You’re eating a sandwich and drinking some juice when one of your colleagues comes to talk to you. You have two options:
1- Offer them some food if you have enough.
2- Do not offer them any food if you don’t have enough and just answer the question the came to ask.
In Egypt, the case is different than this. People here always offer “boatmen invitations”. Now,
It’s very common in Egypt that you go to buy anything from the grocery store and the vendor- who has never seen you before -offers you some of the tea he’s drinking saying “اتفضل” /et fa dul/ which means “have some”. But, does it really mean that you reach out your hand , grab the cup and take sip? Although, some Egyptians won’t actually get upset if you do that, it’s preferable if you don’t. When someone is eating or drinking in Egypt while you’re passing by and they say “etfadul”, that’s not a real invitation, they’re just trying to act nice. We call this “عزومة مراكبية” or “boatmen invitation”.
“Boatmen invitation” comes from the fact that boatmen in Egypt, in order to be polite, while sitting in their boats; offer passersby to join them but that is clearly impossible to happen.
I remember one of my foreign students asked me that his bawab “doorman” always offered him food or tea when my student was leaving or entering the building. The bawab did that although he was not on good terms with my student. I explained that it’s the bawab’s habit to invite passersby to share some of what he’s having. He’s not necessarily serious but doing otherwise is considered rude.
Another example of boatmen invitations is when you come to pay for something. You’re in a taxi, you reach your destination, you open your wallet and get the money out to give to the driver who confidently says “ما تخلي”, /ma tkhal ly/, meaning “keep the money”. God forbid you take your hand back and put the money in your wallet, or you might hear a very creative selection of angry words.
So how do you know if you are really being offered something? When Egyptians mean it, they keep insisting. They sometimes don’t take “no” for an answer. I think you’ll find the difference clear.
By: Naheed Nada
IH Cairo Teacher