Cultures of Honour and Shame – Cairo, 1998

At Cairo’s airport the baggage staff were evading every request, suggestion or insistence that they issue the loss report I’d need to claim insurance for my missing luggage. It was nothing to do with them, they said – it was, after all, a Lufthansa flight and EgyptAir was just the local ground agent, so it was a German problem to solve, not Egyptian. After wearily accepting my host’s assurance that it would be looked after, I was grateful for reaching the hotel and the prospect of much needed sleep. But, as I opened the curtains, all accumulated grumpiness and fatigue evaporated. Floodlit, just half a kilometre away, rose the magnificent slopes of the great Pyramids of Giza. I must have spent at least an hour on the balcony savouring a cold drink, warm desert breeze and priceless view.

Pyramids from hotel

Built on the site of an old royal hunting lodge, the storied Mena House has been providing exclusive accommodation for the rich, famous and infamous ever since opening its doors in 1886. It hosted the 1943 “Cairo Conference” at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek agreed on strategies to defeat Japan and liberate Europe. It hosted 1979 meetings between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Israel’s Menachem Begin and America’s Jimmy Carter leading to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. In 1998 it was hosting a less momentous “Workshop on Arms Control and Security Improvements in the Middle East” at which I was to speak on the third day. Hopefully by then I would have my bag and be able to look presentable.

The morning after my arrival, a particularly athletic-looking young man in a smart suit asked for my baggage tag. Before letting it go I looked him in the eye and pointed out that I was trusting him with the last evidence that I had ever owned a bag which should have been on the aircraft. He nodded solemnly. That evening he presented me with my suitcase, still locked securely (as was normal in those simpler pre-9/11 years). After I had thanked him warmly he hesitated a bit and looked slightly embarrassed. “Mr. Griffiths,” he said, “they had wanted you to come out to the airport and open it personally. I know that what you’re doing here is more important, and I know how to search a bag without anyone knowing. I want you to know that I decided to open, search and re-seal it without bothering you.” With a smile I shook his hand and thanked him for his honesty. Later I commended him to our host, a retired Major-General well-connected with the security establishment. “You did exactly the right thing!” he replied. “Put an Egyptian on his honour and he’ll die before letting you down!’

There is a thread of male pride running through the fabric of Egyptian culture which abhors any suggestion of shame to a degree incomprehensible to some from societies like mine. So yes, as a stranger asking directions on the streets of Cairo you may encounter locals who will fabricate the most confident-sounding of directions to avoid admitting that there’s something about their city that they don’t know. On the other hand, if you’ve established a relationship on trust, you’re not likely to be disappointed by someone whose honour is at stake.

Approaching the start of a new year I’m grateful for the memory of that anonymous Egyptian security officer, reminding me yet again that while cultures may differ, it’s more productive to embrace the differences than to complain, or to nurse an unwarranted conviction of cultural superiority. The human family may be dysfunctional at times, but we’re still all family.