Characteristics of Egyptian Culture

Subject: History
Type: Descriptive Essay
Pages: 9
Word count: 2509
Topics: Ancient Egypt, Symbolism, Tradition
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Introduction

The history of the Egyptian people goes back thousands of years to the times of Pharaohs. Some of the prehistoric traditions are present in modern Egypt; however, the society has evolved significantly due to interactions with other Arab people. In spite of the country’s contact with ancient civilizations, Egypt is emphatically classified as belonging to a cultural and social tradition that resembles Arab and Islamic traditions. These traditions determine how the Egyptian people interact and view the world and themselves (COMMISCEO GLOBAL, 2017).

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The narrative of the cultural evolution of contemporary Egypt is quintessential in response to the intrusion of the traditional system by initially various conquests, and then by the penetration of concepts from the alien West. The response was in a broad spectrum with some dismissal of the new ideas and returning to traditionalists which involved self-examination, and some reforms that encompassed the assimilation of the new ideas and values. It resulted in a cultural identity that is characteristic of assimilation of new ideas but still keeping the distinct ‘Egyptianess’. This process is evident in all branches of modern Egyptian culture. Therefore, this paper will try to cover the distinct traits that evidence the Egyptian people. It will cover characteristics of class, gender, race, civilization, language use, communication, among others.

Characteristics of Egyptian Culture

The population density of the country is such that it is manifested by people living everywhere, even in the countryside. The fellahin troop in the early mornings and late afternoon with their farm animals. Men with djellabas till the land during the day with ancient instruments with the occasional modern tractor. Women and children, dressed in long black robes, on the other hand, also assist with less demanding tasks (Imperial War Museum, 2017). In other parts of the countryside, women who are older than 16 work only in the household with no fieldwork. They rarely appear in public, and when they do, they are adorned with a hijab. Children are seen everywhere, a reminder of the country’s high birth rate (Cultural Atlas, 2017). In the city, lifestyle is different from that of the countryside, and it is more akin to the urban centers of the world. Even though, modesty in dress is still maintained in urban areas with women still being expected to cover themselves with a hijab. The urban tastes in literature, cuisine, and art have been infused with a Western feel similar to the urban center’s values and manners (Cultural Atlas, 2017).

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The family is the most crucial link in the Egyptian social chain. In the rural areas, particularly in the desert and Upper Egypt portions, the people there strongly identify with their tribes and blood relationships. These areas have a weak government presence, and many still practice the cultural concept of the vendetta. In urban areas, such tribal affiliations have dissipated. But in state bureaucracy and business dealings, there is an exhibition of patronage systems where local urban families are linked to other friends and relatives.

The influence of foreign taste in cuisine is mostly from Mediterranean countries like Levant, Turkey, and Greece. Most of the urban foods are heavily borrowed from other European cultures. Rural food consists of dishes such as the ful medames which is beans and spices served with a side dish of bread—it is considered a national delicacy. Other dishes include a thick soup referred to as the mulukhiyah, which is served with fowl or other meat and meatballs known as the kufteh. Most common breads are the aysh shami, which is Syrian bread and aysh baladi, which is the native bread (Cultural Atlas, 2017). Due to the nations riverine culture, fish are widespread but are not a common part of the diet. Similar to other Middle Eastern countries, the most consumed type of meat is the mutton. Chicken is ubiquitous, and pigeon is in high demand. Desserts are also a common dish in Egypt, and most of them have been adapted from Turkish cuisine manifested by the regular utilization of paper thin phyllo pastry. The country’s native fruits, dates and figs, are found in almost all desserts and puddings, and honey is the most used sweetener. Alcoholic drinks are proscribed under Muslim law; however, there are locally brewed drinks while others are imported. Other popular refreshments are tea and coffee. Egypt does have a couple of religious and secular holidays. Secular celebrations include the international Labor Day, Armed Forces Day and the Revolution Day. Religious days are marked on Idd-al-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha, Mawlid and Coptic Christmas (Cultural Atlas, 2017).

