Cultural insights from Egypt

Cultural Insights — By on June 18, 2008 at 10:57 am

I came across some interesting cultural insights in a recent article about Egypt in the International Herald Tribune. Although the story, on its surface, is about Egyptian perceptions of the U.S., just begin reading and you’ll discover some anecdotes that shed light into Egyptian and Arab culture.

My favorite, at the start of the article, describes the local penchant for giving a wrong answer rather than no answer at all:

Emad Refaat strode out of his workshop with purpose, his grease-covered hands pointing down the road even before he could see the road.

“Come here,” he said, his voice strong with reassurance. “Go to the light, make the first right, that’s Salah el-Din Street.”

Sure?

“I am sure, totally sure.”

But he was wrong, totally wrong..

“I wanted to help,” said Refaat, 28, who was slightly embarrassed when he was asked why he gave the wrong directions with such conviction. “I was actually going to tell you to ask the flower vendor on the corner. He knows all the streets.”

Navigating Egypt can be a challenge of understanding, not just the language, but its culture, values and norms…In Egypt, it is routine, absolutely routine, to get the wrong directions.

That is not because people are mischievous, but because if you ask for help, they feel obligated to try to help – even if they send you off in the wrong direction.

Why in the world, you might now be asking, would someone think it was helpful to give wrong directions? Here is the answer:

Egyptian society values hospitality and personal honor over precision and directness…”Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels that he did what he was supposed to do,” said Hamdi Taha, head of a charity, Karam al-Islam, and a professor of communications at Al Azhar university. “He doesn’t think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.”

This cultural explanation is as logical to an Egyptian mind as it might be illogical to a Westerner. That, to me, is what makes culture so fascinating.

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