The Awkward Questions they Ask us in Egypt: Rent and Religion

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This is an archive of our letter sent on 1 Feb 2019.

Sometimes it’s easier to adopt a different personality, even though we hate doing so.

Take anywhere in Egypt.

The most common questions we hear are “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?”

(From foreign friends, we often hear “Is Egypt Safe?”, for which we wrote an article. Also “How’s your Arabic?” which is answered at this point with our Day 30 video!)

Then there’s Awkward Question Number 1:

“How much do you spend on rent?”

?? I don’t know why it’s so easy to get here.

We tell them, because it’s not much, though so far haven’t made “AirBnB” understood.

I mean, we’re rich here. To the point where it’s embarrassing.

One time, when buying bottled water (rich!), we had a confusing encounter with the shopkeeper when I tried to hand him a 50 pound note for the box.

  • Shopkeeper: “This is a 50 piaster note.”
  • Me: “…What?”
  • Him: “This is 50 piasters. not pounds.”
  • Me: “…What’s a ‘piaster’?”

It’s this:

A 50 piaster note is equivalent to about 2-3 USD cents. It is the amount of money most people lose around the house, but it buys bread.

A piaster is money. It’s the equivalent of “cents”. I had no idea that even existed. 50 piasters is worth a couple of cents in any other western currency, most of which have done away with coins with value less than 5c. In Egypt, this buys you a piece of bread.

In The Simple Life, Paris Hilton didn't know what Wal-Mart was.
From The Simple Life. Reference courtesy of Jo.

The reason they’re asking about rent, of course, is the massive wealth-poverty gap that exists in Cairo and in Egypt in general. Cairo’s currency, the Egyptian Pound (EGP, but represented locally by LE, livre égyptienne, and described verbally with the word gineh, from the UK English “guinea” for a pound), has nose-dived over the last four decades, and super quickly since about 2000. Just 20 years ago, one US dollar would get you 4 Egyptian pounds. In 2019: almost 20.

And for locals, a pound doesn’t even go as far as it used to, especially since the 2016 floating and devaluation. And no, salaries haven’t gone up to match. While most produce is not imported, prices rise when the currency drops, and everyone pays more for the same things. It’s an old story.

Working class folk in Egypt think of the Egyptian Pound roughly the way people in the West think of a UK pound, Euro or dollar

The chart below can’t even capture it properly without going logarithmic, because over 40 years (1975-2015) the value of the EGP went from $2.50 to $0.06. I mean…

Source: Googling, fierce slides skills, emojipedia

 

How did the dramatic devaluation of the Egyptian Pound happen?? Well, guesswork (I mean… “economics”) aside, let’s look at what the pound’s value means for everyday people. Because tourists say “wow, Egypt’s cheap” when really they should be saying a) “wow, Egypt’s economy is in trouble” and b) “wow, people in Egypt really struggle”.

An average family makes 2-4000 LE a month here, which is about US$100-200 a month. A proper middle-class family (e.g. has travelled abroad) is making something like $500-800 a month. Rent on a 3-bedroom apartment is about $200 a month, outside the city centre; less for smaller places. An average meal is about $1-2, or $3-4 if you go near the centre of town to a place with chairs.

Average taxi rides cost $1. A packet of fresh bread is $0.25. A carton of milk is 50c. Go shopping for a few days worth of vegetables and you’ll spend $2-3.

But to help you frame this in local terms: working class folk in Egypt think of the Egyptian Pound roughly the way people in the West think of a UK pound, Euro or Dollar (roughly. Same order of magnitude).

If someone told you “this sandwich is $25” you’d tell them to go jump into the Nile. You’re spending $5 on a sandwich, no more. That’s what people pay here: 5 LE gets a couple of falafel sandwiches.

But if you think of the taxi rides, bread, milk and vegetable shopping run in local terms, it’s like telling you it’ll cost you $40 for a return trip from work, $5 for bread that is sold on the side of the road and covered in dust and exhaust fumes, $10 for milk for your family today and $50 for some average vegetables off a donkey cart. “Are you kidding??” you’ll yell at me. And you’d be right. That’s how people feel here: they don’t make much money, and it doesn’t go as far as it used to.

