Egypt

Cultural Information

Answers to your intercultural questions from a Canadian and a local point of view.

Cultural Information - Conversations

Question: I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?

Local Perspective:

The following is not a prioritized list, but mainly suggestions to be used as seen fit and according to the time, place and people you are with. They are all safe topics that would not offend and that are dear to Egyptians. However, make sure that you stay away from political opinions and stick to general human values.

Cultural topics like music, authors etc. are great conversational topics. Make sure you know as much as possible about the country and its history. Egyptians are very proud of their ancestors, being the Pharaohs or their Muslim descent.

A conversation about a visit to the Museum of Cairo or any other visit would bring the conversation alive. Show interest in suggestions on what to do and visit. Your impressions of your host country, the surprises it brought, the food etc. are easy and good topics. Remember to keep your observations positive and if appropriate, humorous. Egyptians have a great sense of humour.

In Egypt, like so many other African countries, soccer is a passion and the national sport. Note that it is called football in that area of the world. There are many clubs, but the two main ones are Ahly and Zamalek. There are also regional soccer teams and they carry the name of their cities, unlike the two main ones.

Do not talk much about yourself until you are asked. Family is another topic that opens limitless exchanges. Please know that topics on sex, money and religion should be taboos for a first time meet.  In fact, they are considered unacceptable at all times but especially when you do not know the person very well. Handshakes are not common between men and women, especially when they meet for the first time.

Canadian Perspective:

Especially during a first meeting, it’s best to avoid airing your personal opinions about politics and religion, and also topics that are too personal or emotional, such as boyfriends/girlfriends or divorce or family problems.

Egyptians love to hear positive comments about their country, so do mention any attractions or areas you’ve visited and enjoyed. Also mention where you’re from, and any of its unique or interesting features. Later in the conversation, if you have practical questions about how to get something done in Egypt, or need tips about settling in, that’s a good ice-breaker as well. Many Egyptians love to give advice.

Cultural Information - Communication Styles

Question: What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?

Local Perspective:

Politeness and endless salutations are very much part of verbal communication to an extent that it could be mind boggling to newcomers. You will find there is a traditional salutation for every possible situation. That sometimes delays getting to the main topic on hand but it establishes a sense of ease and warmth.

Asking about news of the family, the place you come from, your health etc. is the opening stage of any encounter, even with people that you do not know well, such as the salesman that you buy your fruit from! Be prepared to do the same. You are not expected to return all those salutations, the usual ones and the frequent thank yous are enough.

Then comes the offer of a cup of coffee, tea or juice etc. So it does take sometime to get to the topic but know that this is in no way an endeavor to ignore or avoid whatever you want to talk about.

Verbal communication is accompanied by hand gestures and is often made in a loud voice. As it is hard for many people to admit that they are not getting what you are saying, take it upon yourself to make sure that they have understood, especially in professional situations so as to avoid later misunderstandings or conflicts. This might happen more if you are talking to someone who occupies a lower rank than yours, at work for instance. Language may present an added challenge.

Non-verbal communication is very important in Egypt. As it is hard for Egyptians to say no or voice lack of interest in a request or project, you might get a big smile and a non-committed answer like “God willing” (in sha Allah) or “tomorrow” (bokra).

Due to their warm, hospitable nature, Egyptians hug, kiss and loudly welcome their friends and guests. They are also very respectful and show deference when they meet someone for the first time.

So, in short, communication is not linear. It often goes in circles. Loosing face or making someone lose face is highly avoided. Rank is important. Politeness and respect too. All these cultural elements color their communication styles and strategies. 

Canadian Perspective:

Non-verbal communication is very important in Egyptian culture, more than in Western societies. Avoid standing or sitting too closely with a member of the opposite sex, or looking steadily into their eyes, unless the person is doing the talking. It’s a good idea to monitor their expression, which often communicates a lot more of what they don’t or can’t say. Staring at someone when they’re not talking or while you’re talking to a group, can be misinterpreted as an inappropriate invitation.

Smiling too broadly at a stranger risks being perceived as passive and weak or even feeble-mindedness. If you’re a woman, it can be taken as a sexual invitation. By all means smile, but unless you know the person, make it a small, friendly but impersonal smile.

It’s ok to touch a member of the same sex, but avoid patting or touching members of the opposite sex, or encouraging them to touch you.

