Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Great Egyptian Debate

The other day I witnessed a classic Egyptian moment, one I'll call "The Great Egyptian Debate."

I was just minding my own business sipping my decaf Caramel Latte with skim milk at our neighborhood Gloria Jean's when suddenly I heard a loud ruckus going on behind me. The 2 veiled young ladies sitting beside us were going crazy.

I was slightly shocked.

Let me tell you why.

Proper veiled Egyptian ladies (young and old) do not generally act this way. They do NOT practically run around in circles. They do not play keep-away (that childhood game where one person tries at any cost to keep something away from the other.) And they usually don't talk in such loud voices.

Well, rules were made to be broken, right?

Now once I got over my initial shock, I quickly realized exactly what was going on.

Yep, they were fighting over who got to pay the bill.

Now this is not the type of scene that you would generally see among any American young ladies of the same age. We Americans are very fair in all things, including when it comes to paying the bill. We dutifully split the bill down to the penny, with each person paying his or her half.

This is not quite how it works in Egypt.

Well, okay sometimes it works this way. People out for lunch with a colleague may pay for their meal separately. Or sometimes younger crowds will separate out the bill so that every person pays for himself.

But usually paying the bill (or "check" or "tab") in Egypt is a bit more complicated than that. There are even a few unspoken rules regarding this issue.

The person who invites pays. Inviting is a very important thing in the culture here. Basically if it's your idea, you picked the place, you picked the time,..that means you invited. Therefore you pay. And there seems to be an art to inviting as well, as in if that person invited one time, then the other person invites next time.

In the business world in Egypt, inviting people for business dinners seems to be pretty important. My husband is forever inviting people out to dinner (different, mind you, than business lunches with colleagues) and being invited. That's just how building business relationships in Egypt works.

You NEVER split the bill. Splitting the bill is definitely a Western concept. For as long as I have gone out to eat with Egyptians or had coffee, ice cream, or what have you I have never seen Egyptians split the bill. Usually one person pays.  

You always fight to pay the bill. Okay, according to my husband, this doesn't work this way with business dinners. But when you're out with friends, it means that even if you were NOT the one to pay you should at least offer to pay the bill. Many times this means a rush to grab the bill when it arrives or the adamant protesting of the other party (even if they weren't the ones to invite). Sometimes it isn't clear who the "inviting" person is so then an all out brawl might ensue until the most determined person wins.

Men pay. Praise God that chivalry isn't dead in Egypt.

Call me crazy but I find it slightly amusing to watch the little "paying the bill" displays like the one I witnessed the other day.

Because I'm just sitting there doing my thing. I'm sitting in a nice Western-style cafe with all kinds of nicely dressed people around me. It's clean and cool. There is some sort of English music playing, sometimes the range being anything from Norah Jones to Jamiroquai to Josh Grobin's Christmas hits (they don't seem to know or care that they're playing Christmas music in the heat of summer). I'm sipping on a Starbucks-like coffee drink (no Starbucks yet within walking distance from our house).

So for a moment I forget that I'm really in Egypt. I mean, the difference right now is minimum. The experience is very similar to one I would have in any coffee shop in the States.

Then the ruckus.

And I am reminded, once again, that appearances can be deceiving.

Yep, I'm still in Egypt.

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