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The Importance of Walls

Egyptian Tales
1. Shopping with a Boy Racer
2. The Maid
3. The Soldier
4. Hunting for a Home
5. First Egyptian Christmas
6. The Lady’s Honour
7. Who’s Who
8. Street Kids
9. A Thief or Two
10. The Bank
11. The Importance of Walls
12. The White Gecko
13. Black Adam Part 1
14. Black Adam – Part 2
15. Israel Part 1
16. Israel Part 2
17. Israel Part 3

Egyptian Tales Episode 11

We take them for granted but perhaps we should appreciate walls rather more than we do? After all, walls hold up the roofs of our dwellings and without them, we’d have no protective shelter from sunburn or rain. The famous Western or ‘Wailing wall’ in Jerusalem provides a place for Jewish men and women, properly segregated of course, to pray at. They can pop supplications to God into any crevice, large or small, that is not already occupied by birds. Walls are also very useful when you just want something to lean against. Then there are structures like the Berlin Wall that are not just symbols of division but solid physical barriers that aim to enforce that division.

There are also invisible walls that we can’t see but abound in our life experiences. Differences of gender, cultural background, beliefs, upbringing or personality can create walls of misunderstanding and division as effective as solid ones. Such barriers are numerous when we find ourselves in countries and cultures very different from our own. I have lived in five countries outside my native New Zealand and visited dozens more. Those experiences have afforded me the opportunity to observe and experience a plethora of such invisible but palpable walls. During our years in Egypt, walls played many, often unintended, roles.

So far in these tales, we’ve met the three staff of the villa and had an introduction to Rick’s experiences. As we continue, we’ll get a better sense of the maze and the mountain of challenges Rick and his team faced both at work and at ‘home’ in the villa. Aside from Gavin, the forthright Australian accountant who had worked with Rick in Sydney six years earlier, two computer programmers were among the first of his team to arrive. One of those programmers was also called Rick and he was the only other member of the team besides our Rick to be there full time. They fast became known as Old Rick and Young Rick or Big Rick and Little Rick.

Arriving at the same time as Young Rick was another Australian computer boffin we’ll call Godfrey. In Sydney, Svi, (see Episode 4) had explained to Rick that Godfrey was one of the senior programmers of the computer system that Svi had originally developed and installed for Mr Omar’s Company in Egypt, so clearly he was an obvious choice for the team. However, Svi had issued a warning.

“Godfrey’s a genius,” Svi explained, “but Rick, it’s like this…” He got up and on the board in his office drew an acute mountain-like triangle. He pointed to the apex. “Godfrey’s right up here. He’s right up here in the genius stakes. However, as you can see, he can very easily fall off this side or that side, so sometimes he is mad! But he is very clever.”

Young Rick and Godfrey flew into Cairo together. The driver picked them up and brought them to work and the first thing they did on arrival was to go straight to the computer room. My Rick (a.k.a. Old Rick) and Omar shared an office, where Rick was working at his desk when Omar walked up, gave Rick an enigmatic look and said, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee are downstairs”
“Aw f***, no!” thought Rick. He looked up and said, “Are they really?”
“Yes,” said Omar, somewhat bemused and skeptical, “I suggest you go and have a look.”
Upon meeting Rick, Godfrey, without hesitation, immediately started instructing Rick (who was technically his boss) on what Rick had to do. Not a wise move on Godfrey’s part.
At this point I am reminded of someone we met twelve years earlier when Rick and I were traveling with our teenage sons through Central America. In Belize there was a character known as ‘Chocolate’ who ran boat trips out to the cays. In his boat he had a sign that read “Old age and treachery will beat youth and experience any day.” Godfrey should have read that sign.

A believer in ‘picking one’s fights’, Rick decided to bide his time. Soon enough an appropriate moment arrived to explain some facts to Godfrey. Rick welcomed him generously and told him how pleased he was to have him on the team. Then for a good amount of time, Godfrey got the full measure of Rick’s role and experience. Godfrey bridled and in an effort to establish his own seniority and self-righteousness, he rang Svi, his Sydney boss.
“Mmmm, good luck to him” thought Rick.

The scene of Godfrey’s night time wall dissertation was the shrubbery on the right.

That night, Rick heard a noise about 2.00am. It sounded like people talking outside the villa.
“Oh sh**,” he thought, “we’ve got burglars!”
He hopped out of bed, opened the window and looked down. Three stories below, wearing only his floral boxer shorts, was Godfrey. He had a packet of cigarettes in one hand and the hose in the other and was clearly agitated, striding up and down, shaking his finger at the wall, having quite a vocal and heated argument and hosing the plants at the same time. It seemed to Rick that the wall was winning. Or maybe Godfrey was talking to the plants and the fairies not the wall? Either way he was obviously getting a hard time.

“What do I do?” Rick wondered, “Is he sleep walking? Is he in any danger? There’s a big wall around the whole property and the gate’s closed so he’s not going to come to any harm. We might find him asleep under a bush in the morning. That’s okay, I’ll just go back to bed!”

