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Cultural overview: The Middle East Cultural overview: The Middle East
by Joseph Gatt
2019-11-11 10:28:17
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Every individual and country is different, in some cases very different. Two neighboring villages can have completely different mindsets and cultures. So these are sweeping generalities on culture in the Middle East.

Generalities

Middle Eastern countries are predominantly Muslim with sometimes significant Christian, Druze and Baha'i minorities.

middl01_400Islam means you should never rush to anything and adopt a slow demeanor in everything from walking to business (that's in the Quran) and that you should not mingle with members of the opposite sex (otherwise they could label you as gay) and that you should adopt a “manly attitude” if you're a man, and be feared rather than try to be kind. Women also act in ways that elicit fear rather than warmth.

Language

Arabic and Persian are the main languages. Arabic lessons help, but you also want to practice with people in the streets as varieties of Arabic differ a great deal. Kurdish and Berber languages are minority languages.

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia's elites speak French, so do Lebanon's elites. Note that in those four countries a new type of elite has emerged, one with very conservative Islamic values and that will speak exclusively in Arabic. So French is something for the older generation.

Egypt, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula will use English. Either way, when in the Middle East, you will need contacts. Strangers don't talk to strangers in the Middle East, so most of your mingling will be done with co-workers. If your husband or wife comes with you to the Middle East, make sure they find someone they can mingle with, someone good who appreciates your husband and wife and doesn't have too much of a cultural difference with your spouse.

Stereotypes they have about foreigners

The stereotype goes like this. White people have sex three times a day, sleep with different women all the time, women love sex and will sleep with random men. White people are also relaxed about music and will blast loud music at home, and love dancing and night clubs. And they travel all the time. 

So if your Middle Eastern partner is constantly talking about sex and travel and music, you want to fix that by shifting the conversation to food or football or home decoration or smart phone apps or anything else. Either way, as many Middle Easterners have met few foreigners, they will be very impressed, at times confused, by anything you tell them. So choose your words and stories carefully.

Greeting

I'll divide this one into three categories: men-men, women-women and men-women.

Men-men: For colleagues and good friends, a conservative handshake is always mandatory. The best way to do it is to insert the pit between your thumb and index into their put between the thumb and index. Avoid slapping, or other “rapper” style handshakes. Some men will greet other men with a kiss on both cheeks, although in most cases only when you've parted for a long time, or during or after religious holidays. When invited to a man's home, two kisses, one on each cheek, tend to be the norm, but in some cases a handshake will suffice. When invited to a wedding or funeral, many people will assume you're a family member and will kiss you on both cheeks.

Women-women: When greeting, put your right hand on their elbow and give a kiss on each cheek. For very close friends, you could hug and kiss on both cheeks. Men are not expected to make the sucking sound as they kiss on cheeks, but women are. When dealing with co-workers, many will kiss on both cheeks each morning, while others will just nod or wave.

Men-women: In some cases women could kiss men on both cheeks for three reasons: either they consider you are a family member, or you are considered close friends in a liberal environment, or, the woman has very strong feelings for the man. If a woman greets you with a kiss on both cheeks each morning but that she's not doing that with other men, she probably has feelings for you. If the feelings are not reciprocal, you want to extend your hand and avoid the kissing and you want to add something like “I'm not a serious and committed guy in life and at work. I'm a joker, life's a joke.” She'll usually get the hint.

Either way, the safe bet is to wait for the other person to initiate the greeting. Final rule: always say “Salam Aleikum” upon entering any store, house or business. In some cases, if there are people sitting in the streets, you will also be expected to say “Salam aleikum” especially if there was eye contact. 

Small talk

As I said, many Middle Easterners think that Asians or Latin American or Europeans or whatever are hedonistic sex addicts. So many will try to discuss sex and hedonism with you, often in very clumsy manner.

So you want conversation to be more focused. For men, you can discuss tinkering, plumbing, electricity, home decoration, football, smart phone apps, ask them where you can send your children to school, ask them what brand of car would be best to drive, ask them what neighborhoods are the safest. In any case, avoid politics, history or religion. Avoid any hint of criticism or complaining. Even innocent claims such as “I lost 5 kilos” can be interpreted as “so you don't like our food, then go back to your country and gain back those five kilos.”

