I had two interesting conversations yesterday that helped me understand some ways that Sudanese expectations differ from our own. One concerned the role of fathers and fathers-in-law. We were having the usual joking conversation about whether I had a daughter who might be married off to one of the local guys. I said I did, but that I wasn’t sure she would be interested without having met the guys, at least. One said he would have to start talking to me as if I were his father-in-law, meaning (as he said) that I would be like the sun to him—he wouldn’t be able to look at me directly. Then they all said that my daughter’s opinion shouldn’t have anything to do with who she married—wasn’t I as the father the master of the family? You have to discount a conversation like this that takes place without any women around…they might have a different perspective.
The second conversation had to do with how compliments and complaints are handled in Sudan. I told the Sudanese magnetometry team how much I was enjoying working with them, and Dr. Mohamed told me that Sudanese will discount or disbelieve anything said directly to them. So he didn’t believe me. Both compliments and complaints are best handled indirectly, through a 3rd person.
My friend Michael Fahy, an anthropologist who’s worked in Morocco, had a good way of putting this attitude: “if you have any problem with me, at least have the decency not to say it to my face.” Definitely not an American point of view!