The Other Way Round

In the Western world we view our existence from left to right, and I never truly realised this until now

I was at the factory today, doing my one-day-a-week there, as usual. Over the past two months I have been supervising a student who is to complete a work based project that forms a major part of her master’s degree in food production. She is almost finished; she leaves at the end of this week.

Events conspired that I had to perform a little IT maintenance on her laptop. Nothing too taxing, just a few administrative clicks to ensure it was separated properly from the network and the company resources residing thereon, this being her last week and all. She is Syrian, and the keys on her laptop are embellished with the Arabic equivalents of those characters. As I took the driver’s seat at the machine, I grabbed the mouse and began to negotiate my way through the menus.

This proved to be challenge. The “select” button on a mouse is traditionally the left one; the right usually opens a context menu. Hers setup was the opposite. I asked her if she was a southpaw, and had thus altered the configuration accordingly. She replied that she wasn’t, and that typically all computers from Arabic cultures are configured this way.

I knew the answer to the next question before I even asked it; the reason was obvious, but has still opened my mind. I was aware that Arabic scripture is read from right-to-left, as opposed to the Western world’s left-to-right. What I wasn’t aware of is that this isn’t just a matter of word progression on the page, but a clear, distinctly cultural consideration of how we orientate ourselves to the world around us.

In the west, we view the passage of time as flowing from left to right; therefore objects to our left hand side are viewed with greater prominence, as these are seen to be first, foremost, primary. Arabic culture considers the world from what I would refer to as “The Other Way Round”; although by the nature of perspective I am just as equally “The Other Way Round”. Thus in Syria text is read right-to-left, time passes right-to-left, and first/foremost/primary concerns hit us from the right hand side of our perspective.

I find this so very interesting. It is not enough just to point out that text is read “from the opposite direction”, this is a gross over-simplification, there is so much more to this than mere prose on the page. As individuals and collectives, our comprehension of time and space dictates the way we have been taught to read and the orientation of the select button on a humble computer mouse, but ultimately these are both tied to cultural perception of how the world flows. Neither direction is wrong, because both ways are right.

I wonder, if I learnt to approach everything from a different direction, be it right-to-left as in Arabic, or top-to-bottom as in Japanese, whether my understanding of things would dramatically change.