Women want to discuss their children, home decoration, cooking (especially anything related to baking, to cakes or to sweets) and in some cases makeup, fashion, furniture, luxury and all that. Either way, try to avoid discussing anything too expensive, and avoid bragging about money or status.

Meals

Except for the Trucial States (UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain) where you'll find a lot of good restaurants, the restaurant scene in many Arab states is modest at best. Morocco and Tunisia have some pretty decent buffets, so does Egypt, but elsewhere, you'll have to hunt for good restaurants. Most restaurants will be fast-food restaurants, and many restaurants will make no effort at creativity.

If invited to someone's home, you'll be served a complete salad, soup, several main dishes, and dessert with coffee or tea. Meals at restaurants and at home are often eaten in complete silence, and any remark would come off as very awkward. That is even when eating with your best friends; any remark on your part could be interpreted as you trying to tell the waiter or their mother something.

In some cases, especially when there are business difficulties, your colleagues could invite you home to discuss the difficulties. As their mother (or wife) will be listening in, you will be expected to discuss the bad deal, but by heavily censoring anything that could offend the mother (or wife). That is your Arab business partners are trying to tell you “don't take it too hard on us, we have families to feed.”

At home

Here are the commandments for behaving at a Middle Eastern home.

Rule number one: always take off your shoes (unless asked otherwise), wash your feet, and wear slippers (or ask for them). If possible wash your hands and face as well. But never, ever take a shower.

Rule number two: many Middle Easterners sleep on the couch or in the living room. That means never, ever put your feet on the couch. If you have “gas” head to the toilet and pass it there.

Rule number three: focus on your friend and avoid focusing the attention on anyone else in the house. Don't ask questions about who's in the house. Don't say something like “is that your brother” or “is that your sister?”

Rule number four: keep in mind that if your friend is inviting you home, in some cases (not always) he's trying to hook you up with his sister or cousin. That will be done in a very subtle way, and you want to be hyper subtle about the situation. Invent a story like “my sister is getting married next month to a guy from my city. In my city we tend to marry people from the same city” then quickly move to something else.

Final rule: If the TV is off, ask for it to be switched on. If anything awkward happens, point to the TV.

Everyday life (hospitals, banks, the post office, pharmacies)

Like in Africa, there are great doctors and terrible doctors. Unfortunately most people don't know the difference between good and bad doctors in the Middle East. Doctors usually know the difference. So if you're a company or an embassy, you want to hunt for the good doctors, invite them for events, and make sure that if anything happens they'll treat you right. A good way to look for good doctors is by scanning their academic publications.

Banks tend to be very complicated in the Middle East. They say Arabs can kill you because of 10 cents. There's some truth to that. Banks are paranoid about money laundering and about bank fraud, so if you need to send or receive money, you'll have to wait for about a month for all the paperwork to get done. Either way, always leave an emergency fund in your Middle Eastern bank account.

The post office works like in most countries, although many parcels can mysteriously disappear. Some countries have insurance for parcel theft, so you want to subscribe to that.

Pharmacies often don't sell anti-depressants or mood stabilizers. Many won't have contraceptives. Many will refuse to sell you hangover medication even when it's available, simply as your punishment for drinking. And any medication that contains alcohol in it tends not to be sold, or to be sold very carefully. So if you're moody or depressed, you want to leave the Middle East, as psychiatrists tend to be incredibly incompetent and arrogant (they will view your depression as a sign that you dislike their country and will take that personally) and pharmacies often don't sell anti-depression products. In the Middle East, if you're depressed, you're expected to die a slow, painful death.

Shopping

The Trucial states are of course a shopper's paradise. But other states are very modest when it comes to shopping. Textile used is not the best quality, some sizes are hard to find, and choice is very limited. Touristic countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan often don't have souvenir shops, and don't have souvenir t-shirts that say “Marrakech” or “Carthage” or “Gizeh” on them.

