Hospitality is every Egyptian's middle name. I swear I've been lifted to an unbelievable level of good manners here, and I'm enjoying it much more, now that I'm getting used to it. During our first year back, we lived in our city apartment. All of my husband's huge social circle beat a path to our door, welcoming him home and greeting his new foreign wife. I cringed whenever the doorbell rang, but now it's getting easier, as I'm learning the rules guiding everyone's behavior. For example, Islam encourages nicer replies to any greetings received, and often this inspires beautiful rounds of compliments and blessings. It's lovely, but so much sugar is rich for my etiquette-challenged American blood. There are huge numbers of correct responses to correct greetings. Also, speaking to different classes of people requires an unending variety of appropriatly flattering titles to address your guests, particularly in gatherings with people whose names are found (or needed) in your contact list!
There are also proper responses when offered anything, and a correct number of times to refuse anything before finally accepting, and you must learn to eat the disastrously crumbly teacake covered top to bottom with an inch of powdered sugar without it exploding all over your formal-length business ensemble. And if you do manage to bite it without it disintegrating, carrying the leftover crescent carefully in your palm back down to your lap, now how do you remove the powdered sugar mustache from your lips?! Trust me, napkins are nonexistant! And these powdered sugar bombs are popular, treacherously offered at every gathering. I'm secretly suspicious of a conspiracy to uncover my less than desirable social roots.
Most Egyptians are incredibly clean people. They can eat feasts with their fingers and never spill a drop. I need six napkins for teacake, but I'm trying hard to adapt. The trick, I believe, is never letting anything touch more than just your fingertips – if it slips, it's usually within the first inch of altitude away from the plate, quietly disintegrating in place without your neighbor scandalizing your upbringing when she returns home! And you can avoid the mustache by drying your lips on your neighbor's cheeks while kissing hello… or wipe it off while kissing her goodbye! Of course, keeping my mouth shut completely is my preferred strategy, especially regarding visitors. It's easier now that I recognize the routine only requires teacakes, tea and chitchat, and in my case this consists of very little chit, and no chat at all, since I am failing miserably at Arabic. I just sit politely like a pet cat on the sofa, all dressed up in a formal-length business suit and head scarf, meowing once in a while if somebody smiles at me.
Happily, I'm learning to meow very nicely! I'm eating my teacake without crumbling, and no mustache, and no napkin, thank you. I'm also able to offer the same hospitality in return now, even offering a few of those lovely phrases for coming and going. Honestly, I'm enjoying this lifestyle completely, especially now that we're living in our nice countryside home. Very few cityfolk like traveling to us here, thank God, because there's nowhere to buy those treacherous teacakes, and God knows I wouldn't like cleaning up the explosion after making powdered sugar in my food processor!