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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cultural puzzles... and disconnects

This past Thursday evening I was scheduled to play a concert not far from Jerusalem with some of my old musician friends (yes, I still occasionally indulge). 

However, around lunchtime Gilad started complaining of, er, lower abdominal pain (a euphemism I've employed here to describe a private condition only boys/men can fully appreciate).  We immediately called our family pediatrician, but the earliest he could see Gilad was 3:30PM.

No problem... I figured I'd bring Gilad over to see the doc and have him home in time to leave for the 5:30 sound-check at the venue.

When our turn arrived to go into the examination room I watched as our very easy-going and kid-friendly pediatrician did his usual respectful-but-thorough examination, and became increasingly alarmed as I noticed that the more he poked and prodded... and the more he listened to Gilad describe where it hurt (and where it really hurt)... the more brisk and businesslike he became.

He explained to us that he was "pretty sure" it was nothing serious and that it was probably the kind of non-specific injury/inflammation that would sort itself out in a day or two.  But that was clearly a preamble to what he really wanted to say.  He went on to tell us that he couldn't completely rule out another, more serious condition. 

Let me just say  for the record that few things focus a man's attention like the words 'testicular torsion'.  If that pairing of words doesn't make you groan and break into a nauseous sweat, then you either have no heart... or you lack another, more pertinent, bit of anatomical tackle.

Our pediatrician quickly put his familiar kid-friendly face back on... but there was no mistaking the underlying urgency as he wrote us out a referral and 'suggested' that any time in the next hour or two would be a good time to 'just stop by' the emergency room and have an ultra-sound done to rule out a torsion.

We're a one-car family, so on the way out of the doctor's office I dialed Zahava and told her to find a sitter for Yonah (Ariella would have been the obvious choice, but she was going to be at a Bat Mitzvah all evening), and that instead of me taking the car, she would have to drop me at my gig on the way to taking Gilad to the emergency room.  I explained that my sound check was at 5:30, and that if the ultra-sound turned up anything serious I would skip out on the concert (scheduled for 9:30) and meet them back at the hospital within 20-30 minutes.

I won't keep you in suspense... after several hours of endless waiting in Sha'are Tzedek's pediatric emergency room and finally getting the ultra-sound, the testicu... um, the bad thing... was ruled out and Gilad was allowed to go home.

I got this welcome news as I was walking onstage to perform.

The reason I've dragged you through this fairly private family medical drama is because of a side-story that occurred while Zahava and Gilad were cooling their heels in the E.R. waiting room. I could have just told you this side-story, but that would have begged the obvious question; 'what the heck were Zahava and Gilad doing in the E.R!?'.


Like all Israeli hospitals, Sha'are Tzedek's patient population is quite diverse.  By this, I mean that the crowded waiting room in the 6th floor pediatric E.R. offers a fairly accurate cross-section of Israeli society with sick/injured representatives from the secular and religious sectors of both the Jewish and Arab communities.

At one point during the interminable wait, a volunteer came by and passed out games and puzzles to the kids and pre-teens in the waiting room.  Gilad received a neat little plastic puzzle with sliding pieces that - when unscrambled - would create a picture of a ladybug.  In fact, here it is:


Gilad worked at the puzzle half-heartedly for a little while but didn't get very far. 

As the hours passed and new families replaced those who had been summoned through the swinging doors to be examined, Gilad generously passed the puzzle to one of the newcomers seated nearby.  From there it made the rounds of the room but few people were in the mood to set aside their worry or discomfort long enough to really apply much thought to the puzzle.

A few Jewish patients gave it a go but didn't really make much progress.  Then it was handed over to the young father of an Arab patient seated across from Zahava.  She was astounded to watch as he quickly abandoned the frustrating slide and seek method of solving the puzzle and unhesitatingly went on to pry the plastic tiles out of the frame and reassembled them in the proper order to create the picture.  As the last piece was snapped into place he looked around at those who had been watching him and smiled triumphantly while proudly holding it up for their inspection.

To be clear, this young Arab man made only a cursory attempt to create the picture by sliding the puzzle pieces the traditional way. And once he abondoned the traditional method, he didn't try to conceal his somewhat non-traditional method of 'solving' the puzzle from others.  There was neither guile nor shame evidenced in what he did, and he was as proud of the end result as anyone would have been had they completed the picture of the ladybug in the way the puzzle's manufacturer intended.

This story isn't intended to cast aspersions on one approach to problem-solving over another.  I've simply shared this story of the ladybug puzzle... and the underlying cultural puzzle it represents... because I am pretty sure Zahava has inadvertently stumbled upon the roots of the hopeless cultural disconnect extant here in the middle east. 


Posted by David Bogner on August 27, 2006 | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 5, 2006 5:07:45 PM


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Hmmm. I'm trying to figure out what you mean by "the roots of the hopeless cultural disconnect extant here in the middle east" but all I'm coming up with is:
a) Arabs understand only force/power, which would be a cliche I'd imagine beneath you; or
b) Arabs have no patience/tolerance/appreciation for subtlety/finesse/nuance, which while being a gross generalization, I imagine may describe Israelis more accurately than Jews; or
c) Arabs are either deprived or have no inherent appreciation of "sophisticated" games or puzzles or, by extrapolation, any challenge that requires thinking/strategy as opposed to a black-and-white, blunt and pragmatic approach. An explanation which is basically a variation on both a) and b) above.

Perhaps you should elaborate?

