Life in Modern Cairo

Life in Cairo is much the same as it is in any other city of the world. People get up in the morning, go to school or work, have meals with their family, spend time with their friends, and go to the supermarket, much the same as your family does.


1) Traditional Egyptian houses resemble this one, with all rooms opening off of a central courtyard. Today, most Cairenes live in Western style apartment buildings.

Where People Live

Most Cairenes live in apartment buildings. Only the wealthy can afford to live in free-standing houses because space is difficult to find. Men and women usually live at home with their parents until they get married. Traditionally, extended families lived together, however, with the new situation in Cairo - as houses were abandoned in favor of apartments - the traditional family has given way to the nuclear family.

Apartments usually have one large room in the front - the living room, where the family entertains guests. Guests who are not relatives are generally not permitted back into the rest of the house. Traditionally, women would remain in the back of the house and not come into the living room if someone who was not a close friend or family visited, although this is less common now. It is, however, considered inappropriate for a woman and man who are not married or related to be alone together.

Because the majority of people in Egypt are Muslim, Egyptian government offices and business observe Friday as the day of rest. Many government offices are open Sunday through Thursday, and most universities and some private schools also hold classes Sunday through Thursday, and are closed Friday and Saturday. However, most primary and secondary schools usually meet for about six hours a day Saturday through Thursday, with only Friday off.

Where People Learn

In Cairo, formal education is very important. There are twelve years of formal education in Egypt, and public schools are free, though under funded. Many families who can afford to send their children to private school. Toward the end of high school, children take an exam similar to the SAT required of students planning to go to college in the U.S. The results of that exam determine which college each student will attend and also which fields of study are open to that student. Top students can attend the American University in Cairo, which teaches its courses in English. Other universities in the Cairo area include Cairo University, with over 30,000 students, Ayn Shams University, and al-Azhar University, one of the oldest and most prestigious theological schools in the Islamic world. Many children do not complete school or go on to college and learn a trade or apprenticeship in business instead.


2) The American University in Cairo, founded in 1919, is one of the most prestigious Egyptian Universities.


3) Although students like these at the American University in Cairo learn in the classroom, a vast amount of education in Egypt comes from the home.

Education and most religious instruction comes from the family - this is where children learn about societal values. Sometimes children also attend classes after school or on Friday at the mosque, similar to Sunday school or Torah school. The family is very important in Egyptian society. Though modern families are adopting the idea of the "nuclear family" common in the west (parents and children), the traditional Egyptian family unit consists of parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and all sorts of people. Even though the modern family unit tends to be smaller, families usually live close together and visit each other often.

Unlike in the West, children usually live with their parents until they get married, even through college. It is very rare that children move out and establish their independence before they get married. Usually, this only happens if the child goes abroad to save money before getting married. Many young Egyptian men work for a few years in the rich countries of the Persian Gulf, where wages are much higher than they are in Egypt, and this allows them to have a better start when they return to Egypt and get married.

How People Get Married

Marriages in Egypt are somewhat different than in the West. Islam discourages dating, as single men and women are not supposed to be alone together if they are not related. Among the middle and upper classes, often the man and woman know each other from school or university, where young people gather in groups like they do in the West. In the lower classes, the chance for intermingling of the sexes is rarer, and sometimes families negotiate a marriage for an unmarried son or daughter.

However the couple is introduced, the steps toward marriage are the same. Either at the instigation of the couple, or at their own initiative, the two families meet to discuss the terms of the marriage. This discussion usually covers such topics as the dowry, who will pay for the wedding, etc. The two families then arrange a supervised meeting between the potential bride and groom, and either one can say no to the marriage. The wedding usually takes place fairly quickly, unless the groom-to-be is going abroad to work or study, in which case the marriage may be postponed.


4) As in the West, weddings in Egypt are a time of celebration. Many couples arrange for photographs in scenic locations, like this couple on the 6th October Bridge, overlooking the lights of downtown Cairo.

The marriage itself may be very simple, consisting only of the imam from the mosque presiding over the marriage contract between the groom and the bride's father, who speaks on behalf of his daughter. Wealthier families spend large sums of money, sometimes renting ballrooms at the luxury hotels in Cairo to gather all their family and friends for the festivities, which may be spread out over several days.

Divorce is not very common in Egypt, although it does still happen. According to Egyptian secular law, both men and women have the right to ask for a divorce. Traditionally, upon divorce, the father is granted custody of any children, and any dowry paid by the groom to the bride's family must be returned.

Like many modern Islamic societies, Egypt is trying to bridge the difference between what traditional interpretations of Islamic law say, and what many people feel should be the law, which is often based on western models. A woman's right to ask for a divorce under any circumstance was put into law in Egypt in 1999. Many interpretations of Islamic law give women the right to ask for a divorce only in certain circumstances, such as her husband's being mentally ill or infertile. The new law was written both by secular lawmakers as well as representatives of the Muslim clergy in Egypt in order to ensure that it would address concerns that might be raised by opponents. Such cooperation between secular and religious jurists is common in Egypt and other countries where traditional interpretations are being challenged.


