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Customs of Egypt

Marriage and Family

Traditionally, marriages were arranged between heads of families, often with little input from the couple involved. Now, however, individuals have more say about whom they marry. Because marriages join not just two people but two families, both families are heavily involved in wedding preparations. Housing is expensive and hard to acquire, and engagements may last until the couple has saved enough money for a home.

It is customary for extended families, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, to live under the same roof. In cities, nuclear families are more common, although close ties are usually maintained, with cousins as well as siblings. In most homes, a girl is protected by her brothers and may be accompanied by them in public. Traditionally, a man’s honor is based on how well he protects the women in his care. Parents often play a large role in planning the future of their children. Children assume responsibility for supporting and caring for their parents in their old age.

Eating

The diet of many Egyptians includes rice, bread, fish, lamb, chicken, and turkey. Tahina (a spread made with sesame, oil, garlic, and lemon), tomatoes, yogurt, and cucumbers are also eaten with meals. Traditional foods include a fava bean dish called foul, stuffed vegetables, ta’miyya (balls of fried chickpeas and spices, also called falafel), and flat Egyptian bread. Bread is eaten with every meal. Kofta (ground meat with spices skewered and grilled over a fire) and kebab (similar to kofta except the meat is not ground) are two popular local dishes. Meat is expensive, however. Snack food includes pita bread served with spreads such as tahina, hoummos (made with chickpeas), and baba ghanoug (made with mashed eggplant and tahina). Stuffed grape leaves, or dolmas, are another specialty. Observant Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.

Socializing

Greetings are often elaborate. Phrases used for greetings depend largely on the differences between the individuals’ social classes. Generally, however, friends of the same sex shake hands and kiss on the right and left cheeks. If the greeting comes after a long absence, the kisses may be repeated more than once, sometimes ending with a kiss to the forehead. Men greet women with a handshake only if the woman extends her hand first. Otherwise, the greeting is verbal. It is considered improper to use first names unless one has been invited to do so. Good friends exchange first names in informal settings, but they may add a title to the first name on formal occasions. A compliment is often returned with another compliment on the same subject or with a wish for Allah’s blessings.

Members of the same sex tend to stand close to one another in conversation, but members of the opposite sex do not. Good friends of the same sex may walk hand in hand in public, and married or engaged couples may walk arm in arm. Otherwise, a man does not touch a woman in public.

Because visiting demonstrates the importance of a relationship, it is one of the most important pastimes in Egypt. Married children often visit parents on Fridays and holidays. Business visits usually begin with light conversation and coffee or tea to establish trust and confidence.

Wealthy men often go to private clubs to socialize. Most men go to coffee shops to relax with friends, smoke water pipes, and play table games such as backgammon and dominoes. Even the smallest village will have at least one coffee shop. Women usually socialize in the home.

Recreation

Soccer is the national sport, inspiring great passion among fans. Clubs offer tennis, squash, swimming, and horseback riding, as well as other sports. In urban areas, many people enjoy going to the cinema; a wide variety of Egyptian and foreign films are shown.

Holidays and Celebrations

In Egypt, the Western Gregorian calendar is used for all business and government purposes, but the lunar calendar is used to calculate the dates of Muslim holidays. The lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar year.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims go without food or drink from sunrise to sundown, and eat only in the evening. ’Aid el-Fitr, the second most important Islamic holiday, is a three-day feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

’Aid el-Adha is the most important Islamic holiday. It is observed by those not on the pilgrimage to Mecca. This holiday commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s behest. Animals are sacrificed by many Egyptian families—particularly wealthy ones—to symbolize Allah’s allowing Abraham to substitute a ram for his son. The meat from the sacrifice is shared with less privileged families. Muhammad’s birthday (Maulid el-Nabey) is another important Muslim holiday. Special sweets are sold in the streets during this colorful celebration.

Sham el-Nasseem, the Monday after Coptic Easter, is a festival celebrating spring that has been observed for thousands of years. It is a day to breathe in the spring breezes (nasseem means “spring breeze”) and carry a picnic to the banks of the Nile. Other Coptic holidays include Christmas (7 January) and Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday (in the spring).

Labor Day is observed on 1 May. Revolution Day (23 July) celebrates the revolution of 1952, in which Egypt was transformed from a monarchy to an independent republic. Armed Forces Day (6 October) marks Egypt’s surprise 1973 attack on Israel to take back the Sinai Peninsula.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas