Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

I still don’t get it… even after all this time. What do I mean exactly? Well, it’s simple really. My daily chore list has become attitude check, begging for patience, and pep talking myself into thinking this strange place is fine just the way it is and that it's "okay". But deep down inside, I am no closer to understanding or believing that some of these differences are indeed “okay.” In my western mind, it’s not okay. There, I said it. Egypt is not okay...
at least not to the non-Egyptians who live here, no matter how much we try to prove to ourselves and the rest of the world that we think it is. And yes, I actually do think I can speak for all westerners on this one. What I am referring to is not based on individual perspective, but the breeding of how westerners are taught to think. Our society is the indeed opposite of what is okay here. But flip it around and you are dealing with the same concept, that American society is deemed NOT OKAY by the standards of many other countries.

I love this country, despite its faults. Many components of Egypt rub me the wrong way, but what is the primary factor of irritation that eats away at me? Respect. The value system here simply does not include it as western societies would teach. Honorable behavior and the value of integrity lose power here, causing me internal friction thus heightening the intensity of my worldview so deeply implanted in my mind, that no amount of coaching will change my belief of right and wrong. I am starting to see that biting my tongue followed by the shooting up of a quick "God help me" prayer may be the best way to keep my internal emotional response controlled. But I am not okay with fire it starts inside. Allow me to explain.

RIGHTS. As an American, this is what I am taught I can claim to prove worthiness and validity. As a human, I have legal rights to be treated justly. When those “rights” are removed, we take it as a slap in the face…disrespectful…devalued…not worthy. The more I read and discuss the Middle East with those around me, the more I see how changing this worldview of “rights” vs “honor” most likely cannot occur to the full extent necessary to respect those on the other side. The mystery is set…I can’t understand because I am programmed not to…but that doesn’t mean I am not responsible to accept these differences. Acceptance does not mean I agree or understand it. Acceptance is simply the respectful way to deal with differences…no matter our feelings toward them. Lightly put by my boss, “some days we think we can change this place and we kill ourselves trying…other days we suck it up…we can’t change a culture.”

These examples play out in the smallest of daily duties, but the angry response I suddenly witness within myself doesn’t differ based on the element of loss. The snatching away of rights produces efforts of retaliation no matter the situation. It’s the principal…not the product we lose as a result.

During a recent trip to a local McDonalds for breakfast with a gal pal, we were informed that the meal we ordered would not include the hash brown displayed on the menu. "No problem," I kindly stated. I then proceeded to ask what the change of price would be since they could not supply the whole meal. Confused, the man simply said that the price would not decrease just because the hash brown was unavailable. Perplexed I pushed further to understand their reasoning. They simply stated that since they had no hash brown to give me, they would then ring up my drink and sandwich separately…ordering just these two items would equal the same price as the meal. Confused I asked to make sure I understood that they were saying I was receiving less food than advertised, yet paying the same price. He agreed, but did not seem to understand my frustration. I told him this was unacceptable, and I was not a happy customer because I came expecting hash browns, and would gladly accept that they were unavailable, but refuse to pay for the combo and not get it in full. Finally, they said they could make the hash brown, but it would be about 30 minutes. Waiting was not a problem. It took one hour. HA.

When I looked back on the situation, I realized I really don’t care about McDonalds’s hash browns, but became defensive that my rights as a customer in that situation were not being respected…that I was paying for someone else’s mistake. It wasn’t about the hash brown…it was that they were not "valuing" me as a paying customer…well, not from an American perspective. Did I want the hash brown? It didn’t matter. I wanted to be validated of receiving what I was “owed.” Then when I discovered someone hadn’t done their job in preparing the food, but it was indeed there, I was on fire. Laziness? Disorganization? But you still want me to pay? I could NOT understand their reasoning.

The fact that I was able to get my hash brown (even if it did take 60 min) was SHOCKING. In Egypt, this normally would not occur. But getting what I felt I was owed somehow validated me, and I left a happy customer. Why? My expectations were met…my rights respected. To say “I won” might be pushing this a little far, but I can assure you this is how I felt.

A couple of days ago, the man loading our things on the bus told my friends and I we had to pay him 1 pound each for our luggage sticker…knowing this was a scam, we said NO. We know it doesn’t cost for the sticker and asked him why he had not charged the Egyptians in line. He insisted that he had, and that they had paid. We knew he was lying, told him NO again, and walked away. A young man followed us and said “don’t give him any money, he’s lying.” We smiled.."oh we know," we said. As foreigners living here, we deal with this daily.

