One way to understand culture is to learn the stories of the people group. Knowing the stories will help both in learning the language, as well as the culture.
In the Middle East, we learn of one of the oldest stories in the world, Gilgamesh. His story was carved on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq and Syria. The clay tablets containing the story of Gilgamesh were found in the 19th century by French and British archeologists, and may be found in the collections in London, Paris, and possibly Philadelphia.
There are many versions of this story, but in all of them, Gilgamesh, the king of the city of Uruk, becomes a tragic hero as the story unfolds. Of the many tales of Gilgamesh, his final quest is his search for immortality after the death of his best friend, Enkidu.
The city of Uruk was once locate near rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates are the two main rivers of Mesopotamia, but since Gilgamesh's time, these rivers have changed course, causing the city of Uruk to be abandoned as the desert encroached. One can still see the ruins of the wall Gilgamesh had built, but it is hard to imagine a lush fertile countryside as it was 8000 years ago in his time.
Ludmila Zeman has written an "accessible" version of the legend of Gilgamesh. ("Accessible" means: modern English with lots of pictures!) She tells the story in three short books, enjoyed by children and adults of all ages. The titles are:
Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar, and the Last Quest of Giglamesh.
(I purchased these books with my own funds for our family's homeschool.)
In Gilgamesh the King, we are introduced to Gilgamesh the tyrant king, forcing his people to build a massive wall surrounding his city called Uruk. The sun god was unhappy with how Gilgamesh was treating his people, so Enkidu was created by the sun god specifically to learn kindness from animals.
Eventually, Enkidu, "the strongest man who lived" as brought by Shamhat, the most beautiful woman of Uruk" to fight against Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh stepped on a loose stone during the ensuing battle, Enkidu rescues Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh realizes he has found a friend. Enkidu and Shamhat, and King Gilgamesh live happily for awhile, and the people once again love their kind king.
In The Revenge of Ishtar, the monster Humbaba attacks the city of Uruk, killing Enkidu's beloved Shamhat. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a quest to kill Humbaba. Once they are successful, the goddess Ishtar offers to take Gilgamesh as her husband and take him away to live with her.
But Gilgamesh loves his people and refuses her. Being a woman scorned, she sends her bull to attack Uruk. Enkidu manages to kill the bull, causing raging Ishtar to resort to hurting Gilgamesh by sending an illness upon Enkidu. Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh decides he will find a way to defeat death by finding immortality.
Finally, The Last Quest of Giglamesh tells the story of Gilgamesh's quest for immortality, after he grieves the death of his best friend, Enkidu. Through many different tests and trials, he finds the flower which will grant him and his people immortality. But Ishtar changed into a snake, and slithered quietly over to the flower while Gilgamesh was asleep, and ate it. Gilgamesh despairs, but finally realizes his immortality is found in the city he built, his courage, goodness, and the love his people had for him.
These stories are interesting and a quick read, and while not exactly pertinent to modern day Middle Eastern culture, are part of understanding the history and legends of the ancient Middle East.