From The Hippo’s Ears: Egypt
Written by Quintin Coetzee
Facts you may not have know about Egypt:
Egypt ( مِصر Miṣr), officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a transcontinental country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip (Palestine) and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.
Egypt is a unitary semi-presidential republic, and gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922.
1. When you first meet someone, how do you greet them?
Handshakes are the customary greeting. First names tend not to be used unless one has been invited to do so. The common form of address is the use of titles (e.g. Mr, Mrs, Dr, etc.) along with one’s first name or surname depending on the relationship. A common phrase that accompanies a greeting is ‘salaam aleikum’ (‘may peace be with you’), which should be replied to with ‘waaleikum us salam’ (‘may peace be with you also’). However, the exact phrase varies by town/city and dialect. For example, in some areas it is more common to say ‘Sbaa’ el Kher’ (good morning) and ‘Masaa’ el Kher’ (good evening).
2. What languages are spoken in the country?
The official language of the Republic is Arabic. The spoken languages are: Egyptian Arabic (68%), Sa’idi Arabic (29%), Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic (1.6%), Sudanese Arabic (0.6%), Domari (0.3%), Nobiin (0.3%), Beja (0.1%), Siwi and others. Additionally, Greek, Armenian and Italian, and more recently, African languages like Amharic and Tigrigna are the main languages of immigrants.
The main foreign languages taught in schools, by order of popularity, are English, French, German and Italian.
Historically Egyptian was spoken, of which the latest stage is Coptic Egyptian. Spoken Coptic was mostly extinct by the 17th century but may have survived in isolated pockets in Upper Egypt as late as the 19th century.
3. Do you use a twelve hour clock, or a twenty-four hour clock?
We use a 24-hour system.
4. What side of the road do people drive on? What do we need to know about driving in the country?
We drive on the right side of road.
5. How important is punctuality?
Punctuality for meetings is important, however, meetings often begin late due to those in attendance initially catching up on a personal level.
6. Which types of music are popular? Who are some of the most popular musicians?
Egyptian music is a rich mixture of indigenous, Mediterranean, African and Western elements. It has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. Contemporary Egyptian music traces its beginnings to the creative work of people such as Abdu al-Hamuli, Almaz and Mahmoud Osman, who influenced the later work of Sayed Darwish, Umm Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez whose age is considered the golden age of music in Egypt and the whole Arab world. Prominent contemporary Egyptian pop singers include Amr Diab and Mohamed Mounir.
As early as 4000 BC, ancient Egyptians were playing harps and flutes, as well as two indigenous instruments: the ney and the oud. However, there is a little notation of Egyptian music before the 7th century AD, when Egypt became part of the Muslim world. Percussion and vocal music became important at this time and has remained an important part of Egyptian music today. From the 1970s onwards, Egyptian pop music has become increasingly important in Egyptian culture, particularly among the large youth population of Egypt. Egyptian folk music is also popular, played during weddings and other festivities. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Egyptian music was a way to communicate social and class issues. The most popular Egyptian pop singers are Amr Diab, Tamer Hosny, Mohamed Mounir and Ali El Haggar. One of the most respected early electronic music composers, Halim El-Dabh, is an Egyptian.
For a taste of Egyptian pop music, listen to Mohamed Mounir.
7. Are there any Traditional Dances?
Folkloric dance in Egypt is divided regionally into the dance from the Delta (fellahi), the Upper Delta (Saidi), the coastal area (Sawahili), Sinai (Bedouin), and the Nubian area. These dances not only survive locally but are also preserved by the Reda Group for Folkloric Dance, which was established by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy in the 1960s, and the National Troupe for Folkloric Arts, which performs these dances nationally and internationally.
Egypt also has a longstanding tradition of belly dancing. Believed to have originated as a fertility dance performed by priestesses in Pharaonic times, it exists today in two main forms, as a folk dance (raqs baladi), performed by women at parties and weddings, and as a form of entertainment by professional dancers (raqs sharqi).
With the advent of cinema, in the early 20th century, the film industry made icons of belly dancers. The late Tahiya Karioka and Samia Gamal and the now retired Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad are probably the most celebrated belly dancers of Egypt. Other more recently famous belly dancers are Fifi Abdou and Lucy, both now retired as well. The ruling queen of Egyptian belly dance is Dina Talaat.
Watch traditional Egyptian belly dancing here.
