February 8, 2011

Egypt: A Mosaic Culture

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I have a friend who is an Egyptologist. In the gentle curve of his nose, his rounded eyebrows and cupped chin he resembles the Pharaohs and his family has basically been in Egypt since that time. He is an expert on ancient Egyptian culture and wrote his dissertation on jokes in hieroglyphic paintings, which, it turns out, are surprisingly pervasive. We were enjoying an Egyptian dinner of mulukhiyya soup and delicious pigeon at his family house in Cairo last summer when he began to talk about history. Most countries, he mused, have a linear history, “one damn thing after another” as the saying goes. Some countries have a history that is a spiral, repetitious and contingent. But Egypt, in his eyes, has a history that is none of these things. Egypt, in his eyes, has a history that resembles a mosaic, with tessellae of many cultures stuck together that doesn’t quite make sense until you can zoom out to the full picture. After spending only several weeks seven years ago and two months last summer in Egypt, I am still somewhere within the mosaic, not able to zoom out fully. But after the recent rioting in Egypt and Tunisia, American friends who haven’t traveled to these places keep asking me if I have any context for what is happening, so I suppose I should construct one. Almost everything has been said by now in the media. Every angle and possibility has been plowed over by opinion pieces. This is not my specialty anyways, so I will instead share anecdotes about that cultural context that my friends have asked about, from the little that I have experienced. My first observation is the overlap of cultures I witnessed in Egypt. In Alexandria, where I stayed, there are a wealth of artifacts from the Classical period, from when Alex was a center of Hellenism. The nucleus of this center was the famous library, the Biblioteca Alexandrina. The library has been rebuilt as a symbol of this heritage, and in the basement of the building there is a small museum of Classical and Egyptian artifacts. In at least one case, the Classical and Egyptian cultures converge. This piece is a statue of a Greek goddess with flowing robes, whose chiton is in fact tied up into an obvious knot with one tail, forming the symbol of the Egyptian key of life, the ankh. Although “ancient Egypt” sounds very far away, such influences throughout the centuries have never left. Even in the modern day there exist religious practices along the Nile that can only be traced to Pharoahnic origins. That is to say, Egypt is an Arab country, it has strong cultural ties to Islam and other Islamic nations, but that isn’t the full picture. Another facet of the mosaic is the sense of juxtaposition within Egyptian culture. I attended a beautiful wedding with the bride in full white Swarovski-crystal hijab while her teenage sister wore a red strapless dress. As for the issue of dress there is simply great variety across the spectrum. One extreme was a fancy beach outside Alexandria called Agami, where girls under SKYY vodka tents turned to tan their skin clad in silver lame bikinis, eyes closed and iPod headphones on. But the average outfit on the street in July consisted of a long denim skirt and a turtleneck with a headscarf in matching colors. Dress is just one obvious example, but there are other rifts along cultural, religious and political lines, like in any country, that bare the sometimes divergent values of this society. My mental geography of my neighborhood in Alex was bounded by two very unrelated locales. To the west was Mecca Juice. The name tells all for this veritable Mecca of any kind of fresh juice imaginable, mixed with sugarcane or Oreos. It is an after school hangout near the train station that I frequented. To the East the boundary was a gas station. It was seared in my memory as the spot where blogger-dissident Khaled Saeed was murdered several weeks before I arrived. This was the only inkling of rebellion that I was exposed to while I was there, although there were smaller protests already occurring last summer. These fragments don’t create a complete picture of Egypt and honestly, whatever picture existed has been cracked in these past few weeks. Something new will necessarily emerge. These themes of overlap and juxtaposition will nevertheless influence what happens next and contribute to the mosaic that is still being constructed. The winter of 2011 will become a large shard in the composition of Egypt’s image. Perhaps it will depict the mouth.

Original Author: Amelia Brown