Acculturation in Yemen: Problems and Possibilities [Archives:1999/14/Culture]

April 5 1999

Dr. Ramakanta Sahu 
Associate Professor 
Department of English 
College of Education at Mahweet. 
Culture is a composite concept. It embraces a way of life, a matrix of values, a host of shared assumptions, a plethora of outlooks, attitudes, aspirations, perceptions of a people including their music, arts, customs and traditions. Broadly speaking, it is a candid expression of how different facets of life are coherently organized, forming a microcosm of the universal consciousness. Culture mirrors social realities and bears the unmistakable stamp of the true identity of a people or a race. 
Each culture is a product of currents and cross-currents of numerous socio-historical forces, and embodies the collective consciousness of the people, the prop of their moral being and becoming. Its present is conditioned by the past as much as the future is shaped by the present. Culture is not a stagnant pool. The time past and the time future are embedded in the present on the broad canvas of culture. 
In the distant past when science was in its infancy and inter-regional communication an alien concept, each culture maintained an atomistic complexion. But consequent upon rapid strides in the communication technology, as formidable geographical boundaries started crumbling down, the atomistic, autonomous, individualistic and insulated socio-cultural milean yielded place to a more flexible social structure open to accept the impact of other cultural cross currents. In course of time, cultural monism tended to terminate in cultural pluralism, making culture a confluence of diverse streams and, as such, broad and diversified. 
The advent of modern age brought in its wake greater inter-regional, international mobility among peoples, not only for the purpose of colonization alone, but for promotion of trade, commerce, education and culture. This necessitated the immigrant population’s adoption of and assimilation into the social fabric and mainstream of the target culture which is generally understood as the process of acculturation. 
Acculturation is, therefore, a bifocal, reciprocal process of give-and-take marked by an intimate sense of mutuality. Each culture benefits the other and is, in turn, benefited by it, creating a mutually enriching, sustainable partnership. This constitutes acculturation at the macro level. 
Now let us consider acculturation at the micro level. When an immigrant individual or group, couched in a specific socio-cultural crucible, with a certain matrix of values arrives in a foreign land and is confronted with a socio-cultural framework that is radically different from the one he/she brings with him/her, he/she very naturally experiences a mental or psychological jerk which goes by the name of ‘culture-shock’. This, eventually, is the first phase of response in the process of acculturation, on encountering a foreign culture. There could be two manifestations of this response. One is of calm acceptance of the external realities as a natural expression of a different way of life. As a part of this response, one shows an eager preparedness to identify oneself with the new and unfamiliar labyrinths of the target culture as well as to contribute, in whatever way one can, for the revitalization of the cultural fabric. 
The unreserved, uninhibited Catholicism so expressed is a product of positive thinking, the spontaneous overflow of a sense of involvement, of identity, of belonging with the cultural frame of the land in its totality, into which one plunges readily. This uninhibited identity leads to an unalloyed affinity which prompts one to further nourish the multifold orchestration of life. The healthy, integrative approach to understand, appreciate and approximate the target culture leads to a rich and fabulous cultural amalgam which is essentially creative and generative in its tone and temper. This attitude represents, what is called, ‘the cultural melting pot’ approach which is synthetic, not analytic, and where the participating cultures tend to lose their atomistic identity and help creating a trans-cultural recipe. 
The other kind of manifestation of the response is based on a patently individualistic, fissiparous and dichotomous approach born out of an inherently cynical sense of alienation tempting one to don a mantle of ‘diplomatic’ resignation, beneath the deceptively simple appearance of adoption and adaptation of the target culture. Such an attitude of implicit polarization is deeply embedded in a corroding sense of insecurity for oneself and a perplexing sense of uncertainty about one’s place in the crucible of target culture which one finds difficult to make one’s own. This fluid, schizophrenic and highly vulnerable mental state forces one to adopt a shrewd, hypocritical, intensely mundane and mercenary attitude to the host culture which is basically driven by the ideals of pragmatic opportunism. The arithmetic of immediate gain overrides and obliterates the chemistry of human relationship which tantamount to a gross negation of a liberal, humanistic approach to the wealth of the target culture. Such an attitude is characterized as the ‘salad bowl’ approach, where individual constituents maintain their distinctive identity and give a semblance of unity in diversity, like a piece of mosaic. Obviously, cultural integration coupled with the blossoming of creative energy is the assured outcome of the former approach. Conversely, cultural alienation accompanied by intellectual, emotional and aesthetic degeneration is the inevitable consequence of the latter. 