Showing the soles of your shoes or feet to someone is a gesture of contempt, as is putting the palm of your hand close to their face. Never, ever touch the back of someone’s neck, which is a serious insult.

Cultural Information - Display of Emotion

Question: Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?

Local Perspective:

Egyptians are emotional people. They show joy, sadness, anger freely. Men cry openly in times such as funerals.

However, affectionate displays between men and women are not accepted, even holding hands while walking is frowned upon, especially in remote towns and villages as well as very populous areas of large cities. When in public, refrain from displaying affection to your partner. Homosexuality is taboo and results in rejection, exclusion, imprisonment. It is considered unlawful. There are many incidents where police arrested groups of homosexuals in bars or restaurants. Simply put, Egypt is a conservative society.

Canadian Perspective:

Between members of the same sex, hugs, kissing cheeks and back pats are all normal, even for men. Public sexual contact of any kind is generally frowned upon, even between married couples. Generally, all Egyptians are very affectionate with small children, and appreciate it when others show affection to their own and others’ kids.

Although Egyptians are generally demonstrative, they can become uncomfortable if they witness a foreigner expressing strong emotion, and may lose respect for that person. This is even truer with regard to anger: a foreigner shouting and acting enraged is likely to provoke strong resentment and hostility even among those who are not its targets. It would be interpreted as being arrogant and disrespectful to Egyptians in general. It’s best to express one’s anger quietly and firmly and to avoid losing control.

Cultural Information - Dress, Punctuality & Formality

Question: What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?

Local Perspective:

Punctuality is not the forte of Egyptian people and it is not considered rude to be 15 or 20 minutes late.  However, in workplaces meeting are held on time in most cases. Deadlines are not strictly respected. So, in the case of an important file or project and if you are responsible for it and have people working on it, make sure you send reminders and stress the importance of respecting deadlines. Stress that it goes about the honor and reputation of the company, office, the CEO etc. A list of responsibilities and timelines sent to all involved or put up on a wall somewhere can encourage punctuality in a work process.

People that have a social or professional status have a tendency to show up late. It is a statement of their importance.  You, in return, cannot afford to do it, show up on time. It is to your credit and an affirmation of your colleagues’ importance and authority.

Formality is extremely important with your superiors. With colleagues, one should not let informality become familiarity that can lead to lack of respect. Sharing coffee and a few laughs is important. But keeping things professionally oriented is necessary.

Once trust is well in place, you will find that Egyptians are loyal, proud of their work and very creative. They are also avid of recognition as it gives them status before their colleagues and families. Please remember that many have problems admitting their lack of knowledge or understanding what is on hand. Thus, you should act accordingly. In order to avoid losing face for anyone in public, it is suggested that you sum up what has been said often, in short, clear sentences. If necessary, one on one meetings are suggested. Note that Egyptian society is very hierarchical and is still a paternalistic one in many cases.

Dress should be formal at first. You can make more relaxed choices of clothes once you know the environment you are working in. Shorts, tank tops, short skirts, sleeveless tops for women, tight clothes etc. are not appropriate anytime at work. In fact, they are not appropriate any place, unless you are at the beach and in touristic hotels.

Canadian Perspective:

Egyptians are notoriously cavalier about deadlines and punctuality. If deadlines and punctuality matter to you, it’s up to you to set an example and to enforce penalties, if possible, strictly and fairly. If you succeed, you will have earned your colleagues’ and staff’s respect. If not, prepare yourself for endless frustration and inefficiency.

In most offices, classic business attire for men, such as a jacket and tie, provides an aura of authority. Pant suits for women, or a blazer and skirt (below the knees) and medium-heeled shoes do the same for women. Footwear in Egypt is often an indicator of social status: closed, well-maintained shoes with socks are best in an office environment.

In summer, women can do without hose, and wear sandals, but in that case they should wear longer skirts/dresses or pants, and should ensure that their feet and toenails are well groomed. Showing cleavage is very inappropriate, as are tops with spaghetti straps. In most urban offices in the summer, especially in large international companies, it is acceptable for women to wear short-sleeved or modest sleeveless tops or dresses. Men often wear short-sleeved cotton dress shirts and remove their jackets once they are in the office.

Cultural Information - Preferred Managerial Qualities

Question: What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?

