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Postcards from Egypt: Part 2 – Generosity is a National Trait

There is only one thing Egyptians have more of than patience, and that is their generosity. I have never met a more giving and sharing people in all my life. As said earlier in Part 1, where I quoted Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf  – “If someone with good intentions came to them, they carry him as a mother carries her son …”.

This still rings true today.

I have never seen people argue so much about NOT taking money. Many people in the United States will take family members to court over a few hundred dollars (just look at “Judge Judy” or “The People’s Court”). How many families have been torn apart because of money or “things”?

I’ve seen family members fight here because someone wanted to give them money, and they won’t take it. I’ve been to many stores, and when they realize I’m American, and that I now live in Egypt, they will refuse to take my money the first time I shop there.

Recently I went to get a new pair of boots and the older gentleman who owns the store tried to give me back the 95 pounds I gave him (a lot of money here). My niece told me, if they do this in a store like that, don’t take the money back as apparently this is a way of saying that they really like you and it’s a compliment to them that you shopped in their store. They probably would not think this again about you if you took the money back. If too much change is given on the bus, they will fight about giving it back to the driver as no one will take it back.

Also, if you comment on someone’s jewelry or clothes, they will try to give them to you. Two nights ago, I commented on a store keeper’s ring; it was very beautiful. First he tried to give me that one, and then pulled out about seven other rings and tried to give me one of those. Giving is just in their nature when they like someone.

They are especially generous when it comes to their food. That is one of the first things I realized when I got here. Anywhere you go, even when we visited my brother-in-law at his work, people brought us tea, soda, chips, any kind of food they had and we ended up taking a bag full home. When we make dinner here you’d think we were feeding the entire building, not just a family of three – or sometimes my brother-in-law and his wife and two kids. There are always leftovers for later or the next day.

Basically it’s like Thanksgiving , but just different food and all the time, not just during the holidays. In most cases if you refuse the food offered to you, it is seen as very rude and insulting, so I just knew I was going to gain 100 pounds here, but thank God I have actually lost weight.

There are three rules when eating here in Egypt:

  1. Always say Bismi Allah (“in the name of God”) before you start to eat or drink. This is blessing the food before you eat it.
  2. If you are full, never clean all the food from your plate. Leave a little or someone will just put more food on it. And I mean this literally; they will pile food onto your plate, even if your plate is full already.
  3. When you are done or full say Alhamdulillah (“all praise be to God”). This is thanking God for having enough food or drink to fill your stomach. This is also a good way to keep people from putting more food on your plate, it says you’re full, praise be to God.

Here in Egypt also, friends and family are always welcome. Many times if you come just to visit for the afternoon they will try to get you to stay for days. I recently went to spend the night at my sister-in-law’s home and ended up staying for three days. They wanted me to stay longer, but I missed my husband, so I came home. It would be considered very rude to turn anyone “out” and not offer them a place to sleep, food to eat or anything else they may need. The only hotels that are here are the ones near the center of Cairo, the Pyramids in Giza and other “tourist” attractions around the country. Family and friends stay with you at your home. As my husband says “It is better for me to stand all night so my guests have someplace to sleep than to send them out to a hotel or back to home if it is late”.

I spoke to a young man who was Jewish and came here from Israel to visit. The cab driver started talking to him on his way from the airport and ended up taking him home with him. He stayed with them, had dinner with them and the taxi driver took him the next day to many places that most tourists never see.

Another friend of mine was at the Citadel when a man asked her where she was from and such. She is actually not from here but her husband is and she was doing some sight-seeing on her own. The man ended up taking her all over and showing her places once again most do not see. She said that when she asked him what he did when he wasn’t driving his taxi, he told her he worked as an engineer. He also would not take any money from her for driving her around. Later, when telling her husband about this, he asked her what type of car he drove and she said an Audi. Her husband said that the man was an engineer, not a taxi driver. She felt silly when she realized she drove all day with this man and thought he was a taxi driver, when he was just a nice man who was so proud of his country that he just wanted to share it.

If you ever visit Egypt, expect to be treated like royalty. They will refuse to let you pay for anything. If you’re a woman it is expected that any man with you will pay for anything you need such as food or metro tickets or fare for the micro bus. Traveling home from my sister-in-law’s, my nephew, who is 20, would not let me pay for my fare on the train or bus. They will pay for everything if you are staying with them in their home, even if you are the one to suggest going out for dinner or ordering in, they won’t let you pay for it. Even the children will refuse to let you buy them candy or anything if you’re a guest in their parents’ home. They will insist you sit back, relax, eat and drink until you feel you will burst and then still try to give you more.

This is Egypt.

Robyn Payne (aka Asmaa Ahmed) was born in Weaverville, California, and was raised in Mountain Gate. She graduated from Central Valley High School in 1988 and has lived all over the country since then, but always ended up back in Redding. A year ago she left Redding once again and now lives in Ain Helwan, Egypt, just south of Cairo, with her Egyptian husband and his family. She’s always enjoyed writing stories and poems and is a “just for fun” photographer

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