8. What traditional Festivals are celebrated in the country?
Abu Simbel Sun Festival
Abu Simbel is one of the premier antiquities in all of Egypt, and twice a year (this festival is also held on 22 October) you can see the sun god statues of the inner sanctuary, normally shrouded in darkness, illuminated by a beam of sunlight. Locals celebrate with traditional Nubian dance, street food (save stomach space for some fresh koshari) and live music outside the temple.
This Islamic holy month of daytime fasting (and evening feasting) is observed throughout Egypt. If you travel during this period, the dates of which change every year, you’ll find locals more subdued and streets quiet during the daytime when folks are fasting. It’s also possible that some historical sites will operate on limited hours. Travellers are not expected to observe the fast, but drinking, smoking and scoffing down street food in public during the daylight hours is frowned upon. Whether or not you enjoy travelling in Egypt during Ramadan will depend on your reasons for travel. If you’re interested in local customs and traditions, then you may find it enriching. If you would rather be able to see things as quickly and efficiently as possible, this may not be the best month for you to travel to Egypt.
Sandbox Music Festival
For three days in June (dates change annually), Egypt’s young and hip descend on El Gouna for an outdoor music festival that takes place right on the beach. House, techno and dance music DJs draw revellers that party well into the night. Travellers who want to immerse themselves in young and contemporary Egyptian culture (or just love dancing) will get a kick out of this beachside fest.
9. What is the weather like?
Egypt has an unusually hot, sunny and dry climate. Average high temperatures are high in the north but very to extremely high in the rest of the country during summer. The cooler Mediterranean winds consistently blow over the northern sea coast, which helps to get more moderated temperatures, especially at the height of the summertime. The Khamaseen is a hot, dry wind that originates from the vast deserts in the south and blows in the spring or in the early summer. It brings scorching sand and dust particles, and usually brings daytime temperatures over 40 °C (104 °F) and sometimes over 50 °C (122 °F) in the interior, while the relative humidity can drop to 5% or even less. The absolute highest temperatures in Egypt occur when the Khamaseen blows.
Most of Egypt’s rain falls in the winter months. South of Cairo, rainfall averages only around 2 to 5 mm (0.1 to 0.2 in) per year and at intervals of many years. On a very thin strip of the northern coast the rainfall can be as high as 410 mm (16.1 in), mostly between October and March. Snow falls on Sinai’s mountains and some of the north coastal cities such as Damietta, Baltim and Sidi Barrani, and rarely in Alexandria. A very small amount of snow fell on Cairo on 13 December 2013, the first time in many decades.
10. What are some interesting facts about the President?
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the sixth and current President of Egypt (since 2014), former Director of Military Intelligence, former Minister of Defence, and former General. Starting 10 February 2019, Sisi also began serving a one-year term as Chairperson of the African Union, which concluded in 2020.
Sisi was born in Cairo and after joining the military, held a post in Saudi Arabia before enrolling in the Egyptian Army’s Command and Staff College. As Minister of Defence, and ultimately Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Sisi was involved in the military coup that removed Morsi from office on 3 July 2013, in response to June 2013 Egyptian protests, called a revolution by its proponents. He dissolved the Egyptian Constitution of 2012 and proposed, along with leading opposition and religious figures, a new political road map, which included the voting for a new constitution, and new parliamentary and presidential elections.
He is married to Entissar Amer and has 4 children.
11. What are the country’s major industries?
Egypt’s economy depends mainly on agriculture, media, petroleum imports, natural gas, and tourism. Egypt has received United States foreign aid since 1979 (an average of $2.2 billion per year) and is the third-largest recipient of such funds from the United States.
Egypt has a developed energy market based on coal, oil, natural gas, and hydro power. Substantial coal deposits in the northeast Sinai are mined at the rate of about 600,000 tonnes (590,000 long tons; 660,000 short tons) per year. Oil and gas are produced in the western desert regions, the Gulf of Suez, and the Nile Delta. Egypt has huge reserves of gas, estimated at 2,180 cubic kilometres (520 cu mi), and LNG up to 2012 exported to many countries.
The Egyptian tourism industry is one of the most important sectors in the economy, in terms of high employment and incoming foreign currency. It has many constituents of tourism, mainly historical attractions especially in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, but also beach and other sea activities. The government actively promotes foreign tourism since it is a major source of currency and investment.