You want to buy electronics elsewhere. Furniture is the cheap kind, and it can be very difficult to find matching colors for your furniture. And chairs break very easily, so do tables.

Grocery shopping can be frustrating, and you won't find a lot of ingredients. Most butchers won't sell expired meat, but they will try to throw in as many bones as they can to jack up the price.

Asking favors

You want to be very careful when asking favors. All favors are expected to be reciprocated. That is if you ask someone to drive you somewhere, a couple of days later they could ask you for a generous loan. If you ask for someone to act as your interpreter, he could ask you to do all his children's English homework for the next year.

Middle Easterners know that favors can be refused. So a lot of times rather than directly asking you a favor, they will use ruses to get you to perform favors. For example, they could come up to you and ask “what's the fastest way to drive to the stadium?” and you'll be happy to brag about your knowledge of the short cut to the stadium before they ask you “OK my car just broke down, so tomorrow you're driving me to the stadium using that route.” Or they could ask you to explain the contents of a document, and ask you to lead the project that they are supposed to lead. My advice: don't be anyone's slave.

Refusing favors unfortunately can break relationships. So my advice is that when you show up every morning make claims that you're very busy on the job. Unfortunately even when busy, they can push for favors. I got fired from a Middle Eastern job simply for refusing a minor favor. You get the idea.

Bragging

Let me illustrate this with an anecdote. November 2013. I won a grand prize at an international speech contest, and placed first by a landslide. I got the flowers and a diploma, took a few pictures. A Middle Eastern kid then came to me. Did not congratulate me, and forced me to follow him to the café. He knew I was attending a classical music concert that evening and had a few hours to kill. We sat at the café, did not discuss the speech contest, and awkwardly chatted about random stuff.

Two things. The Middle Eastern guy was obviously jealous and did not want me to get all the praise. He did not want me to kill four hours by shaking hundreds of hands and receiving all the praise.  Second thing, the Middle Eastern guy, by sitting with the café with the winner of the speech contest, was sending a subtle message that he gets to sit with the very best to all those who passed by the café and knew I won.

Middle Easterners only brag when they feel their job is on the line, their relationship is on the line, or when they need a huge loan or financial favor of some kind. That's when they'll brag about being reliable, faithful, and the best at everything. Otherwise, they tend to avoid bragging about anything.

Dating

In the Middle East, men and women tend to be very uncomfortable with openly dating. So most relationships tend to have a lot of ambiguity in them, tend to be of the platonic kind, and the two are in a relationship without really being in one. When Middle Eastern couples meet, they tend to try to avoid discussing the nature of their relationship.

Social media has taken dating to a whole different level. I'm not a great-looking guy, but over the years here's what I get from Middle Eastern girls (I stand out among men because I'm kind and respectful with almost everyone). Some girls upload dozens of pictures of them wearing a Samsung t-shirt when they had previously never uploaded any pictures (I spent a lot of time in Korea). Others suddenly start opening up on social media when they never uploaded anything before. Others start posting a series of intellectual posts. Others start following people who have my name, while others start “liking” pages that have my name on them. Some even start posting suggestive pictures of them at the beach when they never posted pictures before. Some put their phone number in public mode when it was private. These are just a few examples.

Unlike ASEAN nations where girls come up to you straight and ask you for your number, in the Middle East, girls will start wearing items that cover very little of their arms, or will constantly discuss marriage with a friend in your presence. Or will play sentimental music in your presence. For the anecdote, there was this very pretty girl at a Middle Eastern company I briefly worked for. She had very strong feelings for me and it showed. Then one day I came out of the restroom and she started crying hysterically. When I discussed this with a friend months later, he told me that she probably took the fact that I used the restroom in her presence as a sign that the feelings were not reciprocal. 

I never dated a Middle Eastern woman, but usually what happens next for couples who date is long chats on the phone, or chats on social media. Both men and women tend to brag a great deal to their significant other. When the man says “I'm visiting your family” that usually means it's a formal proposal (they don't get down on one knee). The proposal is a healthy 85 or 90% of the times accepted, but a rare 10-15% of the times the woman's family will refuse, usually due to differences in religious or social philosophy. 

