Egyptians queue to vote in parliamentary elections, Photo courtesy of Gloria Center
Watching footage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week gave me a well-timed lesson on patience and good manners. It was humbling to observe and read numerous reports showing people lined up by the thousands outside of voting stations to cast their ballots in Egypt’s first elections since the Jan. 25 uprising.
A considerable 62% of eligible voters participated in the election, many standing in line for six to eight hours or longer to cast their ballots. While I am usually patient in traffic jams, ticket and grocery line ups, I cannot recall ever having to queue that long for anything. It would surely nibble at my nerves, and yet many of Egypt’s lower-income citizens often get caught in long queues to perform basic tasks like buying bread or overpriced propane tanks.
The footage made me realise how impatient I can be at times with futile things, and how this impatience puts me at risk of speaking or reacting in an inconsiderate manner as I act swiftly without first reflecting on my choice of words.
Hours before watching footage of Egypt’s elections, I had an appointment to transfer my work visa to a new employer. I arrived slightly early to the meeting point, eager to finish the paperwork quickly to ensure I would be on time for a much-anticipated lunch gathering an hour and a half later with close friends, who were moving away the following day.
Then, five minutes before the scheduled appointment, someone from my previous employer’s office called to inform me that their representative was running late and he would arrive about an hour later than planned.
Since it was he who had initially decided on the appointment time, I impulsively snapped at the woman on the phone about how it was discourteous to call so soon before the appointment to reschedule, especially given that the rep from my new employer and I were there already. It irritated me that I had to re-organise my schedule due to someone else’s apparent negligence.
Yet, once the phone call had ended, I felt unsettled by how I had reacted. It troubled me that this woman and the representative I was about to meet would get the impression that I was unkind and abrupt. I had not even sought to find out why he would be late in order to put myself in his shoes before reacting. Instead of seeking to be understanding and tolerant, I was unsympathetic and impulsive.
Trying to live in a state of Islam, or submission to God, means that we should be mindful of God in every action we take. In the often narrow space between our judgement and reaction we can forget that God occupies the breath that connects these two acts. The Quran teaches us that God is closer to us than the jugular vein in our necks; He witnesses every word we say and every action we take.
I often try to imagine that I have an inbuilt filtration system to sift through my words before their heedless moment of departure, ensuring appropriate levels of consideration and fairness acceptable to God. This works much of the time, yet often, as with this phone call, I may hastily bypass this system to say something rashly—only to feel culpable moments later for uttering words soiled with some degree of insensitivity.
One Hadith, or saying of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, advises that we “should speak a good word or remain silent”. In this case, I wished I had remained silent. When the representative arrived 45 minutes later in a rush, he was quite apologetic, and explained that he had gotten tied up in more bureaucracy than anticipated at the immigration department. He could not find my number to inform me earlier.
I’ve been caught up in overly irksome government bureaucracy on numerous occasions, and found myself stuck in sluggish traffic jams struggling to find a phone number, so I could completely relate to what happened. Instead of retorting quickly when I received that phone call from his colleague earlier, I should have sought more detail on what was keeping him.
Later that afternoon, I watched footage of thousands of men and women standing patiently in orderly queues across Egypt in earnest hope that their votes would count as they took part in the country’s first democratic elections in 60 years. My impatience with a 45-minute delay, that in the end did not even cause me to be late for lunch, felt all the more trivial and inexcusable.
The next time I am about to react imprudently, I hope the image of those queues comes to mind, and rather than reacting to a pre-judgement with a harsh word, I hope to offer a fair judgement with a good word in its place.
“Do you not see how God compares a good word to a good tree? Its root is firm and its branches are in the sky, it yields its fruit each season with its Lord’s permission—God makes such comparisons for people in order that they may take heed. But an evil word is like an evil tree torn out of the earth; it has no foothold.” (Quran, Abraham, 14: 24-26)