12. What are some of the things visitors can look forward to experiencing?
Major tourist attractions include visiting Giza Necropolis (the Great Pyramids and Sphinx); Valley of the Kings; the Egyptian Museum; Karnak ruins; Luxor Temple; Abu Simbel Temples; and Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
13. What is a popular local drink?
Tea (شاى, shai) is the national drink in Egypt, followed only distantly by coffee, prepared using the Turkish method. Egyptian tea is uniformly black and sour and is generally served in a glass, sometimes with milk. Tea packed and sold in Egypt is almost exclusively imported from Kenya and Sri Lanka. Egyptian tea comes in two varieties, kushari and sa‘idi.
Kushari tea (شاى كشرى), popular in Lower Egypt, is prepared using the traditional method of steeping black tea in boiled water and letting it sit for a few minutes. It is almost always sweetened with cane sugar and often flavored with fresh mint leaves. Kushari tea is usually light in color and flavor, with less than a half teaspoonful of tea per cup considered to be near the high end.
Sa‘idi tea (شاى صعيدى) is common in Upper Egypt. It is prepared by boiling black tea with water for as long as five minutes over a strong flame. Sa‘idi tea is extremely strong and dark (“heavy” in Egyptian parlance), with two teaspoonfuls of tea per cup being the norm. It is sweetened with copious amounts of cane sugar (a necessity since the formula and method yield a very bitter tea). Sa‘idi tea is often black even in liquid form.
14. What is a popular local dish?
Egyptian cuisine is notably conducive to vegetarian diets, as it relies heavily on legume and vegetable dishes. Although food in Alexandria and the coast of Egypt tends to use a great deal of fish and other seafood, for the most part Egyptian cuisine is based on foods that grow out of the ground. Meat has been very expensive for most Egyptians throughout history, so a great number of vegetarian dishes have been developed.
Some consider kushari (a mixture of rice, lentils, and macaroni) to be the national dish. Fried onions can be also added to kushari. In addition, ful medames (mashed fava beans) is one of the most popular dishes. Fava bean is also used in making falafel (also known as “ta‘miya”), which may have originated in Egypt and spread to other parts of the Middle East. Garlic fried with coriander is added to molokhiya, a popular green soup made from finely chopped jute leaves, sometimes with chicken.
15. What do you pay, on average, for the following?
Egypt uses the Egyptian Pound (EGP). (1 USD = approximately 16 EGP).
3-course meal at a mid-range restaurant: 150 EGP
Cappuccino: 27 EGP
Water (350 ml): 3.50 EGP
Milk (1 l): 14 EGP
Loaf of white bread: 9 EGP
Apples (1 kg): 24 EGP
16. Any general safety tips?
- Travel to the Governorate of North Sinai is advised against.
- All but essential travel to the Governorate of South Sinai, except the area within the Sharm el Sheikh perimeter barrier, which includes the airport and the areas of Sharm el Maya, Hadaba, Naama Bay, Sharks Bay and Nabq is advised against. The same applies to the area west of the Nile Valley and Nile Delta regions, excluding the coastal areas between the Nile Delta and Marsa Matruh (as shown on the map).
- Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt. There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against certain foreign nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. There remains a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation in Egypt.
- You should follow the advice of Egyptian authorities, remaining particularly vigilant and maintaining a high level of security awareness in crowded places and at large gatherings.
- Obtain comprehensive medical insurance that includes medical evacuation.
17. In conclusion, famous (and sometimes infamous) people from the country include:
- Tutankhamun. The Egyptian Pharaoh owned all of Egypt’s wealth. His elaborate tomb displayed an array of riches, including his coffin being lined with sheet gold. The gold weighed 110.4 kg.
- Rameses II. Known as Ramesses the Great, he is considered the greatest Egyptian Pharoah of the New Kingdom. He reigned for over 30 years, building cities, temples, and monuments and then expanding the control of Egypt into Canaan and Nubia.
- Cleopatra. The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra sought to defend Egypt from the expanding Roman Empire. In doing so, she formed relationships with two of Rome’s most powerful leaders, Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar.
- Gamal Abdel Nasser. Second President of Egypt (1956). Nasser’s Presidency had a significant influence on Egypt and world politics. He renationalised the Suez canal and was popular throughout the Arab world.
- Omar Shariff. An Egyptian actor who began his career in Egypt before becoming a star on the global stage. He starred in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) He won three Golden Globe Awards.
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