If you're a foreign man or woman in the Middle East, keep in mind that a lot of times you will be forced to convert to Islam (law mandates that the spouse be a Muslim in many countries) and that Middle Eastern men and women use a lot of fear tactics in the relationship (they threaten to break up a lot or engage in other forms of drama). Middle Eastern men and women can also be very territorial, and will call you dozens of times of day to find out where you are. Some Middle Eastern men and women impose strange rules on their partners, including bans on makeup, bans on seeing friends, or in some cases, will check your phone every day and ask for detailed reports on the phone calls that were made. Keep that in mind. 
 
Marriage

Marriage is usually a family affair. If they want to leave the family out, they probably want your money or a visa to live with you overseas.

In most countries, either one ceremony is held or two separate ceremonies are held. That is the trend these days is to have a “Western style” wedding at a wedding hall where the men sit outside and play cards or checkers while women stay inside and chant or dance.

But traditionally, the bride has a ceremony in her home. Women chant religious chants (or if it's a modern family dance to local music) and men stay outside and play cards. The groom will have a ceremony where men will stay with him and sing religious chants, while women will be in a separate room chanting religious chants, or observing the religious chants at a distance. Then the bride's family all get in cars and busses, and drive to the groom's house. The bride's family is welcomes with chants of joy by the groom's family, and the bride's family is invited for tea or for a meal.

Note that weddings is where a lot of matchmaking takes place and many single men and women are matched during the wedding. So women who want to find a match tend to wear their best outfits, those who are not in a hurry to get married deliberately dress modestly. Same thing for men.

How they treat children

When I walk around the streets of the Middle East I see a lot of children crying. Here's how the cycle goes: mother (or father) bullies the kid, the kid cries, mother or father pushes the bullying further, more crying, and on and on and on. In the old days the kids would get violently beaten up, but these days they'll just get yelled at. And I'm thinking “show the kid some love if you want him to stop crying.”

Middle Eastern mothers tend to be cold and strict with their children, especially in public. Fathers tend to take it easy on the daughters, but can be cold and strict with their sons. Shaming and bullying is common and it's common for parents to call their children “filthy” or “disgusting.”

More importantly, parents in the Middle East often improvise everything and hardly ever teach anything to their children. They don't teach their children how to get organized, how to clean a room or much of anything. I stayed with a Middle Eastern foster family on and off for four years, kept asking for a vacuum cleaner (they didn't have one) and never got one. To be fair the house was always very clean.

Oh, and if children want something, a lot of times, they won't be getting it. Middle Eastern children in the US or Europe are notorious for crying during Christmas season, as a lot of their friends will be getting Christmas presents but the Middle Eastern kids will get absolutely nothing.

Note that children under 2 or 3 years old are considered incredibly cute and showered with affection. There's no terrible two in the Middle East.

Pets and animals

Islam is very clear on one fact: animal are inferior beings. Many Middle Easterners will adopt dogs or cats; there are many animal lovers in the Middle East. Some will have pet birds or pet fish.

But one rule to keep in mind is, if you visit a Middle Eastern house and find a dog, don't show the dog love or affection. Don't play with the dog; don't pet the dog, act like you're scared of the dog. Middle Easterners rarely show any love or affection to their pets.

Driving

The good. Middle Eastern drivers often yield, often signal, tend to respect priorities, and if you're the safe kind of driver they will play it safe around you.

The bad. Middle Eastern drivers tailgate and rarely respect distances. They zigzag in and out of lanes, and if they're in a hurry, they speed.

The ugly. If you honk at a car or force your way into a turn or past a car, you will get a deluge of honking, all kinds of insults, and sometimes the drivers will invite you to stop your car and come out for a fight.

Religion

Muslims in the Middle East. Children are expected to memorize portions of the Quran, and school tests memorization of the Quran. Starting age 9 or 10, children will “practice” fasting during Ramadan. The norm is at age 9 they will fast one or two days (one of the days being the 27th day of Ramadan or the holiest day of Ramadan) and children age 10 will fast something like 8 to 10 days. Children aged 11 will fast around 15 days, Children aged 12 will either fast the entire month or around 20 days. Children aged 13 are expected to fast the entire month.

