Exploring Egyptian Popular Culture

(This article is actually a paper which I wrote in the fall of 2011, for my Psychology and Culture class at Mesa Community College. It is very long, so I have bolded some of the text to enable the viewer to skim through it.)



I have been reading books about Egypt for so many years that it is difficult to remember what my stereotypes were originally. I know I had an intense feeling that too much was a big question mark and I had an absolute burning desire to go and see some of the Middle Eastern countries for real. I suppose the main stereotype was an assumption that Egypt was more like the other Arab countries than it actually was. I had started going to belly dance lessons, and had fallen in love with the music. I read “Guests of the Sheik” and a book about Egyptian dancers.


But the first genuinely Egyptian music I heard was something else all together. Somehow Oum Kulthoum, Abd el Halim Hafez, and the Nubian Ali Hussan Kuban hit me like nothing else I had ever heard. I read the Cairo Trilogy and found out quite a lot. I ordered some movies and was entranced with everything that came from Egypt. And Egypt has never lost that power to enchant me


My first shock was at the Egypt Air gate at JFK International Airport in NYC, when I complimented the woman beside me on the baby she was holding. Immediately she looked very worried and started saying what sounded like prayers in a monotone over the baby! This was my first experience over the fear of the Evil Eye. I learned later that if one said, “Mash’Allah” along with the compliment of someone’s child, the mother would break into a beaming smile.


On the plane, tiny little children, all dressed up, were running up and down the aisles, and the flight attendants (attired beautifully themselves in suits with colored scarves) only smiled and laughed fondly at them, even though they must have been quite in their way. This was my first impression of that famous Egyptian love for children. And any time a child stood up and looked around at the row behind him or her, many of those sitting in that row smiled and said fond things to that child.


My first surprise once in Egypt, was how much laughing and joking I heard in the streets. The waiter pretended to spill coffee on my friend, but “just joking!” The guide and the driver were constantly trading jibes and laughing, and the streets were full of vocal interchange and joking.


Another stereotype I had was that women in Egypt would be shy and retiring! On the contrary, I found that many women in Egypt are feisty, noisy and opinionated. Leila Abu-Lugod, in her study of the Bedoins of Egypt’s northern deserts, was surprised to find that some of the most popular young women in the tribe were those who did not display the values of humility and modesty which had been described to her as becoming a young woman.


Many of the girls from humble backgrounds depicted in Egyptian movies are feisty and quick with the repartee and come-back. This type is called the “Bint al Balad” or “girl of the people”. She sticks up for herself and gives anyone who bothers her the “what for”.


An exacmple is “Dunya” who is one of the women featured in the book, “Khul-Khaal: Five Eyptian Women Tell Their Stories,” by Nayra Atiya. Dunya is sent to buy some food in the market. She comments disparagingly about the price of some vegetables, and the merchant is rude to her. “So I put away my pretense at meekness and lit into him as I know how to do. I said, ‘Who do you think you are, you coward!’ and I took my mangoes and left.” A young man watches the interchange and follows Dunya home and asked for her hand in marriage. She had several such proposals from young men who admired her “spunk”.


My favorite memory of the “Bint Al Balad” type was from a visit to Cairo in 2009 I was standing outside a shop while my friend was trying on dance costumes. I watched a young lady come walking confidently down the small side street, dressed in jeans, a snug thigh-length dress in a wild op-art pattern, and a fetchingly tied scarf. A teenager, she wore little make-up. All the way up and down the street, she greeted the different shop-keepers and staff with lively remarks, and they all called to her. There was nothing sexy in her walk or her attitude, rather, plenty of confidence and wit. (The way she knew everyone, my impression was that her family owned one of the shops in the souq.)


Not that long ago, female circumcision was very common among the lower classes of Egyptian society. The book Khul-Khal was published in the 1980’s, and all of the women interviewed had been circumcised. As part of their wedding ceremony, these women had had their hymen broken by family women, who used a finger wound with gauze, and then the bloody cloth was displayed to all of both families. More than a decade later, I do not know if these practices are still as common.




