After being in Egypt for five months now, I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good grasp on the Egyptian lifestyle. It differs greatly from that of an American lifestyle, (i.e. the only lifestyle I’ve ever known). Here are some of the key differences about life in Egypt versus America:
Driving in Egypt is… Chaos. You might be able to say “organized chaos” if you’re feeling positive. It’s hard to believe that there are traffic laws when you see a 12 year old driving a pick-up truck down the street, or a father with his wife and two kids zooming down the road on a motorbike, or a mother holding her 3 month old in the driver’s seat while talking on the phone and driving like a Nascar racer. Alas, there are in fact driving laws, however they are not very common, at least from what I’ve seen thus far. I have seen traffic officers and even some traffic lights in the more popular, high volume roads, but aside from that they are sparse.
In the majority of places, you can drive at any speed and in any place that is flat enough for your car to trudge over without causing you too much trouble. There are usually two sides of the road, however it’s not uncommon to see drivers going in both directions on the same side. Honking is a necessity. Egyptians honk just out of habit. If it’s been more than 30 seconds and you haven’t honked, you must just be tired or possibly a foreigner. They honk when no one is even around, to establish their presence I assume. Seat belts are just an accessory, small children sitting in the front seat makes keeping an eye on them easier, rolling down your window to yell at other drivers and even getting out of the car to confront them is normal, and so much more.
Driving in Egypt is truly an experience. Although it’s hectic, loud, bumpy, and usually scary, there is a silent system that makes it all work. I don’t think I’ll be getting behind the wheel here any time soon (or at all), but fortunately there’s not a huge necessity for me to do so, which brings me to my next point.
Shopping in Egypt as a foreigner takes dedication and patience. It takes courage and it takes an open mind to have a successful run. The city I live in is has all your basic necessities within a few miles of each other; this is the main reason why having a car (if you’re not working) isn’t completely necessary. The best method of transportation for this kind of shopping is walking and/or taking a tuk-tuk (small auto-rickshaws that will take you up and down the street for as cheap as 3 egp). And if you’re feeling extra lazy or just want to make the trip short and sweet you can take an Uber and have the driver wait for you while you get your groceries.
Getting necessities is not the same here as it is in America. In America, I’d maybe stop by two different stores (Publix and Trader Joe’s) to get everything I’d need for a couple of weeks. Here, I have two main grocery stores I switch between depending on what items I want for the week. One store is decently priced and has mostly everything, and the other is a little over-priced but has more imported goods that make being a foreigner a little easier to cope with. I do not get my produce and dairy from these stores however. Every Friday there is an aunty who comes with fresh eggs, fateer (delicious specialty bread that resembles trini-roti), butter, cheese, and honey. It’s become a nice tradition to wake up extra early on Friday mornings to meet her and give her some business for her high quality products. Next, I head to the veggie truck (yes, an actual truck), that this gentlemen parks right next to the aunty, and I get my main vegetables. After this, I’ll head across the street to the veggie stand that also has fruit to complete the produce part of my shopping. After this I head to the chicken butcher, here I’ll choose a nice, healthy looking chicken and wait for the nice man to come back with it all ready to be cooked (fresh, organic, and halal). Finally, I’ll head to the meat butcher and point out on the hanging cow leg what kind of steak I’d like and how I’d like it cut.
For me, the hardest part about this type of shopping is not that there are so many places to go, but the fact that it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll get what you need. One week the aunty may not be there, leaving you eggless until the following week, or one day the veggie shop may be closed for an unapparent reason, or he may not have the fruits and veggies you’d been planning to get, or maybe the grocery store stopped selling the imported goods you liked. Yup, this is typical. It may not seem like a big deal, but since it’s already quite a task to get your shopping done in the first place, it’s upsetting when you can’t get what you need. On the bright side, shopping for food here is ridiculously cheap!
This is an obvious one. Even though we are leaning Arabic here at Studio Arabiya, it can only help us so much when it comes to interacting with the locals. We are learning Classical Arabic but only Modern Egyptian Arabic is spoken here, which for someone learning Classical Arabic is like a very complicated, jumbled up form of a beautiful language. It’s less common to find someone who speaks classical Arabic than it is to find someone who knows some English. And speaking it usually warrants a funny look from the locals followed by a befuddled “ehh?” At least when you speak in English they know you are a foreigner and will simply find you fascinating, not weird.
Children bring out the beauty of Egypt. There are children anywhere and everywhere at any time of day. They are curious and carefree, a little rough around the edges but so happy. They are kind and respect their elders. I can’t count the times the children in our neighborhood have run up to me just to give a greeting and a smile. They are more independent and mature than any kids you’d see in the US. Children here are always playing in the streets, whether they’re playing soccer, or with fire crackers, or simply playing in the sand, they enjoy being outside more than anything else. I love this. I love to see the carefree and natural spirit of children, something you don’t get to see in the states because of all the distractions. Along with their playful nature, they are also very mature. It’s common for parents to send their young kids down the street to run errands. It’s also common for young boys to work in the shops on the street, or as delivery boys, and even as tuk-tuk drivers.
This next difference could quite possibly be the worst. Although there are many facets of Egyptian life that are “modern,” Egypt does not have an organized garbage removal system. There are garbage trucks, but it’s unclear if they have a specific route and then even if they’ve picked up the garbage from cans, where they dump it is questionable. I thought litter in America was bad, but I was wrong. There is garbage and debris everywhere here. And the Egyptians just live with it. In it. When we first arrived this was horrifying for me. It’s still horrifying to me now, however I’ve gotten used to it… For the most part. All I know is, someone would make a lot of money if they helped Egypt with their garbage disposal system.
6. Muslims Everywhere
Finally, the best difference of all – the fact that Egypt is a Muslim majority country. Almost everyone is Muslim, there are masajid on every corner, the athan plays aloud for every prayer, Qur’an is played in shops and over the radio, it’s all beautiful. I love saying salaam (the Islamic greeting of peace), to anyone and everyone, I love wearing my abaya every day and not getting funny looks, and I love hearing the words from the Book of God being read and recited at all times and in all places. This is truly the biggest blessing of all living in Egypt.
With all the differences between living here in Egypt versus living in the US, I’ve really come to appreciate both lifestyles. There are so many things I took for granted in the states and there are so many things that I have now that are not common for some Egyptians. Because of this, I feel very fortunate that I’ve found comfort while living here. I am grateful for the differences; they have truly broadened my mind and allowed me to experience something different that will forever change the way I view life.