Local Perspective:

Qualities that are most regarded are knowledge, expertise, interest in team members, and respect of others. Generally speaking, Canadians are known as competent though not arrogant, efficient though discreet, knowledgeable though not condescending, assuming though helpful. They are appreciated for these characteristics.

However, a superior is expected to be sure of himself or herself, presents oneself well, decisive and a high achiever. She or he is also someone who expects people around her or him to perform well. Women in positions of responsibility have to take charge very quickly and show that they know what they are doing and that they expect respect immediately. Smiling through all this is an asset!

As to know how your staff view you, that might be a little tricky. As employees tend to seek approval, please don’t take all the “yes, sir” as approval of your performance or leadership. Because people in position of authority are highly respected and even feared, it is often hard to have a transparent opinion on your performance as a manager.

Relationships are most valued in Egypt. Therefore, creating them with people around you is your best asset. The response of your staff to that element is your best indicator as to how you are viewed. Leading by consensus or consultation is not expected and not understood. Don’t aim to please but to lead firmly and with respect. If you are in a situation of the “expert” or have a defined responsibility, make sure you know your options and take charge.  Lead by example. Be part of the team, respectfully, consult people with expertise, be clear in your instructions, follow up on them, recognize effort, show interest in family life etc. But take charge.

Canadian Perspective:

Your own ability to get things done, the resources you command and ability to exercise your authority effectively will have a far bigger impact on how you are viewed by your co-workers than any other factor. Especially at the beginning, it is far preferable for you to focus on earning your staff’s respect and admiration than their affection. You do this by consistently embodying the values and standards you want them to uphold, especially competence, efficiency, hard work, punctuality, fairness and civility.

Be as clear as possible in your expectations, and in assigning tasks and responsibilities. Set firm boundaries between personal life and work, respect them yourself, and be vigilant about maintaining them. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to get work done in an emotionally-charged environment, or one filled with endless melodrama. It’s almost impossible to reverse the process once that door has been opened, so be cautious and open it only gradually. Try to keep conversations in the office focused on work.

Cultural Information - Hierarchy and Decision-making

Question: In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?

Local Perspective:

Decisions are made and announced by the person at the top. That person will probably consult, ask some people to do some research on the topic at hand and present it to him or her. But ultimately, the final decision will be taken by whoever is in charge. As mentioned before, decision making and leading by consensus or managing issues collaboratively are not common. It is a hierarchical society and that is clearly reflected in the workplace. It might happen that the employees' part would be recognized but that would usually be internally or on a personal level, and not publicly.

Going to your immediate supervisor for answers and feedback, is acceptable. However, make sure it is not done too often, so that it is not perceived as lack of initiative, knowledge or reliability. Be sure to show that you have thought things out and that you just want to know whether you are on the right track. In fact, asking for feedback enhances your supervisor's importance and demonstrates your respect of him, especially if you have already put an important effort first.

You will find that Egyptians are not bothered by this top down approach in workplaces, as it is part of their daily life and has been so for the longest time. They may criticize it among themselves but would not contest to a decision they do not agree with openly.

Canadian Perspective:

In most workplaces, decisions are made by the person who is accountable for their results, but it's not acceptable for an employee to go above his or her supervisor's head for answers or feedback. 

A competent supervisor will provide regular and timely observations and advice on how the employee can upgrade his or her performance; in fact, this is a supervisor's job. However, in case these are not forthcoming, it is not only acceptable, but imperative for the employee to ask for an evaluation of his or her work, and for guidance on how to improve.

Cultural Information - Religion, Class, Ethnicity, & Gender

Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?

Local Perspective:

Regarding attitudes, all of the above matter! But it all depends on the environment, level of education of the people etc. Here are a few pointers.

Gender: Generally, women do not have the same status as men. It is apparent in dress, level of education, opportunity to work, freedom of movement etc. especially in Upper Egypt (South), villages and certain very conservative milieus. In Cairo, however, there is an open mindedness regarding women. However, it is considered dangerous for women to go out alone in the evening and night and they are encouraged to stay home. The younger generation of women often stops working once they get married.

Women participate in the working force, especially in large cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, and Port-Said etc. but they are often in subordinate positions, underpaid and sometimes exploited. As jobs are not readily available, even scarce in some domains, women are encouraged to stay home to look after the family. But at home, the woman is the queen of the family! She takes decisions concerning most matters related to children education, home management, food, clothes etc. She is a very important person in the family structure, if not the most important one.