Egyptian families are in theory patriarchal, though often in practice the women do have a strong voice in family matters. Boys are allowed much freedom, but girls start helping with the household chores at an early age, and may often serve as surrogate mothers for the younger children. Alice, the one middle-class woman interviewed in the book Khul-Khaal, remembers that her brother bought her and her sister a chess-set to amuse themselves, because “We were not allowed to go out.”


It is rare that a man will let himself be seen doing housework. Men are allowed much more freedom to satisfy their desires than women are. The Arab concern for bloodlines, in my opinion, has much to do with this.


Om Gad, another of the women interviewed in Khul-Khaal, says that boys are preferred because women’s lives are so difficult, their purpose is to marry and have children, and their lives are “a trial no matter what”.


In the past, when much of Egypt was rural, the extended family was the most important social unit, and even in the present day in cities this is still true. Here each child found love and also learned how he or she must act, people to fear and to admire, and both emotional and physical support.


When an Egyptian of either sex is of age to marry, the traditional family has strong ideas on whom they should marry. The young man or young woman either went along with the choice or rebelled. The idea of an emotional attachement was not considered. However, in “Veiled Sentiments,” Lila Abu-Ligod found that poems and songs were used as an outlet for emotional feelings, and as such taken very seriously by both the singer/reciter and their listeners.


In the movie Du’aa al-Karawan (Call of the Curlue, 1959) Fatin Hamama plays a young girl whose father dies. She and her sister go to work as servants for rich families, and her sister succumbs to the advances of the engineer she works for. Their uncle murders her because of the shame.


In Egypt, in all classes, the family has a lot to say about who their children socialize with. There are even different words in Arabic for flirting: one means flirting with an approved person, and one means flirting with someone who is not approved by the family.


In a study of lower-income households in Cairo by Ioma Hoodfar (ed. Fernea: 1995) I found much interesting information about child-raising. It was found that babies are commonly fed sugar-water the first few days, because it is believed that the mother’s first milk is too heavy and yellow. Bottles when used are not sterilized, and food may be left uncovered for a day or so, and sometimes fed to the baby without reheating.


Women rarely raise children alone; even if they do not have close relatives handy, a network of neighborhood women friends will help out. If there are maternal relatives they are very close to the child, almost as close as the mother. Hoodfar notes that women put effort into childraising, to the best of their knowledge. If a child gets sick or dies, the mother can be blamed by the entire community.


In this study, it was found that boys are given more purchased foods and milk than girls are. Boys are taken to the doctor more often than girls. Boys get sick more often, and this may be because they eat more sweets, and playing on the streets are exposed to more germs than girls are.


Middle-class Egyptians send their children, both male and female, to school. While in Cairo in January 2011, I rode the Metro and took the women’s car, surrounded by bright, happy young women on their way to school, many of them chattering away about homework. (I got out at the Tahrir Station, a week before the protests began there) and was cheerful helped by several young ladies to find the correct exit for Tahrir Square, not knowing that the protests would take place there only a week later!


In her foreword to the book Khul-Khaal, a collection of narratives of five traditional Egyptian women, Andrea Rugh writes, “Walking the streets of Cairo and eavesdropp0ing on the discussions of passers[by, one gets a sense of what the compelling isues are…marriage, prices, where to find housing, children, illness and death”.

The women interviewed could not divorce unless their husband said, “I divorce you.” Sometimes when they found they did not like their husband, they resorted to acting in a way which they hoped would cause him to divorce them.

In Egyptian society, a person is not truly considered an adult until they have had children.


To quote Andrea Rugh, again in her forward to the same book, “the reader notices immediately that control is not the fully male perogitive that we have often assumed it to be in Arab societies”. In my own personal observation, I have noticed that many Egyptian men have a boyish quality when interacting with their wives.


