Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The notion of apologising

In the wake of the Canadian prime minister’s historic apology for events 100 years ago, why is it that Egyptians are often so bad at apologising, asks Azza Sedky

Al-Ahram Weekly

A few days back, on 18 May to be exact, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the Canadian parliament and formally apologised for a tragic incident that took place over 100 years ago.

In 1914, a ship called Komagata Maru was not allowed to dock at the Burrard Inlet Harbour in Vancouver, Canada. There were 376 East Indian Sikhs on board. They were in search of a better life, but the Canadian government denied them entry.

The passengers did not disembark and the ship sat in harbour for months, only to head back to India and an uncertain fate. In skirmishes with the British authorities following their return, 19 of the returning passengers died and many were imprisoned or forced into hiding.

To the descendants of the passengers gathered in the visitors’ gallery of the Canadian parliament, Trudeau formally apologised, saying, “Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely, for our indifference to your plight, for our failure to recognise all that you had to offer.”

He continued, “Canada must now commit itself to positive action, to learning from mistakes, and to making sure that we never repeat the errors of the past.”

Why apologise? It’s been 100 years since the events took place, and the passengers of the ill-fated vessel have long gone. It’s a big thing for a country to apologise, is it not?

This apology rights a wrong even after 100 years. It brings closure to a lurking and guilt-causing incident, it elevates Canada to the place where Canadians would like it to be, and it enshrines Trudeau’s name in history as the prime minister who was not ashamed to apologise.

Disappointingly, Trudeau had to apologise again that same day for an incident he himself triggered when his temper got the better of him. He manhandled one member of parliament and accidentally elbowed another. Again, Trudeau apologised profusely, this time for his own misconduct. Though ashamed and embarrassed, Trudeau apologised just the same.

The notion of apologising is not a simple matter for individuals and countries alike. It takes humility and unabashed self-effacement to announce that one has erred. Across the world, the blunders, oversights and mishaps that happen on a daily basis number in the hundreds, but apologies never come easily.

It would have been appreciated, for example, had George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld apologised for their historic blunder of attacking and destroying Iraq, but alas this was not to be.

It is interesting to study this notion, the notion of apology, from an Egyptian perspective. Egyptians are not infallible, and yet when an error occurs it is sometimes extremely difficult for the Egyptian at fault to apologise.

The first reaction is to defend oneself and to give the reasons why such an error took place. This is usually followed by critics going head to head with the person concerned to prove that he has committed a blunder, giving rise to an unnecessary and vicious cycle of accusations.

How often does a driver on Cairo’s roads accept that he has erred and step out of his car to take responsibility for his actions? Instead, a shouting match occurs, maybe even a fistfight, and nothing is resolved.

Why is it that a museum staff member resorts to botching the beard of the statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, disfiguring the priceless object, instead of owning up to his mistake?

Why is it that we tell our children to fight back and hold their heads up high even if they err? Why aren’t they told to apologise if they are mistaken? Why is it that shouting matches instead of reason often dominate discussions?

Why is apologising an atypical notion amongst Egyptians? It is related to how much we value our dignity and self-respect and how conceding is not in our nature. This is why confessing to wrongdoing comes hard. More importantly, it is quite embarrassing and shameful for Egyptians to apologise.

This shouldn’t be the case, however. We should apologise and get it over and done with. I recently watched Osama Kamal on the TV show Al-Kahera 360 apologise to the veteran journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed for a misunderstanding that had occurred on the show.

Kamal repeatedly apologised, only to be rebuked further by the journalist. Kamal then had to switch to the advertisements to allow Ahmed to calm down. I felt that Kamal had soared in my esteem after his humble apology and his insistence that it be accepted by his guest.

But this approach is rarely heard of in Egyptian norms and in the media in particular. It is more likely, in similar cases in the Egyptian media, for the culprit to go on the defensive and issue rebukes instead of apologising. It is more likely for an incident to snowball further instead of being softened with an apology.

But the concept of making an apology, followed by forgiveness, exists in rural Egypt. If a person is killed, whether by accident or intentionally, a revenge feud may ensue, and the family of the deceased may assign a blood relative to kill the killer. Once the killer has been killed, the second killer becomes the target, and so on, giving rise to a vendetta.

It is only when the next victim, the person who is about to be killed, takes a shroud and presents it to the opposing family that a wrong is righted. Only then do years of antagonism and hatred end. The action is a metaphor for an apology, and it is one that calls for the finer response of forgiveness. To the family about to commit a murder, the person’s action in presenting the shroud is conciliatory and appeasing. Only then can bygones be bygones.

This approach is an honourable way of ending hostile relations between two families, and it should be how Egyptians in general approach such things. I am not in any way suggesting actions similar to presenting one’s shroud to the person one has harmed, but it is the apology itself that is worth appreciating.

On an individual level, if we apologise to kin, friends or colleagues life becomes much pleasanter. At an official level, it is more critical and even more worth doing. An apology makes officials human. Taking the blame is better than ignoring the problem, going on the defensive, or blaming someone else.

I say apologise, accept the blame and move on. 

The writer is political analyst.

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