“Must be the British-ness in me” is a series of posts I have decided to categorize as they will be dedicated to the differences in culture which make living in Cairo what it is….at least for me. You see, before I came to Cairo I considered myself a bastion of international-ness. I “get” people. I can deal with the idiosyncratic cultural “isms” that make a people unique. I can walk a mile in their “shep-sheps”. I can see what makes them tick. At least I thought I could. Well actually I can – but it’s not as black and white as that, especially here in Egypt where there are so many shades of colour (literally). You see, I’ve tried “fitting in” and that should have been easy for me, but, as Nick Griffin (leader of the racist right-wing British National Party back “home”) has told me many times, “just because a dog in born in a barn, doesn’t make it a horse.” So I’ve always felt a little outside the ‘circle of trust’ in Britain – a little ‘left of centre’…the literal ‘black sheep of the family’…….until now.
I wake up daily an hour before sunrise so that I can go outside to the mosque and pray. That’s not very British. I can’t be accused of being too English for Egypt with a daily habit like that.
I have come to know the locals who pray there well. (Actually that is an untruth, I have come to know their faces well and quite a few names but…..language…..LEARN TO SPEAK ARABIC SAM….ITS BEEN LONG ENOUGH…..AND WHY ARE YOU CHASTISING YOURSELF IN FRONT OF OTHERS AND IN CAPS?……YES! BECAUSE YOU DON’T LISTEN DO YOU?….LEARN IT! ……..WOMBAT!” (Sorry about that – split personality….anyway, we digress.)
Anyway, what I have done is formed strong enough bonds with these men to be genuinely happy to see them everyday, sometimes five times a day on weekends! We smile, we greet, we sit together and read Qu’ran, we hug, we do the shoulder kiss (oh you have to know about the shoulder kiss, it’s far more humble than the cheek to cheek kiss – another post maybe) and more recently, when I’m leaving the mosque with one of them or if I meet them on route we………. hold hands.
Now! I’m not totally against it. I don’t pull my hand away or anything like that. I appreciate the affection that these lovely (and they really are, kind, generous and lovely people) are showing me as a stranger to their land, their neighbourhood and thus their lives, but I just have this……..all the way there or back this……… biting urge……. to pull my hand away because my British-ness just can’t deal with it.
British men don’t hold hands in public because it would automatically mean to others watching that you were gay (yes I went there). There is little chance of that in this case I know. I also know that it won’t been seen by others as that. So why am I so uncomfortable?
The British-ness in me is a deep rooted cultural bed of issues that I was unaware I had and it still flowers, blooms at times, to my amazement. I can just about handle the arm cradling thing. You know what I mean right? The thing that distinguished gentlemen and ladies used to do in the west. I only ever see it now as movie and pop stars approach the walkway of the Oscars (have you noticed that too?). Here they do it all the time, but men do it too. I’ve even found (forced) myself doing it on a few occasions to show that I am culturally adapt. It was received well and I felt like I was fitting in, with my shep-shep, galabaya and fruit smelling scented oils on, walking arm in arm with a bearded local, older Egyptian friend.
Holding hands amongst Arab men is a deep sign of affection and respect, at least according to the New York Times and even the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and George Bush were photographed doing it.
But I still draw the line at holding hands, especially with young men or those my age. My wife’s hand is petite and soft. It’s cute, like a child’s hand. My children are the same (when their hands are actually clean!). But holding a man’s hand?……nah. Sorry Cairo. Stiff ….upper…… lip and all that. It’s just not cricket.
No…not because I share my food and Egyptians don’t – quite the opposite.
It’s not that I’m greedy….I think. Maybe I am! OMG….am I greedy? Why is it that when I open my packet of crisps at work I do not go around to each and every person in the room and offer then some before eating any myself? The Egyptians at my work place do. I’ve been offered everything from tangerine segments, dates, chocolates, biscuits, breadsticks (that is a share it favourite amongst Egyptians – they bring them in the carrier-bag-load…..bless ‘em) and all sorts of other things which I tried (though I had no idea what they were at the time) under the pressure of the typical Egyptian “would you like some?” which is actually a disguise for “Here! Take!…..I SAID TAKE!………T-A-K-E it!……..I can do this for a lot longer than you can possibly imagine so just TAKE IT……..gooooood….that’s it……see…..you took it…..now eat it and say it’s nice……SAY IT -” anyway you get the picture. See how I am making the gracious and admirable trait of offering food to others sound negative? I’m doing it to make myself feel better about the fact that my British-ness won’t let me and quite frankly I am a little bit ashamed.
I make my own sandwiches at home and take them into work. I make enough for myself. I eat alone at my desk and I love it. I love chomping into my ham (turkey slices) and cheese sandwich made with a light salad and generous helpings of Helman’s mayonnaise. I love to eat this with a packet of crisps and a drink. I’m hungry and I don’t want to share. I have waited all day for lunchtime to come and if I’m honest…..I just want to be left alone. But Egyptian etiquette won’t allow it. Everytime I unwrap my sandwich and line my jaws up for an attack I feel the uneasiness of someone within my “space” (another very British trait). “Would you like some- ” – “NO!…… I’m sorry but NO….go away…..please?….please….it’s not that I don’t like what you are offering – I’m sure it’s nice……it’s just I don’t want to share mine……I only made enough for me and if I take what you are offering – I’ll have to offer you my food…..so let’s not do this…..let’s just eat our own food and…..”
Well that is what I want to say but of course I actually say thank you and then offer some of my food, which is declined but I have to insist, because if I give up insisting it means I wasn’t really trying to offer in the first place and that makes me look really, really bad so I carry on offering, begging, pleading for someone to take away the very food that I don’t really want them to have any of in the first place!!!!
The British don’t share packed lunch. It’s a personal, very individual delight. If I tell anyone that – I will sound so mean and self centered that I just have to put up with all this “sharing”.