Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Wrong Directions, Right Intentions

This is a wonderful article: insightful and sensitive.


CAIRO — Emad Refaat strode out of his workshop with purpose, his grease-covered hands pointing down the road even before he could see the road. “Come here,” he said, his voice strong with reassurance. “Go to the light, make the first right. That’s Salah el-Din Street.”

“I am sure, totally sure.”

But he was wrong, totally wrong. “I wanted to help. I was actually going to tell you to ask the flower vendor on the corner. He knows all the streets,” said Mr. Refaat, 28, who was slightly embarrassed when he was asked why he gave the wrong directions with such conviction.

Navigating Egypt can be a challenge of understanding, and not just language but also culture, values, norms. A pile of trash may look like litter to a foreigner, but it is a commodity to poor people who recycle and reuse almost everything. In Egypt, it is routine, absolutely routine, to get the wrong directions.

That is not because people are mischievous, but because if you ask for help, they feel obligated to try to help — even if they send you off in the wrong direction.

There is a lesson in this confusion that has more value than merely cautioning tourists to bring a map, sociologists, political scientists and intellectuals agreed.

The United States’ relations with Egypt are strained. From the man on the street to the president, rightly or wrongly, Egyptians are feeling disrespected by Washington.

It is not just about the invasion of Iraq, or the perennial feeling of favoritism for Israel, or the mild critiques coming from Washington about Egypt’s lack of democracy. It is what people here see as the demonstrated failure to understand how they think, what they value — even when those values mean sending someone off in the wrong direction.

Egyptian society values hospitality and personal honor over precision and directness; there is a kind of emotional camouflage that Egyptians wear to get through their days. Drivers act as if no one else is on the road, but almost always smile and wave after a near collision.

“Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels that he did what he was supposed to do,” said Hamdi Taha, head of a charity, Karam al-Islam, and a professor of communications at Al Azhar University. “He doesn’t think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.”

It is the little things that can be hardest to understand. But it is the little things, especially at a time when people are angry with the big things, that can stoke people’s ire, Mr. Taha said.

Even with people you might expect to be on America’s side.

Like Ghada Shahbendar. She is an outspoken, English-speaking rights advocate who has tried to prod the Egyptian government to be more democratic, more open and less repressive. But even Ms. Shahbendar was offended by President Bush’s remarks last month at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el Sheik.

Mr. Bush came to the podium with little credibility among Arabs, that is a given. But his indirect criticism of Egyptian politics set off a national chorus of protest. People were offended because Mr. Bush, with all his own baggage, stood in Egypt and criticized Egypt, Mr. Taha and Ms. Shahbendar said.

“We are emotional people,” Ms. Shahbendar said. “A criticism of a regime that represents us, whether we are in agreement with that regime or not, sparks negative emotions.”

It is a complicated line that officials must walk when they try to balance the values of foreign countries against the values at home. When Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a letter to Mr. Bush, the language was the kind of flowery prose common in Iranian communication — but quite different from the very direct communication of American English. It was widely mocked as sophomoric.

In Egypt, the recently departed United States ambassador, Francis Ricciardone, was well regarded by Egyptians on the street and in high office because he spoke the way they did — with effusive praise for his hosts. But this got him in trouble at home.

In February 2007, the ambassador was interviewed on Egyptian television and displayed his characteristic guest-in-the-house behavior. “Egypt today is very different from Egypt during the 1980s, both economically and politically,” he said at a time when it was clear that the government was backpedaling on political reforms. “There is more freedom and there are more intense, aggressive discussions.”

He was then blasted back in the United States for sounding like an apologist for the government. His term ended abruptly at the three-year mark. He left Egypt last month.

“Most Egyptians like him because we believed he liked us,” Ms. Shahbendar said.

Egyptians want democracy. Mr. Bush talked about democracy. But it is not at all clear that both sides were talking about the same thing. Magdy Mohammed, 22, an engineering student, was hanging around a coffee shop in Tahrir Square recently when he reflected on democracy. “If democracy brings us food we can afford, and a government that really cares about its people, then this is what we want.”

What he and others say they most want is fairness, rule of law, to no longer be victims of a system that links opportunity with connections and the ability to pay bribes. He was not talking about free elections. “This is what you do in America, but your leaders are no better than ours,” he said.

There have been numerous times when American officials have been blindsided by the little things in the Middle East. When the United States first organized a police force in Iraq, officials purchased uniforms with baseball caps. But the Iraqis were infuriated and embarrassed because they wear berets, not caps.

When Karen P. Hughes, then the under secretary of state for public affairs, told women in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, that they should be able to drive and to “participate fully” in society in 2005, she was met with hostility from her handpicked audience.

It is those kinds of assumptions — that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans — that can really get under people’s skin. Egyptians may give out wrong directions — but only when they are asked for directions.

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting to this New York Times article.


The Queen said...

'Egyptians may give out wrong directions — but only when they are asked for directions'

Come on, who wouldn't prefer that?

Forsoothsayer said...

michael slackman is a douchebag who doesn't do any of his own journalistic work. i find this article condescending in the extreme. will do analysis soon. this man's repution is wholly undeserved, and we're sick of him screwing over egyptian journalists.