Bending the Rules

Yesterday the #14 bus was leaving the AUC campus and beginning its 20-minute drive to our home in Al Rehab. As we pulled out onto the main road the bus driver got a phone call. After he hung up the phone he slowed the bus down to a crawl, inching his way up the main road through New Cairo and finally stopping the bus in the road. Because all the AUC buses leave on the same schedule, our bus was passed by at least a dozen others leaving campus. Almost all of them flashed their lights, slowed to a crawl beside us, or gestured at our driver to find out if something was wrong; he waved them all on. When a passenger asked why we were stopped he informed us that “someone was late” to catch the #14 bus and was hitching a ride up the street on another AUC bus. A few minutes later a bus pulled up beside us and a girl about my age jumped out and ran over to get in our bus, apologizing for the delay. Then we continued on our way.

Egyptians bend the rules to help people. I can’t imagine that the bus drivers are allowed to delay their schedule for a single passenger, especially not for someone who isn’t a respected faculty or staff member. The system is not what’s important here, the people in the system are important. And if the system is not benefiting the people, the rules should be bent for their benefit.

I’ve lived in a “hospitable culture” before; Africa is filled with hospitable cultures- one that considers the cost and effort of welcoming or entertaining guests to be a high honor and not simply a social contract. Egypt takes hospitality a step further; in my opinion it could be called a “giving culture.” You will never be without a ride, because any stranger would be pleased to offer you one. You will never be friendless, because making friends is as easy as conversing once with someone at a bus stop. You will never be without help, because people will always offer assistance. You will never have to eat a meal alone, because everyone is interested in sharing their story in exchange for hearing yours.

A older man we barely knew took us in our first month here on buses and subways across town to find/barter for furniture. Another girl took us where we could buy a phone card and translated for us. A security guard found us a locksmith when we were locked out of our house and then brought me tea. Our landlady arranges our handymen for us because she knows we don’t speak Arabic. Our neighbor we’d never met found us a plumber late one night. A man gave us an electric heater. A stranger walked several blocks out of his way to help us find a store.

The amount of selflessness and generosity we’ve experienced is encouraging. We are grateful to live here and are continually inspired to live like they do: emphasizing the people around us, whether strangers or friends.

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2 thoughts on “Bending the Rules

  1. I love the hospitality of El Rehab, and most of Egypt in general. However I find that “hospitality” has a distinct profit motive when you move about in the more commercial and touristic districts such as Tahrir, the Pyramids or Khan el Khalili areas. There, as in Sharm el-Sheikh, when you encounter someone offering “Egyptian hospitality” it’s really a shopkeeper’s manipulative strategy for impelling you to enter his papyrus museum, perfume shop or knick-knack store and stay there until he’s browbeaten you into buying something you’ve said you don’t want. It’s a shame that such a genteel phrase should have taken on ominous tones but in every case that I’ve encountered it, a sales pitch of increasing fervor has been the result. On the first occasion I took it at face value, entered the shop and enjoyed a serving of tea (on subsequent occasions I politely declined the tea) and found that it was nearly impossible to escape. As a male of less-than-tender years I am able to eventually depart unmolested but I also have tales from women who have been enticed by “Egyptian hospitality” that are less savory.

    Why enter the store to begin with? Well, sometimes I take the person at face value as someone who simply wants to engage in discussion with a foreigner. Sometimes I’m simply curious about what will be on offer in the store. But, to me, entering a shop is not a promise to buy.

    This is not to dismiss the friendliness and people-orientation of Egyptians (or Saudis, my last locale) but only to show that there are distinct situational differences.

    • I’ll agree with you that commercialism, and the tourism industry in particular, has given the cultural hospitality a bad image. It seems to ruin the honest potential of peddlers and shopkeepers alike.
      We rarely have contact with commercial areas, except for groceries, and hardly ever visit touristy areas (we haven’t even been to Sharm) so our experiences remain largely untarnished by the “nastiness” that can describe business transactions. It is, however, still a fact of life, and unfortunate.

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