Educated Women occupy high positions and Egypt has its share of female ministers in government positions, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, T.V. personalities etc. However, their percentage compared to the general population is much lower than in the western world. The ratio of educated women is also lower that the men’s.

Class: money, who you know and relations with people in important positions, matter. They can make your life easier or harder.

The middle class in Egypt has been shrinking due to shortage of work, emigration and economic circumstances. The poorer class is growing and there is a small but powerful percentage of extremely rich people. The gap between classes is visible. This situation is contributing to a more precarious situation regarding levels of petty crime and bursts of anger against the establishment. When you add to this picture the mounting conservative attitude of Islamists and their attitude towards Copts, Christians in general, you have the seeds of a growing social instability.

In the Workplace, generally speaking, this brings the dimensions of favoritism of certain social and religious groups, resentment and distrust of leadership. Often foreigners are sometimes looked upon as intruders, hence the importance of establishing one’s expertise, creating relationships, trust and team spirit.

As you probably will work in a relatively educated informed environment, such aspects will not be as apparent. However, be mindful as they might still be there though unspoken.

Religion: Religion matters hugely and non-Muslim people are at a disadvantage. Although Christians make up to 10 percent of the population and have always been part of the Egyptian fibre since the 1st Century, they are not given the same opportunities for advancement at work. However, recently, that issue is addressed openly and there seems to be a slight, but very slow, change in attitude.

Ethnicity:  There are many ethnic groups in Egypt due to the multiple waves of invasions through history. However, for the longest time Egyptians saw themselves as part of the greater Arab Nation especially with the nationalistic feeling that developed in the fifties after the Revolution and Nasser's dream to create a pan Arab nation.  Egyptians relished the sense of belonging to a national popular project of building a democracy, following the demise of the royal family and the abolition of monarchy. Their ethnicity, as they saw it then, was first and foremost being Arab and mainly Muslim.

Lately, there is a stronger sense of belonging to a history and to a culture that is specifically and uniquely Egyptian. The separation of state and religion is sometimes a grey area – the constitution identifies Islam as the state religion, while also guaranteeing freedom of religion. Many very conservative Muslims believe that Christians in Egypt are not Egyptians. They talk about Ethnic cleansing and that the country should be solely and totally Muslim. 

There are obvious and apparent differences between ethnic groups. In the deep Southern part of Upper Egypt, people are darker as part of Northern Sudan was once part of the Egyptian territory. In the North and in specific areas where many of the invading armies of modern History such as the French and English armies settled, many people have fairer skin and blue eyes.

Moreover, Egypt having been seen as a land of opportunity and wealth by surrounding countries in the first half of the twentieth Century, many Lebanese, Greek, Italian and Armenian people emigrated to Egypt. For example, Alexandria, the biggest port city in Egypt had the largest Greek Community outside Greece. They all adopted the ways of life and the language of the land. They also enriched it with their traditions, art and knowledge, as they founded schools and brought infrastructure to many aspects of government.

Canadian Perspective:

Age, class and gender strongly affect how individuals are regarded, especially initially. An older, educated and wealthy man will have no problem being viewed with respect right away. Still, respect can be lost or earned, depending on the individual’s attitude, competence and behaviour over time.

Egypt remains a class-based and patriarchal society, and this has a strong impact on initial attitudes. But these can be overcome by avoiding any reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Women, for example, should act with calm confidence, dress modestly, and maintain a professional attitude at work. Some Egyptians are very snobbish, and treat workers from lower socio-economic classes rudely. The other extreme, becoming overly informal and personal, is definitely not recommended. Religion and ethnicity are less important than class and gender, and should not be an issue, especially if you don’t make them an issue. Treat all your co-workers fairly, with politeness and respect, and make it clear that you expect the same.

Cultural Information - Relationship-building

Question: How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?

Local Perspective:

As mentioned before, there are certain traditions that are important to know and respect. Greetings, small talk are important The offer of coffee, tea or a cold drink such as lemonade or any other cold drink, is genuine and people are happy when you accept. If the meeting is at your place of work, do the same.

Relationships are cultivated and are important in the Egyptian society. So do ask discreet questions such as “How is everyone in your family?” or an observation such as “You have a beautiful office” etc. and take the time to answer their questions too so that you establish a rapport.

