Monday, January 2, 2012

IBM Egypt

Egypt has been in the news a great deal this past year, as long simmering political problems finally boiled over into open revolt.  As the Egyptians try to sort things out there is little we in the West can do but wish them well. 

I rather unexpectedly found myself there three years ago, traveling with my then 15 year old son.  I thought a few nostalgic looks back at the place would be in order.

A very smart guy told me that "we Egyptians do really big things well--just look at the Pyramids.  It's the little things we are not very good at. And he was right.  For me one of the most amazing things was that the repressive, all powerful dictatorial government was not even organized enough to manage respectable currency.  Coinage is almost unknown, all prices are rounded up or down, and even the banknotes are, well, you be the judge:
The top one is a one pound note, the lower one 25 piasters.  They are worth, respectively, 20 cents and five cents.  They are unpleasant notes to behold or to handle.  You want to wash your hands.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love Egypt.  The people are smart and gracious, the sights breathtaking.  But it is decidedly not the most efficiently run country on earth.  In fact, even the Egyptians refer to it as "an IBM country".

IBM stands for:


Literally this means "if God wills it".  Practically it is a catch all phrase that has subtle tones.  "It shall happen, Inshallah" might mean you very much want something to happen, or more likely you are acknowledging that you realize that the person you are talking to wants something to happen.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with the odds of something promised actually coming to pass.  And if it does not?  Well, it was not supposed to happen.  Most Egyptians seemed fairly secular, so it appears more to imply that Fate meant it was not to be, rather than Allah taking a personal interest in the matter.


Literally, "tomorrow", but practically it implies that something will occur at a non-specific time in the future. 
Which might mean never. The closest corollary I know of in Western culture is what Wimpy used to say in the old Popeye comics..."I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today". In other words, Bokrah is a way to put people off, perhaps indefinitely.


This one is slippery.  It can be used to say "no problem" even in a situation where problems are painfully apparent.  Or it can mean "there is really nothing to be done about it."  I think it can even be used as an "excuse me" phrase if you have to push past somebody on the street.

Collectively these three central concepts to Egyptian public life go far to explain the slow pace of change there.  Perhaps the modern age will start to catch up now.

Tomorrow:  Souk the Rich

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