Caroline in Cairo: Observations

Over winter break I traveled to Cairo, Egypt where I spent a month with Lamis and her family. I had an amazing time, learned a lot of Arabic, saw some crazy stuff, and returned with a lot of stories! Here are some observations I made while in Egypt.

 

TRANSPORTATION

I’ve taken all forms of transportation available in Cairo.
Train- pretty cool. average train ride. my ticket from Cairo to Alexandria and back was 90 Egp.
Bus- no. never again.
Minibus- so so so crowded. also scary.
Microbus- super cheap and generally pretty trustworthy. Most tickets were 4 Egp.
TukTuk- So much fun! They’re usually decorated with feathers, lights, or stickers. The only downside is how slow they are.
Boxtruck- Yikes. Crammed with people, nails sticking out of the sides, guys hanging on the back, and a very bumpy ride.
Taxi- some drivers have timers that determine the fare. These drivers are suuuuper slow. Downside of taxi is that sometimes the drivers try to be funny.

1st Microbus ride! In a boxtruck with Salwa (Lamis's friend) before it filled with people! a camel counts as transportation, right?! a mean taxi driver In Lamis's father's car on the way to her mother's village! a man in a village outside of Tanta driving his cart a donkey with a job I rode a donkey sans saddle. it was scarier than the camel.  Lamis's cousin was very patient and only laughed at me a little bit. the train to Alexandria. round trip= 90 egp a boat we rode in Alexandria

There are no rules for driving. At all.

Cars will try to run you over. Especially female drivers.

Crosswalks either don’t exist or they’re not visible. Crossing the street basically just means jumping in front of cars and looking mean enough to hopefully make them stop for you.

Sidewalks are where stores conduct business, the street is shared by pedestrians and cars.

Traffic lights and stop signs are suggestions.

Animal-drawn carts aren’t the weirdest thing. If you leave the house you’re most likely going to see at least one donkey pulling an orange cart

 

FOOD

While in Egypt i ate pigeon, rabbit, quail, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, ful, t3mayya, kufta, koshary, mulukhayya, and just about every other thing you could think of. The food was always so good. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent host mother (my friend’s mom) who was continuously cooking for us.

1st meal in Egypt! kufta from down the street 1st breakfast! (Lamis's mom said "Don't port this picture! they'll think i'm starving you!") cotton candy at the souq! I wanted the heart and i didn't even ask, the guy just knew. snacks and drinks by the Nile (Lamis and her dad got a hummus drink) Lemonade with mint and pomegranate juice with seeds eating Libyan food with Lamis's old neighbors posing with a dead pigeon Lamis's aunt cleaning the rice for our lunch Lamis's aunt baking the rice a delicious home cooked meal in a village outside of Tanta creeper shot of the meal Koshary (not at Abu Tarek's place) Egypt has Chili's and Johnny Carino's ??? cotton candy by the sea (not pictured: the sea) a very popular seafood restaurant in Alexandria my plate of seafood

Nescafé is love. Nescafé is life.

Guests are served coffee, tea, juice, or Nescafé made to their specifications on a silver tray.

Every meal must have side dishes. Grape leaves, stuffed vegetables, other meats.

Black tea usually follows a meal.

There are endless types of cheeses and everyone has a different favorite. *Cue weird looks if you eat the wrong cheese with the wrong meat.*

You can get a sandwich for 2 Egp (shoutout to Shabrawwi) that tastes amazing.

Falafel is called T3mayya is Cairo. Just go with it.

Abu Tarek has the best koshary and that’s final.

Lemonade will probably never be the same for me. I drank a lot of Lemonade with mint, 2hwa mazboot (sweetened Turkish coffee), and tea with mint. I also tried fresh mango, strawberry, and guava juice!

 

 

SOCIETY

There is a song for everything. Everything has a movie or TV show reference, a little chant, a song, or some connection to pop culture. 

Key gestures and phrases made my life 1000x easier.

ex: there’s a gesture to show someone you’re actually full and not just being nice.

there’s a phrase to tell the person asking for money that you don’t have any but you hope their life gets easier.

*sidenote* sometimes shopkeepers will tell you that your items are free and you don’t have to pay. they’re just being nice %99 of the time and you really do need to pay

I’m creating a second post dedicated solely to shisha and coffee shops.

The Quran is absolutely EVERYWHERE. This might’ve been the biggest shock for me when I got to Egypt. Almost every car has بسم الله, ما شاء الله, الله اكبر or some other religious phrase written in sharpie, painted, or (the most common) attached as a sticker. Taxis, buses, microbuses, and minibuses are especially decked out in written prayers asking for God’s protection. Quranic recitation is unbelievably prevalent. I heard recordings of the Quran being played in: taxis, microbuses, grocery stores, on the street, shops, etc. I was touring the Citadel in Alexandria and i even heard one of the cleaning men reciting the Quran.

*sidenote* One of the mechanics across the street from Lamis’s house blared the Quran non-stop 24/7 the only exception being during soccer games.

Idle chitchat is mandatory when a guest comes over. I really value alone time so i occasionally struggled to keep up with the Egyptian social life.

People stare. A lot. Some people make weird comments. No one ever touched me or was hostile. 

Personal space doesn’t exist outside of the house. There are a ton of people in Cairo and it’s very apparent when there’s a big event or holiday. (like New Year’s Eve)

Foreign brands are everywhere (they have cheetos).

People yell in the streets at all hours of the night. It’s fine. Most people are awake anyway. 

Being late is normal. Meeting times are just general suggestions, give or take a couple hours.

Men will invoke the name of God while catcalling you because that makes it fine???

 MONEY

Haggling is a must. Speaking Arabic helps. Being Egyptian helps even more.

