From the moment I set foot into Heathrow Airport I had been inundated by an endless torrent of “sorrys” and “excuse mes” and “I beg you pardons.” The reasons are numerous: somebody was about to bump into you but managed to avoid it in the last minute; somebody was blocking the way and to his or her own fright discovered that they unintentionally delayed you for something between 30 seconds and one minute; somebody accidentally put a bag or a newspaper or a jacket in a place where you were supposed to sit and therefore was the direct reason for keeping you standing an extra five seconds; somebody’s umbrella touched the tip of yours while you crossed the street and might have caused you to start for half a moment; anybody who at any given moment believed that he or she did or were about to inflict some kind of harm upon you or at least give the impression they were going to do so and therefore might have caused you a considerable amount of fear and/or insecurity or might have been an obstacle in your way towards something that could have been life-changing. In a city as crowded as London, where everyday hundreds of thousands flock into underground stations, wait at bus stops, come in and out of department stores, or try to do all the sightseeing they can during a few days’ stay, you can imagine how many times this type of situations can happen and how many apologies you might receive, bearing in mind that each situation does not necessarily trigger one apology so you might end up with apologies double the number of situations.
As much as the contexts in which you receive those apologies differ, there is one thing in common between them: they all revolve around situations that are by no means threatening or fatal and therefore the apology neither saves you from any imminent danger nor offer you a compensation for an unconceivable loss and therefore again, it would not have made such a difference had it not been said at all. Nevertheless, there is not one single time that the so-called offender misses seeking forgiveness for the role he or she played in making your life an ounce less happier than it was before the incident.
Sail across the Atlantic and set anchor in north east of Africa and you will find an utterly different scenario. You are not only faced with all the above-mentioned “misdemeanors” with almost every step you take, but you also become the “culprit” in case, God forbid, you might expect an apology and anyway if you decide to be realistic you will never seek one partly because having it granted is next to impossible and partly because you are smart enough to learn that what is a misconduct in one country can be part of the daily routine of another country. You come to realize that those things people apologize for over there are too trivial to be noticed right here and in fact become by time unnoticed as they are forcefully overpowered by a whole plethora of other much more “violating” actions that, surprise, you also never get an apology for.
You can be hit in the back with a grocery store cart by someone who for some odd reason decided he has to reach the breakfast cereal aisle in half a second; you can feel a heavy foot that carries the weight of a 100 plus kilograms step on yours then a moment after you see its owner walking away and never looking back; you can see a car deciding to speed up the moment you cross the street and after divine intervention the driver looks at you scornfully either because he regrets not killing you or because you got on his or her nerves by deciding to be there at the time when he was in no mood for stopping; you can be leveled to the ground by a passenger who wants to catch a train last minute and is resolved to crush any obstacles in the way. These are just a few instances. Getting to know the whole list requires that you come and stay in Cairo for a couple of days, yet for the time being these should be enough to offer you some of the most exemplary highlights.
Anybody who is not a citizen of the so-called “third world” will assume that we live in a jungle and that each one of us goes out in the morning thinking about how much blood is out there to spill. I am sorry to disappoint them, but this is not what it actually is. Egyptians are not violent by nature and like any civilization born by the banks of a river, they have always been a pleasant people and this is how they had been perceived by all sorts of outsiders regardless of the reason for their presence in the country. It is only recently that they have started displaying a hostile behavior that is not directed towards a specific target, for it is not necessarily related to anything they see as their source of misery, but rather seems to be sprayed indiscriminately at anything that stands in their way. This is not only demonstrated in their reluctance to apologize upon committing any social faux pas, but also in the pleasure they usually take in not doing so and the resentment they make no effort to hide in case you happen to expect an apology.
For years—centuries and millennia in fact—Egyptians had been an oppressed people. They had never actually gotten a proper chance to choose who governs them and, with the exception of a few sporadic uprisings that had no substantial impact, were hardly able to effect a change to this status. However, within the past 30 years, the country had been in the grip of the worst of its dictators. Oppression as well as feeling the brunt of it had reached unprecedented heights and that was when they gave up the amicable qualities for which they had been renowned possibly as they realized that friendliness is the luxury of the dignified and that the abused cannot be blamed for doing otherwise. As part of this new improvised and rather unconscious ideology, the adherence to which grew more adamant the uglier the face of the regime turned to be, they decided they owe no one any sort of apology and realized that they indeed are the ones who deserve one. It didn’t matter if that apology was indeed required and if they had done some wrong that made it necessary; you might as well have grown feathers while waiting to hear the “sorry” you want.
Before January 25, if anyone had told me that more than one million Egyptians will be packed in a place where you can hardly move or breathe and you would still hear “sorry” when one shoulder brushes against another or if one foot is about to step on another, I would have just laughed till I was out of breath in the same manner as if another someone had told me the regime was oust-able. Yet, this indeed happened. At the time when you expected a massacre any minute, you got apologies for things that might have mattered at the grocery store, yet had no significance whatsoever in Tahrir Square. I personally only realized my foot was stepped on or my shoulder was brushed against after I heard the apology and after I stared in disbelief for a few moments at the person who made it. I thought it was a coincidence, but it was not, and for 18 days I kept counting the “sorry”s I got and was seized by a strong desire to immortalize every moment I heard one and with every “transgression” on the part of my fellow protestors, I felt like celebrating the return of the Egyptian even before knowing that the revolution will bear fruit.
Please don’t get me wrong and assume that the word “sorry” is now going hand in hand with “good morning”—not that the last had not for a while been frequently skipped anyway—because with the president’s resignation and after the entire population rocked the country with cheers about freedom and democracy, it was “finita la musica, passata la fiesta” time and everyone went back home leaving behind that dream-like era when sorry seemed to be the easiest word.
That was indeed quite baffling. It turned out that Egyptians did not have the apology center in their brain surgically removed or irreversibly damaged. They just use it selectively, when they see fit that is, and for some unknown reason, they don’t see it fit at the moment. Well, the reason is not that unknown, for apparently they are now going by the Arabic epigram that you can’t give something you lack and apparently the consecutive disappointments Egyptians have been getting since the fall of the regime are making them feel once again robbed of that restored dignity that made them feel willing to apologize simply because this was preceded by a feeling that they have received their long-awaited apology. Freedom turns you into the gentlest of philanthropists and oppression creates of you a beastly misanthropist!
I will consider this a little message to the Higher Council of the Armed Forces and to any official and/or institute currently in charge of charting the course of the new Egypt: You are also assigned the mission of making Egyptians say “sorry” when they mess up. No, that’s not a stupid gesture we can live without; that is how people learn to respect the sanctity of their fellow human beings’ territory and that is how we become a nation at peace with itself.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)