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Egyptian Life, NOW and Then

Before coming to Egypt, I tried to read some about the country and its history. The newspapers talked of Hosni Mubarak, the current president. The history books teach about past presidents, kings, and pharaohs. But what about the rest of the people? There must be women and children, butchers and bakers, teachers and students, doctors and peasants and, well, everyone!

Hosni Mucarak
Hosni Mubarak, the current President of Egypt, has been in power since 1981, and was recently elected to his fourth term, with no opposition. Click on the photo for more information about him.

With around 65 million people, Egypt has the second highest population of any African country, after Nigeria. No one knows how many people live in this huge city of Cairo, but it is estimated at over 20 million. I'm told it's the largest urban center in all of Africa and the Arab world! Egyptians fondly refer to Cairo as the "Mother of the World." With Egypt's current growth rate of over 2% a year, (which would mean adding almost one and a half million Egyptian babies to the planet this year alone), that nickname isn't far off!

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Children play on the ancient mastabas, or tombstones, in Abu Sir.
To me, Cairo seems to sprawl out forever! I keep getting hopelessly lost in the never-ending streets and the sea of faces. Cairo has high-rise apartments and hotels, fancy cars, and all the things you expect to see in a modern city-even Pizza Hut and Benetton! There are 62 slums and squatter settlements, along with the suburbs, that have all grown together, as people flock from the countryside looking for work. From the central square, called Midan Tahrir, I can hop on the metro and go in any direction for half an hour, and still be in the city! Even the old graveyards, with their mausoleum tombs, are used as homes by squatters. Can you imagine? Maybe they use the coffin as a coffee table! One day, I'll go visit and meet the people who live there!

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During rush hour, the Metro is PACKED!  The front cars are reserved for women only, which is nice when you're packed in like sardines!
So here I am in the streets of Cairo, determined to meet real Egyptians. At first I was worried, because I speak no Arabic. But, the fact is that people really want to meet me, too. Egyptians, above all else, are really friendly! Take Mona and Wafaa, for example, whom Monica and I met the first week here (see her dispatch). Even though we can't communicate much verbally, we have fun pantomiming, drawing pictures, and laughing at ourselves doing it!

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Making friends in Egypt is easy!  Mona and Wafaa found us!
Mostly, though, we meet men on the street. For one thing, it is more common for men to speak English than women. They are also more likely to be outside, as women tend to work in the home. Of course the men are, shall we say, "interested" in meeting young single women, particularly "exotic," western women like ourselves. As I walk down the street, I constantly hear "Hello! Welcome in Egypt! Where from?" being called after me. Although all the male attention can be annoying at times, the Egyptian men are polite and mostly harmless. And without their help I would have been hopelessly lost a million times in the Cairo labyrinth.

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Egyptians love children, and half the population of the country is under 18 years old! Bright, beautiful faces of children smile and stare at me. Occasionally they practice their English, "Hello! What is your name?" All of the public schools in Egypt are free, and children are required to attend school up until the 9th grade. Unfortunately, attending school doesn't necessarily mean a student will learn to read and write. Since the population has grown so large, so quickly, there's a great shortage of teachers, and classrooms are overcrowded.

Vocabulary Box

Sprawl - to spread out in an irregular pattern.
Squatter - a person who settles in a place that he or she does not own.
Pantomime - to express yourself by acting things out.
Western - from the industrialized part of the world consisting of Western Europe and North America, collectively known as "the West."
Labyrinth - maze
Replica - a copy

Even though Egypt is in Africa, it is more closely related to the Middle East and the other countries of Northern Africa like Morocco (you can check out our dispatches from there), Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Most Egyptians are Muslims, with about 13% who are Christians. No one worships the ancient gods and goddesses anymore. The dominant language is now Arabic, as well. Hieroglyphs are only used on things made for tourists!

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"Hello! Hello!" is the only English they know, but we communicate with most Egyptian children through smiles and laughter.
Egypt blends the ancient, the old, and the new-sometimes gracefully, and sometimes forcefully. A replica of King Tut's golden mask stares out of the window of a high rise apartment building, donkey carts clatter down the streets, making the already congested traffic go around, and the Islamic call to prayer rings out over the sound of honking horns and radios blaring. Men sit in cafes smoking tobacco out of water pipes called shishas, a halo of smoke above their head, which rises into the haze of car exhaust and smog. Yet, traveling outside of Cairo along the Nile, the fellahin, or peasant farmers, live much in the same way as the ancient Egyptians depicted in the ancient tombs. The Egyptians make up such a complex modern society that it would take a lifetime for me to even begin to know it, and we've only got six weeks!

There are three major ethnic groups that make up modern Egyptians: the Berbers, the Arabs and the Nubians.

The Berbers are descendents of the ancient pharaohs, and are related to the native peoples in all of Northern Africa. We met them in Morocco, too. The Egyptian Berbers are classified as "Hamito-Semetic" people-having roots in common with Jews and Arabs (Semites) as well. Today, very few Berbers have maintained their racial and cultural separateness. I hope to visit the Siwa oasis in the Western desert near Libya to meet Berbers who still maintain their traditions.

In Egypt's long, long, LONG history, many other groups have conquered the area. Between 332 BC and 1952 AD Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mamluks, Turks, and the British have taken turns controlling this country. Each group left its mark culturally and genetically. The Arabs, in particular, settled in Egypt, bringing with them their religion, their language, and their culture. Egypt is usually considered an Arab country today. The Bedouin nomads of the Sinai Peninsula and the Western Desert are the people who have maintained the traditional ways of the Arabians who first came to Egypt. With water becoming more and more scarce, and money more important than camels, the nomads are being forced to settle down.

The Nubians, who originally came from the far South of Egypt near Aswan and Northern Sudan, have been around since Pharaonic and Biblical times, too. They used to be known as the Cush people. They have darker skin than Berbers or Arabs, and their own distinct culture based in trade, agriculture and fishing. At times they resisted Pharaonic rule, and at times Nubians were themselves the Pharaohs. In 1971, the Aswan dam was built, flooding the Nubians' traditional territory in Egypt, and forcing them to resettle in cities or move to the Sudan.


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Jasmine - Valley of the Dead
Abeja - Egyptian Life, THEN and Now
Monica - Sharing Food, Sharing Voices: Girls of the World Unite!
Kavitha - Stay Tuned for More Egyptian Dynasty
Monica - I'm M.A.D. about the Acropolis
Making a Difference - Just Do It...or forever hold your peace!

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