذا الكتاب للأشخاص المقبلين على العمل أو العيش في بيئة عربية. الكاتبة ركزت على العادات والتقاليد الشامية كما اتضح لي. قد يكون أكثر شيء استفدته من هذا الكتاب هو حجم التشابه الكبير بين العرب في عاداتهم وتقاليدهم :)
أنصح بأن تهدي هذا الكتاب إن كان لديك صديق أجنبي كما في حالتي
Sep 30, 2008 Vijay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great resource for anyone traveling or working in Arab well as for those who simply want to gain a better understanding of customs and traditions juxtaposed with contemporary influences. Since the book is written from a Westerner's perspective, it does a good job of showing the basis for many Arab and Western misconceptions about the other respective nations.
This was helpful in understanding how people from Arab countries view westerners and our culture, politics and international relations. It also gives a brief overview country by country of events historical and recent and political and historical differences between those countries.
Feb 27, 2011 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Glad I read this before going to Saudi Arabia for 5 weeks this year. It was an essential background on the Arab people. It is not a perfect guide for Saudi culture, as Saudi is the exception to every rule, but it still gave me a starting point for understanding what was going on.
Apr 28, 2009 Loo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: textbooks
This author really knows what she's talking about. Her writing style is easy to read, and shows the Arabs in a wonderful, friendly light, where everything makes sense. Highly recommended for anyone planning on living in the Middle East.
Apr 23, 2009 Cindy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book will not give you an exact example of what exactly you should do in every situation, but if you want a very generalized overview of what is going on in the Middle East and most Arab's view of America, this book is for you.
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