The most common questions we hear when living in Egypt are “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?”
This is to be expected. Maybe it’s a little earlier than usual to be asked what our name is, but it’s also one of the most basic phrases you learn in another language, so it’s expected that we’d hear it.
Then there’s Awkward Question Number 1 that we’re asked while living in Egypt:
“How Much Do You Spend on Rent?”
We tell people how much we spend on rent, because it’s not much to us, and it helps people understand the life of a tourist, though so far haven’t made “Airbnb” understood.
I mean, even as low-cost digital nomads, we’re rich in Egypt. To the point where it’s embarrassing at times because we don’t understand the money at all.
Editor’s note: For reference, at the time of publishing, we were staying in Dokki (ad-do”i), a nice play to stay in Cairo. We were, at the time, paying about US$25 a night for a room in a nice apartment, shared just with the owner.
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’?”
This is a 50 piaster note:
A piaster is money. It’s the equivalent of “cents”. I had no idea that even existed because the value of the Egyptian Pound is so low.
Fifty 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.
The reason Egyptians asking about rent, of course, is the massive wealth-poverty gap that exists in Cairo and in Egypt in general.
Egypt’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 twenty years ago, one US dollar would get you four Egyptian pounds. These days, one USD gets almost twenty EGP — an almost five-fold drop.
And for locals, an Egyptian 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…
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 month’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, and just a way of getting to know someone. 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.)
The problem is that the honest answer, that we’re atheists who long ago abandoned religion, begets a conversation that we don’t really want to have with strangers.
We tried lying about religion, pretending we have one, to avoid getting into things, but there’s something upsetting 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 benign get-to-know-you questions aside, sometimes you’re asked your religion in an official sense:
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 is interpreted as “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.
The religion people identify with in Egypt determines a number of things:
- What’s on their national ID card
- What they put on forms
- Whom they can marry (also dependant on gender)
- 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 aleikum, Christians prefer equivalents of good morning / afternoon, though in practise everyone says everything)
- And a few other superficial things.
Religion also implies what friendship circles and relationships look like. Most Egyptian Christians or Muslims 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 of friendship; 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, and don’t automatically abstain if 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 in Egypt is not technically illegal but can be prosecuted in many ways — like when, during our stay, a TV presenter was sentenced to a year in jail for interviewing a gay guest.
As one Christian friend put it when describing all this, “We say we’re Christians living with Muslim culture”.
But the bottom line: For foreigners visiting, Egypt is a relatively free country. In principle, you can answer this question however you want. Just exercise appropriate tact.