In the morning, going down to breakfast, Rick met Gavin on the stairs.
Gavin said, “Did you see Godfrey last night?”
“I thought I dreamt it,” said Rick.
“You didn’t dream it. He was having a violent argument with the wall!”
“Well yes, that’s what it sounded like to me.”
“And the wall was beating him up!”
“Well,” said Rick, “Svi did tell me that he lived on this pinnacle of genius and could slip from genius to idiot or insane depending on which way the wind was blowing. Obviously, he gets up here in the Northern Hemisphere and the wind’s blowing in a different direction.”

So, that was Godfrey’s start and Rick came to agree with Svi that when it came to computer matters, Godfrey was a genius. However, one day, Godfrey definitely met his match in walls, the invisible kind.

Mr Zogby had originally been employed on the recommendation of Omar’s Father. He had the reputation of a very successful, international consultant who had done a lot of work in Norway. Now, it turned out that he was responsible for his own reputation and Rick suspected that his brother had a fish and chip shop in Norway and Zogby had worked with him. However, he was employed by Omar as a system’s analyst and he was a wizard, as a lot of Egyptians are, with the Exel programme. He could make beautiful flow charts and documents look really, really good on Exel. He took pride in them and he’d spend an entire day and a half refining a single ‘Receipt of Goods docket’ from one department to another.

At that time, Egypt was all manual systems and everything was audited to manual. So really, Mr Zogby had a big cross on his forehead because the computer was going to wipe out his job. When Rick looked at what he had actually implemented of all these systems in the time that he’d been there, which was a couple of years, there was nothing that Mr Zogby could point to and say, ‘I did this and it was a success” but Mr Zogby could talk the leg off an iron pot.

One day, Rick went down to the computer room and Godfrey was missing. He had already asked about Mr Zogby and when Rick told him his opinion Godfrey said, “Rick you have to understand that for people like him, all you have to do is just explain it to them. Explain it to them carefully. They’ll understand it and then they’ll be on your side forever.”
“That’s really good. I’d appreciate if you could explain it to him on my behalf.”
“Well,” said Godfrey, “I thought I’d do that. I thought I’d go and have a chat with him. I’ve got half an hour spare in the morning so I’ll go and do it.”
So when Mr Zogby arrives at work, Godrey goes to see him. Being very ‘senior’, of course he didn’t get in until at least 9.30. So, Rick and his team had time to do an hour and a half’s work before he got there. Godfrey went in to talk with Zogby and Rick made it his business to walk past the glass in the office now and then so he could see how the conversation was going. Godfrey started off sitting straight in the chair and talking and then as the morning progressed, after the first hour he was slumped somewhat with his elbows on the desk and then eventually, he was slumped right down in his chair listening. Mr Zogby was in full cry and giving Rick a lovely smile and a wave every time he walked past. Rick could see that Mr Zogby was winning, so he thought, “Do I go and rescue Godfrey? No, he bloody knows everything. He can rescue himself.”

Eventually, Godfrey came out.
“Righto, how did that go?” asked Rick. “It looked as if you were exchanging ideas. I thought the plan was you were going to explain something to him?”
“Well,” he said, “I did.”
Rick said, “Great, it’s all solved now if I can quote what you said to me, ‘if you explain it properly, he’ll understand it and it’ll all be good’.”
“The man’s thick! Godfrey wailed, “And he doesn’t listen!”
“You’re quoting me now. This is what I told you and you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Well I got some things through to him okay.”
“Good, good,” said Rick, “He remembers your name. Anything else of importance?”
“No, not really.” Godfrey admitted, “The man’s useless.”

Some unseen walls, it would seem, are both solid and insurmountable. Godfrey had committed a common ex-pat ‘sin’. Just because you’re good in one particular job in one work situation, is no guarantee of success when you transport to a very different national or work culture. To be successful in a very foreign environment, requires an attitude of sympathy and awareness of the fact of those different attitudes and mores, while still being effective at the job one is hired to do. We shall return to this problem more than once in these tales.

Another less obvious ‘wall’ that this episode reveals is that Genuis is a gift that often comes without a balancing quota of EQ—the ability to read people and respond appropriately. This ‘fault’ is not confined to people of genius, of course. In a complex environment when people are employed for their expertise in a specific area, wisdom and EQ suggest they must avoid the temptation of assuming that they have the ability or the right to meddle in areas outside their remit.

Godfrey (and others) would have done well to take lessons from Rod, the Australian accountant of Episode 5. Highly competent in several areas of business, Rod nevertheless always confined himself to the task he had been appointed to do, dispatching it with an efficiency and efficacy that Rick greatly appreciated. He often wished that all his team had Rod’s focus and temperament but if that were the case, I’d have had nothing interesting to write about except the pathways and walls of tourist trails, though I promise these too will find their way in.

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