Posted by: squarepeg | Aug 27, 2006 12:44:38 PM

Squarepeg... I actually have much more to say on the topic but I will offer the following hint as to my mindset right now: 'Intellectual honesty' and 'fair play'. I will say more on both subjects when others have had their say... however, I'm curious what this story would have said to you had it unfolded before your eyes instead of on the journal of an admittedly rightward-drifting settler.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 27, 2006 12:58:31 PM

Dunno, David. Sounds like he was just thinking outside the box (or at least, outside the square). I'm not sure how much more you can really read into this.
When Rubik's Cubes came out, most of my (very Jewish) friends' approach to that particular puzzle was to either take the thing apart entirely and then put it back together, or simply to swap the stickers around. That used to drive my dad insane, because he had worked out how to solve the thing from first principles (without even using the book). And he could always tell when someone had swapped the stickers around ...
I doubt anyone would use it to extrapolate anything about the Jewish ability to resolve conflicts ... and if they did, I for one would certainly call that sort of reasoning into question.
And what is more, a solution is still a solution. It's not as though the guy in the hospital smashed the toy into pieces. He did manage to resolve the puzzle and make it look like a ladybird. I wonder how much of this story is driven by a desire to find things that may not in fact be there.

Posted by: Nominally Challenged | Aug 27, 2006 1:14:57 PM

Nominally Challenged... Again, I have to ask for some honest input from you before I'm going to share more. You use examples of Jewish kids who took apart Rubik's cubes or redid the colored stickers as proof that cheating on puzzles is universal. I never offered an opinion to the contrary. What concerned me more (and here I'll give you more of a hint of where I feel the basic disconnect exists) is that there was absolutely no shame involved in having 'solved' the puzzle through this short-cut. My guess is that for the most part this could not be said of your friends who cheated to 'solve' the Rubik's cube. That your father was angry over the deceit further supports my contention that something fundamentally wrong had occurred. Please reread my post... count to 60 and offer an honest opinion. There are enough overly-PC cliche's floating around the net.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 27, 2006 1:48:29 PM

It's only cheating if you know it's cheating. Also, if he managed to snap all of the pieces out and back in, without breaking any of the tabs off, we might rule out the undue force issue (depending on how soft the plastic is).

Otherwise, it's just reverse engineering. Maybe the poor kid's simply a geek. ;o)

But I'm not disagreeing with the hopeless cultural disconnect. That's visible in a million ways.

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 27, 2006 3:14:21 PM

"I'm curious what this story would have said to you had it unfolded before your eyes instead of on the journal of an admittedly rightward-drifting settler."
David, trust me that I don't read your blog with that mindset at all -- if I did, I simply wouldn't be reading it. I read your blog because of your open-minded intelligence and often interesting take on situations you encounter, which are mostly situations I don't encounter because I live a completely different life from yours, even in the "same" country ... which is why you're interesting. If I interpreted your musings as primarily political, I'd be bored. To answer your question, if I was watching the guy take apart the puzzle right in front of me (instead of trying to figure out the deeper meaning, in the abstract), I would probably think either a) "Too backward to even realize such behavior is inappropriate." ...sort of like how poor/deprived/inner city children score worse on IQ tests than middle/upper-middle class children; or
b) "Smartass." Which would probably be a comment on his flawed intellectual honesty and/or sense of fair play. Which could well come from feeling deprived of a life characterized by much fair play ... which of course could describe lots of people, from lots of cultures.
Now you could interpret my comment as that of a left-leaning city-dweller, but it's not my intention to interact at that level.

Posted by: squarepeg | Aug 27, 2006 4:05:13 PM

Tanya, "it's only cheating if you know it's cheating." Is that a commentary on the cheater's knowledge or the viewer's? Scary implications, I guess, either way!

This tiled game is a brain teaser -- an exercise for the mind. IMHO, breaking it open violates the integrity of the exercise. It isn't thinking outside the box -- it's being so result-oriented that you're willing to sacrifice the process for the appearance.

This isn't to suggest that in life the "result" isn't important -- but rather to suggest that over-riding the system by de facto eliminates other (perhaps better concieved) ideas.

Anyone both over the age of 8 and with an IQ over 20 could easily ascertain that if all else failed that the puzzle could be restored to the completed picture by cracking open the frame and manually realigning the tiles.

But hey! Most of us also realize that our kid's math lesson can easily be completed with a calculator or by checking the answers in the back of the book. Yet, we don't allow our kids to do this! Why not?!

Remind me NEVER to play Scrabble® with those of you who think this scenario represents an acceptable solution to a problem -- you'd probably say that turning the tiles over so you can "nab" the high scoring letters isn't cheating -- it's properly preparing for a victory....

Posted by: zahava | Aug 27, 2006 4:15:13 PM

nice puzzle...
I am very glad to hear Gilad has avoided a run in with any sort of 'torsion'.

Posted by: lisa | Aug 27, 2006 4:58:29 PM

@ Challenged & peg:

My humble attempt to help put things in perspective here:

"Playing according to the established rules of the game"

is NOT the opposite of

"Thinking outside the box"

Think about it.

Posted by: wogo | Aug 27, 2006 4:58:48 PM

@ Trep:

Whoa! *Too much information!!!*

Couldn't you just say, "Without getting into embarrassing detail, Gilad was rushed to the Emergency Room to check out something that ended up being nothing"

Or something along those lines...

Posted by: wogo | Aug 27, 2006 5:02:49 PM

As any scientist can tell you, one incident involving one person at one location means absolutely nothing.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 27, 2006 5:54:27 PM

David-I'm *so* happy that Gilad is not having to deal with "the bad thing" (shiver/shudder) and I'm sure the doctor also checked for hernia (cough-cough), so hopefully you feel better too.

As for the other topic of this post, cheating is cheating no matter who does it. It was your editorial decision to emphasize that the cheater in this case was Arab and then cast his personal behavior as some sort of representative cultural behavior.

Personally, I'm stunned and, quite frankly, hugely disappointed that this is where you decided to go with this post. An important lesson about honesty vs. cheating got completely derailed because of it.

Will the real Treppenwitz please stand up?!

Posted by: Jennifer | Aug 27, 2006 6:01:20 PM

I may be speaking out-of-place, but I think that the majority of commenters have missed the point of this post.

