Honor and Shame…and My Walk Between.

If there is one word that I have learned backwards and forwards; one that I will never ever forget…it is “iba”. Iba. Such a simple word. So seemingly insignificant. But it is this word….this simple, two-syllable declaration… that can destroy a reputation. A word that can dishonor a family for years to come. A word of deep shame.

Because quite literally, “iba” means just that. Shame.

This concept of shame is something that I am learning more about every day. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this deeply embedded idea. However, I am finally realizing the things that make me “shameful” in this culture.

 It’s things that you would never think twice about in the West. Many things are quite simple. Do not apply chapstick in public. Food and drink is only consumed while seated. There is no “to-go” in this culture. Try to avoid eating with or using your left hand in public. Make sure you are entering through the “women and family entrance” at local restaurants…as many are segregated male and female.

 Others are not so easy. To look a man in the eye or smile a friendly hello as we are so accustomed to do in the States is fiercely inappropriate here. Accidentally brushing his hand when receiving change in a store….or even worse…purposefully reaching for an arm/shoulder/back in a meant-to-be-friendly touch. Bending down in front of a man. Showing your hair, ankle, or elbow.

 “Loose”. “Easy”.


 American. Here, Hollywood defines the Western world. Hollywood has set the standard for what this culture believes Western women value. How we choose to dress. What we participate in. And most importantly, what morals we hold.

 The resulting stereotype is not pretty. It’s embarrassing. It’s a stigma.

 Yes, the dueling forces of honor and shame can initially be difficult to understand. And yes, on 110 degree days, I do wish I could pull on a pair of shorts and throw on an old tank top.

 But just as I am here to have my own American-born stereotypes and ideas of the Middle East, Iraq, and her people broken and shattered into a million pieces, I am here to shatter expectations. To build new stereotypes. To immerse myself in Iraq and her culture, experience it fully, and behave in a way that brings honor to myself, to my gender, and to my country.

 American freedom, “expressionism”, and high individualism are truly beautiful things that should be deeply valued. But while I am here, my fiercely independent, women’s rights lovin’ little self is learning a lesson in the beauty in quietness. I am growing to love the lens of “honor and shame” that governs this place. The dependence in community. And the cultivation of respect for another’s culture.

 So today, I will wake up and put on my worn-too-many-times-in-a-row ankle length skirt. I’ll make the 15 minute walk to the office and wait to gulp my water and breakfast down until I arrive. I’ll go to lunch and ask the men in my group to take my payment to the counter. I will embrace the extremely entertaining face/hand/foot ONLY farmer’s tan I am rocking. And I will be thankful for this time to experience, to grow, and to sweat just a little bit more. Image


70 thoughts on “Honor and Shame…and My Walk Between.

  1. Mei…so beautifully expressed and I am so proud of you. It is an honor to be your mother and it is a shame we can not more effectively change our American reputation. Thank you for being salt and light. Love you.

  2. What a beautiful blog and most important beautiful way you have of expressing yourself and all that is important to you! Beautiful in so many ways!

  3. Can’t imagine that living with so much restriction would be easy after living with it. So inspiring that you have embraced another culture and are sharing it with others. Thanks!

      • Now that I reread my comment, I meant to say “after living without it” — but I guess you figured out what I meant. We are all getting better at that in the age of the smart phone with its auto incorrect. Thanks for your post, it was inspiring.

  4. Very thought provoking. Thank you so much for sharing. It is interesting to think about shame and it’s power. Shame is something taught to us, and while it can be a helpful emotion, identifying for us when we need to be more compassionate or considerate, it powerfully acidic and cannot be held inside for long without eating away at who we are. I love your words here, your strength.

  5. These are factors too many of us fail to see working in our New Testament stories — societal taboos that are, unfortunately, still in effect in too many parts of the world.
    Best wishes in walking the line and nurturing change.

  6. It must have been hard to change your manner of socialization but it good that you respect their belief. I am here wondering how I would react in your situation.

