U.S Shouldn't Assume People Want to "Live Like Americans"

"It is those kinds of assumptions - that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans - that can really get under people's skin."

Michael Slackman takes political correctness to an extreme in Wednesday's gently chidingdispatch from Egypt, "Don't Leave Home Without a Cultural Compass." Slackman extrapolated from personal relationships between Americans and foreigners to reach a bottom line that America should refrain from lecturing other countries on issues of right and wrong.

The United States' relations with Egypt are strained. From the man on the street to the president, rightly or wrongly, Egyptians are feeling disrespected by Washington.

It is not just about the invasion of Iraq, or the perennial feeling of favoritism for Israel, or the mild critiques coming from Washington about Egypt's lack of democracy. It is what people here see as the demonstrated failure to understand how they think, what they value - even when those values mean sending someone off in the wrong direction.

(Slackman had begun his story by recounting how an Egyptian, trying to be helpful, had given him bad directions knowing they were faulty.)

Egyptian society values hospitality and personal honor over precision and directness; there is a kind of emotional camouflage that Egyptians wear to get through their days. Drivers act as if no one else is on the road, but almost always smile and wave after a near collision.

"Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels that he did what he was supposed to do," said Hamdi Taha, head of a charity, Karam al-Islam, and a professor of communications at Al Azhar University. "He doesn't think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing."

It is the little things that can be hardest to understand. But it is the little things, especially at a time when people are angry with the big things, that can stoke people's ire, Mr. Taha said.

Even with people you might expect to be on America's side.

Like Ghada Shahbendar. She is an outspoken, English-speaking rights advocate who has tried to prod the Egyptian government to be more democratic, more open and less repressive. But even Ms. Shahbendar was offended by President Bush's remarks last month at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el Sheik.

Mr. Bush came to the podium with little credibility among Arabs, that is a given. But his indirect criticism of Egyptian politics set off a national chorus of protest. People were offended because Mr. Bush, with all his own baggage, stood in Egypt and criticized Egypt, Mr. Taha and Ms. Shahbendar said.


There have been numerous times when American officials have been blindsided by the little things in the Middle East. When the United States first organized a police force in Iraq, officials purchased uniforms with baseball caps. But the Iraqis were infuriated and embarrassed because they wear berets, not caps.

When Karen P. Hughes, then the under secretary of state for public affairs, told women in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, that they should be able to drive and to "participate fully" in society in 2005, she was met with hostility from her handpicked audience.

It is those kinds of assumptions - that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans - that can really get under people's skin. Egyptians may give out wrong directions - but only when they are asked for directions.

Foreigners have no desire to live like Americans? I guess that's why so few come here every year.