Saturday, October 30, 2004

So Why Are You Foreigners Anyway?

An old friend of mine came by to go riding the other day. I've known her for at least ten years and we've gone through a lot together. Both of us are technically not Egyptian, but this is our home. We've raised our children here, survived many years of marriage here, and at one time we ran a magazine together here. She was away for much of the summer and then was called away again to nurse her mother for a few weeks in France, so we had a lot to catch up on as the horses ambled along the paths in the autumn sunlight.

Years ago my friend was injured in a serious riding accident when a horse fell on her in the desert. In recent years she hasn't done a lot of riding, so we were taking it easy on our way through the countryside to a place where we could loop back through the desert from the pyramids at Abu Sir. Moving along a trail behind my house, we met up with a young girl, probably about 12 years old or so, riding a small white donkey. I've met this girl many times before in the area and just as before she asked me hopefully, "Baksheesh?" Baksheesh is Arabic for "tips", or as it is usually used, a handout.

When I first started riding in the countryside where there are always lots of children and farmers, I was warned that I would be harassed for baksheesh. One of my neighbours went with me the first few times as I was walking a mare who needed rehabilitation on firm ground rather than the sand of the desert. Seeing kids asking for baksheesh every so often, he suggested that I take a bag of sweets or something with me, but I vetoed the idea. My theory was that if the kids learned from day one that I never gave anyone anything, after a while they would stop bothering me.

I chose to handle the situation with conversation and jokes. When the children would ask for baksheesh I would turn to them as if I'd never thought of it before and say "Yes, please. I really need five (or ten or fifty) pounds. I'm completely broke." They were usually so stunned at hearing this from a foreign woman that they would stand there with their mouths hanging open. Any listening adults generally fell about laughing. After over five years of practice, the children do know that there really isn't any point in asking, but some of them do anyway. One group in a particular village do it just to hear their mothers laugh at them when I ask them for money instead. Once in a while I will explain patiently that there is no point in my carrying money while riding since there are no stores on the trails and nothing to buy. Funny how this point has seemed to escape my questioners and when the idea sinks in, they are a bit embarassed.

So there we were facing this young girl on her donkey and for the millionth time (she's a bit slow on the uptake) I was explaining that I don't carry money when I ride horses. Puzzled, she looked at us and asked rather plaintively "Wa entu khawagat lay?" which is roughly "So why are you foreigners anyway?" We looked at each other and burst out laughing to the total bemusement of our young donkey rider. You know, after all these years, we really didn't have an answer for that one.


ldl said...

you may appreciate these pix which appear in the current issue of sigla mag:

Catherine said...

I laughed so hard (albeit very quietly because I'm at work) when I read this . . . "why are you foreigners anyway?" . . Thank you for providing some insight into the real Egypt. I've only been there twice and I'm hoping to go again in February. I hope to get to experience Egypt beyond being a tourist as I hope to go many times. Unfortunately, I'm limited by the fact that I have to keep on working . . . "retirement" is only a word these days as I will have to keep on working even if I do take the early retirement buyout from my company . . . still have to work. But thanks much for the words and explanation . . . i really want to understand my Egyptian friends better!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mdm,

As an Egyptian, and after having read some of yr blogs, I'd like to thank you for your fair vision of dear Egypt.

See Egypt has suffered a lot from foreigners, just take a fast look of modern history of Eypt, and you shall get my point.

Answer to the little girl question is very simple, you are no more a "Khawagaya", Egypt, all over history, opened her arms to people like you, and this is why you managed to survive all this time in Giza.

In fact what made me read thru yr blogs, is when I read you are staying in Abu Sir, I thought a "khawagaya" will never last there for 30 days, not years...

But then, you now carry the honory citzenship of egypt, before the formal one, which you must have got because u r married to an egyptian...

Please raise your children to love the real egypt, and to do something to egypt, which needs all the help possible.

Thanking you for being you!