I was personally shocked not by the "enormity" of this experience, but rather by the most basic and fundamental simplicity of it.

I personally am not comfortable calling the incident CHEATING per se. The gentleman was quite deliberate and made no attempt to conceal his actions. Had he attempted to hide his actions, I would, no doubt, be much harsher in my judgement of his actions.

But, and this is a HUGE BUT!, he really honestly acted as though he was teaching my son something VALUABLE!

In my retelling of the incident to Trep, I shared that I was personally disappointed this man's joy at "solving" the puzzle in this manner, and that I found it sad as it emphasized (on so many basic levels) that communication between our two cultures is made difficult by cultural peceptions and morés.

Could a case be made that Jewish Israelis might have done the same? Yes.

However, this happened after HOURS of several people very good naturedly commenting on the PURPOSE of the toy, and the fun in trying to solve the puzzle.

I don't think this Arab father had any intention to be insulting -- and yet, his actions were not in the "spirit" of what had transpired til that point. He completely (and instantly) changed the team-like cameraderie that had existed among the "competitors" til that time. And he acted as though he had "taught" us something we hadn't been capable of figuring out on our own.

When he was finished, no one wanted to even try to solve the puzzle the "real" way. The fun had been sapped.

I should emphasize that though the fun of the game was lost, the friendliness in the room was not. No one changed in their external interactions -- people continued helping each other and each others' kids, and converstation continued to flow naturally.

But inside, I felt like I had lost just a little more hope. How could "winning" a silly game meant to occupy waiting kids -- waiting SICK kids -- be more important than extending the feelings of camaraderie and keeping the kids distracted?

I don't think this guy was a bad guy (he was warm and fairly friendly). Nor do I think that he was trying to "show anyone up." But I do think that he very much misread the situation. And I do think that this is the underlying sentiment to which David referred when he wrote "upon the roots of the hopeless cultural disconnect extant here in the middle east."

I really don't waste a whole lotta time worrying the "big" issues -- they aren't up to me anyways. But the little things -- the day-to-day "how-the-heck-do-we-just-all-get-along" stuff DOES worry me. And this is just but an example of the some of those worries....

Posted by: zahava | Aug 27, 2006 8:01:54 PM

To me it says that these kids could and want to be productive. And if they would only be given a good academic education instead of being taught to hate, then they could be very productive people.

Posted by: Suzan | Aug 27, 2006 8:08:20 PM

Oh wait, I see what you mean now. The boy took the easy out to solve it. Well my above comment is still a good message though.

Posted by: Suzan | Aug 27, 2006 8:13:35 PM

First, I'm glad that Gilad is all right. About the guy... what caught MY eye was that he thought that the little game was important enough to break the rules playing it. Isn't that a little disturbing? When it's just a meaningless little game, which won't affect anything?

Posted by: Irina | Aug 27, 2006 8:28:48 PM

Personally I've received all the info over the past few years I care to process regarding Arabs. I guess a lot of folks just need more.

I've passed the point of caring to understand. I think it was somewhere around the time I saw the crowds of Palis celebrating the fall of the towers after 9/11 and learned that 'Osama' had become the most popular name for new Arab babies.

I'm sure there are wonderful people of Arab extraction. When they stand up against the islamonazi animals I will salute them. On an individual basis.

But I still must now hold the entire race in the highest suspicion. It's a survival thing.

I could not care less how or why they have reached their present day condition. I'm way past that now. They have indeed reduced me to their level. Perhaps someday I will recover. Probably not that many year left to me however.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 27, 2006 8:51:58 PM

Wow. Decaf. Do you blame an 8 year old for eating with his toes, if his parents have been eating with their toes ever since he was born, and telling him it's normal?

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 27, 2006 9:12:41 PM

Whoa, ok, my bad. I completely misread it. I thought you were talking about a little kid.

Mea culpa. You're right, Zahava.

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 27, 2006 9:16:00 PM

This reminds me of a Rick Reilly column I read a few years back. If you'll be so kind to read this clip in which he discusses cheating at the Paralympics.

"I can tell at the start line which runners are clamping their catheters," says Bert Burns, a U.S. quadriplegic who placed ninth in the 5,000. "They get goose bumps all over. Their muscles spasm, so their legs are hopping up and down by themselves, and they're sweating. Quadriplegics don't sweat much." (Another good indication is when everybody at the medal ceremony is wearing rubber boots.)

Doctors were checking the blood pressures of jumpy contestants before races -- Burns says they forced a few athletes whose systolic pressure was more than 160 to go pee -- but it's not easy to tell if someone is illegally boosting, is naturally intense or just had a Big Gulp. "You can't make everybody strip at the start line to check and see what he's doing under there," says Barry Ewing, chairman of Wheelchair Track and Field USA. They should. Clamping off your catheter can cause brain hemorrhage or death."

Posted by: Jack | Aug 27, 2006 9:33:52 PM

Just read post and comments. Here is my take: I made the presumption that everyone in the ER lived in, generally, the same area. Therefore, I took the young man's "out of the box" method of "winning" as stupid cheating. Because societal "rules", although not followed by everyone, are generally known in a given situation, not to abide by them marks you as a "different" type of person, good or bad, depending on the situation.

What I have come to expect from the situation, not only in the Middle East or elsewhere, is that there are groups of people who will do whatever they want (out of the box) and be happy to achieve their ends.

What I took from the post, intended or not, was that someone who could be your neighbor "borrowed" a tool from you and then when you asked for it back, said:
It's my tool.
If you protest that was not the intent or definition of "borrowing", the reply was:
Too bad!

Posted by: Sue | Aug 27, 2006 11:00:03 PM


No, my friends showed no shame when they solved their 'cubes' this way either.