Prayer is encouraged but optional, some start at age 13, while others wait until ages 35 or 40 to start praying. For women, the hijab or veil is encouraged, some start wearing it as early as age 9 or 10, while others will wait until marriage to start wearing it. Some do away with the hijab, while in some countries the hijab is mandatory.

Recitation of the Quran is encouraged, and the more you know the better. Charity and donations are mandatory; some donate as much as 10% of their paycheck to charity. In some countries, there's a tradition where you must give your first paycheck to charity. Note that when applying for jobs, many Muslims will write “I want to work so I can give to charity.”

Christians in the Middle East tend to be a little secretive for obvious reasons. But they are extremely proud Christians, and very aware of their Christian faith. Note that Middle East Christians are conservative when it comes to dating and marriage, and would rather choose their children a spouse than have their children accidentally fall in love with a Muslim.

There are Druze and Baha'i minorities that are also very secretive about their faith, and same thing, they usually prefer choosing their children a spouse.

Smoking, alcohol and recreational (legal and illegal) drugs

Smoking cigarettes is very common among both men and women, although the younger generation is showing less interest in smoking. Some workplaces allow smoking, most cafés allow smoking. Many will allow you to smoke in their house, although families who are non-smokers won't allow you to smoke in their house. Smoking in front of elders is considered rude, and many will hide their cigarettes around elders.

Drinking. Some countries downright ban alcohol (Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen) while others strictly monitor sales (the Trucial states, Kuwait). This means in Dubai or Kuwait you can only drink inside certain hotels, the number of drinks they can serve you is limited, you can not take drinks home, and public intoxication is a crime punishable by hefty fines.

In Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, alcohol is tolerated around touristic places, but not so much among populations. Either way, you will need a car to drive to find a liquor store to buy take-out liquor, as grocery stores never sell liquor.

Drug dealing and drug use is punishable by death in some cases, and there have been executions for that. Smoking a spiff is equivalent to playing Russian roulette in some states. Morocco and Algeria have high drug use rates, but if you're at the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught, you could be in for a month or two in jail, or more.

Death and funerals

If someone dies of old age and natural causes, a wake will be held and very little crying will be done. If someone dies young, or a slow, painful death, women will cry hysterically during the wake.

Note that Middle Easterners can excuse absences from weddings, but tend not to tolerate absences from funerals. That is even when they are overseas; they tend to cut their trips short to attend the funeral. In some cases, workers can get up to 6 weeks (40 days) authorized leave if a spouse, a brother or a parent dies, as the funeral service lasts 40 days in Muslim countries. That is during 40 days, special prayers are held every day and a lot of paperwork is involved.

Social gatherings (conferences, cocktails parties etc.)

Social gathering in the Middle East are few and far between, and are rarely advertised. Some will be underground and will involve drinking copious amounts of beer or wine and eating copious amounts of food. Others will be a waste of time, as no one really talks to no one else.

Talking to strangers at events is not forbidden, but does make people a little uncomfortable. The best way to meet people is to stand by the ashtray and wait for smokers to come smoke. Small talk can be incredibly awkward, and your partner can duck many, many questions and cut you off if you make any statement. It can take around 10 minutes before you find a topic you're both comfortable discussing.

K12 education system

In schools, teachers tend to place way too much focus on discipline. The vicious cycle goes like this. Teacher disciplines the students, students yell back at the teacher in chorus, teacher punishes, students’ riot. As I always say, show the student some love and you'll get wonderful things with them.

Although there are textbooks, most teaching is teacher-centered. If you teach in the Middle East, there's this important ritual where students have to come up to the board and do an exercise or solve a problem. Students are rarely shy about going to the board.

Finally, you'll notice that students can talk about stuff with authority, but can't write it down. Those very same students who lectured you about fish market economics couldn't write a paragraph about anything. So in the era of typing and computers, teachers need to assign essays to students. Unfortunately, teachers in the Middle East rarely assign essays to students, and when teachers do, they rarely read them carefully when correcting them, and tend to give A+ to the longer ones and C to the shorter ones, again without reading them. For the anecdote a friend of mine wrote a history essay on “Marvel comics” when the topic was the Cold War, and he wrote 15 pages of villains and heroes, and he still got an A+. He repeated the experiment and got an F.

