I'm, Um ... Canadian

Encounters with American liars in the Middle East.

I met my first liar in Morocco.

On an overnight bus ride from the desert headed north to Marrakech, we had stopped in a small town for a dinner break. Several people remained on the bus to relax or attempt to catch some sleep, including a tourist across the aisle, whom I had heard speaking (quite loudly) earlier on. He sounded American.

But then a Moroccan man struck up a conversation with him, and I heard his answer to the mandatory 'Where are you from?'

"I'm from Canada, but I live in New York now," the man replied.

Later, he admitted to me that he was really from Maine.

I shouldn't have been shocked. I'd heard for years about Americans who sew Canadian flag patches onto their travel-backpacks, and I received many words of advice to do so myself before I set out on a journey through the Arab world. I even had a strange omen come my way; after I left my job as a news reporter at WMNF, I was cleaning out my desk and found a tiny Canadian flag pin the size of a pinky nail that I had never laid eyes on before. I decided to take it with me on my trip, and hoped I would never use it. I haven't, but now, whenever I see that flag being sported by somebody else, I wonder.

When I heard that man lying in Morocco, I thought of a conversation I'd had in southern Jordan a few months earlier. After a day exploring the ancient city of Petra, we'd befriended some local Bedouins, who brought us to their home for tea. Amal, a 17-year-old who had learned four languages while selling jewelry and trinkets to tourists, had a bone to pick with one particular type of liar.

"The American accent is very famous," she said. "Like two days ago when I met an American man and I said, 'Where are you from?' He said he's from Canada."

Amal rolled her eyes.

"He's very scared ... ya know?" she asked rhetorically, as only a teenager could. "I am Jordanian, and I will say I am Jordanian. But you are American, and you don't have to say you are Canadian."

"Why do you think they say that?" I asked Amal.

"Because they are scared, and they think we are terrorists."

Simple answer, but it wasn't enough for me. I soon had the chance to confront another liar. Gabby was a friend of a friend, a Jersey girl who'd married a Tunisian man she met at the gym while traveling with her father on a business trip. She lives in Tunisia now and speaks pretty good Arabic, but over a glass of tea Gabby told me she still claims to be Canadian sometimes. She was advising me to do so myself on occasion, explaining with a knowing look that I would "just be better off."

I wanted some clarification, so I asked her if I was in some sort of danger. She was quick to tell me no, that wasn't the problem. "Then ... isn't it bad to lie to people?" I inquired naively, after which she suddenly came up with a new justification.

"If they know you are American, they will try to charge you a higher price for stuff," she explained.

Spoken like a true veteran of New York's fashion business. (She's a corporate headhunter now.)

True enough, but try explaining that to the man on the street in Cairo who struck up a friendly conversation with me, albeit in an effort to steer me into his papyrus shop.

"You are American! Oh, welcome to Egypt!" (An extremely common but usually heartfelt greeting.) "Sadly, we don't have so many Americans coming to visit the past few years, and when they do, they all say they are Canadian."

So is anyone fooled by this lie? And more importantly, if foreigners know Americans are lying, won't that make them dislike Americans more than they (supposedly) already do?

Rob J. King, a St. Petersburg College ethics professor who also teaches world religions classes for online universities, says the values of Islam make the "I'm Canadian" lie a grave moral misstep.

"Just dealings are part and parcel of what it means to be Islamic," writes King via e-mail.

"Having said that, a failure to clearly identify one's national origin would go under the category of 'unjust dealings' either in the economic or in the political sphere."

But King's supervisor, Keith Goree, director of the Applied Ethics Institute at St. Petersburg College, said there are times when lies — if told for a good reason — are OK.

"I can imagine that some people would see this as something close to treason of betraying your country," Goree writes. "But I can also see the analogy of the 'safety lie' that many of us teach our kids: 'If a stranger comes to the door when I'm not home, you should tell them that your parents are home sleeping.'"

For the "I'm Canadian" claim, the "safety lie" seems to be the most common defense. But it can backfire. I was hanging around the front office in a youth hostel in the village of Dahab, on Egypt's Red Sea coast, when an extremely American-sounding young man checked in.

"Where are you from?" the manager, Mr. Shawaky, asked cheerily.

The response was a stream of mumbles, followed by an only slightly clearer "Canada."

My ears perked up. I pretended to be looking at the maps of local scuba diving sites on the wall so I could wait until he pulled out his passport. Within moments, the guy (whose name was Mike) was caught — it turns out he was from LA.

"Wait," said Shawaky. "Are you American or Canadian?"

"I'm from America, but I say I'm Canadian because people don't like Americans."

"That's not true," said Shawaky. "When you are here, it doesn't matter where you are from."

I intervened and started asking questions. Mike said his girlfriend (who was from Calgary — an actual Canadian) had advised him to lie, and this was his third fib since crossing the border from Israel into Jordan. But he had a good reason. "I got kicked out of a cab because I was American," he said.

Finally, a story about actual repercussions.

"Where did that happen?" I asked.

"In Jordan."

"In Amman, or in the south?"

"Ummm ..." Mike hawed. "I don't remember exactly."

I told Mike that I was a journalist working on a story about Americans who say they are Canadian when overseas.

"Ahhh ... then we must all sit down and talk about this," said Shawaky. As the hostel staff brought Mike his welcome glass of tea and photocopied his (American) passport, Mr. Shawaky said it was the first time he'd been lied to like that, and it made him very uncomfortable.

"If somebody tells me when I'm going to America that I shouldn't say I'm Arab and I should say I'm Canadian, I should listen to them? No, I think I should try to make by myself, as myself."

"My parents are terrified that I'm in Egypt right now," Mike offered as another defense.

Shawaky was kind, but had no pity. "Should I even let you stay here, after you have lied to me?" he asked, posing the question more theoretically than as a threat.

"No matter where I am, I have to say I'm Arab, otherwise it's a kind of lie."

All Mike could do was shrug.

And what do the Canadians think? Don't they get a say in who claims to be one of their countrymen? I asked Ashley and Shirley, two Torontoites on a flight from Tunisia to Egypt, both of them young women on the border between studenthood and the working world.

Shirley took it in stride.

"Basically, I see it as flattery," she said.

Ashley, who had an authentic Canadian patch sewed on her backpack, said it really depends on the reasons for doing it.

"If they are acting like jerks and don't want people to know where they are from, then it makes Canadians look bad. But if they are just trying to not have people give them a hard time, then I'm OK with that."

Back in the hotel in Dahab, Mr. Shawaky shook his head.

"Humans must be changed for the better," he sighed.

"If a lie doesn't hurt you or hurt someone else, that's no problem. But this is something else — you have to be honest with yourself."

His words resonated with me when I talked with Mike after leaving Shawaky's office.

"I guess I should tell ya," said Mike as we walked toward the beach.

"I thought I really offended that guy [Shawaky] so I made up a story about getting kicked out of a cab. It didn't happen. I figured he would be less offended if I told him something bad happened. But if you're gonna write a story about it, you should know the truth."

Freelance journalist Andrew Stelzer recently returned from a trip circling the Mediterranean sea. Link to his travel-blog at andrewstelzer.com.

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