Giving Gifts To Strangers

A few years back when I moved back to Cairo from Toronto, I started working for the advertising company that I am currently with. I was hired back then as a Senior Art Director and thrown into the trenches. It was a bit strange to adjust to the Egyptian work environment after working for 4 years straight in Canada.

The working atmosphere in Canada is very different to Egypt. Egypt is far more relaxed and far more forgiving. In Canada you could get laid off in a heart beat.. In Egypt they feel that it is inefficient to lay off people since you would have to hire someone else and retrain them and reintegrate them in the work place.

I much prefer that side of the Egyptian way of working. Although I don’t enjoy coming to work sometimes and just sitting on my desk doing nothing (which means you browse the web, check emails, chat with fellow workers). When the work crunch comes back you just put your head down and scythe through it.

Where it started

I have a friend who was partially responsible for getting me hired at that agency. His recommendation was a deciding factor since he rarely recommends anyone for positions. When I started working at the agency he had just gotten engaged to one of the Art Directors in the Studio. Nice girl, talented and religious.

Although it might not seem like it here as you read my articles and ramblings, I am pretty introverted. Not so much that I am shy… rather that I am not very social… but I would hear the conversations that happened above my head between the different studio members as they worked. They would ask each other about their husbands, fiances, future plans… during one of these cross studio conversations I picked up an interesting piece of information that gave me an idea.

My friend while courting his fiance had wanted to not bring attention to the fact that he was courting her. So whenever he wanted to give her a gift… he would buy similar gifts for the rest of the studio members. I’m not talking about necklaces or rings. I mean like candy bars, cookies, cupcakes… that kind of thing and the studio folk loved him for it.

I liked that kind of controlled subterfuge. So I decided to imitate it… but in a different manner.

I wasn’t courting anyone and I didn’t have any occasions to celebrate (arabs generally give fellow employees little chocolates or some sort of food morsel when there is some reason to celebrate like an engagement or wedding or birth of a child) but I wanted to create some kind of confusion. Now I have a name for it but back then I was playing it by ear and just kind of wanted to mess with my studio mates.

A Storm of Kindness

So I started to buy random gifts and giving them out. The first time I did it the people at the office were so confused it was the subject of discussion for days. What I did was go out and buy some petite fours which are kind of expensivish cookies and I gave them out. Most of the people in the office knew who I was but had not had not really spoken to me. Each one would ask if this was for an occasion… and I would say no… I just felt like it. Some were shy and followed egyptian custom which dictates that they refuse the gift. Unfortunately for them I had just come from Canada and the custom there is that if you are offered a gift you take it. So I didn’t insist (as is the custom in egypt) and so they didn’t get a chance to get their treat.

The ones at the back of the room quickly noticed that I didn’t follow egyptian custom and so when I got to the last person. They asked if they could take more than one cookie. Since half the studio follow the custom of refusing the gift. I was more than happy to give them twice the gift.

The Repercussions

I waited a few days before I went out and bought a bag of Popsicles and gave them out. This time almost 85% of the studio broke custom and took the gifts from me the first time around. The remaining 15% lost out since I went and gave their intended popsicles to people from other departments. Part of why I did that was because I couldn’t leave the popsicles on my desk since they’d melt.

The third time around 100% broke custom.

I always used to buy more than I needed and once the studio folk took their gifts … some would come to my desk for seconds.

There was never an occasion. When I got engaged and then married it was in Jordan (not egypt) so there was no sharing of chocolates and Petite Fours. But something changed in the studio among the people in it.

They started getting gifts for their fellow employees randomly as well… occasions are to be celebrated but giving gifts to strangers is satisfying in itself.

Those people I worked with during that year and a half were pretty darn great. Almost none of them are still with the company … and once I was moved from the Art Department to the Creative Department it was harder for me to see them daily. But even today… 6 years after I started working with them… we still keep in touch and we still feel nostalgic toward the times when we saw kindness from strangers.


There is a very short saying (tradition) of the prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him) where he said 2 words “Tahadu Tahaabu” This translates to … giving each other gifts will increase in our love for one another. No one likes the greedy or the selfish. We are repulsed by the hoarders, which might be an instict we have. Like our bodies hording fat for the times when there might not be food and it can reuse that fat.

The problem is… we stay so fat because that time never comes. We sit in fear unwilling to share our wealth, our knowledge and our wisdom because who knows maybe that will be the factor that gives me an edge on my competition.

