Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs
Photo Credit: Dave Nielsen

A Tier 1 Operator Meets Middle Eastern Hospitality

“Culture wins every time.” I did not like hearing this a decade ago, but suspected merit behind the claim. Learning the Arabic and French languages was one thing, but a deep dive into these cultures, mingling with people? No thanks. I’m an introvert and expert at avoiding even my own culture. The words gunfighter and cultural expert went together like gum and nuts in my mind. I was wrong.

How can culture win, what exactly did this guy mean by that? I asked the specialist we’d brought in, an old sage who remains a close friend. Tactics win, heart wins, a well-executed plan wins. Yes, they do, he agreed – all pieces of our culture. But if we can understand our adversary’s culture, are we not all the more equipped? I thought about the warriors I most respected: Odysseus, the mastermind of war. King David, who’d feigned insanity, facilitating his own hostage rescue. I faced my fear and asked more questions about this culture thing. Then my friend told me about the old fish who’d asked the two young fish “how’s the water, boys?” To which they responded: “what the heck is water?” I’d been learning culture all along, we all do. In my mind, culture meant operas and manners and small talk and fakeness. But really, culture is our surroundings, and especially the people who surround us. And if people desire and deserve respect, cultural insight is the way to know how to show them that respect.

Photo Credit: Dave Nielsen

By chance, I was in Cairo, Egypt in 2011 right before and during the Arab Spring. I don’t even remember why I was there, but do recall being in street clothes. While speaking in Arabic and having coffee with a shop keeper, saw his face change. He was looking to his left and right, at mobs coming down this market street. I was his guest, though we’d spent only minutes together. His pale face showed fear and dread. He was not afraid for himself, he spent every day there.

He was afraid for me. I figured this all out later, but when he told me “you go into the back room and hide” I trusted him and did just that. The mob passed, and I’ll never know what might have happened – but I do know that without some cultural awareness, I would not have trusted this man in years prior. Had I not previously spent months living with an Arab family while learning language and culture, I know I would have thought this man meant me harm. He very likely saved me from just that. Many Westerners were beaten or worse during this time; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Like any skill, shortcuts are no good. Learning a few tricks is tempting, but can have the reverse effect. A slow and honest approach to learning and appreciating culture(s) will always increase one’s efficacy in accomplishing an objective, whatever it may be. Done professionally, beyond the mere utility of cultural knowledge and experience, the student of culture can win at diplomacy before the diplomats are needed – both at home and overseas. The best way to win is without fighting, as Sun Tzu rightly said.

Cultural knowledge is just another piece of kit, but an important one. The time I found myself stranded on a highway in Iraq, in street clothes and holding a left-handed hockey stick, was no place to employ cultural techniques. Some of the stranger things that actually happen to us, though, build our core of experience. The more we know, the more able we are to relax and say “how’s the water, boys?”

Article Credits

Dave Nielsen
Dave Nielsen Staff Writer

Dave Nielsen served in the U.S. Army for 16 years. The majority of that time was spent in Special Operations. Dave served in the 75th Ranger Regiment... more

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