Higher Education and Recreation in the Middle East

We hope that you will have many opportunities to use the things you are learning this lesson as you chat with your Middle Eastern peers. You new friends will enjoy hearing about what you like to do and what you have chosen to study. We think you should know, however, that some of the information you share may be interpreted in ways you might not expect. For instance, if you are female and tell an Arab acquaintance who is unfamiliar with the West that you study nursing and your favorite pastimes include playing basketball and going out dancing, your answers may be misconstrued to mean that you wanted to get through school quickly and/or maybe aren't the brightest of the brunch (because you study nursing), you aren't very feminine (because you play sports), and you lack morals (because you dance in public). Hmmm...this probably wasn't what you intended to say.

A person familiar with western culture will have an easier time correctly interpreting your interests, but since not all of your Arabs will be able to do so, we think it is important for you to understand the dynamics of higher education and recreation in the Middle East. This way, you will be better equipped to carry on a meaningful conversation about these topics with your Arab peers.

Higher Education

College majors in the Middle East are generally based on test scores. If a student does well on the post-high school / college entrance exam(s), all majors are open the student, but most importantly the well-respected majors of engineering and medicine are open. On the other hand, if a student receives a low score, he or she is left to chose between less-respected subjects, including—hold on to your seats, linguistic majors—the humanities. (And even more unfortunate for some, a non-passing score bars the examinee from going to college all together.) This is why the hypothetical female student in our example who studies nursing may be seen as less academic; studying nursing doesn't require a high examination score in the Middle East.


Even if you aren't very familiar with the Middle East, you could probably guess that your Arab peers don't hang out in discotheques on the weekends or claim shopping as their favorite pastime. Because Arabs are much more conservative in public behavior, your Arab friends are likely to have very different interests and hobbies than the average American college student. Males in the Middle East have more public freedom and spend time at clubs, coffee houses, sporting events, etc. Favorite male pastimes in the Middle East include soccer, chess, backgammon, cards, and smoking nargilla (a large, often-communal, pipe). Though most females in the Middle East tend to spend their evenings at home or in a supervised dorm, when women do congregate, the conversation is lively with gossip and outburst of dance and laughter. Also know that few women exercise, let alone play competitive sports. Although this trend is changing and some females now frequent sports gyms, the change is occurring slowly and isn't appreciated by everyone.

While we don't suggest you lie about or hide your interests, we do think that understanding the cultural implications of what you say is an important part of learning to communicate with Arabs.