Egyptians are proud. Proud of their heritage, their country, their families and their religion. Pride here is intricately connected to respect and showing the proper form of this leads us foreigners down a precarious path. As we make an effort to avoid pitfalls we are oblivious to, we often end up stepping right in the muck of offensiveness. Being sensitive to the culture you live in is obligatory to all expats and luckily for us, most natives of this country are ready to smile at our clumsy attempts of towing the line of proper conduct. Or at least that is how it used to be.
I remember being struck by the quiet pride of the man who was sweeping the streets in a sandstorm I saw years ago. As I watched him go about his completely redundant business he looked up and smiled, his hands never stopping to move his broom. My prejudice made me assume he must have been miserable but my well-meant compassion felt like dust in my mouth as I realised how demeaning my western eyes must have felt to him. Or maybe it was just the sand.
Former loved ones have used their pride and misguided sense of self respect as an excuse to attempt to impose rules of behaviour and conduct on me. How did I not understand that my friendly greeting of the bawab was an insult to their pride? They were right of course; my concern for the sick son of the elderly doorman was completely out of place. My job was to be disdainfully and distantly friendly and by no means as familiar as I was. What was I thinking?
Certain things are deemed unforgivable here and hot-headed, self proclaimed defenders of national or religious pride can rally others to their cause with surprising speed, considering the normal, more sedate pace of the society. Before you know it, prejudices kick in and angry chants ring out, blame, based on rumours and suppositions, is placed and a little flag burning goes a long way.
As happened two days ago when a trailer of a badly made 2011 movie surfaced, showing insults to the Prophet that were blatant and deliberate. A rally was staged at the American embassy, the root of all evil as we know it apparently, and protesters blamed Egyptian Copts living abroad for making the film. Poignant detail: it was Coptic New Year, and I am sure the well respected Coptic minority in the country took much pride in the congratulations they received. As well as the no doubt prolific apologies that will come their way, now that the maker of the film turns out to be anyone but a Copt.
Earlier this week the national Paralympics team came home to much applause and well wishes. Having earned several medals during the games, the athletes and officials beamed with deserved pride as the welcoming throng showed their appreciation of their achievements.
For one of the delegation there wasn’t much to be proud of though. News surfaced that he was hauled into court in the UK for sexually assaulting a 21 year old girl. Of course this was a complete misunderstanding; no respectable male from this country would ever do something this untoward! This father of three had kissed the girl’s mum heartily on the cheek and then poked his index finger on the young woman’s breast, as he helpfully showed her where to pin a button. By no means had he meant any disrespect though, it was all one big misunderstanding.
In reality this man representing his country stepped way over a line that any self-respecting male should never cross. At least that is what the folks in the UK thought. His claim of diplomatic immunity was denied. Sir, you cannot touch women without their consent! Oh, you are a diplomat? We apologise, please go right ahead and grope away! After this sad individual swallowed his pride and cried in court, a magistrate slapped him with a fine. Which the Egyptian embassy paid for him. No doubt they were proud to do so. And glad of how western prejudices were once more confirmed by the behaviour of this upstanding citizen.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of who and what you are, and a healthy dose of self respect becomes everyone. When pride becomes blind and prejudice joins the fray though, reason and common sense disappear and mistakes are made. Like falsely accusing Copts for making a movie they had nothing to do with. Giving in to prejudice never leads to anything good and pride does come before the fall.
To paraphrase the bible.