An individual’s social class and area of origin are vital determinants for instructing how they interact with other people. The social class unto which an Egyptian is born to determine many details of how they live their daily lives and their access to opportunities. The social status is dictated by an individual’s family reputation and background rather than their wealth. This makes social mobility hard. A marker that is utilized distinguish social classes is the university attended. The Egyptian people value education highly and families’ investment tremendous sums of money for their children’s education regardless of their income. If one attains a high level of education, then there is a greater probability of social mobility. Additionally, there is added benefit if an individual can speak fluent English or French. It is considered a sign that one belongs to the upper social class and is highly educated (Global Affairs Canada, 2017).

Nonetheless, the rigid social class has evolved in recent years. New avenues of digital media such as social media platforms have become critical in disseminating and expressing Egyptian culture. The country has a very low literacy rate, and social media has assisted in making popular culture and the arts increasingly available. The internet too has been fundamental in increasing access to information which was previously controlled by government censorship. This new avenue that increased access to alternative ideas induced many Egyptians to criticize the status quo—which is key factor behind the Egyptian Revolution.

In regards to ethnicity and identity, Egypt is a homogenous society, and more than 99% of the population is ethnically Egyptian. The homogeneity of the ethnic groups is as a result of admixture of the indigenous population and those of Arab descent. In the urban areas, there are immigrants and foreign invaders mainly the Romans, Persians, Turks, Greeks, Crusaders and Circassians. Most of the physical characteristics of the Egyptian people is a lighter complexion, blue eyes and blonde or red hair. These are mostly found in the urban areas more than the rural zone. Most of the people in Egypt recognize themselves as Muslim albeit with some variants. Majority of the Muslims belong to the Sunni sub-group. The values and traditions of Islam have a heavy influence on the identity of the people. This is mainly because of Islam’s longstanding position and presence in the Egyptian culture (Youssef & Haikal, 2003). Conceivably the most notable unifying aspect of the Egyptian people is the language. Most of them speak in the Egyptian Arabic dialect. Even with this unifying factor, there is still significant diversity in the Arabian dialect, so much so that various natives are unable to comprehend what others are speaking (Youssef & Haikal, 2003).

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The revolution in Egypt highlighted the ethnic and cultural identity questions as regards Egypt’s status within the larger Arab community. Egypt is a significant partner in the Arab world as the Arab league is headquartered in Cairo. In fact, Egypt is the leading literary center of the Arab world creating many modern Arabic literature’s prominent writers. There is a raging modern debate in Egypt trying to determine if there is a stronger affinity to being either Arab or Egyptian on both the national and individual level. This puts the forefront the concept that Arabian culture and Egyptian culture are not synonymous (Abul-Magd, 2012).

Egyptian cultural values are preserved across all class distinctions and geographic locations. Egyptians abide by the central concept of Sharaf, that is honor, which controls and directs their behavior and influences how they interact. The concept of Sharaf is intertwined with that of Karama, that is personal dignity. Since the conception of the Egyptian community a man’s honor was determined by how well they protect their women. However, such customs linked to honorable behavior that is derived from patriarchal responsibility are only prevalent in rural areas (Global Affairs Canada, 2017). In contemporary Egypt, honor is exhibited by an individual’s respect for the Egyptian universal values such as hospitality, loyalty, and modesty. For instance, an individual’s dress code, hospitality towards others, the way they relate to people in authority and the elderly, and how they carry and present themselves reflects their dignity and honor (Darwish & Huber, 2003). Being helpful, charitable and generous exhibits status and pride. Moreover, all people are expected to be a person of their word and loyal to family. The Egyptian society is normally described as collectivist, and this means that the needs of the community take precedence over personal ones (Darwish & Huber, 2003). The honor of an individual is intertwined with the reputation of family; consequently, the protection of honor is accepted in terms of collective rather than individual (Global Affairs Canada, 2017).

Communication in Egypt takes various forms: both verbal and non-verbal. Egyptians verbal communication styles are characterized by their expressive and passionate nature. They are often seen as verbose and evocative as they converse using jokes and wordplay. They apply humor and appreciate conversation partners that recognize it. Moreover, they display emotions openly, either related to grief or happiness. Nonetheless, public display of anger is shunned upon. Egyptians are also known for their use of indirect communication. They rarely decline an offer directly as they seek not to offend their conversation partner (Husain & McMullen, 2010).

