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Talk like an Egyptian

Adel Heine's weekly column

Adel Heine

People like to talk. Not everyone of course; we all know an example or two of the strong and silent types, who quietly observe their surroundings and rarely voice an opinion. I used to be in awe of them and their ability to remain silent in the face of verbal provocation. Their quietness that would give them an air of detachment intimidated me and gave me the impression they were engaged in profound thought.

Over the years I have made the effort to gently coax them into conversation, excited to hear their expected pearls of wisdom, often to be sadly disappointed by boring and inane comments. Of course there have been exceptions and pleasant surprises, but overall it seems that many people are silent for the simple reason they do not have anything to say.

Needless to say I am not one of those. That is not to say my words hold wisdom, I just like to talk. Silence has never been one of my virtues and my tongue carries many scars from the times when clamping my teeth on that part of my anatomy was my last resort to avoid landing in verbal hot water. I grew up in a country where voicing opinions is considered the right of all and in a family where over the course of dinner everything and nothing was discussed.

The conversation would rapidly flow between my mum, my sisters and me, filled with humorous asides and good natured, bitchy banter. My father, surrounded by four females, would restrict his contributions to a few, well chosen remarks that usually had a large effect, with all of us falling over ourselves to loudly disclaim our disagreement. In many ways I have not changed.

Overall Egyptians are ready to enter into a conversation, often whether you want to or not, and it makes me feel at home. A random plumber that shows up to fix a leaky faucet will insist on discussing his daughter’s wedding, neighbours venture opinions on anyone who has been visiting you in the last few days and taxi drivers settle in for a good tongue wag as soon as you enter their vehicle.

Most people do not seem to care if your Arabic is sketchy at best, as mine is; tone of voice, facial expressions and extensive and expressive waving of hands and arms go a long way to get a point across. “Who cares if I am driving a taxi at the same time, I am making a point,” seems to be the premise, as you cling on for dear life and try to avoid closing your eyes for fear they will see it and insist on doing it again.

But nothing gets discussed as much as politics. From the street to the radio and TV shows, people have been passionately debating political viewpoints ranging from staunchly religious to outright support for the powers that were and everything in between. In true Egyptian fashion these discussions get heated, beliefs are deeply held and points are made with vim and vigour. Verbal punches are thrown at those that feel differently and divisions in streets, villages and neighbourhoods formed in the times leading up to elections.

Vigorous debate is part of a democracy, or at least this is what we were taught in school. Forming a logical argument, presenting it clearly and succinctly and finishing it up with a conclusion that is designed to entice those of different minds to your side was encouraged. It shaped how I argue, unless I get emotionally involved of course and end up talking over others and raising my voice.

Yet another reason why I feel at home here; Egyptians seldom stay calm when they talk about grocery lists, let alone when they talk politics. I love their passion and there is no misunderstanding their positions. Personal opinions are ventured as universal truths and having a dissenting view is often taken personally, sometimes even as a personal insult. I have seen old friendships dissolve and relationships falter because of this over the past two years, and deep divisions seem to have formed in the country.

Until last week another man stated his opinion and declared it law. Incontestable law at that. And suddenly some of these seemingly insurmountable rifts were not as important as before and people found a simple truth to share and unite behind.

The images of and numbers in Tahrir Tuesday night were impressive. I hope everyone will remember that sense of unity when it is time to talk again.


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