The Independent Voices
I’ve worked out that in the past week, I’ve been told to wait “only five minutes” at least four times. In the Arab world, any interview that is delayed will always be accompanied by the assurance that I will only have to wait for five minutes. Or I will be called back on the phone in just five minutes. Only very occasionally is it 10 minutes. Almost never one minute. It’s five – used more in Egypt, less so in Lebanon and Syria. In Arabic, “only five minutes” is – my transliteration – khams daqiya faqat. In 43 years, I calculate I must have heard the phrase almost 9,000 times, probably more.
It’s a 99 per cent lie, of course, a lie every bit as big as the average percentage vote for an Arab dictator at election time. But I always – still – believe it. Even today, I will wait in a secretary’s office in the Middle East or glance at my phone and say to myself, ah well, it’s only three more minutes now and he/she will see me or ring back. He or she doesn’t. I know he/she won’t. But in the willing suspension of disbelief, five minutes must have credibility.
The lie has been uttered so many times that it has become more real than the truth. And I have not yet, dear reader, mentioned Brexit
I did several times try to find out where these “five minutes” came from, and an elderly Egyptian friend tried to put my mind at rest. It came from India, he said, whence so many British officers had moved to Egypt in the late 19th century – and it was they who would tell the local Arabs that their pleas/wishes/requests/problems might be dealt with in “five minutes”.
So we were to blame, it seems. And when I was in India some years ago, I met an Indian journalist in New Delhi who said that, yes, this was the expression district commissioners would use in distant parts of the Raj when they were overwhelmed by plaintiffs to a village dispute.
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