Canadian Perspective:

The standard advice is to get to know as much as you can about the other person before getting to business. This is because personal networking is a crucial element in Egyptian life, not only socially but professionally. Informal networks and well-placed contacts can be essential to getting things done in Egypt, from finding a good plumber to getting through a bureaucratic maze.

Egyptians like to know whom they are dealing with, and, though it will never be said out loud, how useful and how effective they can be. This is a two-way street. Many seemingly intractable problems have been resolved with one well-placed call to a friend of a friend, although naturally, there are exceptions. Weddings are important occasions for expressing how much you value the relationship, and attending a colleague’s loved-one’s funeral is one of the most important and sincerely appreciated gestures you can make.

Cultural Information - Privileges and Favouritism

Question: Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship?

Local Perspective:

Often, that is the case. But in your position, being new and only for a relatively short time in the country, it is recommended that you go by the rule. If you can facilitate things without going against an established rule or tradition, you can surely do it. A good example would be to expedite paper work for example. But nothing more than that. And that person will be forever grateful to you!

Canadian Perspective:

Yes. Egyptians are justly famous for their hospitality, warmth and generosity. However, there is an unspoken law that is important for foreigners to understand: every gift, invitation or favour creates an obligation on the part of the receiver. This will never be spelled out, or even hinted at, but not understanding this simple rule can create misunderstanding and hidden resentment. If someone gives you a gift, try to reciprocate at the earliest opportunity, especially on a special occasion such as a son’s or daughter’s marriage, or on their birthday, or if they are hospitalized, or if they become a parent or grandparent. Otherwise, they may view you as someone who “owes” them, and expect favours that you may not be willing to do.

It’s the same with accepting an invitation to someone’s home, or to a restaurant. If you accept, reciprocate in some way, either by inviting them back, or by bringing an appropriate gift. This is how Egyptians build up a web of interdependence and mutual trust and respect that empowers and also protects them. “Who you know” can determine how effectively you are able to function socially and professionally. This rule applies even to servants and office tea servers. If they do a favour for you, even if they insist that they don’t want anything in return, be prepared to reciprocate, if only with an appropriate tip. This way, you not only earn their respect, but you also prevent them from thinking that you are indebted to them.

Cultural Information - Conflicts in the Workplace

Question: I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?

Local Perspective:

Losing face is a hard thing for anyone, even more so in a country where status is important. So the short answer is to confront the person in question privately at first. If the situation still proves to be tricky, having a third person as an observer is not a bad idea.

In your meeting come to an agreement for a line of conduct, clarify expectations, listen to theirs and come to an arrangement. If necessary, send a note to that person with what was agreed upon, especially if that person is part of a group you lead with whom you work on a regular basis or for a punctual project.

Canadian Perspective:

The best time to deal with work-related problems is before they happen, by modeling expected behaviour, and by quickly establishing firm and unambiguous standards and expectations. Assignments should be known and understood, along with deadlines. The more objective and impersonal the mechanism is for evaluating performance, the better.

If a problem occurs, never confront a colleague in public, but discuss the matter with him or her calmly and privately, avoiding digressions and any descent into personal matters. Whenever possible, try to keep a documentary record of employees’ performance and achievements. Ideally, there should be a carrot-and-stick approach to modifying work-related behaviour, with clear rewards and penalties.

Firing someone can be very problematic in Egypt, and can lead to legal or financial complications. If you need to do so, first consult your company’s legal affairs department or a lawyer recommended by someone you trust.

Cultural Information - Motivating Local Colleagues

Question: What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?

Local Perspective:

Recognize their importance, congratulate them publicly, establish a relationship, listen to their opinion, set time for one on one etc.

But, whatever you do, if you are in a position of leadership, do not concede your decision making power, do not favor one person over the other. Take your colleagues seriously, also assume your role and they, in return, will do the same.

Canadian Perspective:

Competent management is the single most important factor that determines performance. Over the past few decades, Egypt has experienced a severe shortage in the fields of qualified, effective managers, and this has had a very negative impact on the morale and productivity of employees. Other, related by-products are corruption, nepotism, the absence of boundaries and extreme inefficiency. However, in the same way that these have resulted from poor management, they can be corrected by the application of skilled and experienced management principles. Given the right leadership and structure, Egyptian workers are capable of outstanding achievements.