Paying it forward might help one person at one time … and like a domino effect cause repercussive  benefit for others. In Islam there is a yearly amount of money you have to pay… religiously compulsory. You pay 2.5% of any wealth you have that has been hoarded for more than 1 year. So if the money has been sitting in the bank for 1 year … lets say $100 … then $2.5 of it has to go to the poor, the needy and the impoverished (This is different to alms which are not mandatory and are completely voluntary).  In the early days a collector was sent out to collect this money and bring it to the central ministry of finance. From this money were paid government employees, the poor, those wishing to get married but who did not have the means, those who wanted to study.

The money and hence the wealth was circulated.

Are you a Hoarder or a Giver? What have you done for your fellow human beings that has changed lives? That has made them feel that they are not alone… That there is a reason why we call being kind… being humane.

For the Sake of Allah

That’s the Arabic word for God … that’s what christian arabs have written in their bible (Allah) it is not some different entity with a different name so please get over this misunderstanding cause that gets irritating.

Back to my point. In my case I often do it for the Sake of God. I do it hoping for his reward in the hereafter… and that it has positive repercussions. I do it with the best intent for his pleasure and I do it in the hopes that when the times comes and I find myself in need and I find myself helpless… That someone will step up and show me kindness because we are human.



  1. Thank you for sharing. I especially like the fact that you equate God and Allah as one and the same. I completely agree and can think of other names other religions use for the same entity. In the end, I think we are all worshiping the same entity. There is a joke that goes:

    All the heads of all the world’s religions are gathered in the same room and the noise level is somewhat loud. God/Allah/Whomever enters the room and their is silence. He/She looks around and says, “So what did you all have in mind?”

  2. The point is that a simple semantic misunderstanding can lead a whole genre of faith to think that another does not share similar beliefs.

    I explain all this here but the fact remains that whatever your faith there is a genetic and biological bond that we share … and if we can share it with animals… be kind to animals… care for animals. Then why can’t we do that to our fellow humans.

    I don’t mind someone refusing my help… the point is to not think that no one else is not in need of it (wow that sentence is pretty messed up).


  3. “whatever your faith there is a genetic and biological bond that we share … and if we can share it with animals… be kind to animals… care for animals. Then why can’t we do that to our fellow humans.”

    Amen, Taji. But (without getting into a completely different discussion) whereas most people respect animals, it is those who bring guns into the woods to kill animals – and call it sport – who give me cause for concern in the big picture.

    1. The truth is Mike, that you will always have the poachers and the sports hunters. I was thinking about that the other day. We get everything we want delivered to us. we don’t get our hands dirty hunting, killing, skinning, curing, etc someone else does it for us and we get the end product. But the issue here is if you can extend kindness to a being that is not genetically or biologically similar to you. That you can barely communicate with then how is it that your fellow human is not worthy of this kindness.

      Although I speak in the article about kindness in general I am often surprised by Voice talents … who, in the few years I’ve dealt with them socially, are some of the kindest people I’ve dealt with, yet in some cases I see a glimpse of this other person below the surface that doesn’t wish for my success. That is putrid and greedy, that envies and detests my achievements. Why? I am no communist (nor am I a full blown capitalist) I don’t think we can share our success … all of us together. I believe that you have to earn what you have. If it is handed to you then it will easily be lost.

      I was struck by what Philip Banks said in his Video about Voice2010… I take half of what he says with a grain of salt because I know his humor. But I also see the truth in the poaching voice coaches (not all of them) and the scavenging opportunists. I remember this one time in canada … I was desperate for a job… no one would hire me … I think it was in the first few months… and everyone wanted canadian work experience when I had none. Anyway this one company Primerica or something had left ads in the employment papers about giving you a job … I went and it turned out to be a scheme to get you to pay $3,000 to attend their seminars and learn how to be a real estate agent or some such garbage.

      The same thing happened to me with a Toronto based voiceover school that put ads in employment papers asking people if they had a good voice… if they wanted to work in Voiceovers… of course I answered and of course it turned out to be a VO school that charged you $3,500 to take voiceover courses with it.

      Those are sharks, they are poachers… they prey on the weak and the ambitious and instead of showing kindness… they are camouflaged in it.

      But I’m hoping the good outweighs the evil… call it gullible or hopeful or naïve. If we stop being kind… they win.

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