As I was skype-chatting with my sister today (not Frank..the other one), talking about mundane things like my recent grocery shopping trip, I mentioned that I had a random “I love Egypt moment” when I was once again surprised by the friendliness of the employees at each place I stopped at, most of them telling me “Welcome” as I exited their places of commerce. The one exception was the nut store I went to, where the guy was only postal-worker friendly (that’s a nod to the comedy of Rick Steves, for all you fans out there).
Then not-Frank said something strange: “They said welcome as you were leaving?” I paused to think. Why was this weird? How has my concept of normality changed in the miles between Cairo and the United States of America? I determined that the usual context for welcoming someone in America is upon entering a place of commerce or residence, the word signalling the beginning of a relationship that will last either as long as it takes to get ice cream or for socially unaware guests to leave. Regardless of the length, the welcome firmly belongs at the relationship’s initiation.
In Egypt, however, welcoming people who look foreign is an activity that knows no beginning nor end; some might say it is a way of life. Anytime is appropriate to welcome a foreigner, especially if they are simply passing on the street minding their own business, looking straight ahead, or appearing conscious. Indeed, it is common national knowledge that nothing says hospitality like one hundred weekly repetitions of “Welcome to Egypt” or simply “Welcome,” or even the rare “Welcome in Egypt,” “Welcome on Egypt,” or “Welcome Egypt” (anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that propositions are hard–no blame or shame being cast here). I’m convinced that even if the educational system were to fail them in every other way, each Egyptian child would leave primary school knowing how to make paper airplanes and say “Welcome (X) Egypt.”
Sometimes it can get annoying. Can’t they tell from my appearance that I’ve already been in the country for a whole 6 weeks and am almost completely Egyptian? What about my wrinkled linen pants and dress shirt, also wrinkled, doesn’t give that impression? On the other hand, the welcoming is just another reminder of the warmth of Egyptian society it is famous for. People really are friendly–even let-you-borrow-money-friendly (most of the time). So in answer to not-Frank’s question: should there be any time whatsoever in which a person is not welcome? I don’t want to live in a world where that is true.