The ideal combination of motivators is: respect and admiration for one’s boss, a good salary (above the average), advancement opportunities, and consistently and fairly applied rewards for good work and penalties for poor or substandard work. Another positive motivating factor for Egyptian employees is the belief that their loyalty will be reciprocated by the employer.

Cultural Information - Recommended Books, Films & Foods

Question: To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, music and foods.

Local Perspective:

Any Naguib Mahfouz novel is a good eye opener on many aspects of the Egyptian society, philosophy of life, roles of its members and traditions. He was a Literature Nobel prize recipient in the very late eighties and his books are translated in many languages. Also see list at the end of this document.

If you have access to foreign TV Channels, follow one or two Egyptians series with subtitles. They do put forward issues that the country has and the people’s reaction to them. If you can get your hands on the movie The Yacoubian Building, it will give you a good idea of the challenges and attitudes of Egyptian people.

History and touristic books, with plenty of pictures about the sites would be a good introduction to the grandeur of this ancient civilization.

There are middle-eastern groceries and restaurant in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal etc. seize the opportunity to taste the food such as Foul Medamés, Molokheyya, Moussaka, Bissara, Kofta, Egyptian Falafels…

Canadian Perspective:

A good introduction to Egyptian ancient history is Egypt’s Golden Empire, a documentary by PBS, which can be watched online:

The large catalog of books by the legendary late journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal provides an excellent overview of modern Egyptian politics and history, especially covering the period from the end of Britain’s occupation and the 1952 Revolution up until the present day, and most have been translated into several languages. For a fictional view of how these developments affected the lives of ordinary people, Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’ epic “Cairo Trilogy” (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street) covers the period from the turn of the century through the Egyptian 1919 popular uprising against the British colonizers to the end of WWII and the lead up to the 1952 Revolution. 

The 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for Egyptian writing and cinema, and produced a treasure trove of films such as The Nightingale’s Prayer by the brilliant and very prolific Egyptian director Henry Barakat, many of which can be found online with subtitles. The Land, by Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawy is a modern classic novel (later made into a hugely influential film) that was published in 1952, and had a major impact on the way Egypt’s traditional farmers (fellaheen) were thereafter portrayed in cinema and novels, especially during the revolutionary period up until 1970. During the 1970s and 80s, Egypt underwent another seismic transformation, from centralized government-led socialism to unfettered capitalism, from a productive to a consumer and import-based society, and from a leading role in the Arab world to a client state of the West. The novel Zaat by Sonallah Ibrahim provides a realistic and fascinating view of these changes from the point of view of a middle-class woman and her family.

A modern novel set against the backdrop of Egyptian history from the 19th century to the present day is Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif, written in English.

A popular comedy from 2010, Black Honey (Asal Aswad), explores how Egyptian society has changed, through the experiences of a young Egyptian-American who left Egypt when he was eight years old, and who returns to rediscover his roots after his father’s death. It is available with English subtitles on Youtube.  A more recent Egyptian movie is the edgy and taut psychological thriller, The Blue Elephant (Al Feel Al-Azraq), based on the bestseller by Ahmed Mourad, who has written a string of successful novels, beginning with Vertigo (available in English) and culminating with 1919, which is set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Egypt under British occupation.

If you happen to know a bit of Arabic, and want to improve, you can’t do better than to watch Egyptian mini-series. Every year, dozens of these 30-episode dramas are broadcast during the month of Ramadan to entertain people during their fast, or in the evening, after the Iftar meal. They are all available online. The best of last year’s crop was Under Control (Taht El Saytara), about drug addiction afflicting people from the middle-class. In 2014, Women’s Prison(Segn El Nisa’) was widely and justly acclaimed.

Similarly to literature and cinema, the 1950s and 60s (up until the mid-1970s) witnessed a flourishing of Egyptian music, with legendary singers such as Um Kulthoum, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Fareed Al-Atrash and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab being revered by audiences across the Arab world. The 1970s marked the emergence of “shaabi” popular street music, represented by Ahmed Adaweya. Today, the stars of shaabi music include Hakim and Shaaban Abdel-Rahim. Since the 1990s, a number of popular Egyptian bands have appeared, with the most popular being Wust al-Balad (Downtown) and Cairokee. Mohamed Mounir is among the most popular modern Egyptian singers, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world.