However, one does see examples of families who are much stricter with their women. When staying at my friend’s apartment in Giza, I noticed that although all the apartments had balconies, hardly anyone every came out on them. I noticed one lady, hanging out her wash, who had a garment more covered than most I would see in Cairo. It had a hood and batwing sleeves, and only her eyes showed, or would have shown if she had not been wearing a very large pair of sunglasses! She hung up her wash and pulled the line which extended across the street. Another time I saw a bearded man, down at street level, put food in a basket, which she drew up to the fifth floor apartment hand by hand.


Islam allows a man to have four wives, but the practice is rare in Egypt, and is almost unheard of among the educated. When it does happen, there seems to be much resentment and problems between the families of the two wives.


While in Egypt, my friend and I went to visit a young women who owned with her husband a photography studio. This woman was the second wife of her husband, and the sons of the first wife had claimed that the studio belonged to them, although it had come into the family from this young woman. So the husband decided to close the studio, to stop the family problems. So this young lady sat idle, missing her photography work because she loved taking photos of people. She showed us some of her work: heavily made up brides and so on. There was a photo of a bride wearing boxing gloves, a joke about her being ready to stand up for her rights in the marriage.


Marriage to first cousins is very common in Egypt. This practice allows the family’s wealth to be consolidated instead of dispersed. Also, the bride gets to stay with those she knows and loves instead of going off to an unknown household. Engagements are very long in Cairo, as housing is so hard to find that it takes years for a couple to save up for an apartment. The young couples one sees who appear to be dating, are actually engaged.


University educated youth do go out in groups, the son of my guide told us. (His favorite is a little place called “Fun Time For You” (in English!). Groups of girls and groups of guys will go to this place and socialize together.


Also, the cell phone and video Skype have raised the ability of the younger generation to socialize together without the girls risking their reputations.


During the British occupation, the Egyptian upper classes adapted many British customs. Palace Walk, the novel by Nobel prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, Kamel from a traditional neighborhood of Cairo falls in love with the sister of one of his university pals, a girl who can never marry him because of their class differences. To quote Mahfouz, “Conspiring against him had been fate, the law of heredity, the class system, Aida, Hasan Salim, and a mysterious, hidden force he was reluctant to name.”




Very important in Egyptian society is the mosque. The sound of the call to prayer is heard in every neighborhood, and the Friday sermon is also broadcast. The Sheikh is on hand to consult and advise the members of the congregation. In my guide’s neighborhood, most of the people have been living there for many years and know eachother. Police rarely are seen, but the people themselves keep an eye on each other and crime is rare. When I visited it was summer, and because of the heat, the street was full of people day and night.

The poor find their niche in the neighborhood. A woman was roasting corn on the street, little children around her. She may have been a widow. The “bawaab” (doorman) and his family lived in the basement, his only pay was having a free place to live, and whatever tips he could make by doing jobs for the residents.




In her book “A Portrait of Egypt” Mary Anne Weaver describes the change she witnessed in Cairo between her student days at the AUC and her return as a reporter in1993. The Khan el Khalili souq had been business as usual in her student days, but now Friday mornings were dominated by huge crowds worshipping in Midan Tahrir, the large square betwen the Mosque of el Hussayn and El Azhar University. When I visited (2002-2007) military trucks circled the worshippers every Friday, as demonstrations had begun happening when the two great mosques let out. By two in the afternoon, everything was back to normal and their were tourists in the adjoining Khan el Khalili souq.




The dress code in Egypt has gone through a change in the last two decades. In 1995, our guide’s wife was still wearing western clothes. But as more and more women in the neighborhood began to wear the headscarf, she began to follow suit.


However, Cairo ”hijab” couldn’t be more different than the all-black uniform of the women in the UAE, where I also visited. One sees bright colors, fitted tunics over pants, trendy mini-dresses worn with pants and skin-tight “sleeves”. But many, many women sowear long black dresses and black veils, often with beautiful embroidery and beaded details. These dresses look to be polyester fabric, and must be stifling in the summer. Last year I noticed that somehow scarves were getting a bouffant look (someone told me that fake flowers are pinned under them).