Posted by: Nominally Challenged | Aug 27, 2006 11:22:03 PM

Like my Grandmother would have said : "What a tempest in a teapot" or something like that! ;-)

Posted by: Yoel Ben-Avraham | Aug 28, 2006 1:01:21 AM

"This story isn't intended to cast aspersions on one approach to problem-solving over another. I've simply shared this story of the ladybug puzzle... and the underlying cultural puzzle it represents... "

The above is the MAIN point of the post. And it was said honestly. David did not use judgemental language to describe the actions -- though several commentors (myself included) have.

It is intellectually dishonest to insist that there are NO differences between Jewish and Arab cultures. THERE ARE DIFFERENCES -- some of which have no value of good vs. bad -- but are simply different approaches. Others, however, do have morality-based values (the most obvious being suicde/homicide bombings) attached to them. Some are more gray and less easily determined.

The thing is, is that almost without exception, each commentor has either directly or indirectly referred to this episode as "cheating" and has taken offense at the INCORRECT assumption that Trep has been using this particular story as a brush to paint all Israeli Arabs as "cheaters."

In fact, the at the epicenter of this experience was the realization that this man viewed his actions as nothing other than perfectly acceptable. HE did NOT see it as cheating. If you did -- than this illustrates that there are two rather fundamentally DIFFERENT ways of looking at the incident.

I actually think that he went home WONDERING why everyone stopped playing with the puzzle when he finished "righting" it, further illustrating the very two very different cultural perspectives.

To be clear there were 7 adults in the room, Gili was the oldest child, the next oldest child was aged 2-and-a-half. 3 of the adults were Arab-Israelis, 4 Jewish Israelis. Gilad played the most, after he lost interest in playing himself, three Jewish adults tried the puzzle and then finally, the Arab adult asked for a shot. All adults watched, whether they played or not.

When the Arab gentleman pried the frame open, all 4 of the Jewish adults quietly opened their mouths in shock, and quickly shut them again. This man's wife, and the other Arab father had no visible reaction -- it was clear that this act was either neutral or had no negatively-associated value. It was as though the three Arabs saw an "APPLE" and the four Jews saw an "ORANGE."

I grew up in a highly competitive family environment, but with what I consider to be a healthy appreciation for sportsmanship. The best way to illustrate what I mean is with the following ancedote from my past....

A fellow I had been seeing came to spend the last few days of Pesach with my family. It was particularly rainy, and we were confined to the house. Thus, we entertained ourselves with a variety of board and card games. After wiping the floor with this particular young man for a number of consecutive Scrabble games, he offered to teach me to play Hearts, in the hopes that a game in which HE was more proficient would break my winning streak and afford him at least ONE victory.

His plan backfired. As he gathered the cards for a second game, and as I jokingly aped rabid baseball fans (stage whispering, "the fans go WILD! Pomeranz hits it out of the PARK AGAIN! ROARRRRR!) he bitterly commented to my Mother, "You know Mrs. Pomeranz, this must be the difference between a Canadian upbringing and an American upbringing! In Canada, it isn't whether you win or lose -- it is how well you play!"

To which my mother dryly responded, "If you don't win, you must not play so well!"

Needless to say, the poor guy left skidmarks the second Yom Tov went out!

But the thing of it is, even though we were always encouraged to play hard, and to play for the win, it was simply understood that the WIN was meaningless if achieved by any means other than good honest sportsmanship. Anything shy of 100 percent abidance of the rules rendered a hollow and meaningless victory.

And though disappointed in a persoal loss, a true sportsman can still simultaneously appreciate the skill of a gifted winner.

One of the Jewish Israeli fathers had gotten quite far with the puzzle -- impressively so. And it was obvious from his body language that while he would have been disappointed with his OWN performance had the Arab father bested him, he most certainly would have appreciated the Arab guy's SKILLS had he, in fact, solved the puzzle traditionally.

Could this same story be told in a PC-no ethnically labeled version? Yep. It sure could have.

But, that isn't how it happened. And pretending that everyone in the room was operating from the same vantage point/perspective is unfair to all involved.

If there is to ever be a "meaningful and lasting peace" (to quote a world-leader-du-jour-sound-bite), it has to address the various cultural norms which need to co-exist harmoniously. Pretending there are no differences is a recipe for disaster.

I find it interesting that the majority of readers/commentors -- many of whom often appreciate these Treppenwitz-styled mind-dumps -- chose to "chastize" (for lack of a softer, less-antagonistic work) Trep for over-generalizing rather that attempting to examine the "disconnect" itself.

If we never examine these "disconnects" and begin to understand the reasons behind them, we will never arrive at a place of mutual respect and understanding.

Posted by: zahava | Aug 28, 2006 1:43:42 AM

I think everyone is missing the point. Th real question shouldn't be a discussion of the merits of his method and psychology about solving the puzzle. Rather, we should be asking, "Why on earth didn't any of the adults - Jewish or Arab - figure out how to solve such a simple puzzle in a few minutes?" From what I remember with playing 5X5 versions of that when I was little, it's just a matter of logic and persistence.

Just saying, is all. *grins*

Posted by: matlabfreak | Aug 28, 2006 3:42:35 AM

I think two words are appropriate here: delayed gratification. Those who can delay gratification are usually more successful in life than those who can't. Breaking apart the puzzle and "solving" it that way is an example of not having the patience to solve it the way it was intended. Killing people in order to grab power instead of putting in the effort to win an election is an extreme example - but it is the same principle in the end.

Posted by: westbankmama | Aug 28, 2006 8:29:33 AM

WBMamma: a very astute point!

Posted by: zahava | Aug 28, 2006 9:05:45 AM

Zahava-perhaps you would be disappointed to hear that in our neck of the woods there are Israeli Jewish parents and kids who wouldn't have batted an eye at how that puzzle was "solved".

If I understand correctly, David's blog entry was about differences in cultural background/upbringing, then again I have to wonder about the manner in which this issue was chosen to be presented and the inappropriate (IMHO) leap from a single specific incident by one individual to generalized cultural behavior. The fact that you're doing a lot of "damage control" in the comments shows that the intended point of the post was missed, and not only by me.