My mind immediately went to the States, where if a worker lied to customers to make money off of them, he/she would be suspended or even charged. You simply can’t lie in the workplace like that. But he did, and people here do everyday…and the worst of it, it’s expected thus accepted.

While my family was here we hopped in a metered taxi. The driver refused to turn on the meter and wanted to charge us 40 pounds…. “No, use the meter” I stated. He refused and said we were to pay the price he wanted. For metered taxis this is actually illegal. I told him to stop the car and we got out to find another taxi. The new driver just clicked on the meter with no discussion as he should and when we arrived at my flat, the meter read 19 pounds. The first guy wanted to double it because he thought he could get the extra cash off us. Jerk.

When visiting the visa office everyone is required to turn in their camera upon entrance. When I went to retrieve my camera, the men demanded I pay to get it back. "But it's my camera!" I stated...TICKED. I pretended to start crying and suddenly they got uncomfortable and gave it back. Liars. I know it sounds judgmental and harsh, but honestly there is no better word.

When buying tickets at the Egyptian Museum, a sign read, "Please check to see that you received the correct change." While visiting with friends we quickly realized we had been shorted 40 pounds at the ticket counter. I walked back up to the counter and the lady saw me coming and just handed me what she had pocketed with no discussion. She knew she had been caught.

During a conversation with my landlord last week he made an interesting statement. “I think lying in America is a BIG deal, here it really isn’t.” I was stunned. He then informed me that stealing is a bigger deal in Egypt. I thought about it for a moment and explained it to him like this: In America lying is considered more of a personal attack...a slap in the face in our culture. I look at it and realize that when we lie, we are secretly taking advantage by striving to make ourselves appear innocent when in reality we are not. It brings things to the level of being “shady or untrustworthy.” No one wants to be known as someone who can’t be trusted with their word. In Egypt, that simply doesn’t exist the same. Honor is made up of different elements, and honesty and integrity don’t play a key role.

As time proceeds and I become more engrained in the culture here, the less comfortable I become with various elements that surround me every day. When I think about it too much, it makes my stomach hurt…I just don’t understand. I have to learn to be okay with that.

In the States we often pride ourselves on integrity which I would define as: who we are even when no one is looking. In Egypt, it’s about “when people are looking.” What goes on behind closed doors is in reality, not as big of a deal. That’s why it’s not uncommon for rape victims in families here to not address the issue. Don’t shame your family, leave it…no one has to know.

In my perspective of the Islamic Egyptian mind, discussion of sin issues isn’t for the purpose of bettering oneself, it’s not really about the heart, but the “points one makes with God.” What goes on behind closed doors isn’t really the issue…it’s all about appearance.

Obviously it varies from person to person, and I fully understand that. But this is what I see in this culture generally speaking…and it makes me sad. What bondage to be part of a society that doesn’t value or respect integrity.

Rights? Not valued here because it doesn’t make the “world go round” like in western societies where equality and justice RULE. This is what kicks the western mindset into a spiral of confusion when dealing with places like Egypt.

Integrity? I wonder if it even would mean anything here if explained. Maybe it does, I am not an expert. But I am honest when I tell you that I don’t see evidence that they expect it from people. Maybe if they held their citizens to a higher standard, raised the bar a bit, people would strive to meet it? I don’t know. Maybe they should start by practicing it in their leadership. Like I said earlier, the longer I live here, the more I see how my value system engrained within my roots of self awareness and my world view can’t go away completely, just like a society functioning one way for thousands of years takes significant time to evolve into something different.

Whenever I find myself in a scuffle involving someone “taking advantage of me” or showing a major lack of integrity, my heart rate skyrockets and things head down a sticky road. I lose my cool. This is not okay either. The outcome in scenarios like this can only result in one of two ways. They win, thus erupting me into a mood of anger toward this society for the following 15 minutes, or I win by fighting it, not backing down, and finding myself feeling powerful for a moment’s time. Why is it that I crave feeling powerful in Egypt, but not in my home country? What's different? Well, it's most likely related to the fact that it's been taken from me here. Upon entrance into Egypt I check it at the border. The moments "I win" make me feel valued in a society where I don't experience this feeling regularly. I am learning to accept that my place in this culture is not like back home. But I am slowly realizing that the power I crave to reclaim actually comes in the form of acceptance...not challenging to win every small battle of integrity. Rather, to put it simply ...choosing "release."

Father, bring my ever stumbling heart to Your feet...lead my ever wandering eyes into clear view of You, only You...train my ever babbling tongue to just stop...teach my ever longing soul the beauty of true communion with my Lord. Amen