Many women who come to live in Cairo from the villages find that the reputation of their family is no longer a protection it was in the village. I feel that this is one of the main reasons that the headscarf has caught on in the last decade; when one must pass through streets of unknown men, it is a way of saying, “I am a good Muslim girl.”


Middle class women do not always wear the head-scarf,  but hey are not as visible on the street. I read in an article in Al Ahram english that middle class women, more and more, order groceries delivered and find other ways to avoid the “hoi polloi”.


In “Veiled Sentiments”, Lila Abu-Lugod recorded a hierarchy of veiling. There were certain people whom women drew their veil over their face when meeting, and certain people who “veiled” when meeting them. It was a way of showing that one knew one’s place in the tribe. This custom is no longer used among the urban Egyptians.


Men wear western clothes, the young men trendy jeans and form-fitting euro-style shirts. But one never sees shorts worn by men, and the long “galabeya” is seen regularly on Cairo streets, as many people are just in from the country.



When I visited my guide’s apartment, he disappeared and soon returned, wearing a light, long house shirt. Shoes are left outside the apartment to keep carpets clean.


Egyptians eat a lot of foods with their fingers. I had heard that Arabs eat with only the right hand, but often the left hand is used, not to propell the food up to the mouth, but to help break up the bread or hold the food while the right hand pulls off a piece.


Egyptians greet eachother effusively. The men have a handshake which starts with them swinging their hand way out and so that the two men’s hands come together with joyful force. Kisses are often exchanged by both sexes. Much clapping on the back, or touching one’s own heart, many gestures. Greetings in Egypt follow a formula, for example, “Good morning!” “Morning of light!” “Morning of jasmine!”.



Women who are close whether in friendship or family, also shower eachother with blessings, which sound like a rain of soft caresses. When someone asks you how you are, you always say, “il hamdu lilla”, thanks to God. And one never mentions anything in the future without saying, “insha’Allah” (if God wills it).


Still much feared in Egypt, even among the educated classes, is the Evil Eye. If someone mentions good fortune, the other person is quick to say “My eyes are full” which means they do envy the person with the good fortune. Women gossip a great deal, and people fear “what people say” because it could cause them to suffer the Evil Eye.


Among the lower classes, superstition is still rife in Egypt. There are “wise-women” who are visited instead of visiting doctors. A cure might be to pour chicken blood over an infected wound, or drinking the blood of a freshly slaughtered animal. These folk beliefs put a strangle-hold on behavior, because people are afraid do to anything that might cause jealousy and disapproval from others.  Fear of what others will think is woven into the lower class society.


The “zar” is an occasion where women gather and dance wildly to the beat of hypnotic drums. After leaving the Cafe Daraweesh and walking to our rented car with the guide, I heard thundering drums coming from a dark alley in the Khan el Khalili, a hypnotic beat rumbling up the dark narrow street between high stone buildings. The guide said it was maybe a wedding but it did not sound like a wedding to me. The next day he refered to it again, and said something to the effect of “some people , for religion, …..maybe that is what it was”. I still think it was either a “zar” or a dervish dancing group.


And yet, as I mentioned n my introduction, I mentioned how surprised I was that Egyptians always seemed to be joking and laughing, many of the women as well. An Egyptian told me that a light-hearted, lively person is said to have “light blood” and that this quality is much valued in Egypt. So the love of laughter is a counter-weight to all of the pressures to conform.


In her preface to her book Khul-Khaal, Nyra Atira mentions the “institution of the dowsha. This is a ritual pantomime of aggressive behavior which allows angry people to show off their anger, but then they routinely (with seeming reluctance) allow passers by to separate them, and calm is restored. I have seen this demonstrated in many Egyptian movies but did not know that it had a name.


The local mosque, and the imam or “sheikh” who leads it has a great influence in the community.. In Khul-Khaal, several of the women relate that ways that they behave are according to the lessons which the Sheikh gives on Fridays. When troubled, women are apt to visit the mosque of Zeinab Hussein’s tombs. (Tombs are not supposed to be venerated in Islam, but in practice, at least in Egypt, they are.)