'nuf said. This was the first time in a long time I lost sleep over a blog post-and it wasn't even mine. :)

Posted by: jennifer | Aug 28, 2006 9:13:05 AM

Jennifer- the fact that there are Israeli Jewish parents who might react the same way is really irrelevant to this post, because this story just didn't play out that way. I don't think anyone, least of all Trep, is denying that Israeli Jews can have some very nasty cultural habits that can make life very difficult in this country.

However, this doesn't preclude the fact that that, in general, we would like to solve eternal, damnable "Middle East" problem in a systematic way, governed by particular rules (ie: negotiations with a serious partner). They pretend to negotiate and then proclaim in Arabic what nitwits we are. That's not playing by the rules.

We would also like to see the Palestinians govern themselves in a systematic way, with laws, rules, the novel idea of a single armed force. Yet, after BILLIONS of dollars poured into them from all over the world they have achieved none of this. The only product they insist on developing with any consistency are suicide bombers. And since I don't buy the poor-desperate-man-he-had-to-blow himself up argument, you have to wonder what cultural elements make them so incapable of developing a reliable system of government and a culture of normalcy. In short, what makes it so difficult for them to play by the accepted Western rules of cultural, governmental and economic normalcy.

As for "damage control"-- I see it as clarification, since Trep deliberately left things vague and therefore caused mass LKJS among his commentors (leftist knee-jerk syndrome; maybe another trip the ER is in order).

I agree with Trep's point and particularly Zahava's- if you're not willing to really see the cultural differences between Jews and Arabs for what they are and work WITH them, rather than ignore them for PC's sake, there's very little hope for peace in this region.

You're not doing anyone any favors by pretending that they don't exist. I would hope that two intifadas and this last war would at least clarify that point.

Posted by: abbi | Aug 28, 2006 11:33:29 AM

Tanya... You hit the nail on the head. It isn't a condemnation of cheating. This post was meant to draw attention to the huge chasm that exists in the cultural values that actually define moral value to things like cheating, lying and shame. It may surprise many to know that what prompted me to write this post was not that the young man had cheated (according to my definition of the word), but that he had done so quite openly and without any awareness that it violated not only the rules of the game but the sensibilities of those with whom he was engaged in a loose competition.

Squarepeg... Like most people you are getting caught up in motivation while I am saying that there was no individual motivation towards wrongdoing... just a cultural acceptance of certain shortcuts as expedient. Take for example lying. One of the reason polygraphs work is that most westerners have a physiological reaction to potentially being caught in a lie. We sweat... our heart races... our breathing changes. However there is no such social taboo to most kinds of lying in Arab cultures. The spoken word (such as the claim by an Imam that Jews have poisoned a well or blown up the Dome of the Rock) can be absolutely true while it is being said... and yet the next day when all the villagers who drank from the 'poisoned well' are alive and well and the Dome of the Rock still stands in Jerusalem, there are absolutely no repercussions. quite simply it was true when he said it but now its not. In such a culture not only is there no shame associated with most lies, but one is considered a bit of an idiot if he/she doesn't say the most expedient thing to achieve a specific aim/goal. What this young man did with the puzzle was a form of lying (according to our standards), but his openness about how he did it proves that he was completely unaware that he had broken any social barrier. I chose a completely innocuous example specifically because there were no real consequences. I had hoped that people could look at the act and the reaction(s) and relate them to other examples of cultural disconnects between western and Levantine cultural values... but instead most people let their knee-jerk political correctness interfere with their ability to just think.

Zahva... You are correct. Being goal oriented is of value only so long as all people trying to reach the same goal agree on the basic ground rules. If this had been a hedge maze I suspect the young man would have pushed his way through the branches rather than trying to find the correct path to the end. Again, if we can agree that he wouldn't have seen such action as cheating, we can't blame him... only wonder at how two such different cultures can pursue larger, more important goals when the two sides don't understand each-other's rules and processes.

Lisa... Thanks. Way to keep your head down under all the political crossfire. :-)

Wogo... I think you've hit on something. No rules have ever been fully agreed upon. And yes, I could have done what you said, but I tend to write about my experiences here, not hide them. :-)

Lisoosh... I wasn't trying to create a proof of anything. I was trying to get people to think and discuss rather than let their knee-jerk cultural baggage get the better of them. Your knee probably hit you in the chin it flew up so fast.

Jennifer... The only way you could have had such a reaction to this post is if you had filled in a lot of the blanks with your own preconceptions. Reread the post. Think about everything you know about the differences between Arab and Western value systems. Think about how you react when there is a piguah and CNN puts on a talking head from Israel and a talking head from the PA. Doesn't it make your blood boil when you realize that one talking head is stating cold hard facts and the other is saying whatever he/she thinks will advance his/her cause (without any regard to what you and I would call 'the truth')? Those PA talking heads aren't evil or corrupt (in the narrow sense relating to the words leaving their mouths). They are simply acting according to cultural norms and values that you and I can't even begin to understand. I chose the puzzle (specifically how the Arab man seemed to show no misgivings about how he had 'solved' it) as a 'safe' opportunity to examine this cultural disconnect. One of the biggest obstacles to the west ever having a meaningful dialogue with the Arab world is that nobody dares examine this cultural disconnect.

Suzan... It might be a good message but it has no connection to the reality of the event. This young man may be a wonderful father and husband. He may give charity in his community and be extremely moderate in all his views. But he comes from a culture that assigns no shame in ignoring rules... and in fact doesn't fully understand the western obsession with rules and 'fair play'. This really isn't about whether he is a good or bad player in the scenario. It is about the fact that he plays according to a completely different set of rules.

Irina... The importance (or lack thereof) isn't really the point. It is the disconnect between two cultures... one that says such a 'solution' to the puzzle is cheating/shameful, and another which says that the the object is to complete the picture without rules or limitations. One is a process oriented solution and the other is a results oriented solution. The value is only what each culture assigns to it.