In this backdrop, we should try and understand the prospects of the process of acculturation in Yemen. Yemen is the epitome of a fascinating cultural mosaic. With the breathtaking natural canvas, pervasive splendor of range of mountains, astounding architectural patterns all brilliantly chiseled by the inscrutable hands of Nature’s bounty are unique specimens of superb craftsmanship which endearingly beckon everyone to ravish the inexhaustible treasure trove in this scintillating crucible. 
On arrival here, one cannot help being enraptured by the picturesque environs and overwhelmed by the natural piety of the Yemenis around. The very common and familiar scene of a group of people sitting together and enjoying a recipe or chewing qat in a relaxed, friendly environment, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ is, in the first place, an instance of happy comradeship and a robust community life par excellence. The unmistakable sense of contentment, of fulfillment is the essence of an unfailing spiritual glow which runs through every nuance of the private and public life in Yemen. What is most striking about this country is that in an age ravaged by crying abuses of atrocities on women, Yemen represents the pinnacle of glory in this respect, with the characteristically high regard for women. Selfless service with the flicker of a smile is the precept every Yemeni lives up to. I for one, have often been touched by the rich repertoire of human values the younger generation, particularly the student community, has imbibed when, on many occasions, I have been accosted by a spontaneous, winsome offer of help: ‘Any help/service, doctor?’ which is the rarest of the rare gestures I have come across in my professional career spanning nearly three decades. What has impressed me most is that it is not a hollow, fervourless verbal gesture but a distilled philosophy of life that seems to run through their blood. 
One instance of how the average Yemeni lives this philosophy in his daily life won’t be out of place. One busy evening my wife, unaccustomed to the turbid traffic flow here, was caught in the ceaseless stream of vehicles in the crowded Tahrir square in Sana’a. As I was helplessly gazing at her agony from across the pavement, one cab driver stopped his cab, came along and rescued her to a safe point. What an eloquent expression of empathy! A society that is built on the solid foundation of such values has the potential of being a model for the rest of the world. I can daresary, without any fear of exaggeration, that Yemen is a jewel in the crown of humanity. 
Assimilation into the cultural hegemony of Yemen is a privilege one would hardly choose to let go. I have often felt the pride of belonging to such a pristine culture and, I trust, many others would have an identical impulse of responsiveness, of reciprocation. What can we do to express our volumes of gratitude in return for the immensity of the burden of love and good will showered on us? 
A lot can, indeed, be done by the diverse cultural groups present in Yemen to revitalize the bond of cohesion at the social, cultural and linguistic levels. This endeavor won’t go in vain but help create a healthy respect for one another, promoting understanding and strengthening mutual bond of relationship. 
At the social level, there could be exchange of greetings, of courtesy visits among different communities on national celebrations, religious festivities and social occasions. 
We could have Friendship Societies which serve as resource centers, equipped with books, vital tourist information, view cards etc. on places of historical, cultural and tourist importance. These would act as windows enabling those interested to get glimpses into the respective country’s social structure, cultural heritage, economic prospects, tourist potential, and so forth. Tourism can directly and indirectly get a valuable boost by such a measure. 
In the cultural front, we could share the vigor and creativity of one another’s cultural treasure by setting up community cultural centers and organizing a wide range of cultural centers and organizing a wide range of cultural activities including periodic cultural festivals, art exhibitions, exhibition of postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, organization of films festivals, music concerts, etc. which would substantially contribute to the promotion of cultural sensitivity among various groups. 
Similarly, much can be done for enrichment of languages and literatures. Sponsored study tours can result in closer interaction among languages. Departments of translation studies in the universities could carry on cross-cultural studies and translation of classics of one literature into another. All this would go a long way to show the power and positive influence of the participating cultures and help build up stronger cultural ties among the cultural groups in Yemen, paving the way for a tension-free, homogeneous world order. 
Acculturation is a journey, not a destination. It is a process, not a product. A positive attitude is the most basic determinant to acculturation which, as a trend, is currently sweeping the world over. Let us not lag behind, but take effective and timely steps towards creating a world family.