For most Egyptians life and lifestyle have changed little for hundreds of years. The 20th century has certainly made impressions in the form of brand-name soda pop, Levis and TV. However, for the majority fellahin (peasant farmers) population, things today are much the same as they have always been. There’s a prevailing attitude amongst most Egyptians that whatever will be will be. An almost fatalistic outlook prevails, born out of thousands of years of plague, famine, invasion and flood. Life for most Egyptians is prescribed by the same circumstances that existed for the generations before them.
Painting has been part of Egyptian life since the first daubs were applied to the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara in 24th century BC. But it was the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom who were especially keen on adorning the interiors of their tombs with vivid images of the afterworld and resurrection. Contemporary Egyptian painting was heavily influenced by western art and it wasn’t until midway through this century that Egyptian painters began to break away from these influences. Some of the country’s better known contemporary artists include Gazbia Serri, Inji Eflatoun, Abdel Wahab Morsi, Adel el-Siwi and Wahib Nasser.
Popular music in Egypt meant, until recently, the ubiquitous voice of Om Kolthum, the ‘mother of Egypt’. She died in 1975 but her music and her legend outlive her. Her songs, based on poetry and operettas, are the best known Egyptian music to western ears. Other notables were Abdel Halim al-Hafez and Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab. Elements of western pop music are increasingly being integrated into contemporary Egyptian music, and exponents of newer styles include Iheb Tawfik, Mohammed Fouad and Hakim.
Although Egypt is famous for belly dancing, wiggling the body around is generally regarded as vulgar and a sign of promiscuity. Many of the dancers at belly-dancing shows at the resorts and tourist hotels are in fact European or American, because it’s considered improper for Arab women to behave so provocatively. Those dancers who are Egyptian, like Fifi Abdou, have bodyguards for protection against the excesses of Islamic zealotry. However, at large family gatherings – at wedding or private parties – dancing is sometimes part of the fun.
Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988; his masterpiece is considered to be The Cairo Trilogy. Mahfouz has more than 40 novels and 30 screenplays to his name. His 1956 work Children of the Alley is still banned in Egypt, and many people regard it as blasphemous (in 1994 an attempt was made on the life of the 83-year-old author and it’s thought that the book was the cause). Other notable authors include Tewfiq Hakim, Yahya Haqqi and Yusuf Idris. After Mahfouz, Nawal al-Saadawi is probably Egypt’s best known author, although she’s better regarded abroad than at home. Her most acclaimed works are Woman at Point Zero, The Hidden Face of Eve (banned in Egypt) and Death of an ex-Minister. Egypt’s current best-known cultural export is Ahdaf Soueif. She writes in English and lives in London; her latest book, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.