How can international organizations, removed from sites of conflict by thousands of miles, negotiate with groups that they see as threatening the people of a nation? Communication necessitates more than translation of languages; understanding a region comprises knowledge of religions, of geography, of historical events, of folktales and intrinsic beliefs of the peoples of that region. Culture, so complex that it requires intricate categorization for people to even begin to understand how it fits together, determines the way that two governments communicate.
To understand a region, one must follow the following recipe:
1. Read various sources, with opposing perspectives, to start to figure out what aspects of the area might influence its culture and therefore its people;
2. Discuss these aspects with people actually living in the area (social media provides a valuable medium for this communication, as it connects people across the world instantaneously);
3. Analyze the culture of one’s own region to determine how the prevailing perspective there shapes stereotypes and the lens with which one views the outside world;
4. Examine photographs taken (by news reporters and by casual friends) of the region in conflict, taking the source into account; “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true as long as photoshop is not involved;
5. Travel to the area of conflict (if possible) or ask trusted friends (possibly through social media) to observe the daily life of people associating with different groups; do not categorize the people about whom you wish to know at first, but allow your source of information to tell you how they consider them to be grouped and then compare your perspectives that way;
6. Look at maps of the area throughout history, noting who made adjustments to the map each time something changed with political boundaries or the movement of certain groups;
7. Repeat steps 1-6.
Culture changes constantly as youth form their own opinions, a tapestry woven from the opinions of ancestors, personal primary-source observations, and the opinions of other people whom the youth meet in their own search to understand how the world connects. There is no way to categorize the people of one region, country, or even village because there are simply too many factors to consider.
Recently, in a course I took on the modern Middle East, I focused on this region. I came to understand that how a region like the Middle East functions now is essential to future communication between nations. History does shape the future, as proven by the roles of women, originally liberated by Muhammad’s relation of Gabriel’s words that were written in the Quran by his wife Khadija but that now lag behind the rights of Western women. The geography, especially the natural resources (like water and oil) of an area shape the economy and standard of life for people living in that area and thus influence the way in which those people react to other groups, as seen with Al-Nusra, Hamas, and Hezbollah gaining the support of hungry citizens when they offered bread.
If we understand the strengths and weaknesses of a region, we can better see how we might negotiate there; as Sandra Postel, of the Global Water Policy Project, hopes, Middle Eastern countries may even find solace at last if they collaborate to solve the water crisis. Communication necessitates understanding and action, always keeping an open-mind but holding onto personal morals.
This post was written by Rosie Nocita, Class of 2014.