Life in Modern Egypt – a study in contrasts
Life in modern Egypt is a study in contrasts, especially in Cairo, where the constant blasting of the car horns and the loudspeakers of its thousand minarets proclaim both the hectic present and the contemplative past. Modern skyscrapers, highways, a subway system, hotels, restaurants, advertising and western clothing blend together with ancient pharaonic ruins, Islamic mosques, Coptic churches, Middle Eastern garb, bazaars and the odor of cattle in a unique mosaic of life in modern Egypt. I once witnessed a huge caravan of farmers, donkeys and camels making a right turn on a principal Cairo avenue.
Egypt today is a republic with a parliamentary government, a president as head of state and a judicial system based on british common law and Islamic moral law. The president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is a powerful figure, and large posters of his image are displayed everywhere in Cairo, like a 20th century pharaoh, along with billboards of Coca-Cola, cigarette brands and other western goods. I guess that life in modern Egypt hasn’t changed much when it comes to portraying larger than life images, be they pharaohs or presidents.
UPDATE: Since February 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak is no longer the president of the country, after a popular uprising which began on January 25 succeded in toppling him down after 30 years of dictatorship, abuses and corruption. The United States regarded Mubarak as an ally and supported his government to the tune of $1,300 million annually in exchange for keeping a peace treaty with Israel, which receives $1,900 million annually. With some of this subsidy, Egypt was able to develop its economy and a professional middle class with higher purchasing power was forged. However, price increases due to higher demand resulted in a wider gap between the rich and the poor, the latter living on only $2.00 a day. Massive discontent with the neoliberal policies of the government coalesced into massive demonstrations in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, calling for a new political system based on democratic rights and economic reforms.
Islam is the official religion, practiced by 90% of the population, and several national holidays are of Islamic origin. Christianity and Judaism are officially accepted. It’s not up to me as an Egypt visitor to judge the country politics and religious values. Perhaps it would be fair to say that from a Middle Eastern point of view, life in modern Egypt is quite liberal, while from a western perspective there is still some progress to be made in human and civil rights, freedom of the press, opportunities for women, alternative lifestyle issues, etc. I could openly talk politics freely with my tour guide and the driver, especially Arab-Israeli relations.
Life in modern Egypt has changed in the big cities, where public and private transportation, television, American style food, sports, music, arts, cinema and theater are signs of a healthy modern economy. Education in Egypt is free by law, and there is a choice of public and private universities. On the negative side, there’s overpopulation, urban housing problems, pollution and a great gap between the wealthy and the poor. As for the rest of the country, life in modern Egypt for the fellahin is similar to their ancient Egyptian or early Arab settlers ancestors. They inhabit the rural villages along the Nile, living in mud brick houses or goatskin tents, and tilling the soil with the same tools of pharaonic times. These people work their small plots of land and keep livestock. The men wear a long flowing robe called a galabiyah and many women wear the veil. The women also wear silver and gold jewelry, necklaces, and bracelets on their wrists and ankles. This is not vanity, however, but the dowry a husband must pay for the right to marry her. Since Egyptian currency has not much stable value and divorce can be done quickly under Islamic law, women keep jewelry as a form of economic security.
More than 90 percent of Egypt is barren desert. Life in modern Egypt is pretty crowded. Only 3 percent of the total geographic area is populated by almost 80 million Egyptians of ancient Egyptian, Arab, Bedouin and Nubian ancestry. Not many foreigners choose to live in Egypt.
Along the Nile valley, modern Egypt still looks very much like its ancient past, except for the roadways running along the river and some electricity towers and lines scattered here and there. In ancient days, the papyrus plant grew abundantly along the banks of the Nile. Now it’s almost extinct and grown only for the production of souvenirs for the tourism industry.
African animals known to the ancient Egyptians are gone, too, leopards, cheetahs, lions, hyenas to mention a few. Some tour companies include special safari packages for Egypt tourists and travelers interested in the African fauna.
Modern Egypt is really unique, Mediterranean in the north, African to the south, and Middle Eastern in between.
Egyptians are friendly and can be very helpful if you show them the proper respect and behave yourself according to their customs and values. Since tourism is one of Egypt’s prime sources of income, there is a well developed tourist industry focused on the visitor’s satisfaction and desire to return. I remember when I was taken to the Citadel in Cairo to visit the Alabaster Mosque that I opted to not photograph the place as there were worshipers inside. Instead, I sat on the carpeted floor (you have to leave your shoes outside), and listened to my guide as she told me about Islam. Once she finished teaching me the Five Pillars of Islam, she left me by myself and went upstairs where the women pray. Later, she added to my tour a visit to an authentic Egyptian restaurant, so I felt truly rewarded.
On another occasion, in Aswan, the ancient land of Nubia, the tour guide for the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser arrived too late. Behi, my tour driver, went out of his way explaining to me the entire project, the difference electricity and planned systems of irrigation has made to life in modern Egypt, and even gave me details such as yearly megawatt output, etc. Then he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Puerto Rico, I had to explain to him that I came from a tropical island in the Caribbean, close to Cuba, which he knew. The size of Puerto Rico had Behi exclaim that my island would easily fit on Lake Nasser. But then he felt like he may have humbled me (he didn’t), so he added that, being tropical, Puerto Rico might be a luscious and beautiful place, which, by the way, it is.
I can tell you many more instances of moments where I felt a close connection to the people of Egypt. I extended that connection back in time. Behi is very probably a direct descendant of a very ancient Nubian who lived at the time of King Amenhotep III or his son, the famous Akhenaten.
When the tour guide finally arrived and we headed for the Isis Temple at Philae, I kept thinking about the ancient Egyptians and how their lifestyle compares to life in modern Egypt. How would I feel as a visitor then. I concluded that not even 3,000 years can make a difference in hospitality.
Egyptians appreciate and reward your admiration and knowledge of their country so, my advise to you, prepare yourself, learn all about Egypt, its people and their way of life.