One of my teachers put it like this: a month’s working-class salary in Egypt buys you about 10kg of cheap, basic meat. In the US, a similar working class salary gets you about 200kg of beef at $10/kilo. Meat here is a luxury.

Meanwhile, the breakfast falafel (ta’miyya as it’s called, and actually made of fava beans, not chickpeas, and actually more delicious… but I digress) shop is next to a phone shop that sells a basic Android phone for a months’s salary. And across from a place where a haircut and shave will cost you a day’s wages.

When a despondent-looking person asks us for money, they ask for one pound. It’s five cents to us, the kind of money we regularly lose around the house. That one LE gets them food. When we tip the Taxi/uber driver 5 LE ($0.25), we just gave them a quarter of their take-home.

We’re wealthy here, but it doesn’t feel good.

And then there’s Awkward Question Number 2:

“What’s your religion?”

This is another question that keeps coming up.

It’s mostly benign. It’s like, I think, “where did you go to school” for Americans or “who’s your team” for Australians. (Don’t ask me, please.)

We tried lying about it to avoid problems, but hated it. There’s something gut-wrenching about having to lie about who you are. Usually we can deflect with a vague response:

  • “I haven’t decided between religions. I’m studying them.” Not quite honest, but gets a good response. And we definitely are interested in the people and their relationship with religion and cultural identity.
  • My grandfather was a Muslim.” He was, briefly. Or for Jo “my family is Christian.” True. This lets people make the connection with cultural background, without us having to talk religion.

But then there was this form that we encountered when renewing our visas:

On official government forms in Egypt it is common to ask what religion we are. It can be difficult to know what to write for "Religion".

What does one write when the government asks you your religion?

Can we leave it blank? We didn’t find out. I overheard people around us talking about it, saying things like “Church of England”. We chose to trust our guts and wrote something down and hoped for no follow-up questions.

The problem is more serious for minorities. Egypt’s constitution recognises the right to worship for people of “heavenly religions” (al-adyaan as-samawiyyah, الأديان السماوية), which means “Abrahamic”: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Statistically, it’s the former two. The Jewish community is small in Egypt, with Muslims and Christians making up roughly 90% and 10% of the population respectively. Life already is rough if you’re a Copt in Egypt. If you’re anything else, with official declarations that you are not allowed to enrol in school or indeed exist as a person, it’s worse.

Our friends, language partners and teachers identify as either Muslim or Christian. Which one they are is what determines what’s on their national ID card, who they can marry (also dependant on gender), what they put on forms, which festivals they celebrate, what they eat or don’t eat at what times (for Muslims, the diet and Ramadan, for observant Coptic Christians, some form of diet for over half the year), prayers they say, greetings they prefer (Muslims prefer salaam alaeikum, Christians prefer equivalents of good morning/afternoon, though in practise everyone says everything) and a few other superficial things. It also implies friendship circles and relationships. Most keep mostly within their own circles. “I don’t have any Muslim friends” one of my Christian teachers told me. (Of course it’s all a matter degree; there’s lots of general mixing.)

But what’s interesting to me is that religion doesn’t define cultural norms.

Take alcohol. It’s banned in Islam, though not in Christianity. In practise anyone can get it — it’s not illegal in Egypt, just not as common. But in reality, people don’t automatically drink if they’re Christian. Nor do they abstain just because they’re Muslim. We know Muslims and Christians who both drink and abstain. Maybe Muslims are more likely to hide it from parents
and grandparents.

Or take relationships and sex. Let’s put to one side what part of marriage or chastity is religion (whichever religion) and what part is culture. The important thing is that in Egypt, culture is almost uniform. Casual dating is frowned upon. Engagements happen in the same way, often by a parent showing a photo of a girl (that the parent received from the other parent) to a boy and saying “what do you think?” and then the families meeting. Children come after marriage. Homosexuality is not technically illegal but can be prosecuted (like last week when a TV presenter was sentenced to a year in jail for interviewing a gay guest) in many ways. As one friend put it when describing all this, “We say we’re Christians living with Muslim culture”.

It’s probably just Egyptian culture. We’re still learning what it means to be Egyptian, and will share more on that soon.

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