  7. Dear Meredith,

    This is truly a great post! Having been an expat in many countries I have gone through exactly the same adjustment stages. Change and adaptation is never easy, but it is always worth it. It is the only way to truly learn about foreign culture, adopt its most positive features and to be welcomed, and subsequently present your own customs in the best of lights.
    As of now you are an unofficial ambassador of your country, it is a great responsibility and privilege. Enjoy it to the fullest!

    Best wishes,

  8. Great post.

    One can often really only see/appreciate one’s own culture as being one of many in the world by leaving it very far behind. I’ve traveled alone in places like yours and lived in Mexico when I was 14, with waist-length blond hair — I learned very early to keep my eyes down and my dress and behavior modest. It’s a very good thing to live as others do, no matter how annoying or different or restrictive it seems to us. How else can we ever hope to understand them?

    • I bet you did stand out with your blond hair! It’s definitely an adjustment…but being able to assimilate into the culture is so worth it! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Great read. I haven’t traveled the world much, but reading this made me feel as if I was there experiencing the culture with you. Good job! 🙂

    • Thank you, Lauren! I’m glad that you could stop by! I hope that I can portray the culture in a way that helps to break the stereotypes of what we typically hear about this area of the world! I am learning there is so much more to Iraq than just the war…so much beauty in the culture here!

  10. Thanks for sharing this. I came upon your blog tonight and enjoyed reading it. I have a son from China–we adopted him last summer–July 2nd will be his official “one year” home date. Always a blessing to come across others who have shared in the journey. Look forward to reading more! Blessings, Libby.

    • That’s wonderful, Libby! I have a huge heart for those China babies 🙂 They are too precious!! I hope your son has adjusted well and happy “Gotcha Day” to him! We just celebrated both of my sisters’ last month! Such a special time! Best wishes to you all!

  11. This is a wonderful piece – thought provoking and beautiful. I’ve just been exploring your blog and loving it. Thanks for sharing your story, your heart and your hope. I’m looking forward to reading more of your experiences 🙂 Take care, Rissa

  12. Beautiful post. I know how you feel, I’m Pakistani Muslim and also British, and always I’m walking between the line of ‘respectable’ and ‘too Westernised’. I’m glad you can make your own identity and break the stereotypes, it’s something we all struggle with. Good luck to you!

  13. Pingback: Honor and Shame…and My Walk Between. | e-teaching forum

    • Thank you for stopping by! I think Latin America has its own share of difficulties and exciting cultural experiences 🙂 I’ve enjoyed the small amount of time I have spent there! Best wishes to you!

  14. I am from Nepal, and even here we understand the lifestyles of America through Hollywood. This is a great piece of writing and I hope you make a difference in the society. Best of luck.

  15. We do have our own share of preconceptions of person, things and events but it is up to us to be more objective. This post is mind opening.

    • Hi giacomolove…thanks for stopping by! It definitely has been amazing to see all the preconceptions that I already had without even realizing I had them! Very mind opening!

  16. This is a brave, wise and wonderfully written post. Having worked as an ex pat in Africa several times I really hear and admire your openness and willingness to embrace another culture. I think it’s a fine line, and a stretch. There were moments for me when I was deeply challenged to both embrace and check inside me to be sure I was still being authentic and honouring myself and my own beliefs too. Life changing moments for which I’m very grateful.

    • Thank you harulawordsthatserve! I’m sure you had quite the experience in Africa as well! It is definitely a challenge that can be difficult to learn to walk! Thanks for stopping by!

  17. Hi I am from India and I do understand it well. Here things have changed a lot. Freedom or what you say “expressionism” is a word people are getting familiar with these days. Loved the way you expressed it.

    • Thank you, Stephanie! It is my hope that the stories I tell paint a different picture of Iraq than what is typically heard on the news. There is so much beauty here besides the war and violence that is commonly presented! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hello! Because of my location, most days, we do not have to wear an abaya. My typical dress consists of floor length skirts and wrist lengths shirts. We will begin to cover our heads once Ramadan begins. However, when we travel to the more conservative regions, we dress as conservative as possible to match the dress of most people there! Thanks for stopping by!

  18. Adapting to a completely different culture is trying (I can say that from first hand experience though not as intense as yours) But I’m amazed at how you are trying to embrace it rather than rant n rave like so many others. Love your spirit!

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