The conversion rate during my time in Egypt was about 18-20 Egp/ 1 USD.

Egypt was very affordable for me but worsening economic woes have exacerbated class tensions as purchasing power decreases and prices of basic goods continue to rise.

I gave my dollars to Lamis’s dad to convert for me at the bank. I didn’t mess with conversion companies but I did see some around.

I bought lots of gifts and spent rather freely and i ended up spending ~1100 Egp / Week. (including a train to Alexandria and frequent trips to coffee shops)

 

I know that generalizations aren’t the best way to obtain a nuanced perspective of a country or a culture; however, the aim of this post is to provide a fun and funny glimpse into Egypt as I saw it.

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Sha’bi music is a style of popular working-class music which evolved from baladi, an urban folk style originating in the Egyptian countryside, in the second half of the 20th century.

This genre has evolved greatly since legendary artist Ahmed Adaweyah achieved great success in turning Sha’bi music into a powerful genre sought by distribution companies in Egypt. Sha’bi music uses the popular dialect of Arabic to convey incredibly relatable music. The dominant style today is known as “Techno Sha’bi”.
Hassan el Asmar (October 21, 1959-August 7, 2011)

Drawing from early Sha’bi artists such as Ahmed Adaweyah, Hassan el Asmar discusses poignant topics in his songs Ketab Hayeti (The Book of my Life) and Allah Yasemhak ya Zamen (May God Forgive You, Oh Time). Some critics see Asmar as Adaweyah’s natural heir to the throne of Sha’bi music.

 

Sha’bi Music from Film

Another great example of Sha’bi music appears in the film Al Farah (The Wedding). The Egyptian word for wedding comes from the word in Modern Standard Arabic for happiness. Ironically, the most popular song to emerge from this film describes how the artist no longer recognizes himself and the resulting deep unhappiness he feels. The line “Ana mish ana”or “I am not myself” is hugely popular in Egypt. Despite the criticism Sha’bi music recieves for its utilization of simple language, the messages conveyed in Sha’bi songs often reflect the difficulties the Egyptian people face as a result of political, economic, and social instability.

A more lighthearted Sha’bi song that has received nation-wide fame also comes from a film. The song Helwa Rooh from a film bearing the same name is upbeat and fun. The song describes the beauty of a belly dancer (played in the video by world-renowned Singer Haifa Wehbe) and is often used as a song to which Egyptians belly-dance.

Shabaan Abdelrahim (March 15, 1957-Present)

Born in Cairo, Shaaban Abdelrahim was working as a makwagi (one who irons clothes) earning a low wage. His 2000 breakout song “I Hate Israel” became immensely popular while simultaneously attracting intense criticism. His catchy beats and political lyrics captured the hearts and minds of average Egyptians, catapulting him to fame. He is famous for his flashy clothes and his outlandish antics.

Women’s Rights in Egypt and Female Circumcision

Just a warning, some of the content in this post is a little PG-13 due to the nature of female circumcision, which is a real violation of human rights that is practiced around the world. Awareness is important, so this post discusses topics of a sensitive nature.

 

There are four distinct periods that define women’s roles and rights in Egypt. The first is the Ancient Period, which lasted from 3100 B.C. until 30 B.C., when Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire. During this time, women had mostly the same legal rights as men and were able to own property, live alone, and participate in religious ceremonies. Men and women led very different lives, though. Men were educated and expected to be the provider and worker, while women were unable to read and were expected to bear children and support their husbands. Men, especially kings, were encouraged to have more than one wife, while women were expected to remain faithful. During the Ancient Period, the king was occasionally a woman. Women had very little involvement in religious practices and ceremonies, even though they were allowed to.

The second period lasted from 700-1500 and began when the Arabs conquered Egypt. Women were always veiled and an emphasis was placed on conservatism; interestingly enough, however, divorce became a common occurence. Working women were considered a disgrace to the family, so those who did work were mostly widows who worked with textiles.

The third period lasted from 1500-1800 and was marked by the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Women were still under Sharia law, but were able to own property. Women had some control in the marriage, as they wrote a contract that stipulated the terms of their union. Public baths became common and women were able to travel through their cities without the accompaniment of a man.

The final period has lasted from 1800 until the present. In the 1800’s, most women were peasants who worked with their husbands to produce crops. Then the British occupied Egypt and everything changed. Female literacy rates increased and advances were made in feminism. Egyptian women rejected the ideals of Western feminism, though, and embraced a more inclusive version. Women are now able to receive education and have made tremendous advances in the area of equal rights. Most recently, the hijab has been made a symbol of sorts for feminism as women are reclaiming what was once used to oppress them.

The above history was an entry for my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Study class. It’s fascinating to see the different ebbs and flows in the cycle of women’s rights in Egypt throughout the years. Most recently I’ve become aware of a practice called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM for short) which is essentially unnecessary female circumcision. At least 92% of married women in Egypt have undergone the procedure, which is essentially a removal of all external genitalia and a sewing shut of the vagina, except for a small opening for blood and urine to pass through. It’s completely unnecessary, both religiously and medically, and can cause lifelong pain, both physically and emotionally. The procedure is performed when a girl is around 10-12 years of age, often by a local (nonmedical) midwife supported by local women. This mutilation is seen as a way of purifying girls and preparing them for marriage, but often leads to painful scar tissue buildup and infections that can sometimes be fatal. It is estimated that over 125 million women have undergone female circumcision, the purpose of which is to ultimately prevent women from enjoying sex. It is a gross violation of human rights that damages young girls’ bodies and minds, yet is rarely spoken of because of its sensitive nature. It’s time to break the silence and speak out for the millions of young girls who cannot speak for themselves.