Interesting story from today. I went to visit a friend today who works at a dive shop. He knows I'm a Christian and knows that Easter was a couple of days ago, so he wanted to give me a gift. It's important to be thought of as generous in this culture, so people will often give gifts that they can't afford to give. I had also just brought him a bottle of Pepsi as a gift for Sham al'Neseem (Egyptian holiday) and I think he felt like he needed to give me something. He wanted to give me spare lenses for my diving mask, which would have been quite an expensive gift. I tried to refuse several times as is the custom here, but my friend was having none of it. I finally agreed to take the lenses.
I was reluctant to take them for a couple of reasons. My friend assured me that he was going to pay for the lenses. But I know how much money he owes to various people at the moment, and I find it highly likely that he's going to pay. I think he's probably going to steal them. And even if he does decide to pay for them, he doesn't have the money to pay. He would end up even more deeply in debt than he is now. I decided that I didn't want to be a party to theft, or responsible for a friend making a poor financial decision. The longer I sat talking to him, the more uncomfortable I became. I finally decided that I had to give them back.
I explained to my friend that I couldn't accept his gift, and went on to tell him why. I explained that friends have to take care of each other, and that I would be a bad friend to him if I took his gift. We went back and forth several times, neither one willing to give in. There's a proverb in Arabic that says "even an onion from a friend is like a sheep." It basically means, "it's the thought that counts." He finally agreed to take the lenses back, but only on the condition that I take something else. I ended up taking a key chain, which I took because I think it was the cheapest thing in the store.
It was an interesting discussion with they guy. I think we both ended up having to explain parts of our culture that we both took for granted. I'd never had to work so hard to give back a gift I knew the giver couldn't afford, and he'd never had to try to convince someone to take a gift before. To refuse a gift is quite rude in this culture, so I'm interested to see what the implications are for this friendship.
I was really close to keeping them for the sake of the friendship, but I felt like it would be a moral compromise if I did. It's one of those moments where I honestly didn't know whether to respect the culture and let someone else make a bad decision, or be rude and try to speak some wisdom into the situation. Time will tell if I made the right decision or not.