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The non-verbal cues expressed by Egyptians include physical contact. However, this depends on the relationship between the conversation partners. Close family and friends will have more physical contact while acquaintances refrain from touching. The gender of people interacting also determines certain norms and expectations. For example, good friends are allowed to hold hands or even kiss (Husain & McMullen, 2010). Conversely, individuals of the opposite gender are not allowed to have public displays of affection, but the only exception is married couples. Personal space is also a critical factor in Egyptian communication. Conversing individuals usually maintain an arm’s length with variances depending on gender. In regards to gestures, Egyptians point with their index fingers and to tell someone to wait, and they usually hold their thumb with four fingers with the palm facing inwards. Eye contact is acceptable in most instances, and it is regarded as a manifestation of respect, honesty and sincerity. However, sustained eye contact between opposite genders is not encouraged (COMMISCEO GLOBAL, 2017)..

The visual and written culture of Egypt has developed over many centuries. It was based on a complicated system of symbols. These symbols were used to reflect religious mythical symbolism and were common in everyday life. The symbols applied to both elite and non-elite alike; however, the no-elite found it more difficult to decode or much less understand the meaning of such symbols (Luiselli, 2011). The ancient Egyptian communication culture, similar to the modern time, developed to encompass preservation, encoding and communication (Youssef & Haikal, 2003). Today’s Egyptian media, although privately owned, are still supervised by government as was the case in Pharaonic time. Presently, the newspapers are printed in the common Arabic language, but there are some that are in French and English. The radio and television companies are owned by the government, and they offer content in a variety of languages.

In contemporary Egyptian society gender is still a factor that determines status. Men and women do not share the same status. This is evident in the dress code, education level, freedom of movement, work opportunities, among others. In certain areas of upper Egypt, they still hold some very conservative milieus. In the city of Cairo, there is increased open-mindedness in regards to women. But it is still considered dangerous for women to venture out alone in the night and are mostly persuaded to stay indoors. The younger female generation quit their jobs once they are betrothed. In cities, women are a common feature at the workplace but mostly within subordinate positions with lower pay and instances of exploitation. With a contracting job market, most of the women are encouraged to stay home and care for their families. However, at home the woman is fundamental in determining where the children will study, food to be consumed, clothes to be worn and the overall management of the home. Even with a diminished status in comparison to men, the women with a high level of education occupy powerful positions particularly in government and professions like doctors, television personalities and engineers (El-Safty, 2004).

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Conclusion

Egyptian culture is distinct on various fronts. Gender status is similar to that practiced in most Arab Nations with the man having a higher society standing as compared to the woman. However, with increased education among women there has been some realignment of status in society albeit not enough. Moreover, the society has evolved in how it communicates from complex imagery during the Pharaonic period to a more complex communication that is influenced by both western and Islamic cultures. Nonetheless, there is a mix of languages spoken in Egyptian society but the most dominant is the Egyptian Arabian dialect.

Egypt is a country with a rich heritage and a long standing cultural evolution. It’s culture, although intertwined with western influence, is unique in terms of language, dressing and modes of communication. The culture of Egypt is heavily reliant on Islamic law, however, in the cities there is increased open-mindedness. The younger generation is more adept to western ways due to the proliferation of the internet and its new modes of communication. The increased influence of western culture can be seen in its night life, women living in the cities and immigrants. Even with all these considerations Egyptians are still confounded in whether they should relate to the Arabian culture or the Egyptian culture.

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  1. Abul-Magd, Z. (2012). Occupying Tahrir Square: The Myths and the Realities of the Egyptian Revolution. South Atlantic Quarterly111(3), 565-572.
  2. COMMISCEO GLOBAL. (2017). Egypt – Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette.
  3. Cultural Atlas. (2017). Egyptian Culture.
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  6. Global Affairs Canada. (2017). Cultural Information – EgyptGovernment of Canada.
  7. Husain, M., & McMullen, M. (2010). American and Egyptian culture: a brief comparison. Journal of Islamic Law and Culture12(2), 114-130.
  8. Imperial War Museum. (2017). Land and People: Two – The Fellahin of Egypt (Art.IWM PST 16940).
  9. Luiselli, M. (2011). Writing – Image – Material: On Media and Communication in Ancient Egypt – University of Birmingham.
  10. Youssef, A., & Haikal, F. (2003). From Pharaoh’s Lips: Ancient Egyptian Language in the Arabic of Today. (pp. 1-18). Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
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