I have had quite the exciting, travel-filled, and busy month which I will regal you all with presently. However, I have been thinking for the past few months that I need to talk about the generosity of the culture here. It really is quite remarkable the extent to which this generosity is a part of the everyday life of the people.
I wanted to make sure that I knew a little bit more about the culture before I talked about it, because I wasn’t sure how different my experience as a foreigner would be from the average Egyptian. Although my experience is certainly different as a foreigner, I don’t think that this takes away from the culture as a whole.
In Cairo, and probably some of the more touristy places where they are used to foreigners it is common for people to try and take advantage of the foreigner. So for the first month this was mostly my experience in Egypt. I had to make sure I knew how much things should cost so that I wasn’t charged extra for being a foreigner. And there are some touristy places, like the pyramids, or the Egyptian Museum where foreigners actually have a separate entrance price than Egyptians. I understand that these places take up-keep and that foreigners in general have much more money that Egyptians, so I understand why they have this policy, but it still meant that I had to be aware.
Since I have left Cairo, however, I have had an entirely different experience as a foreigner. Almost every place I have been, outside of the touristy places, I am seen as a guest by the entire population of the city. And whenever someone has a guest in this culture, there is no length to which the host will not go to make sure they are comfortable and have everything they want. It is better now that I have lived here for awhile, but especially when I first got here, I was not allowed to pay for anything or really do anything for myself. If I was ever with any Egyptian and went anywhere, it was absolutely forbidden for me to pay for transport, food, drinks … anything. Even if I had convinced my host to let me pay, the taxi driver or the cashier would not take my money and would look expectantly at the Egyptian I was with. Thankfully this is not the case anymore, since people have gotten used to me being here. It still happens now and then though that people pay for things for me, and countless times people I barely know at all have done very generous things.
For instance I ran into some people that had seen me once at the church in Beba when I was in a neighboring town and they asked me if I was heading back to Beba, to which I said I was. Immediately they found me transport and paid for it, without even thinking twice about it. Another time I went into one of the little restaurants in Beba and saw someone who I had met a couple of times sitting there finishing up his meal. I said hello to him and then sat at another table as he was almost done and didn’t want him to feel like he had to wait for me to finish. He got up and went and paid for his meal and then came back and told me that my meal had been taken care of so not to pay them twice for it. And the only reason he told me was so that they wouldn’t try to charge me again. It is truly remarkable how many different stories I have where things like this have happened.
There is also another side of this hospitality, however. Due to the fact that people are constantly expected to be overly hospitable, part of getting to know the culture is getting to know when people are actually being serious. One of the other Arabic words that is a necessity to know is the word “it-fuDDal.” This word has many different meanings and uses, but one of the uses is whenever someone is eating or drinking something and anyone else is around, the person will say “it-fuDDal” to them. In this situation it basically means “come join me” and is expected for anyone to offer even if they are ravenous and really don’t want to share their food. The generally expected response is to say “thank you” and politely decline their offer. They will then offer again and you refuse again and this continues until either they win out because they really do want to share their food with you, or they stop asking because they really don’t want to share their food with you, or you really don’t want what they have.
Whenever I walk through the streets and say hello to people sitting in their shops or working on something or whatever it is they are doing they will almost always say “it-fuDDal” to me which in this case means “please come into my shop or house and I will make some tea for you.” And although I think for the most part they would be pleased to have a foreigner come into their shop or house this again is them mostly just being polite. I have only taken people up on this offer a couple of times because they are normally very busy and I don’t want to get in the way. Sometimes they are very insistent, though, which, I think, means that they actually do want me to come in. Another use for “it-fuDDal” is if you are handing anything to someone you say it, which is the polite way of saying, “here you go.” Also if you pass someone on the street or on the stairs it is a way of letting them know to go ahead or to go first. So it has many different uses, but they all mostly have to do in some way with the intense culture of generosity and hospitality.
It is also extremely rude to refuse to help someone if they ever ask anything of you. So people are always very busy running around doing things for their friends and colleagues. This too has its other side, however, because I have noticed that when I ask things of people they sometimes promise me they will do it and then never do. I have learned that quite often if someone says, “bokkra,” which means tomorrow, it means that they probably won’t do it. For instance, I have asked if I can get internet in my room which I know they have the capability of doing, because the wireless that I am using downstairs is extremely unreliable and the computer lab is only open when I am teaching. Every day for three weeks when I asked different people they would politely say, “okay, no problem, bokkra it will happen.” It has now been two and a half months and I’m still not sure why exactly they haven’t done it, if there is a good reason for it I would prefer they just tell me rather than keep saying they will. This is not something that only happens to me, however, but I here this frustration from many Egyptians as well.
The last thing which I learned while here about the generosity is that people always do this funny refusal and insistence on payment for services too. For instance if you take a taxi somewhere (outside of the touristy places) they will often initially refuse your offer of payment. It is considered the polite thing to do to offer rides to people for free since you have a car and they don’t. However, that is their only job, so they actually really need the money. So they refuse and the passenger insists, and then they refuse again and so on. Normally they refuse two or three times and then accept the money. This happens also at stores sometimes, and actually on two different occasions, the person behind the counter has refused my money no matter how many times I try and offer it to them. So on those occasions I am assuming that they really were giving me what I wanted as a gift and not refusing simply to be polite.