Those of you familiar with the Islamic world will know something about how vital manners are if one wants to make a good impression. Too much admiration for something may attract the attention of the Evil Eye and to be boastful and arrogant, especially in public, is very bad form. As human beings, we are all equal, only Allah is sublime. And so it is, and always has been, seen as a virtue to be modest in Islamic countries. It took however the very formalised environment of the Ottoman Turkish court to turn such a notion into an art.
The Sultan of Turkey’s court was a very opulent place that even in its modesty was way over the top. Politeness was measured by the degree to which courtiers and ministers were able to debase themselves before others. And so one modest comment would be followed by another even more modest claim, each statement of humbleness becoming ever more flamboyant than the last.
For instance one courtier might say to another, ‘I humbly await your command.’
The reply he will receive might then be, ‘But I am not worthy to wash your hands.’
And on and on becoming ever more obsequious and subservient as time progressed. How such a situation would resolve would be contingent upon what the relative status of each party was within the court system. Those of high rank could basically let this process go on until they became bored rigid by the humbleness of the other person while those of equal rank would eventually have to resort to something called ‘Estagfurullah’. This is an Arabic word and it means ‘begging the pardon of Allah’. What one of the equal status partners would do, via Estagfurullah, would be to remind the other and himself of the unchanging omnipotence of Allah whilst at the same time appealing to Him for forgiveness for any instances of arrogance or pride that may have take place. Balance in the debasement stakes would then be perceived to have occurred and normality would then resume.
Turkey no longer has a monarchy or any sort of court system. But Estagfurullah still survives in the efforts people make not to appear arrogant and to avoid giving offence. I know some foreigners find this difficult to handle but not many of those are from England. I’m really good at it myself. But then I was born and brought up in London where, until very recently, kids were exhorted to ‘Stop showing off!’, ‘Don’t make an exhibition of yourself!’ and ‘Shut up you big-headed berk!’ on a daily basis. Of course we all misbehaved enormously out of the sight of our elders, but ‘showing off’ was really frowned upon and to be modest and grateful were prized as great virtues. We were, if you like, bred to always try to achieve utter debasement. When I get going with this I can sometimes flabbergast even the most ‘polite’ Turk.
I always knew that my English lack of self-esteem would come in handy one day!