Initiative to preserve Egyptian identity: Proud to be Egyptian

Mai Samih , Sunday 15 Aug 2021

A group of university students is aiming to help Egyptian young people be more proud of being Egyptian


Some young people in Egypt today may feel alienated and unable to be proud of their origins, in some cases because of the lack of job opportunities, like in the case of fresh graduates.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), in March 2021 the unemployment rate in Egypt was 7.4 per cent, a figure that reflects a lack of opportunities for many young people, perhaps making them feel that they do not fully belong to their country. Consequently, they may seek other countries to work in to make a living or to be able to start a family.

Some young people have started an initiative to help overcome some of these feelings of alienation called Eftakher Enak Masri (Be proud to be an Egyptian), which Adel John, a senior mass communication student at a private university in Cairo, and his colleagues Reem Tarek, Mohamed Suleiman, and Hussein Rashad set up to help young Egyptians feel more of a sense of belonging to their country.

“The initiative started with the aim of speaking about language, because we realised that young people constantly use Franco-Arab or even English on social media, and we felt there was a problem for them in using Arabic. We wanted to encourage young people to use the Arabic language more. However, when we did our research we found that it is not only about the lack of Arabic; it is about all aspects of Egyptian identity that may be negatively looked upon by some Egyptian young people,” John, 22, said.

Before starting their initiative, they conducted a survey among 272 participants. They asked questions about all aspects of identity and found that 61 per cent of the respondents were more comfortable using a mixture of Arabic and English while speaking than Arabic alone.

“The idea is to preserve the Egyptian identity and to point out the importance of doing so. This includes all aspects of this identity, like the language, food, fashion, architecture, and customs and traditions,” John said, adding that educating young people about their identity is essential to save it from being replaced by another one, for example a Western identity.

“We thought of working on the initiative because of the changes in Egyptian society. Some people are so influenced by western civilisation that they imitate what westerners do after seeing them on television or on social media, and this may be a huge problem because these things may not be acceptable in an Eastern society,” he added.

“For instance, there are many young people who know nothing about our history and our customs and traditions and who only speak English or Franco-Arabic due to their education. They may believe that this is what will help them find jobs and advance in society, although this has nothing to do with reality. Some young people even deal with each other like Westerners, gradually erasing their identity.”

“In order to spread our ideas, we are working on social-media platforms and writing posts on a daily basis that range from entertainment to education. Through these, we aim at teaching people about all aspects of their identity. For example, we talk about the language we use, Egyptian Arabic, and its etymology. We think it is a good idea to study our Egyptian dialect of Arabic because the fact that it is influenced by ancient Egyptian makes it unique compared to any other dialect,” he said.

In his book The Origins of Slang traced to the Ancient Egyptian Language, Egyptian writer Sameh Maqar says that there are many words used by Egyptians today that were originally ancient Egyptian, including the word amen used at the end of most prayers. This is derived from the ancient Egyptian word amn, which meant “he who is not seen by human eyes” or “the hidden one,” as is stated in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Shana wa ranna is an Egyptian slang expression for “famous and great”, and this is derived from the ancient Egyptian words snw (high position or status) and rn (greatness/glory).

Because ancient Egypt was an agricultural society, words like dr (to sift) were found in the vocabulary of Egyptian farmers almost at the same time as the word dari (to sift in Arabic).

Toria is an Egyptian slang word for “axe,” a tool used in farming, which was derived from the ancient Egyptian word tor (cane) and then developed into the Coptic word tori. Modern Egyptians also use the word waha for an oasis, which was wahat in ancient Egyptian.

The ancient Egyptians used almost the same words for measuring units as some people do today. Shebr in modern Egyptian slang was shseb (the width of an open hand or about 23cm) in ancient Egyptian. The ancient Egyptians used the word baaar to mean sea, and this was developed in Arabic to bahr (sea) and berkat (lake), or berka in Egyptian dialect.

PROMOTION: John and his team are distributing flyers to promote the initiative on their university campus, and they have organised interactive games to introduce students to the project.

John believes that to overcome the problem of alienation in Egypt today, Egyptian youth need to learn to love their identity in all its aspects and know the importance of their country and to see how it is different from others.

If they read more about the 7,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, they will feel more special and that they come from a special country, he said. This will also increase their sense of patriotism. “The more young people know about their country, the more they will be attached to it and feel part of it,” John said.

