Egyptians are a unique race, not only for having lived in the same geographical location for millennia, but also for having been occupied for hundreds of years at a stretch by foreign armies and still retain their uniquely Egyptian characteristics. I don’t know if this has something to do with the particular genes Egyptians carry, or is it the sum total of such a long history of civilization that has left its genetic imprint on the inherent Egyptian character.
From time immemorial Egyptians have been agricultural people who lived in the Nile valley. They have the same characteristics of all such societies whose life is placid and whose rhythm is slow and steady. A settled, sedate kind of life that is very patient as this is a highly needed characteristic to help in waiting for the crops to grow. This sedentary life, in the sense of living in one place has taken such root in the Egyptian character that when there were great troubles in Egypt it was the very last resort for Egyptians to emigrate. Moving from one city to another is a life shaking experience even moving from one neighborhood to another is something that is not liked. When children grow up and get married the first thing they do is look for living quarters near their parents. If for any reason they cannot, then it is considered a drawback to the marriage.
The fact that Egyptians have remained essentially the same over thousands of years is a kind of miracle in itself. Both in ancient and in modern times foreign invading forces, many of which remained for centuries, have occupied Egypt. Yet Egyptians, though they did take on some of these invaders’ skills have remained uniquely Egyptian, and have managed to Egyptianize these skills and adapt them to also become uniquely Egyptian. Such an example is the ability to take certain meals imported by the occupying forces, give them a twist or two, add an ingredient or two, and you have a totally new Egyptian dish.
Christianity spread in Egypt but did not really change the Egyptian character, which is basically a very peaceful one. Islam spread centuries later, and still did not change the Egyptian character, on the contrary, the war-like attitude and façade of that new religion coming from the arid rough desert carried by occupying and invading armies, was tempered and toned down, where all the peace, beauty and love inherent to that religion were brought out by the Egyptian character. To this day Islam of Egypt is considered as the centrist Islam when compared to that now being advocated by a rightist group like the Wahabi faction. So even religion was Egyptianized.
The heritage of millennia of civilization, of language and of customs and genetically inherited beliefs has left its imprint on the society of the present in many a shared custom by both Christian and Muslim Egyptians. The rituals and conventions followed when there is a death in a family are socially still the same, as are they in the case of marriage and birth. The basics remain the same and differ only slightly from one region to another. Even the language used by Egyptians, though it has been enriched by other languages, still has very many words that had come down from the ancient Egyptians, and which carry the same meaning.
A great sense of humor and a child like ability to enjoy innocent pranks is yet another trait of the Egyptian character that has baffled many a scholar of this unique people. This trait becomes sublime during crises. The worse the crisis, the funnier Egyptians become. It is a tragic comedy that Egyptians have gone through many periods of extreme troubles, which have resulted in some of the most humorous writings, drawings and jokes. This sense of humor had lightened many a disaster and had probably saved the sanity of many Egyptians. Seeing the humor in the direst situations is a uniquely Egyptian trait.
Running parallel to that is yet another trait, that of the full enjoyment of life. This has brought out such inherent talent to the surface as to leave you with the impression that this is a people of artists. And they are, each in his or her field. The crisis of the last three years since the revolution of January 25, 2011, has brought out such artistic talents. The jokes that came out during those 18 days when all the people lived in Tahrir Square were just one part of the talents displayed. A visual art that really left an imprint was the graffiti on the walls. There were huge barricades put up in the middle of town to try to contain the hordes of people from running over into the adjoining neighborhood to Tahrir Square that housed a large number of Embassies. These were high walls erected by placing huge blocks of concrete one on top of the other. Unknown artists then painted on these walls, and some of those paintings were a sight to behold. True many had themes depicting their demands, but still they were truly artistic.
The slogans used during those days were very poetic, not only did they rhyme beautifully, but also they usually had a biting sarcasm that tickled Egyptian humor and vindicated previous frustrations. Songs also broke out by the dozens and new young talented singers spontaneously appeared and took center stage. Art of every form flourished among a people who felt they had been restricted for too long, but were now given the opportunity to express themselves, and they did. There are countless recordings of street vendors who have turned into the Egyptian version of rap artists, of ordinary people with fantastic voices breaking into song while standing in line waiting for their turn. The inherent artistic talent of Egyptians has boiled to the surface and overflowed through the crisis of the revolution.
Need is the mother of invention, and never has that need and the talent of invention been taken to such lengths as by Egyptians. Very few places in the world would you find a fifty year old fridge still working, or a seventy year old car still running. It probably doesn’t look anything like its original self, but that is because many a new part has been added to replace an old one that has broken or even worn down, but with a uniquely Egyptian cast to it. So the fridge or the car might still work but is nearly a totally new and therefore different one from the original. Egyptians develop this talent usually because they cannot afford to buy a new fridge or car. And this financial constraint has made them very careful with their property, so careful they sometimes become hoarders.
Hoarding is another very prevalent characteristic of Egyptians. Look at the balcony of any Egyptian family, or if they have one, their storage room, and you will understand. No carton boxes are EVER thrown away, that borders on the sacrilegious. You will find jars of every shape and size, bottles, any piece of electric equipment that was broken, even little gadgets that stopped working and old newspapers. All this is kept with the idea in mind of maybe one day needing one of those items.
One of the most endearing qualities of Egyptians is their kindness to one another and to strangers. It is very basic and very simple, straightforward kindness of heart. Rich or poor, young or old, there is a human generosity belied by the economic poverty, there is a sense of real happiness and satisfaction in the giving, even if it is just that of attention, time or sympathy of one human being to another. Rarely is there an Egyptian who would deliberately embarrass another for the very important aspect of saving face is sacrosanct. Egyptians might offend or even hurt only in anger, and that is one of Egyptian failings.
Egyptians as a race are very emotional. We love greatly, we laugh heartily, we cry with abandon and we become gloriously angry though we cool down quickly. In many cases these emotions take over completely to the detriment of logical thought. Our moods could swing from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes, but we cool down very quickly and the basic placid nature of the agricultural community takes over once again.
If you trip and fall in a street in Egypt, you will find a hundred helping hands pulling you up, a chair materializes out of nowhere into which you are pushed, a glass of water is held to your lips as this is a cure-all in the eyes of Egyptians and you are fawned upon and pampered till you are over your fright. Any bumps or bruises will be immediately tended to, someone volunteering perfume as an antiseptic, another some tissues if you have a scratch or two. You will be offered a lift to wherever you were going, or asked if you want someone called to you. Your belongings that fell all over the pavement when you tripped will be gathered and stashed safely under your chair and if anything is damaged, deeply and vociferously lamented. You would not be left alone to continue on your way until all those who gathered to help have offered you assistance one way or another and until they are totally reassured that you are well enough to go.
That is Egypt and those are the Egyptians.