by Mona Mikhail
Situated in northeast Africa, Egypt (known since 1971 as the Arab Republic of Egypt) occupies an area of 390,000 square miles (1,010,100 sq. km.). With 90 percent of the land covered by desert, only a small portion of it, about 14,000 square miles, is arable, and it is here that the majority of Egyptians live. Egypt is bordered by Israel to the northeast, the Red Sea to the east, the Sudan to the south, Libya to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. The majority of people in Egypt are Muslim, although some Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church and practice Christianity and an even smaller percentage are Jews.
Ancient Egypt was the cradle of Western Civilization. Here, as early as 4000 B.C., people had come together and formed organized societies. By 3100 B.C., the pharaoh Menes had united the peoples of the Nile delta with those living southward along the river into a single empire. During Egypt's height, its people thrived in the Nile valley; they constructed massive pyramids, created world-renowned art, established an advanced writing system, made advancements in science, built irrigation systems, and developed trade with Middle Eastern and Asian powers. But by 1085 B.C., the Egyptian empire had begun to decay and again divided into Upper and Lower kingdoms—that of the delta and that of the river. Many sought to conquer the valley and claim its riches: Greeks, Romans, Aragians, North Africans, Turks, French, and, most recently, the British. All these people contributed to the rich culture of Egypt.
For centuries, the majority of arable land in Egypt was possessed by a select few. This land was worked by the fellahin, who wielded two to three crops each season, usually keeping one-fourth to one-half of the harvest for themselves. Agricultural reform did not take place until the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Egyptians began to grow cotton in an attempt to establish a market economy rather than simply growing food products. However, when other world markets began producing cotton as well, the market suffered and the well-being of the Egyptian rural class greatly deteriorated.
In 1882 the British assumed economic control of the country and built roads, railways, telegraph systems, and canals. Egypt's royal family and the already wealthy landowners greatly benefitted from British occupation. Although the rural class was heavily taxed, many prospered as well, thus creating a new social class. It was this newly established middle class, along with the nation's armed forces, that instigated Egypt's 1952 Revolution, which freed the country from British occupation and initiated land reform, thus altering the social, economic, and political power of Egypt's ruling families.
In 1956 Egypt elected Gamal Abdal Nasser as its first president. Under Nasser's leadership, in 1962, the newly established national charter limited the amount of land held by farm owners to 100 acres. The remaining land was confiscated by the government, divided into plots, and awarded to the middle and lower classes. Improved housing, transportation, and health care resulted in a significant increase in Egypt's population. Despite the efforts of such leaders as Nasser (who tried to industrialize the country) and Anwar Sadat (who created an open economy) to modernize Egypt, inflation, overpopulation, and the general unrest in the Middle East have hindered the nation's progress.
Modern Egypt is the most populous and most advanced of the Arab nations. Traditionally allied with the Arab cause, it is the seat of the League of Arab States. Egypt has also played a leadership role among the African nations, with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak presiding over the Organization of African Unity. Egypt's social order is partially composed of intellectuals, government officials, urban businessmen, and landowners. It is this segment of the population that has emigrated the most, largely for economic or educational purposes. The vast majority of Egypt's population is composed of rural laborers and factory workers.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
Egyptian Americans are among the more recent groups to have immigrated to the United States. Unlike other peoples of Arab descent who settled in the Americas in large numbers as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the Egyptians, regarded as one of the most sedentary ethnic groups, began to emigrate in significant numbers only during the latter part of the twentieth century. While the majority left for economic or educational reasons, many Copts, Jews, and conservative Muslims emigrated because they were concerned about the political developments in Egypt. Still, thousands of others left after Egypt's 1967 defeat in the Arab-Israeli War; approximately 15,000 Egyptians immigrated to the United States from 1967 to 1977. The past three decades have witnessed unprecedented movements of large Egyptian populations not only to the United States and Canada but also to Australia, Europe, and the Gulf Arab countries.
