Wednesday, June 3, 2009

For Arabs: Fewer Degrees of Seperation

For Arabs, there are always fewer Degrees of Seperation

Six degrees of separation, the idea that every human being is connected to every other person by at the most six links through acquaintances, was popularised by a play written by John Guare. The American psychologist Stanley Milgram experimented with the theory years later, and despite publishing an article on the matter in the 1970s, the whole premise of the theory is still regarded by many as an urban myth.

Nonetheless, whatever that sacred number connecting us all is presumed to be, advances in technology and travel have probably reduced it considerably. And regardless of technological advancements, the figure should be more like “three-degrees of separation” in the Arab world.

After all, upon meeting anyone new, we automatically practise the ritual of connecting the familial dots, drawing up our new acquaintance’s family tree in our head, and then trying to find out how that tree aligns or intersects with our own, our friend’s or the in-laws in our family.

An alternative to the proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is that “the friend of a friend of my uncle/dad/mother is my friend”. Usually, “name dropping” is an effective means at obtaining wasta; using a family member or family of a friend of a friend to secure a job, or even expedite a local bureaucratic process, such as acquiring a date to sit for your driving test. It also somehow allows one to “transfer news” about any common links – a practice commonly known as gossiping. The news, however big or small, always manages to reach your mother.

However, sometimes, the six degrees of separation (or the presumed three degrees, for us Arabs) can be an awkward measure of “friendship”. In the UAE, and the rest of the Arab world, a family name is highly important, profoundly more so than in the United States and many other western countries. And so, upon meeting someone of Arab ancestry, we begin the process: “aah, al Ramahi. Do you know ...? And ...? He’s married to the sister of my mother-in-law, who is a Ramahi.”

The awkwardness seeps in when you least expect. For example, when you realise that your new acquaintance is, in fact, inquiring because he is not so fond of your “friend” in x-degree of separation. Or, he is very fond of that “common” friend, but a distant family member is in a feud with that person.

Digital networking sites have also made the “downside” of the six degrees theory even more awkward. Facebook, for example, now has a new “suggestions” option, where through some complicated algorithm it “suggests” friends you may know through friends you already know (maybe the algorithm is not so complicated after all). And so now, I have pending friend requests from “members of my family” in locations as distant as Sacramento, California, and places in Germany.

On the other hand, the nice thing is that wherever you are in the world, you’re unlikely to be alone. Eventually, you will find the “link” that connects you to someone you may actually like. Also, somehow knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone can introduce a compassionate urge to help them, whoever they are, which may, in turn, help mend some of our world’s most pressing problems.

Kevin Beacon, the founder of, capitalised on that compassion through social correlation by creating a charitable network that inspires people to help others that they may know.

And while the “six degrees of separation” is yet to be revised or revalidated, the phrase is now merely used as a metaphor for “it’s a small world”.

A doctoral student I met in Palo Alto, California, during my studies there turned out to be a very close friend of my dad’s cousin. During later sessions of our Arab hobby of drawing the links, I also found out that I was only one degree of separation away from one of my ultimate heroes: the late Dr Edward Said.

At times, my Arab ancestry makes me scream “this world is just too small”. But at other times, I am so thankful that I sing along to the lyrics of that popular Walt Disney anthem: It’s a small world after all.

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