One of Egypt's prominent authors, Tewfik Al-Hakim wrote in his famous novel "The Return of the Soul":
The Great Wisdom flows in Egyptians blood, but it flows without their knowledge. Can you really believe that the thousands of years which make up Egypt's past have vanished like a dream without a trace?".
The key words here are 'without their knowledge, for the present bears no resemblance of the past. Yet, it is true the Egyptian mind make-up is a product of thousands of years of accumulated history. Successive invaders left their mark, but were eventually assimilated into Egypt which the Egyptians call the Mother of the World, Om Eddunia.
Egyptians are friendly, hospitable and modest. They also have a sense of balance and moderation. Problems in Egypt, however, have a tendency to resist solutions. Everybody seems to accept that trouble will somehow work itself out. InshaAllah and Ma'lesh are essential vocabulary for the visitor. A key to enjoying any visit to Egypt is infinite patience.
Egypt has its fair share of problems. More than 40% of its men are illiterate (more for women); it is over populated and poor. There is a large degree of mal-distribution of wealth. With no class system in Egypt, and no titles, the only way to climb up the social ladder is by acquiring more wealth.
Egyptians are proud and sensitive. Proud of their history but sensitive of their present. This paradox explains why people do not like foreign photographers poking their cameras into their everyday life. Unless photographed at their best or in situations they are proud of, Egyptians are more comfortable away from the cameras.
Egyptians are, generally speaking, color blind. Other races are regarded as equal and given the same consideration. Foreigners who live in Egypt are treated with respect and tolerance. Egyptians abroad are sometimes shocked and surprised by race hate problems in other countries.
The Arabic language has its mark on the Egyptian mind. Classical Arabic is used by the media and in formal writing, but the spoken Arabic is colloquial and varies from one region to the next. The colloquial Arabic of Cairo is widely understood throughout the Arab world, because of the cultural influence of films, songs and TV programs.
Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, is the living proof of past glory. It can be acquired only by formal education, and represents the ideal or the higher self for all Arab speakers. When used to its best effect, the classical form of Arabic is full of metaphors and elaborate rhyme and exaggeration. For the average Egyptian over-emphasis and exaggeration in speech is normal and common. This is reflected also in the colloquial form of the language, used in everyday conversation. People aspire to the classical form of speech but can only use and feel comfortable with the colloquial.
This exaggeration can sometimes lead to conflicts in communications. A psychologist (Egyptian) once told of a story of two friends: an English girl and an Egyptian youth. The girl complained that her friend was pestering her with his declarations of love, and refused to take no for an answer when she made it clear she was not interested in him. On the other hand, the Egyptian boy, confided that the English girl was encouraging him, but he had shown only little interest in her. The psychologist said that both were telling the truth, but the difference was that between Egyptian exaggeration and over-assertion and English tact and understatement.
Egyptian males tend to be chauvinistic in a society which acknowledges and rewards male domination. That patriarchal system requires the support and loyalty of all members of the family in return for security and protection. In the absence of a credible social welfare system, supporting the family always comes first in Egypt. Adults are expected to respect and care for their elderly parents. In rural areas, care and loyalty also extends to the clan.
Egyptians are very conservative. Their mind is ruled by the notion of honor, especially when it comes to the issue of women, their protection and what is expected of them to make the job of their protection easy on the man. Women are expected to dress and behave modestly. Women who make a show of themselves either by revealing attire, loud voice or sensual behavior in public places, bring dishonor to their kin and hosts. Such behavior is therefore considered an insult to the family and an abuse of hospitality.
Egyptians, however, can cope with discourteous visitors (they have been receiving some for the past few thousand years). While such behavior is usually tolerated, it creates a stereotype of the westerner as fancy-free and easy. In a cultural context, this fits perfectly with the love-hate relationship Egyptians have with the West. To the Egyptian mind, the West is materially rich and technologically advanced. But it is also decadent and prejudiced. The Egyptians do not understand the lack of support of the West for their national causes. They sincerely welcome their tourist visitors from all parts of the world, but feel betrayed when they hear about raids on Lebanon and Iraq or embargo on Libya. To some, this equates to Our guests take our hospitality, and then go back and bomb our brothers...