Scott... I am well aware where you fall on the cultural spectrum and am not surprised that you view Arab cultural norms with suspicion rather than simply as 'different' from you own. I was hoping that you'd use your years of wisdom and experience to offer some suggestions on how to bridge that gap.

Tanya... I had you in mind when I wrote today's follow-up. Geek. :-)

Jack... That differs because most of the 'cheaters' in that example are aware that they are breaking the rules and also of potential consequences.

Sue... Physical proximity is completely unhelpful in trying to unravel this cultural puzzle. There is a village less than 100 meters from my house where most of the residents would read my post and ask, "So, what was wrong with what he did? He solved it, didn't he?" They would have no idea why the Jews in the room (how in private might have done the same thing) were appalled that he would be so open about following a path they considered to be deceitful and unfair.

Nominally Challenged... O really? When your father expressed his aggravation they showed no sense of remorse or shame at having taken a shortcut? I think if you are honest with yourself you will find that most of your friends who took the cube apart or redid the stickers did so in private and expected people to assume they had solved the puzzle in the traditional way.

Yoel Ben-Avraham... When shipbuilders examine how models react in small tanks (essentially relative teacups) they are able to build real ships that are suitable to weather storms in the real world. I hoped this example would spur a 'safe' discussion of cultural differences and how to bridge them. Instead people reverted into the same old PC crap that has crippled us all and kept us from moving forward.

Matlabfreak... I think you are discounting the toll that worry and pain take on concentration. :-)

Westbankmama... You could say that, but the source of the gratification is also worth examining. I suspect that the sole satisfaction the young Arab man could conceive from the puzzle was it's completion. The very idea of taking satisfaction from the process probably didn't occur to him. I obviously am guessing here... and using only my own cultural tools to make that guess.

Jennifer... You should read my earlier comment to you and also stop to think who has actually made leaps here and who has not. Please also read my post today where I have tried to take the cultural gap away from such powerfully charged terms.

Abbi... I appreciate the vote of confidence but I feel compelled to point out a couple of small flaws in your comment: First, they are playing by the rules... just rules that we don't fully understand. Second, why should the Arabs be expected to
"play by the accepted Western rules of cultural, governmental and economic normalcy"? Who is to say that these rules are 'normal' or that they are 'accepted'? Clearly both are subject to a certain amount of debate.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 28, 2006 11:48:34 AM

I don't think anyone here has argued that there is no cultural disconnect. My only argument is that it cannot be postulated from this one single incident. There is so much other evidence for it, shouldn't we be looking for the small bits of commonality instead?

Question - had the guy completed the puzzle in the 'conventional' manner, would it have been worth posting about? I doubt you would have even noticed it to post about it, but if the presumption you are making here about the cultural disconnect is valid, then the fact that he solved it 'conventionally' would be as important as the fact that he solved it 'unconventionally'.

In response to your questions about the parable of my friends: they were no-where near my father and were not rebuked by him, so I honestly don't know about their shame. Perhaps you know them better than I do?

On the other hand, Mr Fix-It in your post was not rebuked by the onlookers either, so I don't know whether he might not have been ashamed had any one of them pointed out to him that that's not a valid solution in their eyes.

Perhaps our problem is that we 'expect' 'them' to know what is valid in our eyes and what is not. What is this expectation based on? That, by the way, is indeed a cultural disconnect.

You're probably right, Zahava, he probably has no idea why no-one wanted to play with the puzzle any more, and because you didn't engage him or talk to him about it, he might never know - unless, of course, he reads this blog :-)

And finally - for heaven's sakes, the guy was in the ER with his kid - do any of you know why? Isn't it a little unfair to be drawing too many conclusions about someone who might (just might) have been in distress at the time and not have felt like 'playing the game' (which is, after all, all it was, right ...)?

Posted by: Nominally Challenged | Aug 28, 2006 1:03:05 PM

Knee Jerk?

If you had seen several similar incidences, the observation would have been an interesting comparison of cultural differences.
What you have, is a perceived reaction by other people about whom you know next to nothing to the singular action by someone else about whom you know next to nothing. Which means that the point of this post is absolutely....nothing.
More interesting are the usual reactions in the comments section, and the usual reaction to anyone who sees anything different. Right wingers use it as an opportunity to slam Arabs, left wingers are accused, falsely, of not seeing the differences between Palestinian Arabs and Western/American Jews, and as usual everyone is shouting past each other while claiming that the other side isn't listening.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 28, 2006 5:34:10 PM

Trep- Arabs are certianly under no obligation to adhere to anything Western, if they just kept to themselves and went along their merry way being Arab. But when they have to resolve a conflict with a basically western nation and their little "cultural quirks" (suicide bombers, duplicitous rhetoric, inability to competently govern themselves or build an economy) seriously hamper or destroy any meaningful resolution, how accepting do Israelis have to be?

In other words, if they aren't even willing to attempt to play by the rules of honest, civilized negotiation that results in a stable resolution, (which pretty much can be labeled "Western", but if you want to call it just "civilized" that's ok too) where does that leave us in the short or long term?

At least, that's the message I took from your post.

But I think this guy says it better then me: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/28/world/middleeast/29mideastcnd.html?hp&ex=1156824000&en=6a9276fccdc690d9&ei=5094&partner=homepage

Posted by: abbi | Aug 28, 2006 8:25:02 PM

You're gonna die (and far worse) if you keep trying to 'bridge this gap'.

They give us no option. No Option.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 28, 2006 8:25:05 PM

Could you flesh out why it would be necessary to even discuss the cultural differences between Palestinian Arabs and Western/American Jews, since as far as I know, there is no territorial dispute between these two groups.