Most of the lower class women marry very early, and the groom is chosen by their family. Families differ as to whether they let the girl (or the boy!) have a say in whom she marries. Middle class women have more of an opportunity to make their own choices.


The “Shabka” is the name given to the gift of gold jewelry from the bridegroom’s family. At the gold souk in Cairo, where almost all of the shops are owned by Copts, I have watched men from all over Egypt bargain for gold bracelets.


The bride’s family usually contributes the furniture. If there is divorce, the bride is supposed to be able to take the furniture and her jewelry with her.


At the wedding festivities there is singing and dancing among the poorer people who may not be able to hire a band. Often women make up their own lyrics, some of them very sad.


I observed several weddings in my visits to Cairo. I saw a bridal procession go down the plank to a big open barge, fitted out like a party room with canopy and lights. The only music were two drummers who were singing, and many of the guests were dressed casually. I also saw a wedding procession go in to a military club, every dressed up, and a brass band playing them in.


And once our guide took us along to a wedding of the daughter of a friend of his, a man who owned a successful shop in the Khan el Khalili souk. What a scene! The wedding was held in the back garden of a large villa, near where Oum Kulthoum used to have her villa. The villa did not seem to be inhabited any more, and the garden was rented out often for weddings, because a high, several platform stage had been built along the back wall.



The band was mostly rhythmic drums and an announcer who shouted out the money that was contributed. The whole large outdoor space was filled with tables, and the tables were filled with men, mostly in country clothes, the long brown shirts that come to the ground, or loose western style clothes, everyone was shouting to their friends and running around talking to eachother as casually clad men with huge trays distrubuted stewed meat, bread, and vegetables to all.



The women, along with the bride and groom (on stiff chairs, like a pair of dressed up dolls) were sitting silently up on a high patio with a sculpted cement fence around it. But our guide’s wife chose to sit with us, because she didn’t know any of the women. The whole evening she was silent and aloof, and Leyla and I took our cue from her. She looked very pretty, in a fitted polyester mini-dress over plants, and a scarf that was turbaned stylishly around her head instead of her usual hijab. Leyla told me that Ahmed had tried to get her to go without a scarf, as she used to do before hijab became so de riguer in Egypt, but she refused.


There was a hush as the dancers, dressed in dressing gowns, sauntered dramatically up through the tables. At first they just sat and smoked, high on the middle tier of the stage. Then when they did dance, one of them was just shaking everything she had with no grace or class. She wore a short mini-skirt and bra. The other one had a long elegant beaded dress, very low neckline, and was a better dancer. One man in country galabeya went up and showered the dancer with bills, and our guide’s wife said something which made her husband and sons laugh uproariously. I asked what it was she said, and Ahmed with a giggle, said, “She said why throw away all that money when he needs new ‘ship-ship'”.


(“Ship-ship” are what the Egyptians call backless sandals, and it was true, tthe man who was throwing all the money over the dancer was wearing a galabeya which had seen better days, and his “ship-ship” were indeed run-down.)


For a funeral, a mourning tent called a “seewan” is erected (in the city this may be in the basement of the apartment building they live in) and the family hires a sheikh to read the Koran, and provides black coffee only, for those coming to pay their respects. A week later the women go to the cemetery with a special bread made for the occasion, and give the bread to the poor in honor of the deceased’s memory.


Besides forgetting to invoke God’s grace whenever you praise something or mention anything in the future, another mistake is to cross your legs so that the soles of your feet are displayed to the person you are with. Aparently Cheney didn’t know this when he met with Mubarak, he crossed his legs casually and the bottom of his foot was pointed right at Hosni Mubarak! Shoes are also used for revenge, such as the one thrown at George W. Bush in Iraq. Women whose honor has been maligned sometimes go and beat the insulting perso n with their shoe.


