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Egyptian Morality: Up in Smoke?

Egypt seems to possess a very unique type of morality, wherein we judge our own actions based on whether or not others can see us. Aida Aly picks out the problems with observable moralists.

Flying has never been my forte. I hate almost everything about it; from the endless lines, to the mush-looking food. When I arrived in Cairo last week I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After more than seven hours of travel, I was going through some serious nicotine withdrawal symptoms. The second I exited the airport, I lit a cigarette, inhaled the beautiful toxic smoke and felt my insides relax. Emotional dependency at its finest. A few seconds later, I felt someone tap on my shoulder and turned around to find a short, old woman wearing a galabeya. “What are you doing?” she asked, looking very taken aback. I paused for a second thinking about what in the world I could have possibly done to upset this lady. “You can’t smoke in front of people!" she exclaimed. Baffled, I asked her if she herself smokes and to my surprise she said, “yes, but in the privacy of my home, not in public!”

There are two types of moral compasses a person can have. There are those with righteous morals - those who believe that everything right or wrong is set in stone - and there are those with consequential morals. Consequential morality means the morality of your actions is based on the consequences that follow them.

It seems, however, that Egyptians have come up with a new moral compass; the observable morality. Observable moralists believe that actions are right or wrong based on whether people see them. It’s alright to smoke, just as long as it’s in the confines of your home where nobody can judge you.

Whether your actions are right or wrong should not be based on what others think of them, but rather what YOU believe them to be. Believing that something is immoral only when you’re seen translates to shame. Egyptians live their lives covered in shame. They’re ashamed to own up to most of their actions simply because they’re afraid of being shunned by society. Letting society decide your morals for you moulds you into a person that you’re not; a person they want you to be.

A society like ours gives too much importance to reputation. They choose to keep this fake façade of righteousness in front of everyone, while they play as they please where they can’t be seen. The mere belief that it’s okay to smoke, for example, as long as no one sees you means you believe that action to be immoral. So, why is it okay when you do it behind closed doors but not when I do it in public? Actions have the same moral value regardless of whether or not they’re seen. 

It seems to me that most observable moralists simply lack the courage to own up to their actions. They will drink themselves silly, but when CairoZoom is in sight, they’ll hide their glasses behind their backs. Many of those who don’t believe in fasting will abstain from eating and drinking in public, not out of respect for those fasting, but out of fear of being deemed a “kafer”. Girls will cover themselves up while in Egypt but once they’re abroad, off come the clothes. Why? Because our society rejects “obscene” attire while societies abroad don’t. 

There’s an old Egyptian saying that goes: El ekhtasho, mato. If you aren’t familiar with this saying, it means “those who were ashamed, died.” The story behind it is that a long time ago, a fire erupted in a female public bath and the women who were too ashamed to go out naked, burned in the fire. Whether this story is true or not, the moral of it is these women would have rather burn in a fire than show society their bodies. Hiding your morals from the prying eyes of society is the equivalent of letting yourself burn out of shame.


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