Diplomacy in Dahab

Today I got into an argument with my hotel owner.

Since we finished up finals and had nothing better to do, my friend and I decided that we would bask some of the joys Egypt has to offer: beautiful beaches and unlimited, free sun!

We churned out our last couple Arabic finals (we’re in an intensive Arabic program here) and flew down to a beautiful Sinai beach town called Dahab.

Long story short, our hotel room was not what we expected! There was water damage on the walls, the shower was a little janky, and sand lined the sheets. We definitely did not want to stay there, so we went over to reception to tell them we wanted to switch. The owner was perplexed, and said it was “Mish moomkin” or “not possible.” It was late, and instead of arguing with him, we decided to sleep and contact our booking agency in the morning to tell them we wanted to change hotels.

Pause scene.

In any normal American city, this would be acceptable. Generally, if you have a problem with a reservation you contact the booking agency (like orbitz) because they have to work out a deal with the hotel to fix the problem. I’m sure you agree that this was perfectly acceptable behavior!

Resume scene.

The following morning we went down to the café for our included breakfast to discover that we were not on their list—we had confirmed with the manager the previous night that we had arranged for half board.  Instead we went to another café down the way that had internet so we could make a skype call. The booking agency told us they couldn’t get a hold of the owner and we should have him call them. No problem!  We slid over the reception area to talk about switching hotels, and we got way more than we bargained for!

The owner was livid. In his eyes, there were two sides of the contract: his side to provide a room, and ours to pay. By going ‘behind his back’ to contact the agency, we had broken our side of the contract. According to him, he wasn’t mad about the money, he was mad that we hadn’t come to talk to him. Of course, we diligently explained that we indeed had come to talk to him, and he had said it wasn’t possible to switch. He didn’t seem to care.

Pause scene again.

I’m sitting there, in this guy’s makeshift office, extremely puzzled. I understand why he would be mad as a business owner that we were cancelling, but when he said it wasn’t about the money, I was at a complete loss for understanding the situation. It seemed to me there was a very simple chain of events: when the customer and the owner couldn’t come to an understanding, we called in a third party to negotiate.

Resume scene. Again.

I argued, fruitlessly, for ten minutes. It got heated to say the least.

Luckily, my friend Dillon is a much better arbitrator than myself (largely because he’s smarter), but also because he’s lived in the Middle East before and understands the culture. After I had failed miserably to solve the situation, and had actually inflamed it to the point of being nearly irrecoverable by arguing on American terms, he stepped in. In about 3 minutes he had solved the whole thing.

I stood there, in shock, as the man who had just told me nothing was possible just a few minutes ago, calmly handed us back all of our money, refused payment for the night we’d stayed, cancelled our reservation without a fuss, told us he hoped we had a wonderful stay in Dahab, and shook Dillon’s hand.

My jaw fell open, and my ego fell out onto the floor and shattered into little pieces.

Let’s just clarify something: I’m in the Middle East studying Arabic because I want to pursue a career in international law, specifically transnational arbitration and litigation.  That is, I want to pursue a career in exactly what I failed to do in the above argument. I mean, Dillon doesn’t even speak Arabic! That, and he’s three years my junior and just beginning his college career.

What he explained to me afterwards is that while my actual argument structure was solid, it was ethnocentric. What the man wanted me to do was not make it about business, but realize that I had morally offended him by insinuating that I couldn’t work it out with him directly. Dillon said, “Look Winnie, it wasn’t about the money. It was never about the money. This guy was operating on an entirely different level of argument, from person to person, saying ‘Hey look, you hurt my feelings and now you want to violate your own contract to stay here for five days, and I’m not going to give that to you’.

Dillon realized what was happening, switched his argument to one about morality. He apologized profusely for offending the owner’s pride, explained the cultural misunderstanding, and asked for leniency in the contract because there were clearly disputes on both sides and we just wanted to enjoy our vacation.

Now back to the blog: The question originally posed was something to the effect of “Is study abroad affecting your career path or what you want to do with your life?”

My answer is first to laugh, and second to say, “Yeah, literally every second, every day.”

If I want to be able to understand both cultures involved in the international arbitration, I have to get down and dirty with both sides. I get tangled up in arguments, struggle with Egyptian logic, try to fit foreign concepts into my American box of understanding, and then have to laugh at my own surprise when it doesn’t work. It’s a process, and every time I mess it up I know I’ll be just that much better in my future career. I am also reaffirmed in what I want to do with my career, because there is nothing more fascinating than studying the reasons people from different cultures react the way they do.

Many Americans (and American entities) act within the “Hubris of American reason” or assumption that everyone’s mind will be able to function within the parameters of American logic. This is a fatal flaw in international arbitration. Each country has its own moral code and hierarchy of cultural emphases, and trying to merge two systems doesn’t work as flawlessly was one would like. In the face of conflict, one has to step back and reframe their own argument to fit into the framework of the other party’s culture, and only then can one earn, or deserve, the respect of the other person.

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Filed under Culture Shock, middle east, Winnie in Egypt

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