Posted by: abbi | Aug 28, 2006 8:50:47 PM

Matlabfreak... I think you are discounting the toll that worry and pain take on concentration. :-)
Pah. Unimportant. ;)

When I read the post the first time, I realized I had two choices:
a) Respond to your post (and the comments) with some long, drawn-out, probably controversial take on things, or
b) Make fun of everyone involved.

I clearly took the more mature route, no?

Posted by: matlabfreak | Aug 28, 2006 9:21:12 PM

Abbi - the point of the post was cultural disconnect between Arabs and Jews. The Jews doing the discussing are Western/American Jews who live in Israel talking about local Palestinian Arabs.
I pointed this out because many Sephardic Jews, especially those who were born in or grew up in Arab countries, while many hate Arabs, also share much with them culturally - my Morroccan born MIL is much more at home in an Arab Shuk than she is in a mall in New Jersey. Many Syrian Jews very much miss Damascus, I know quite a few who like to hang out in the Old City because it feels "homey" to them. On the other hand, there is plenty of variation between Arabs from different regions and religions. A Beirut Christian does not actually have that much in common with a Muslim from the south of Egypt, outside of basic racial group.

I wouldn't dispute that there are differences between the general Arab world and the general Western world. But each "world' has many regional cultural variations (compare Houston with Paris), and noting one small behavioural disparity shown by one individual (Palestinian Arab) as observed by another individual (American Jew), doesn't mean much in the grander scheme of things. It might be an interesting tale, but nothing can be inferred by it.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 28, 2006 10:54:40 PM

Except, that it was only ONE American Jew (moi) and 3 other NATIVE ISRAELI Jews -- from a different cultural backgrounds -- two Sephardi Jews and one other Ashkenaz (but still native Israeli). Note -- none of the other Jewish Israelis spoke English. And the 3 Palestinians were Arab-Israelis -- judging from the headscarves the women wore, I'm betting on Muslim as opposed to Christian.

The idea here is not to "brand" and entire population. Rather to relay an experience. And the 4 Jews in the room -- with no prior knowledge of each other/just met that night -- had the same reaction. Likewise, the 3 Muslims in the room, also meeting for the first time (judging by the introductions that were made between themselves), also -- AT LEAST ON THE SURFACE -- shared a similar reaction amongst themselves.

Is it SCIENTIFIC. Hardly. But NO ONE was insisting it was. Jeez!

What started as a casual description of something I experienced, shared with David, and he in turn shared with the blogosphere has gotten rabidly OUT OF HAND.

Certainly the description of this "incident" is not intended to influence world politics -- nor would the influence, I dare say, any possible future interactions between any of the involved parties. If I were to run into this young Arab father tomorrow, my first instinct would be to inquire after his sweet infant who was suffering a minor respitory infection -- likewise, judging by how friendly he was to Gili, I would expect him to inquire after Gili's --erhm-- sports injury.

And while we're at it... since you pointed it out, while I am probably most comfortable in social circles of northeastern American Jews (shared cultural affiliations/sports teams/weather experiences/regional affiliations/etc) it doesn't PREVENT me from successfully interacting with Alaskans, folks from the deep south, or Europeans.

Lisoosh, your MIL may feel more at home in the Arab shuk, but she knows what is EXPECTED at the mall in New Jersey.

Posted by: zahava | Aug 28, 2006 11:55:09 PM

Zahava - I get it. Your explanation later in the comments section explained your viewpoint (to be honest, not at all clear in Davids original post). I was merely pointing out that we all bring our own unique perspective to the things that we see.

I'm glad that you enjoy interacting with different cultures and there is certainly nothing to prevent you from doing so, on the contrary, it is a great thing and I wish more people had the opportunity. My MIL, actually has trouble with western society, and that is even with the help of her sister who has lived in LA for 20 years. In fact, even my Israeli SIL spent a year in the States a while back, and found the adjustment hard. Her statement as she left, that "she finally realized that Jews are not the same thing as Israelis" was to me quite revealing.
I personally think that the variations are useful. To me it is reassuring that there are Jews who speak the same language as many Arabs and hopeful that many Arabs are very familiar with Western culture. It is not those on the ends of the spectrum who stand the best chance of communicating but rather those who start with some common ground.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 29, 2006 12:14:41 AM

From Michael Totten;

"Obviously if you take a Palestinian out of Gaza and plunk him down into Omaha Nebraska he will become more "American" than if he stays in Khan Yunis. If you forced me to live in Gaza City for ten years I would become a very different person than I am now. No doubt!

I don't assume total knowledge of anything or anyone. But if you seriously think the people of Gaza are no less rational than, say, the people of Beirut, Tokyo, or Geneva, you haven't paid much attention to Gaza.

I have met thousands of people in my life, and I've met hundreds of Arabs. Arab culture is not a monolithic block. It is extraordinarily varied. The Arabs of Beirut, for example, are considerably more rational in their thinking than the Arabs of Cairo. Don't believe me? Then I say you haven't spent much time in either place. And I'll bet that anyone else who has will agree wholeheartedly with what I just said. It's not because of race - again , obviously - it's because the culture, politics, and education in each place is different."

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 29, 2006 12:24:10 AM

Michael Totten you quote?!

What, pray tell, makes his one-man observation more valid/scientific than anyone else's?

Not to mention, in this particular gem, Michael contradicts himself. "... the people of Gaza are no less rational than, say, the people of Beirut..." followed by "The Arabs of Beirut...more rational in their thinking than the Arabs of Cairo."

No one has said that there is no variance within Arab culture/societies. Why then is it so hard for you to accept that there are MAJOR differences between "western" culture and Arab culture?

Where else in the world are Jews FORBIDDEN to reside besides Gaza and the Palestinain controlled areas of the West bank? Forbidden by the Arabs because they will not tolerate the mere presence of a Jew?! Forbidden by Israel, because of the knowledge of what would befall someone fool-hardy enough to want to be there? These areas are JUDENREIN! As in devoid of JEWS. As in Nazi philosophy.