As for food, there’s been a huge proliferation of restaurants serving every kind of national and international food in Egypt, especially in and around the large urban centres, during the past 20 years. There are no well-known Canadian restaurants, but there are a few branches of the Canadian coffee-shop chain, Second Cup. Almost all restaurants deliver, including American fast-food chains like McDonald’s. There are good online guides to eating out and entertainment, such as the local publication Cairo360, complete with reviews and directions.

Still, the best Egyptian cooking is served at home.

A traditional Egyptian breakfast consists of ful (baked fava beans), feta cheese, boiled or fried eggs, taameya (the Egyptian version of falafel, made from fava beans rather than chick-peas), spicy Egyptian sausages or basterma (a dried meat very similar to the Swiss viande des grisons), brown Egyptian baladi bread, salad and/or pickles, and topped off with feteer, a flaky oven-baked pastry, drizzled with honey and, on special occasions, fresh cream. Naturally, this sort of breakfast spread is reserved for weekend family gatherings or special occasions.

A typical Egyptian dinner consists of rice; stewed, fried or roasted beef or chicken or lamb or duck; vegetables cooked in tomato sauce with onions and garlic, and a mixed garden salad. Molokheya, a garlicky green soup served with beef or chicken and rice, is a well-known Egyptian dish, as are grape-leaf rolls stuffed with meat and rice and cooked in a lemony broth. Alexandria and Port Said are famous for their fresh fish restaurants, cooked in a traditionally Greek style, and served with onion rice and a variety of salads.

Supper is typically a light meal, with yoghurt or cheese, perhaps some salads, bread, and fruit.

Cultural Information - In-country Activities

Question: When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?

Local Perspective:

The possibilities are endless. Join a club for social and sports activities. The Guezireh Sporting Club is not very far from the Canadian Embassy. Attend cultural events, such as dance folkloric groups, music concerts, go to the well reputed Naguib Mahfouz Café in the medieval market area of Khan El Khalili. They are all great ways to immerse yourself in Egyptian culture. Ask your colleagues for their suggestions too.

One absolute must visit is the Cairo Musem near Midan El Tahrir, in the heart of Cairo. When possible, take a Nile cruse (in Winter time!) to visit the magnificent ancient temples. Abu Simbel is a must, south of Aswan. Cairo also has a Music Conservatory, a beautiful Opera house and many Museums.

Canadian Perspective:

The Cairo Opera and the Sawy Culture Wheel, both in Zamalek, are two of the best formal venues for live concerts. The Cairo Opera caters to a generally older crowd, while the Sawy Culture Wheel audience tends to be younger and more hip. In Giza, the Cairo Jazz Club offers new, often avant-garde live bands along with a good menu and a fully-licensed bar. Special concert events are staged at the pyramids, or in various resorts along the Red Sea, or other venues, such as the Citadel.

The best starting point to begin adjusting to life in Egypt and learning about its people is the non-profit Community Services Association, based in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. They publish an entertaining and information-packed monthly magazine, Oasis (distributed free). The CSA is a treasure-trove of culture, services, food, lectures, books and decorative handicrafts, and an excellent place to make new friends among fellow expats and Egyptians. It also offers classes in a wide range of subjects, from traditional Egyptian cooking and spoken Arabic to yoga, and organizes regular guided tours to places of interest in and around Cairo and Giza. They also have a wonderful lending library which you can join for a nominal fee. The website provides useful information. 

Cultural Information - National Heroes

Question: Who are this country's national heroes?

Local Perspective:

The famous and world renowned singer Om Kulsum. She is the epitome of Egyptian Tarab (extreme pleasure of music).

Mustapha Kamel- lawyer and activist who founded the National Egyptian Party.

Ahmad Orabi - an Egyptian army general who revolted against the khedive, ruler placed to govern Egypt when the country was under Turkish law.

Gamal Abdel Nasser - led the national revolution that overthrew King Farouk and established the Republic.

Ahmad Fouad- founded the University of Cairo.

Canadian Perspective:

Egyptians tend to be fractious and very argumentative when it comes to politics, so it’s difficult to find a consensus on national heroes. Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt’s leader from 1954-1970, continues to inspire most Egyptians, though a minority strongly disagree with his vision and policies. Another controversial figure is Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), regarded as a hero (“leader of war and peace”) by some, and opposed by others. Colonel Ahmed Orabi (Orabi Basha), who led the Egyptian Army Revolt in 1879 against the British, is widely respected as a national hero. Today, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi enjoys widespread grassroots popularity as Egypt’s “saviour”, and is viewed by most as a national hero although, as with his predecessors, he is strongly opposed by a vocal minority.