University education system

Drop out rates are rather high, in some cases very high at universities. Professor’s are often frequently absent, and technology lacks, meaning professors lose their voice when they lecture in crowded lecture halls. Microphones often don't work.

Universities are also overly bureaucratized, and when you put too much bureaucracy, bureaucracies start losing papers and people lose their jobs, their degrees, or their life, because of administrative blunders.

There is something of an intellectual class in the Middle East and Iran, and they will discuss anything except for politics, history and religion. That is if you discuss sociology or anthropology, they will tend to leave political or religious or even historical events out of the study.

How their elites behave

The elites often do their shopping and healthcare in Paris or London, perhaps Rome. They usually send their children to study overseas, often in England, France or North America. Some like to have wild parties, while others are a bit more conservative. Some work very hard, others never show up for work. Some use their position to become serial womanizers; others are not too impressed by their status. Some like to show up on TV as much as they can, others avoid the media altogether.

Entertainment

It used to be Hollywood and American sit-coms and dramas. Now American entertainment needs to wake up, because in most of the Middle East (and other places around the world) Korean, Turkish and Latin American soap operas have taken the Middle East by storm.

The thing is American entertainment tends to focus on telling a good story. Turkish, Latin American and Korean or Chinese entertainment doesn't focus on the story as much as they focus on the beauty of the actors. Middle Easterners (and Asians, Eastern Europeans or Latin Americans) prefer seeing pretty faces in almost dull sit-coms or dramas to seeing “average faces” in exciting action.

Technology

Technology is slowly invading the Middle East, although many still can't use a computer. Many hospitals and university administrations don't use computers, and when they do, they stick to the basic stuff like MS Excel. Some people love technology, others want to stick to one form of technology their entire life. 

Intellectual conversation

As I said, you can discuss anything intellectual, as long as you're not discussing history, politics or religion. Many will avoid intellectual conversation, while others will grossly exaggerate their intellectual capacities. In intellectual circles, you'll find a small group of Marxists, a small group of Religious nationalists, and a small group of progressives. Conversation on science is rare.

How to deal with money

Money is very taboo in the Middle East. Everyone claims to have lots of it, but they can get very angry if 10 cents are missing. So here are the rules.

First, if you're treated to a nice dinner, or repeatedly treated to nice dinners, avoid reciprocating until you are (often indirectly) invited to reciprocate. Here's how it works. Friend invites me to the pub every day and picks up all the tabs. On the 8th day, he starts searching his pockets theatrically and claims to have left his wallet in the car. That's where you come in and pick up the tab. Subsequently, you either pick up tabs or go Dutch, but be subtle and non-verbal about the whole thing.

Second, if someone needs money, they will simply ask for “money.” Don't ask them how much. Suggest a sum. They might say something like “give me more” and that's when you suggest another sum. If they hint they want more, give them the final sum. What happens is if the amount you gave them is insufficient, they will come back to you asking for more.

Third, in business transactions, especially those involving hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars bring three witnesses with you. Negotiate a sum, never by giving numbers directly, always by saying “come on! Help me out here!” If you think you're getting a bad deal, leave. If they can offer you a better deal, they will call you back. If you shoot numbers at them, even when they're getting an excellent deal, they could refuse to sign a deal, simply because it's considered rude to shoot numbers.

The legal system

The legal system tends to be a mixture of Romano-Germanic law, of mediation law, and of what I call common-sense law. Most laws are written down, but judges will try to get opposing parties to reach a deal (that could involve blood money). Common sense law means that a young, single outlaw could get lengthy jail sentences, while a father of seven children who commits a serious crime could get a short sentence coupled with counseling and retribution.

Farewells and before you leave the country

Like in Africa, farewell parties are rare and tearful separations are not the norm. When you leave the country, your friends might drive you to the airport, have one final cup of coffee, and might stay in touch with you for a couple of months before they slowly take you out of their life.


    
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