In Egypt, the prominent culture is that of Islam. There is a tangible Coptic Christian part of Egypt. But Copts are not a minority, in the since that they are of the same race and culture as their Moslem countrymen. An observer once said that all Egyptians are Moslems, whether they are Christians or Marxists. The resulting culture is moderate and inclusive, even of those who are non-Egyptian. The recent trouble with fanaticism is regarded by most Egyptians as an imported and alien phenomenon. Egyptians love peace and hate violence. Even the most recent revolution in 1952 had a casualty of one soldier, and he was killed by accident!.
Egypt remains one of the more secure and friendly countries in the world for tourists. Egyptians are easy to get on with and will go out of their way to help foreign visitors find their way, or invite them for a meal or a tea. Their offers are usually authentic and not for expected reward. This generosity is part of the culture and a product of the harsh living conditions which value sharing and giving. The hustle of the market place for selling local ware to tourists has nothing to do with the national character and more to do with free market competition for more income.
These factors also give rise to other traits of the Egyptian character such as a sarcastic sense of humor. Egyptians laugh at their way of life, and everything else under the sun. Even political leaders take it as a compliment to be subject to popular jokes. The lack of jokes is usually a sign that something is wrong.
One such joke was favorite in the early days of former president, Sadat, who came to power after the popular president Nasser. He literally dismantled everything Nasser did, but in his public addresses he used to say that he followed Nassers way.
It was said that Sadat had an outing in the presidential limousine, and when the car arrived at the crossroads, the chauffeur asked the new president which way he should turn. Sadat asks, 'which way did president Nasser go?' 'left, your excellency. Well, signal left and turn right!
The Upper Egyptian, the Saeidi, is usually the butt of Egyptian jokes. He is given the same treatment as the man from Alabama or the Irish in the UK. In Cairo, the Saeidi is known to have bought the tramway from a crook. He got on the tramway on his first day in Cairo and was impressed by the ticket revenue, so he bought the carriage and paid his life savings to the crook next to him who offered to sell it to him.
Other examples of Egyptian jokes include the street wise kids and the miserable living conditions. One such kid applied for a job in a hotel that requires English as a second language. He was asked by the manager (in Arabic) to say in English "come here" to which he replied correctly. He was then asked again to say in English "Go there" to which he had no answer. He thought for a while and then said (in Arabic):" I will run there and then say come here!
Egyptians are very religious. They ask for Gods mercy when they get desperate, using the expression Rahmetak Ya Rabb (Your Mercy, O Lord). A cartoon published recently shows a poor family next to a very expensive butchers shop. While their eyes are fixed on the meat they all say Lahmetak Ya Rabb (Your meat, O' Lord!).
This kind of joke plays on the linguistic form and is seldom translated.
Superstition is part of the Egyptian way of life. Owls and black cats are bad omens and so are bearers of bad news. Bad dreams can be grossly misinterpreted. Ghosts and spirits are also bad news. Egyptians will never leave a slipper or a shoe turned upside down, or a pair of scissors open; these are signs of bad luck. They never throw bread on the floor, and if found will be picked up and put aside in a corner so that it is not trodden on. Superstition is contained by faith in Allah.
Customs relevant to the visitors include the social obligation to be generous to the guests of the house. Eating together creates a bond of friendship (Proverb: The bond of eating bread and salt together). There is also the sanctity of homes; never enter a home uninvited. The respect of parents is part of a strong family bond, which obliges members to solidarity at all times. This social bond leads to the custom of vendetta in Upper Egypt.
In all social aspects there is no great distinction between Moslems and Copts. Except for religious occasions, the social code is for all Egyptians. Fortunately, foreigners are not expected to know or follow that code, but are so much appreciated if they show awareness of local customs and the language, however rudimentary. It is prudent to avoid arguments about politics, religion or status of women in Egypt. These are the topics which are likely to create misunderstanding and frustration. But a chat in simple Arabic and English, a joke about the crowds and the traffic, a comment about the positive aspects of life in Egypt, will be so much appreciated. For the tourist, a little effort will go a long way to make his stay welcome and enjoyable..
Egypt - Not Just a Vacation, It's the Trip of a Lifetime! By Paul Groffie
Ye Gods - Egyptian Mythology By David Scott
What Disease was Akhen-Aton Suffering From? By Dr. Sameh Arab
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews By Judith Illes
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
Nightlife Various Editors
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Last Updated: June 1st, 2011