Sunday, November 25, 2007

Egypt in the eyes of a foreigner: Habits of ordinary Egyptians...

On streets

  1. Cars, taxis, buses all HORN all the time…no matter if there is an obstacle, a passenger crossing the street, a stranded animal stuck in the middle of the road, or nothing at all. They horn and horn… I have seen a motorbike riding through a lonely street and horning all along…
  2. Anyone who seems to be vaguely different from a typical Egyptian – basically this category includes people with fair skin, blue/green eyes, brunet/blond/red hair, light color of skin – is greeted on streets. You walk along a street and people greet you, ask you where you are from tell their name and then say "You are welcome." You take a cab, the cabbie looks at you asks where you from are and says "Welcome, welcome." No matter if you say you have been in Egypt for 1 day on visit, 5 months working, or 4 years living. As long as you have a slight accent in Egyptian colloquial or look like a foreigner, they never fail to welcome you.
  3. Introducing themselves on streets, restaurants, clubs. Welcoming is one part of the story. Frequently, you might be stopped and asked what your name is without any visual or other prompting. They will then happily tell their name and walk away, having an air of someone whose day was made by this encounter. I was once sitting on a pavement outside in front of a restaurant, having a conversation (in English) with a potential employer, when I was suddenly tapped on a shoulder. I turned around, still talking on the phone only to see an Egyptian man, in his 40s, well-dressed and smiling at me. He asked me, quite ignoring the fact that I was talking on the phone, what my name was, told consequently his name, inquired whether I was English or American, and walked away with even a wider smile. I was left flabbergasted and managed hardly to finish my conversation.
  4. Exchange of telephone numbers. This is especially common among taxi drivers. You take a taxi, make a small talk with the cabbie to leave a good impression and not to seem a total jerk a.k.a. ignorant foreigner, which will then allow you to pay fairly instead of an overblown price you might be asked for otherwise. You make a small talk, and if it is in Arabic, however ridiculous or scarce you knowledge of it is, and guaranteed they like you, which then leads them to take your number. This is done in such a sure and overconfident way that it leaves no room for doubt or suspicion as to whether you will or will not give it. No one asks your permission to have you r number. They just take out their phones (interestingly, most of cabbies have phones more expensive then I have – K700 SonyEriccson) and ask you to type your number on their mobiles. It is impolite if you refuse. I never did.
  5. (Applies to foreign women only) If you are a female and you look foreigner – by virtue of your dresses or expression of your face – you have a more-than-50% chance of being approached and talked to. In difference from usual welcomes and name exchange, foreign women are also asked what they do in the city and country, for how long and if there is anything that can be done for them. If you say you are looking for a specific shop to buy something, it is not excluded that the Egyptian guy will offer his services of accompanying you and helping you to obtain whatever you look for. He will do so usually for free but in anticipation of you leaving your number or for a possibility of a further encounter.
  6. Taxis horn at you passing by. You walk along a street with an unintentional and casual way, you hear a horn from behind; you turn around to see an approaching taxi blinking at you with its from lights. If you react in any possible way, be it winking, raising your hand, or merely smiling, the taxi will stop and ask where you want to be taken. I usually wave and thank the driver aloud and continue walking along my way.
  7. Baksheesh for sake of baksheesh. There is a heightened presence of dismissed military on streets. Soldiers, sergeants, captain are ubiquitous and armed usually with AK-47 automatic guns. I don’t quite yet get the purpose of their presence. I witnessed street fights almost in front of these soldiers who looked with just as much amazement at people hitting each other as other uncommitted bystanders. These dismissed soldiers however are not shy to ask for baksheesh, a tip, whenever they think you look rich enough or foreign enough. I once went out of taxi and started walking towards my hostel in the city center. I had then a sergeant who started walking along me. I looked at him quizzically and surprised, he started saying something in Egyptian I did not quite get. He then realized I am not getting his introductory tale, went straight to the point and asked for flis, money. I asked why and he said baksheesh. Oh, I was surprised. This was the first time someone asked me for baksheesh without rendering any service or favor. The person just wanted me to give him some money. He was not begging. But eh thought its rather normal to stop a foreigner in an impromptu manner and ask him for money. This habit is also quite applied by men who clean streets. You pass by in a taxi; you stop on red. A man who happens to be cleaning the street approaches you and asks you for money. I usually give them a pound or two, although there is no apparent reason why I would give them money, besides the resulting feeling incited by knowledge of despicable conditions they work in and the insignificant amount of money they get for their work.
  8. Water coming from above, but it s not a rain. Due to warm weather conditions, it is widespread to use ACs in buildings, offices, even in elevators. What is somewhat uncommon is to feel drops of water or sometimes even streams coming over your head and shoulders when you walk on a street. AC water, that is. Another source of uncalled for water droplets on your clothes and head are the myriad of sèche-linge (dryers on which you hang your clothes for drying) overhead.
  9. Telling directions .Usually when you ask for directions to anyone seeming local, you will get some. Question is whether what you get will correspond with reality. I got plenty of times wrong directions, and it wasn’t due to my lack of Arabic to communicate. It just seems that people don’t want to seem unhelpful and prefer to tell you something rather than nothing. It is reminiscent of Japanese. There is however a slight difference. Here you can tell if they don’t know by the vagueness of their directions, whereas in Japan you usually get quite precise directions, however wrong they might eventually be.

In restaurants

  1. It is very rare to find a waiter in however an expensive a restaurant to have a decent command of English. No one needs a waiter being able to recite from top of his head Shakespeare or Chaucer. All a foreigner needs is a waiter to understand simple phrase in English, mostly about food ordering. Even simple "I would like to…" or "Please wait…" is usually misunderstood. They just smile and bring you whatever they think you ordered.
  2. In response to you ordering something in a restaurant, waiters in Egypt say "It's OK," which sounds bizarre for native speakers or anyone knowledgeable of subtleties of the language. This "It's OK" is a direct translation of Meshi or Haadr, which means agreement, OK, or good depending on context. Imagine yourself saying "I would like a strawberry juice" and getting a response "It's OK." Then you call him again and ask him for something else and you get again "It's OK." "It's OK" is used in English in very different circumstances for conveying a rather different message.
  3. In difference from most of Western or American restaurants with fixed menu sets, you can always ask for add-ons or removals from your meal. You can really modify your menu meal up to a point of non-recognition. You can ask like cheese, tomatoes, or anything else to be added or removed. They will smile at you and say "It's OK" or "No problem."
  4. In prestigious restaurants, ordering food might be challenging and patience requiring. You might order a rather simple-sounding meal and have to wait for an hour or 1.5 hours to get what you ordered. The sense of time in restaurants in Egypt is very blurred. You have to be ready to wait for long time even for aperitifs or simple Coke.

To be continued….

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