The Meaning of Time

Time. Westerners are time-poor (money is time), Middle-Easterners are time rich (time is measured in human interaction). Living in a foreign country you have to adapt to a different way of life – if you fight it you will only drive yourself crazy. This has been my experience living amongst the Bedouin of South Sinai when it comes to time, getting things done and learning to accept things when they don’t work out.

I am an early-riser, I see myself as “solar-powered” and usually wake up at dawn with the light of the day. I am often up by 6.30-7am having a coffee and looking at my list of things to do for the day, in order of importance. Anything I can get done on the computer – emails, banking etc I do as soon as possible and save the errands to town for when the shops open at around 10am (or whenever they feel like it). With my “Western” habits, I know there are certain tasks/jobs that I need/want to achieve that day. But I also know, I live in Egypt and the day will never pan out as I have planned. This is where the fun and games start. As an example, I will tell you what happened this last weekend.

Last Thursday I had 2 foreign friends arrive early in the morning after a long overnight bus ride from Cairo. After catching up with each other we made Plan A: The next day we decided to take a taxi to St Katherines village, around 2 hours from Dahab, (where I live). They were going to hike and I was going to visit a Bedouin family. In between phone calls to the taxi driver to organise the trip, a Bedouin relative of mine, Omar, called and said he was going to visit. Since I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, I postponed my trip to St Katherines, sent my friends on their way and said I would come later (Plan B). The relative arrived at lunch time with two friends. Bedouins can go to anyone’s house at lunchtime and expect to be fed if there is food on hand. Sometimes they even hang around after lunch, drink tea, and if they feel like it, even take a nap! This can be a big interruption to your day so you just have to work around it.

Anyway….Omar informed us there was going to be a family wedding the next day. I texted my foreign friends and informed them I would not be coming to St Katherines at all as I had to attend the wedding – Plan C. OK, so now I was at home instead of going to St Katherines, so decided to knock off a couple more jobs before anything else happened. I was feeling good about getting a few things achieved when there was a light knock at the door. “Julia! Julia! Open the door! I want a balloon!” I opened the door and four little Bedouin kids tumbled into the house and started scanning the joint for anything they could get their little mitts on to eat or play with. Because I am a foreigner they think my house is stuffed with balloons, biscuits, bananas, chocolate and cola. (To be fair they are often right, as I keep all those things on hand as bribes to make them leave the house, otherwise they might terrorize me for hours). It was a hot day and somehow they managed to drag me down to the beach and swim with them. I finally got back in the late afternoon, tired but also thinking I could knock off another couple of internet jobs in the evening – inshallah (if God is willing). As you can see, I am not getting much done.

The next day I went to the wedding around 11am. It was in a large open space with colourful tent walls, a shaded area and a stage. Loud, Egyptian Shabby music occasionally blared from the speakers, at which time young girls leapt up and shook their booties, the older black abeya-clad, scarved women sat in tight clumps on the mats and drank tea, coffee and juice. Children (annoyingly) played “chasing”, slaloming amongst the seated crowd, babies lay sound asleep on laps and on the mats amidst all the ruckus. I found some family members to sit with, there were handshakes and cheek kisses and then I sat down and melted into the crowd. A few ladies stared at me as the only foreigner there, so it was good for them to see that I was with the groom’s family. It was an unbearably hot day and I sat cross-legged for 3 hours until lunch was finally served around 2pm. The hungry women formed small circles and large trays of rice with freshly slaughtered goat meat were passed into the middle of each circle. After lunch I was exhausted so went home – only to find the house full of Bedouin men and the groom, laughing, snacking, drinking tea and juice. I got sent out to buy more supplies for our guests, came back and hid in my room for some peace. When I came out later 3 of them were asleep on the floor, but they eventually left. In the evening I went back to the wedding for a warm night of loud music, dancing, socializing and…well, chaos, as most Bedouin weddings are!

The next morning I got a phone call from my neighbor Ayida. “Where are you? We haven’t seen you in 3 days!” Close Bedouin friends expect you to live in their pockets. There is no “nipping around for a quick cuppa” – you can expect to be there for at least an hour, and then when you leave, you can expect another Bedouin lady to see you on the street and try to drag you into her house for a cuppa. There is no getting out of it, they are quite bossy. You see, at their houses, they have a small fire burning all day with a pot of tea on it. People just come and go from each others houses, sit around on the mat outside, drink tea and leave. They don’t even say good bye when they leave, it’s not necessary. They just get up and go. However when I try to sneak off, I get yelled at “Sit down! Stay! It’s early!!” I might have an appointment I want to get to with someone else. In Arab terms of time, that doesn’t matter. They measure time in human-interaction, and if they haven’t finished with you, or feel the visit is not yet over, you can’t go. In the West time is money, and you can say “Hey, I have to be somewhere at 10am!” and leave. Not so here. It takes as long as it takes.

Shops often do not display opening times. They sort-of have an opening time at 10 or 11am, but if you go and they are not there…well, you just have to come back later. This often happens to me when I go out to get something printed – there are only 2 shops that do it. One is closed 50% of the time that I go, and the other one…well, the shop is open, but the guy is not there…so I go into the grocery store next door to ask where the guy is – he tells me he will be back in 5 minutes. I tell him I don’t believe him (I have been here too long) – so he calls the guy and is told he will be back in 1.5 hours. But he just leaves the shop door open. I don’t count on him being back in 1.5 hours either, so I just go home and get on with other stuff before the next obstacle or interruption.

I have to sometimes accept I am not going to get jobs B and C done today due to the shop being closed, the internet being down or a visitor arriving – or some other unexpected thing. In Arab time that is fine. What ever you don’t get done today, you just do tomorrow. And so the next day you just “mop up” what you didn’t get done yesterday –one day melts into the next and the next and the next and sometimes you feel like you are never getting on top of the pile of work….

But hey, that’s what I love about this place. The spontaneity, the importance of human interaction (especially in these times of smart phones, where Westerners are always on social media), the go-with-the-flow, live-in-the-moment attitude to life. It has taught me to have buckets of patience and acceptance. It goes hand-in-hand with the Arab concepts of generosity and hospitality. And even though it might sometimes be frustrating, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

One comment

  1. jane oundjian · · Reply

    Venus! Are you back in Dahab???

    Sent from iJane


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