Samia Abdennour reviews some Egyptian manners that may present pitfalls to unwary visitors from abroad
A Western acquaintance of mine once had the misfortune of committing a serious faux-pas according to our standards, when all she meant was to console her widowed friend.
One day this young lady discovered that her friend and colleague’s husband had passed away. Not thinking twice, she left the office and ran to her friend’s home to console her. Finding the door ajar, she rushed in to find several ladies all dressed in black sitting either crying silently or conversing in low murmurs.
Not knowing anyone, she exclaimed “hi everybody” and rushed to her friend’s side. Hugging her, she asked “what happened? I did not know he was ill.” Though she meant well, her dress (an orange and green trouser-suit), her loud greeting and her vivacity were all considered improper, all of which has prompted me to write about a few of our traditions that may be little understood by outsiders.
If there has been a death in the building, neighbours will offer any help to the family of the bereaved that they can in the form of chairs (to seat persons coming to console the family) and crockery (water and coffee are usually the only two items served). The neighbours’ TV and music should be lowered, and children should be restricted from tearing up and down stairs, at least for the first three days.
The normal greeting between the sexes is a handshake, but once a relationship has developed greetings are expressed with a kiss on both cheeks — between the same sexes. However, if a lady is veiled, the man must wait for her to extend her hand in greeting, as some ladies will refuse to shake hands and will only be content with a nod of the head.
See your guests to the door and do not abandon them before the elevator doors close, or before they turn around on the stairs and are out of sight. Otherwise, it could give the impression that you want to get rid of them quickly. It is appreciated and considered a sign of friendship to visit a person in hospital or at home if he or she has undergone an operation. Ask about visiting hours and take a present of flowers, chocolates or any item of perfumery.
When receiving a visitor in the office, begin by greeting him or her, enquiring about his or her health and offering a drink — tea, coffee or a soft drink — before broaching the subject of the visit. To immediately ask “what can I do for you” without the above preliminaries is considered abrupt and unfriendly and may have a frosty outcome.
Bread is very highly prized by the average Egyptian, bordering on reverence. The colloquial Arabic word for bread is eish, a derivative of the word eeshai, or life. This is quite understandable as apart from its supply of carbohydrates, 70 per cent of the protein intake of the average Egyptian comes from bread. It is considered haram or sinful to throw away bread, however small the morsel may be. Feeding it to pets or birds is the accepted norm. Bread also denotes a bond between people, as is expressed in the expression akalna eish wa malh maa baad, meaning “we shared bread and salt.”
There should always be bread on the table as well as salt and pepper at mealtimes. Muslims will preface their meals with the single word bismillah (in the name of God), while Copts will say grace with a short prayer.
Following Sunday services in the Coptic Orthodox Church and as the congregation leaves the church, people are offered qurban or consecrated unsalted bread. This is taken home, to the office, or the club and morsels of it are offered to those not lucky enough to have attended the service. It is eaten without any additions, such as cheese or jam. If you do not want the bread, do not refuse it or throw it away as this is considered sacrilegious. Instead, discreetly give it to another person, or place it in a conspicuous place for the birds to eat.
Friday is the day of rest according to the Muslim religion, but Muslims are not forbidden to work, as is the case in the Christian church, but are only required to desist from any worldly occupation at noon in order to perform the midday prayer, preferably in the mosque.
However, as some mosques are too small to contain the number of people coming to pray, mats are sometimes spread out on the adjoining pavements to accommodate the faithful. A common sight on Friday noon beside the mosques is of men of all walks of life and social classes prostrating themselves or sitting side by side in prayer. Do not go into a mosque to look around just out of curiosity. Ask a friend to take you there, who will explain the normal rituals before welcoming you inside.
Egyptians are very family-oriented and elders are shown a great deal of respect, especially when it comes to body language. Sitting cross-legged before superiors or elders is a sign of disrespect. Never leave any footwear turned upside down. It is also considered very rude to sit cross-legged with the soles of the feet or shoes showing.
Ladies should dress modestly when shopping or strolling in the streets. Shorts are only tolerated in sports clubs or on the beach, never in the streets.
The Egyptian concept of time may seem flexible to many. People will refer to the afternoon or the evening rather than 4pm or 9pm, for example. This is a deeply inherited custom from the days when Egypt was a largely agricultural society and the daily routine of the average Egyptian was defined by sunrise, moon and nightfall. Do not be surprised if guests turn up half an hour — or more — after the appointed time.
To most Egyptians, food is more than a necessity. It is a way of life, thought and conduct. All social gatherings — from picnics to ceremonies and festivities — are an excuse to luxuriate in food. Very few people restrict their food intake to a well-balanced healthy diet. Calorie counting is almost completely ignored and indulgence in food is the norm. Only when necessary — usually for health reasons — will Egyptians go on a strict diet.
Egyptian women usually prepare their dishes with fresh, homegrown produce. Although vegetables are also available in frozen form or in cans, most families still prefer fresh produce, believing that it imparts a better flavour to their dishes. This is especially true when it comes to garlic and onions — two basic ingredients in most main dishes in Egypt.
When guests are invited to a meal, the abundant food is usually prepared at home, and very rarely bought ready-made. The effort and care the hostess exerts in the preparation of the meal is the most eloquent sign of her welcome and concern for her guests. Apart from denoting generosity, this habit of preparing a lot of food is practical, not wasteful. Most of the cooked food, especially stews, tastes just as good if not better when it is reheated the next day, and this also relieves the lady of the house from cooking another meal.
When an Egyptian offers food, there is often a little game that goes on. It is customary to refuse at first and then reluctantly to accept at the insistence of the host. Therefore, do not take no for an answer in the beginning, but instead coax the guest to kindly accept what is offered.
Food is rarely eaten alone. Its preparation and consumption are one of the binding ties that stabilise each family as its members gather round the table. “The shortest route to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is an international saying. To the Egyptian head of a family, the apex of his day’s work and the joy and reward of his day’s toil is the unity of the family gathered around the steaming dishes of a well-prepared meal.