The dress code in Egypt has gone through a change in the last two decades. In 1995, our guide’s wife was still wearing western clothes. But as more and more women in the neighborhood began to wear the headscarf, she began to follow suit.


Egyptians eat a lot of foods with their fingers. I had heard that Arabs eat with only the right hand, but often the left hand is used, not to propell the food up to the mouth, but to help break up the bread or hold the food while the right hand pulls off a piece.




During my visit to Cairo this January, I paid a visit to the new Islamic Art Museum. The museum had been closed for renovations for around a decade. There wasn’t much parking, so my guide’s son Kareem dropped me off near the entrance. Glancing back at where he thought parking would be, I caught a glimpse of gleaming black luxury cars and chauffeurs scrambling.


The museum was very impressive, and also impressive were the crowd people who were visiting it. The whole atmosphere of them was that magical aura of wealth and privilege.…fur coats, coiffed hair, expensive suits. Government VIP’s…. I felt this with as much certainty as if they had each had it stamped on him or her. I kept a distance behind them, while they viewed one gallery, chatting the whole time to eachother, I stayed in the one they had just visited.


I wonder if those people still have their privileged position now?


On Tuesday, January 24th, which is “Police Day” in Egypt, the protests began. The young professionals who led the movement used Facebook as a way of communicating that would happen. David Kirkpatrick in a New York Times article a couple of weeks later “exploiting the anonymity of the Internet to elude the secret police, planting false rumors to fool police spies, staging “field tests” in Cairo slums before laying out their battle plans” . According to a Frontline program on PBS, Islamists who took part in the protests were enjoined not to use religious slogans on signs or chants, because of the way it would look to the world.


(The Muslim Brotherhood played a large role in support of the sustenance and first aid of the protest.)


On the 4th of February, Mubarak supporters retaliated with violence, but the leaders kept their protests largely peaceful, and attempted to forge a bond with soldiers who were sent to keep order. U.S. President Obama demanded that change in Egypt come quickly. We will never know what John McCain’s reaction would have been, had he won the presidency.


Two weeks after the protests began in Egypt, the New York Times ran an article by the same reporter, saying that the Egyptian Army had pledged a six-month interim government. However, although this announcement was made in a meeting with the youth leaders of the uprising, non of the protest leaders will be given a part in this government.


The military is likely to have a great stake in the status-quo. In Egypt, the military runs many businesses, pays no taxes on these businesses, and is able to use conscripted labor for some of the manpower, claimed David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahm in a February 3rd article.


February 12 the front page headline of the New York Times was “Mubarak Out” and in a sub-heading, “The military takes over.” An article by David Sanger in the same issue noted that while Obama congratulated the youth leaders who brought Mubarak down, both Israel and Saudi Arabia chastized him for abandoning a long-time ally.


An article in the same paper on February 16 noted that the world wide tech community was shocked at the ability of the Egyptian government to disconnect the country from the internet, even for five days. To quote James Glanz and John Markoff, the writers of the article, “the world’s renouned network and telecommunications engineers have been preplexed that the Mubarak government succeeded in pulling the maneuver off.”


Saturday, March 19th, almost two months after the protests started, Egyptians went to the polls to vote in a referendum to decide constitutional ammendments. A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood remarked that in previous elections he had not even been allowed in the polls. It was the first time that Muslim Brotherhood candidates had openly been allowed to campaign.


People in the west hear the name “Muslim Brotherhood” with fear, but this organization is actually the moderate among the Islamist groups. Its views are very in sync with those of the majority of the Egyptian people, I believe.


My friend Leyla visits Cairo every year, and lives in rented apartment in her guide’s neighborhood, a popular neighborhood.  She went this summer as she always does, and she reported that she still felt safe in Cairo.  People go out in groups rather than alone, and women don’t wear their jewelry out after dark or stay out as late as they did previously.  But all in all, Cairo is still much the same. Since Mubarak is gone, people feel much freer to say what they feel. It is a city I love and I do hope that I will be able to continue to visit there, as Egypt has a special place in my heart.