When you show proof that you are willing to get as worked up about these cold hard facts as you seem to be HAPPY to get worked up over my politically-incorrect observation and opinion, then I will be able to have an honest discussion about all of this with you. But at the moment, I am tired, and more than a little pissed off that you can't seem to agree-to-disagree with what I walked away with from MY OWN experience.

Posted by: zahava | Aug 29, 2006 12:50:33 AM

Whoops! Lisoosh, I apologize!

We seem to have cross-posted and I only saw the Michael Totten quote and not your post right before that one. I should NOT ever allow myself to respond after 11:00 pm -- especially not after a stressful day on the heels of an all-nighter!

My bad for over-reacting to the Michael Totten thing. Now that I have had a chance to read what you wrote before, I too, have a better understanding of what you were trying to say.

While a marvelous communication tool, web-written words would still benefit from the occassional hint of voice tone and body language.

Sorry I jumped down your throat.

Posted by: zahava | Aug 29, 2006 12:55:42 AM

"This man's wife, and the other Arab father had no visible reaction -- it was clear that this act was either neutral or had no negatively-associated value."

Or perhaps they just don't express disapproval of family members in public, esp. those of a dominant male.

Yes, there are big differences between Arab and Jewish culture, just as there are big differences between Ashkenazi Jewish and Mizrachi Jewish culture.

BTW, what the Arab guy did reminded me of what Columbus did to the egg to make it stand up. Are you familiar with that story?

Posted by: sophia | Aug 29, 2006 3:39:09 AM

Glad Gilad has been spared torsions of any kind (what an awful sounding word...)

I agree there is a chasm of cultural disconnect between Jews and Arabs, and Arabs and the Western world (it would be dangerous to think otherwise). The incident with the ladybug game may or may not be illustrative of that, however. You made a leap, which you are entitled to, especially as it was witnessed by your family, but it is still a leap for many of your readers.

I know it has been asked before, but is there any chance Zahava would start a blog? What would it take? I love her voice...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Aug 29, 2006 8:59:10 AM

Nominally Challenged... You are asking me rhetorical questions about a situation that didn't happen and ignoring a real event that did happen. I'm totally OK with you not being comfortable with the topic, but it isn't really fair to try to take it somewhere more comfortable.

Lisoosh... My biggest problem with you as a commenter is that I have to factor in your 'Devil's Advocate' margin and that is starting to piss me off. I never stated this as a scientific study and offered it as a jumping off point for discussion That you keep trying to shoe-horn it into the confines of a double-blind statistical analysis is troubling. We're among friends. Discuss. Don't discuss. But stop objecting. This isn't a court of law or a laboratory.

Abbi... Ah, there's the rub. They live by a doctrine that encourages them not to keep to themselves. With J-witnesses and Mormons such door-to-door expansionist goals are little more than an annoyance to someone who is happy with his lot in life. But when the doctrine also spells out violent terms for those unwilling to sign on... problems arise.

Scott... Deep breaths buddy... deep breaths.

Matlabfreak... I can usually count on you to take the road less traveled. thanks.

Sophia... From what I was told nobody chastised anyone. But it is hard to mask a reaction to bad behavior. The Arab's family didn't react.

Mcaryeh... She already has one. I set it up for her over a year ago. She refuses to use it. [shrugs] I guess she enjoys my soap box better.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 29, 2006 5:07:45 PM

I understand the point you're trying to make here, but I think we're all reading too much into it inasmuch as several college friends have done the same thing--western, educated, mostly gentile but a couple of Jews--and they did it out of either puzzlement or frustration. This guy just tried a method no one else had tried and seemed to be pleased with his results. Reminds me of Alexander confronted with the Gordian Knot....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Aug 29, 2006 5:13:23 PM

Aliyah06... Except the post was not about the act of taking the puzzle apart. It was about the fact that he felt no need to hide the act or feel shame at having done it. This was amazing to the Jewish onlookers and lost on the Arabs.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 29, 2006 5:27:17 PM

Ahem! I think I have guest-posted a whopping two or three times in all the time that you have been blogging. It's not a matter of preferring your soap-box -- it is a matter of not having time. A comment is a quick thing to dash off -- and is usually a reaction to something someone else has proposed/introduced. YOU were the one who posted this, not me... (the ole' oh-oh! factor would have prevented me -- and in this case would have been WELL served!)...

Posted by: zahava | Aug 29, 2006 5:38:53 PM

"... From what I was told nobody chastised anyone. But it is hard to mask a reaction to bad behavior. The Arab's family didn't react."

It's very easy to maks a reaction to bad behavior when you come from a culture that is based upon extreme repression.

They didn't react in public. How do you know what they said in private?

Again, have you ever heard of Columbus and the egg? Well, yo u don't seem terribly interested so I'll leave a link here:


It's a prime example of thinking outside the box.

Admittedly, breaking a slide puzzle doesn't strike me as a great example of that. But neither does this one example of one Arab doing something prove much to me.

Posted by: sophia | Aug 30, 2006 3:48:49 AM

Sophia... Why is it so important to you to define the parameters of the discussion? Your hypothesis that the Arabs didn't react because they come from a repressed culture is interesting but doesn't really stand up to their own self-description. Every time there is a riot... a terrorist attack...a shooting... a knifing... or any kind of physical or emotional outburst, it is chalked up to 'spontaneous' anger and the Arab inability to keep from acting impulsively when provoked. We're not talking about a culture that has built up much of a track record for laconic stoicism such as you suggest was at play here. Lastly, you use the word "prove' in your final sentence even though I have stated several times already that this story was not shared in order to provide proof of anything! What is the obsession with proof. The world is full of events and each one bears discussing. If patterns and trends emerge as a result of enough of these observations... so be it, but nobody said anything about proof here!!!

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 30, 2006 8:59:30 AM

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