He gives some practical examples of correcting negative thoughts among some of the young people his team has worked with. “We started to inform people about the reasons we started the initiative, and we gave them a definition of identity and told them about its importance and how important it is to preserve it. Then we talked about the elements of an identity, like the language and its etymology and how our language is special in the Arab region and how our ancestors influenced the current language,” he said.

“We even gave them examples of some words that are originally from the ancient Egyptian language, like sahd (hot weather). We started to talk about the food that Egypt has been famous for from the times of the ancient Egyptians, like koshary [a mixture of rice, onions, lentils, and spaghetti served with chili sauce].”

In his book The Ancient Egyptian Civilisation: A Cognitive Perspective, author Nabil Tawfik says that the ancient Egyptians recorded aspects of their daily lives on the walls of tombs in the Giza and Sakkara areas in ways that are strikingly similar to some of those used today.

He gives the example of images drawn on the walls of the Mariorka and Ka Gemni Tombs, both dating back to the Old Kingdom, the era in which the Giza Pyramids were built. For example, in the Mariorka Tomb, there is an image of three men, probably fishermen, fishing in the Nile Delta. The fish include catfish, tilapia, parrot fish, and Nile snake fish, some of which are still eaten by Egyptians today.

Another picture shows men trying to catch a tuna fish with metal hooks and even spears that resemble those used to hunt whales nowadays. Today’s Egyptian fishermen sometimes use hand nets that resemble those used in drawings in ancient Egyptian tombs.

The ancient Egyptians also made bread similar to that eaten today in Egyptian villages, which they called bataw. Traces of it are on display at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo. Other types of food like the bread stuffed with mincemeat that is sometimes eaten today is also on display.

“Everything has changed,” said one of the commentators on the Facebook page of the initiative, “all due to the Western media that has influenced ours and has influenced our language, our cuisine, and our fashions.”

Some celebrities are starting to encourage the initiative, including Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawas.

The group is currently focusing on Greater Cairo and Giza because the problem may be more apparent there compared to other governorates. “These two governorates are the most highly populated, so this enables us to reach more people. The biggest problem is the pandemic, because we are currently unable to take our work to other governorates or see people face-to-face, which is always more effective,” John said.  

“The most important way to make young people more patriotic is for them to know the history of their country and all aspects of their identity,” he commented. “People should read more about their history or even listen to audio books about Egyptian history. They could watch documentaries about the history of Egypt, for example, about the culture, the etymology of the Egyptian language, or even the Egyptian cuisine. The most important thing is that Egyptian young people should know who they are.”

According to Tawfik, the ancient Egyptians documented the work of peasants working in the fields, showing them cutting wheat using iron sickles, for example. In one example, a farmer is shown playing the flute during cultivation. It was an ancient Egyptian tradition to sing and play music during work, and today this method is still used today on many Egyptian farms.

There are other habits that our ancestors had that we still have today. One example is that the ancient Egyptians used to thresh wheat in the same way we do today. This is demonstrated in the British Museum in London, where there is a model of an ancient Egyptian grain silo with a woman sitting in the yard using a traditional wheat thresher after the wheat has been sifted by others.

There are images on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs showing barbers using much the same tools that are still used today in some Egyptian villages. The ancient Egyptians also used to carry bread baskets on their heads, just like some rural Egyptians do today. The way they would carry water to their houses using a stick with two metal containers attached to it with a rope on each side is how it is also done today in some villages by sakkas (water distributers).

Current methods of mixing bread dough and cutting wheat are much the same as those used by the ancient Egyptians. The same thing goes for making mud bricks, hand weaving linen, and shoemaking. They also had something like the kottab (village schools) that resemble those still found in mosques in the countryside today. The ancient Egyptians also put pencils above their ears until they were needed, as is shown in many images, and this is done by many people in Egypt today.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus recorded the habits of the ancient Egyptians in his writings. He said that they would go out to nearby gardens to eat, especially during feasts like Sham Al-Nessim, the spring festival, which is still celebrated today. They would eat green chickpeas, mullet fish, and onions on this occasion, which is still a habit today.

John and his colleagues are planning to spread their work to other universities after the pandemic is over.

“We plan to start producing advertisements about all aspects of Egyptian identity and posting them on social media,” he said. “We will be distributing flyers and organising interactive games on Facebook and Instagram, this time introducing more aspects of Egyptian identity like clothing and architecture,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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