5) An Egyptian father with his child. The birth of a child is one of the most important and celebrated events in Egyptian society.

Traditions of Birth and Death

Similarly, the birth of a child is an event to be celebrated. Boys are usually circumcised near birth. The birth of the first son is a momentous event, after which the father and mother are often called by the titles "Abu" and "Umm" ("father" and "mother") followed by their son's name. For example, if the first son is named Ali, then the father will be called "Abu Ali," or "Father of Ali," and the mother "Umm Ali," or "Mother of Ali." Families will also arrange for the slaughter of an animal -- two for boys and one for girls -- one week after the birth to mark the event.

Egyptians are careful never to praise the beauty of the child without adding the phrase mash'allah, meaning "thanks be to God." This practice extends to many parts of Egyptian society, wherein you will always hear such phrases as insha'allah - "if God wills it," usually used when discussing an event that is to happen in the future, and hamdulillah - "praise be to God," used to express joy or contentment over something that has already happened. This reminds Egyptians of God's presence and influence over all matters, and also that God has the power to alter anything thing at any time, so nothing should be taken for granted. Many Egyptians also believe in the power of the Evil Eye, for demons - djinn - are mentioned in the Qur'an. Repeating such invocations of the name of God are also considered to prevent harm at the hands of these djinn.

Similarly, when a person dies, it is a significant event. In keeping with Islamic custom, the person is usually buried before sundown on the day of death, or, at the least, within three days. Friends and family come to pay their respects to the surviving spouse or children. The funeral is held in the mosque, where special prayers, called the janazah, are said. The casket is then carried on the shoulders of the male relatives to the cemetery, with the mourners following in procession. For forty days after death, there is an official mourning period for the deceased, in which special prayers and rituals are observed, and friends and relatives gather frequently to pay their respects to the surviving relatives.


6) Islamic dress, like that worn by these schoolgirls in Cairo, has become more popular in recent years.

The Rights of Women

Since the revolution, women have entered the work place in force. This has been the result of the need for families to bring in more money in order to live, as well as the increase in women's education. Today, women serve in all levels of Egyptian society - as doctors, lawyers, scientists, civil servants, and small business owners. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for many Egyptian women - particularly in Cairo, to appear in public unveiled, in western clothes. The veil has been part of traditional dress in Egyptian society - as well as throughout the Middle East - for centuries. From the mid 1970s, however, Islamic dress has made a return among many younger women. Such dress incorporates long skirts, a long sleeved blouse, sometimes with a western style suit jacket, and a headscarf. Many women feel that such attire protects them in the workplace - men tend to be more respectful of women who are veiled because they are perceived as "off limits." Islamic dress makes a statement that the woman is not to be thought of a sexual being, while sexual harassment, though not as common as in the West, when it does happen tends to be directed toward unveiled women since they are thought of as 'available.'

Regardless of whether they choose to wear Islamic dress or not, women tend to dress modestly. Skirts or dresses (usually ankle length) are more common than pants, though young women often wear slacks or jeans. Long sleeves are also common - it is rare to see women wear sleeves that do not reach at least to the elbow.

Although much attention is focused on what women wear in Middle Eastern society, it is important to point out that men also tend to dress modestly. Men almost always wear long pants and long sleeves. Appearing in public in shorts would likely be uncomfortable, and it is socially unacceptable for men to go shirtless in public. The traditional garment for Egyptian men is called a galabiyya, and it is a long cotton robe, usually white or pale blue, that comes down to the ankles. It is sometimes seen among poor men in the old city, but the galabiyya tends to be associated with poor, country folk (fellahin), and is usually abandoned for pants and a shirt by young men who migrate to Cairo.


7) Since 1952, women have entered the work force in great numbers. Many of them, like this woman in a factory in Cairo, are in supervisory positions.

What People Eat

Certain foods are associated with holidays, especially Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Muslims do not eat pork, so most Egyptian food does not include pork products. Most Egyptians have a light breakfast when they wake up, consisting of tea with bread and honey, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit. Like many other societies in the Mediterranean region, lunch is the main meal of the day, eaten at about two or three o'clock in the afternoon. Supper is eaten late, around nine or ten o'clock and consists of small mezza dishes, or food left over from lunch.

A complex meal starts off with mezza, similar to appetizers. Mezza may include hummus (ground chickpeas and sesame-seed paste), stuffed grape leaves, ta'miyya (fried patties made with fava beans and spices; if made with chick peas it is called felafel), beans, and other light items. The main course usually consists of a meat dish - chicken, beef or lamb, served with rice and bread. Sometimes vegetables comprise the main ingredient. The most common are eggplant, squash, or moulkhiyya, a native Egyptian vegetable similar to okra. One common dish is kushari, a mixture of rice, pasta, lentils, and spicy tomato sauce topped with a hot sauce and fried onions. Another common dish is fuul mudammas, or roasted fava beans that are served much like black beans or pinto beans are served with Mexican dishes, in a soup-like broth and eaten with bread.


8) Women shopping for fruit and vegetables in the local market.

Egyptian bread is a flatbread, called aysh, similar to pita bread. Most Egyptians eat with their hands, using small pieces of bread to scoop up their food. Egyptians always serve themselves with their right hands, as the left hand is considered unclean, and to use the left hand would pollute the communal dish. Sometimes, each person scoops a portion of the food from the communal dish onto his or her plate, other times, each person simply eats straight from the communal dish.

Ice Cream

9) An ice cream truck making deliveries to the residents of the City of the Dead.

Egyptian desserts range from foods like baklava (walnuts and cinnamon between sheets of thin pastry dough) to louqm al-qadi (fried balls of dough in syrup), bassboosa (semolina cake with almonds) and umm ali (nuts and raisins or currants in warm custard topped with pastry dough). Ice cream is also quite popular in Egypt.

Egyptians are fond of tea and coffee. Both are served strong: the coffee is what is typically known as "Turkish coffee," ground very fine and served thick. Tea is usually brewed dark and served hot with lots of sugar. Some Egyptians even place a sugar cube between their teeth when they drink it. There are several kinds of tea, one of which is brewed from dried hibiscus flowers, called karkaday.

Soft drinks are also popular in Egypt. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola are widely available, along with other familiar brands such as Sprite, 7-Up and Fanta Orange Soda. Soft drinks are generally not served in cans, but rather in glass bottles. It is usually the practice if buying a soft drink from a vendor that the drink must be finished on the spot, and the bottle returned to the vendor, rather than taking it away.


10) Many Egyptians shop in Western-style supermarkets like this one, where a variety of items can be purchased at once ...

Islam forbids alcohol, although both beer and wine are made and sold in Egypt.

Food is often sold in small markets, or in stands on the street. There are supermakets in Egypt, and many Egyptians shop at the supermarket, but others prefer to buy their food from a small vendor. Usually, families shop at the same vendor, with whom they have a personal relationship, so they trust that vendor and the quality of the food that they will get from him.

Street Vendor

11) ... although many Egyptians prefer to buy from small vendors like this, because they have a personal relationship with him and can trust the quality of the food he sells.

Egyptians also eat out in restaurants. There are many different kinds of restaurants in Cairo, just as there are anywhere else in the world. Many of the Western fast-food chains have restaurants in Egypt, including Arby's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Wimpy's and other Western chain restaurants like Chili's and TGIFriday's. There are also restaurants that serve Chinese, Korean, Indian, and other cuisines from around the world.

The majority of restaurants serve Egyptian and Middle Eastern cuisine, and range from expensive restaurants that serve multi-course meals to vendors who serve prepared food on the street. Street foods include kebab, meat grilled on a skewer; shwarma, meat grilled on a spit and served wrapped in bread with hummus and vegetables; shish tawook, a chicken dish similar to shwarma; kushari; grilled corn and other vegetables; nuts; and fresh-squeezed juices like mango, orange, or guava juice.


12) A street vendor selling Ta'miyya, a popular Egyptian fast food.


13) Traditional coffeehouses such as this one are very popular with Egyptians.

What People Do For Fun

Another institution found throughout the Middle East is the coffeehouse. Traditionally, coffeehouses are visited by men, who sit and drink coffee or tea, play backgammon, and smoke the water pipe called shisha in Egypt, but also known as a hookah or nargila. The pipe is filled with tobacco that is flavored with honey, apples, mint, or other sweet flavors. The coffeehouses have long been a place for discussion, recitation or the Qur'an, and the telling of tales by storytellers. When radio and television transmissions were first introduced to the region, men would gather at the coffeehouse to listen to the radio or watch the television. Often, the patrons of each coffeehouse would contribute toward the purchase of the radio or television since it was too expensive to own them individually. At present, most Egyptian middle and upper class families have their own radio and television, but the coffeehouses remain popular.

Egyptian television broadcasts a number of popular programs. Many are based around traditional folk tales, lessons from the Qur'an, etc. However, Egypt is also famous for its soap operas, which are broadcast throughout the Arab world. Egyptians enjoy watching sporting matches on television, particularly soccer matches, which are played throughout the country. Concerts by famous singers are also broadcast on the radio or television.

Egypt also has one of the most active movie making industries in the world, producing between sixty and one hundred films every year. Egypt also receives movies from overseas. However, such films are often edited to remove offensive material. The film industry has created film stars who are just as popular in Egypt as many of the Western movie stars are to people in North America and Europe.

Movie Ad

14) Advertisment for a western film in downtown Cairo. Egypt has a very active cinema industry of its own.

All Photographs Copyright by Thomas Hartwell,
except photographs 2, 13, 14, Copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose