Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cross-Cultural Illiteracy, The Invisible Engagement Barrier

Tyrant is a character-driven show about a fictitious country in the Middle East that is painfully lumbering toward freedom. Every episode shows the characters confronting some external conflict that brings up painful memories, unresolved conflicts, and inner motivations they'd rather not confront.

As an adult raised cross-culturally, the most interesting thing about this show is watching the difference between how Americans think and how people from the traditional Middle East do. 

For example, Tucker, a "State Department" official, is stationed in the country to represent U.S. interests. Leader A, Leader B, what's the difference, he seems to think, as long as it looks good on TV.

From an American perspective, the diplomat's mode of operation is perfectly legitimate: Westerners separate  the professional and the personal. But from a traditional Middle Eastern perspective, he is sleazy, amoral, and self-serving because professional and personal are indistinguishable. 

The commingling of identity in the traditional Middle East explains the attitude of Jamal, the older brother, who's running the country. He pushes his wife away in favor of his younger brother Barry, saying over and over, "Don't get in between me and my brother." 

Jamal and Barry (Basam) are "blood," they are tied by a kind of intense, deep loyalty that nobody on the outside can understand. Whereas Americans think about "boundaries," in the Middle East these don't exist.

The attitude towards women. In the traditional Middle East, women are a completely separate world, somewhat a lesser class to men, but almost like a different species. The show portrays two sexes/genders, versus in the U.S. we recognize, support and honor a spectrum that has a very real androgyny in the middle. 

In the show, traditional women have their own language, their own culture, and their own class and caste distinctions, and they are divided very clearly into those class-based roles just as the men are. They are brutalized differently, but equally.

The concept of "feminism" exists, in a sense, but is subordinate to the cause of the family, and the women serve the men simply because that is their job. 

The women haven't forgotten power though: The character of Leila, Jamal's wife, represents the traditional wife who exercises it through her husband, versus Molly, the American wife who acts as herself but lacks insight into her mate. 

Tyrant is a great show, because its creators don't pass judgment on what is going on. They simply show you the characters in all their human dimensions. It drives the point home that if you want to engage successfully with other people, you really have to understand what's going on, not only in their minds but also in their cultures.

* All opinions my own.