Thursday, December 08, 2005

a land of contrasts

you have probably all heard me and a variety of other people say it: Egypt is a land of contrasts.

Usually people are talking about how there's a Pizza Hut next to the Sphinx, or how there are donkey carts and bicycle carts alongside very new and very old cars and buses.

This week I am thinking of a different kind of contrast--a contrast of behaviors.

Hospitality is a crucial thing across the Middle East. It's almost a way of life--you welcome people into your home or your shop with tea, food, and general doting. You can see my previous posts about hospitality to see what I mean. People will go into debt just to make sure they properly treat a guest in their home. Shopkeepers often ask you to drink tea with them. The guards at the gate of our school have passed many an evening buying us juice and tea. The friends we've made have had us into their homes for extravagant meals. Hospitality is done right here in a lot of ways.

This understanding of hospitality stands in stark contrast to the behavior you see on the streets of Cairo. Here it seems that it is everyone for him/herself--whether driving or walking, there is a complete disregard and disrespect of the "other." When walking on a sidewalk (or even in the middle of the road), people will not move to the side if they see someone coming toward them. In fact, I think one is more likely to simply get bowled over! There are many times I have been walking right up next to the buildings and had a single person, or a group of people, walk straight at me as though there weren't several feet of sidewalk available for them to walk around me. In cars, drivers literally push and shove to get ahead, though the traffic is so bad that no one is getting anywhere. Crossing the street is literally taking your life in your hands because drivers are so unwilling to stop.

Foreigners in the streets have it bad, yes--we get constantly yelled at, comments thrown our direction--often along with other things (garbage, rocks, hands). We can be treated horribly. But it isn't just foreigners. Egyptians also treat each other poorly--walking into each other, refusing to step around someone walking toward them, pushing and shoving, shouting, refusing to move if someone is behind them trying to pass by, etc. "Excuse me" isn't even a phrase in their language--they simply say "minfadlak" (if they actually say anything at all), which is the most common--and least respectful--form of "please."

It is a sad thing to be forced to observe--that a culture that places such a high value on hospitality also seems to have such a lack of hospitality outside the home. And actually, more than a lack of hospitality, but an actual disrespect of people who are "not me."

There are theories, of course....that it's about tribalism, and unless I know the people on the street are my tribe, I don't need to respect them--and maybe even shouldn't respect them....that western radical individualism has been adopted and even taken to new, destructive heights (which I'm not sure I buy because it seems that these behaviors are so deep-rooted that they can't be western in origin, but I wasn't here a generation ago to gauge if it's a change)....but frankly, my theory is simply that people here have not been taught to care about themselves--as a country, a culture, and especially as individuals--and so have no care for others either. The emphasis here is so much on the family rather than the individual, that perhaps people simply don't recognize the humanity in another individual. People as individuals are not important because importance is found only within the family structure. And so...voila! No recognition of what westerners would consider common courtesy in public places.

There is also the sheer population density here, but there's high population density in other cities that have nothing like the flat-out rudeness that can be seen every day here. It's very strange to me. I hope I don't end up rude forever simply because it's a behavior that has to be adopted in order to get around. Hmm.


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