Cultural Information - Shared Historical Events with Canada

Question: Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?

Local Perspective:

Prime Minister Pearson was an active and important actor in the creation of the United Nations Peace Force to enhance and promote peace in regions torn by war. One of the first assignment was to establish and protect peace after the tripartite aggression in Port-Said and the Suez Canal, after Nasser nationalized it.

Many people think that the previous Conservative Prime Minister’s pro Israel position is still held by the actual government. Because of the long history with Palestinians and the volatile situation it creates up to now, some resentment might be met. That is especially alive in anti- establishment circles.

Canadian Perspective:

Not really. Many Egyptians have family or friends who live in Canada, and Canada enjoys a good reputation as a decent, welcoming, prosperous country.

Cultural Information - Stereotypes

Question: What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?

Local Perspective:

Here are some stereotypes that Canadians have:

  • Cities are not modern, with no solid infrastructures for transportation, education, government etc.
  • People are lazy.
  • Pyramids are only in Cairo.
  • The food will make you sick.
  • Belly dancing is practised by all women.
  • Drug consumption is rampant.
  • Tourism is dead.
  • Everybody practises Islam.
  • There are no Christians in Egypt.

Establishing a solid, heathy relationship is mainly about staying open, with neither prejudice nor misconceptions. Experience has shown that all visitors and people on assignment in Egypt deeply appreciate and make friends with Egyptians. They find them welcoming, helpful and life loving. Their hospitality is unequalled.

Canadian Perspective:

Canadian media has tended to focus on and exaggerate the negative in its Egyptian coverage, providing a distorted and even somewhat hostile image of Egyptian people and events. Especially in recent years, the coverage has been dominated by violence and fringe extremism. Despite the occurrence of regular terrorist attacks, these are largely concentrated in a tiny strip of land comprising less than 1% of Sinai, in its north. Sinai itself is the size of France. Egypt is a large and diverse country, with a population of 90 million, and quite safe. Many restaurants and night clubs remain open until dawn, and city streets remain busy with families, even with small children, long after midnight most nights, especially in summer. There is also a dizzying diversity of restaurants, hotels and resorts, huge shopping malls, stunning beaches, great and unique museums, beautiful mosques, churches and monasteries (some of which date back to the dawn of Christianity), and Islamic architecture dating back a thousand years or more.

Egyptians are a warm and generous people, who enjoy welcoming people from other cultures. Egyptian women are active and important participants in the country’s politics, work force, and social life. Women’s hejab is worn for a variety of reasons and is not a reliable predictor of either religious or social views.

Cultural Information - About the Cultural Interpreters

Local Perspective:

I have a BA in English Literature from the University of Ein Shams in Cairo, a B. Ed and Master’s degree form Ottawa university. I grew up in Heliopolis, a lovely suburb of Cairo, emigrated to Canada in the seventies. My career is mainly in education, occupying various positions of responsibility. I also am a lecturer at Ottawa and Carleton Universities as well as author of various academic manuals. As an Academic Consultant, I facilitated numerous Professional Development sessions in Ottawa and many other Canadian cities. I volunteer in many community projects, and chaired various Board of Directors of non-profit organisations and Ministerial Committees. I am fluent in French, English and Arabic.

Canada is my country and I cherish it deeply. This is where I founded my family and where we belong. But I have stayed in close contact with my country of origin, know its past and current history well. Although most of my family has emigrated, I go back on a regular basis.

Canadian Perspective:

I was born in Egypt, but immigrated to Canada with my family when I was four years old. I grew up in a suburb of Montreal speaking English, French and (some) Arabic at home. In the early 1980s, I spent two years in Egypt studying political science at the American University in Cairo, and then transferred to McGill University in Montreal, graduating in 1986. My first full-time job was in Geneva, Switzerland, followed by work for two NGOs in Egypt, including editing the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo’s monthly business magazine, before I returned to Montreal in the summer of 1988. There, I worked for six years in an office promoting bilateral trade between Taiwan and Canada. I met my husband during a visit to Egypt in 1996, and have lived here very happily ever since. While raising our two sons and taking care of our home, I’ve also managed to teach myself to read Arabic and to further my knowledge of Egyptian history and culture, a subject of endless fascination for me.

Disclaimer

Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

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