Getting to Know Arab-American Culture
Who is an Arab?
The term Arab is associated with a particular region of the world. Almost all people living in the
region extending from the Atlantic coast of Northern Africa to the Arabian Gulf call themselves
Arabs. This classification is based largely on a common language (Arabic) and a shared sense of
geographic, historical, and cultural identity. The term Arab is not a racial classification; it
includes peoples with widely varied physical features. The total population of the Arab world is
approximately 230 million in 22 nations. There are 10 Arab countries in Africa (Algeria,
Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia) and 11
countries in Asia (Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria,
United Arab Emirates, and Yemen) and includes the Palestinian people. (Palestinians are
presently either living under Israeli rule, autonomy of partial Palestinian Authority in the West
Bank and Gaza, or dispersed throughout the world). Despite the national boundaries dividing the
Arabs into nation states in the post-colonial period, Arabs generally view themselves as a unified
Arab countries are not homogeneous with respect to religious beliefs. They include Christians,
Jews, and Muslims. The large majority of Arabs are Muslim (92 percent), however, in total
Arabs comprise only about 17 percent of the Islamic population worldwide. The majority of non-
Arab Muslim populations live in Central Asia, Indonesia/Malaysia, Iran, South Asia, Sub-
Saharan Africa, and Turkey. The religion of Islam is closely associated with Arab identity
because of the origin of Islam in the Arabian peninsula and the fact that the language of Arabic is
the sacred language of the Holy Qur'an.
Ethnic minority groups live in many Arab countries. These include Persians, Turks, Kurds,
Berbers, and other minorities. Differences within Arab culture also exist between people living
in urban and those in rural areas, and among countries. For example, only 29 percent of Yemen’s
population lives in cities, while in Lebanon, 84 percent of the population is urban. These varied
backgrounds must be kept in mind when one tries to apply the cultural norms described in the
following pages. No practice is universal, and behaviors and attitudes, while they may follow
certain trends or have a common influence, may vary greatly.
Language: An important aspect of culture
The Arabic language can be divided into three
classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an;
Modern Standard Arabic, used in newsprint and newscasts throughout the Arab World.
While many people understand it, Modern Standard Arabic is not used in conversations;
colloquial Arabic, or local dialects, which vary among countries and regions and are not
easily understood by those who speak another dialect.