March 6, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Business Tactics

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the lobby of a grand, sprawling hotel in the Arabian Gulf. You know how it is… as you’re sitting there, half dreaming, half alert, you scan the other clusters of tables and chairs. And I was doing just that when, quite suddenly, an Arab wearing a chequered kafir and agal headdress jumped to his feet and stormed away. His face flushed with rage, he left three European businessmen wondering what exactly was going on. I’d been half-listening to the conversation and, from where I was sitting, it was quite obvious why the outburst occurred. You see, there’s almost no era of life more affected by the East-West gap than business, and the fragile etiquette that governs it. The Europeans were acting very politely, that is they thought they were but, in the Arab context, they were giving a terribly wrong message. I’ll maybe take the opportunity of highlighting a few useful tips on doing business in the Arab world in coming days. But, before that, the three blunders I had myself witnessed in the hotel lobby: The first was when one of the Europeans (thinking he was being courteous) persisted in quizzing the Arab counterpart about his wife, asking (for Arab society anyway) very private information, which included questions on whether the woman had given birth to a new child naturally or by Caesarian. The second was when the most senior member of the foreign party served himself tea and cake before his guest and then leaned back with the sole of his leather shoe pointing at that guest. And the third was then, in a terribly miscalculated and misadvised display of his less than basic Arabic language, the youngest European spat out this line: ‘You are all gentle dogs from the desert, and as such are part of my own dog!’ The sentence was the breaking point, the one in which the Arab business counterpart departed abruptly, leaving the Europeans blank-faced. The sentence caused me to smile, because for the English throat there is a difficulty in differentiating the pronunciation of the Arabic Q (as in Qalb = heart) and the K (as in the world Kalb = dog). He had actually been trying to say something like: ‘You are all gentle hearts from the desert, and as such are part of my own heart!’ Perhaps the real lesson here is never to attempt poetry in a language you can’t speak.