The majority of the first Egyptian immigrants to the United States comprised educated professionals and skilled workers. Their immigration was eased by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which welcomed certain professionals, especially scientists. Estimates of the number of Egyptian immigrants to the United States have varied from 800,000 to two million, with the largest concentration of Egyptians living in New Jersey, New York, California, Illinois, Florida, and Texas. Climate has had an important influence on the settlement patterns of Egyptian Americans. Accustomed to the warm and temperate climate of their homeland, many Egyptians have gravitated toward America's southern states.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Egyptian immigrants and their American-born children have had little difficulty adjusting to American culture. This is largely due to the strong educational background of most Egyptian Americans. Numerous Egyptian Americans have also married outside their ethnic community, which has further eased their assimilation. Still, Egyptian Americans have united to establish numerous secular organizations, many of which have a professional, academic, or business orientation. These include the Egyptian American Professional Society, the Egyptian Physicians' Association, and the Egyptian Businessmen's Association. Several have also joined the numerous organizations of the more established Arab American community such as the Arab American University Graduates, the American-Arab Relations Committee, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Egyptian cuisine is a mixture of Middle Eastern cuisine and a modified continental (French-style) cuisine. Traditional Egyptian dishes include mullkhia, a thick green soup made from chicken or meat broth (sometimes rabbit). Squab (stuffed pigeon) and fatta, a rice-and-bread dish, are among the many favorites. What came to be known in the United States as falafel is also a favorite, as is baklava. Another popular food is kahk, a sweetbread baked for special feasts. To make kahk, a well-kneaded dough of flour and rarified butter is filled with honey or a mixed-nut filling. The dough is beautifully decorated by a special tool, a minkash, then is baked and sprinkled with powder sugar. Kakh can be purchased at bakeries.
During Lent and Advent, Egyptian Copts do not eat meat or dairy products, a practice that has given rise to many delicious nondairy and meatless grain-based meals that are a delight to the vegetarian and the health-conscious. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork and therefore buy their meats at hallal or kosher butcher shops. In Brooklyn, on Atlantic Avenue, a large concentration of Arab and Muslim shops cater to the needs of the Middle Eastern community at large. Jersey City also has a growing community of Egyptians where one can find most of the specifically Egyptian ingredients to prepare native dishes. Middle Eastern specialty items can be found at grocery stores in almost every major U.S. city., and some staple items—such as pita bread—are found at supermarkets across North America.
Egyptian Americans who live in urban areas do not wear traditional garments. Since the turn of the century, urbanized Egyptians have adopted Western-style clothing, and the vast majority who have come to the United States have retained this custom. It is only in approximately the past two decades that Muslim women have chosen to dress in a traditional Islamic garment consisting of a floor-length, long-sleeved dress and a head covering. Many Muslim women adhere only to the tradition of covering the head, while the vast majority of Egyptian Americans wear the usual Western-style wardrobe. The men wear suits, though on rare occasions they wear a gallabiyya, a long white robe, for prayers or at home.
Most Egyptian holidays are religious observances. There are two major Muslim holidays: Eid al Fitr falls at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), which follows soon after, commemorates the slaughtering of the lamb by the Prophet Abraham and is followed by a pilgrimage. The Islamic New Year as well as the birthday of the Prophet are also important holidays for Muslims. Major holidays are celebrated at the mosques and among friends. Traditionally, children wear new clothes and receive monetary gifts (iddiyya ).
Christian Copts celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, usually on January 6-7 of every year. Easter is a week-long observance of strict religious rituals culminating in Good Friday, a midnight mass on Holy Saturday, and a mass at dawn on Easter Sunday. A secular holiday, the New Year is celebrated by Muslims and Christians.
Another important holiday is Sham al-Nassim, a rite of spring dating to ancient times that is celebrated on the Monday after Easter Sunday. Egyptians go out into the fields or onto the beaches and eat a specially prepared salted fish (fisikh ), onions or shallots, colored hard-boiled eggs, fruits, and sweets. This tradition is dying out in the United States because Monday is a workday. Since Sham al-Nassim is a moveable feast, Egyptians sometimes celebrate it on Easter Sunday so that everyone can participate. It is an occasion when all Egyptians, irrespective of religious faith, can get together and enjoy themselves.
Traditional health care practices and beliefs are rarely practiced by urban dwellers in Egypt. Because the majority of immigrants to the United States are from urban centers, there is no evidence that such practices are being carried over to the United States. A large percentage of the first wave of immigrants were trained as physicians in Egypt and acquired additional fields of specialty in the United States. Many of these physicians serve people in their own communities, who turn to them for advice and medical care and who also find Egyptian American medical doctors a source of comfort, especially if they are still in the midst of overcoming the language barrier.
Ancient Egyptians developed a pictographic and ideographic writing system known as hieroglyphics. With the fall of the Egyptian empire, the language was lost altogether until the recent discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Scientists have since established that this writing system, which functioned both vertically and horizontally in either long or abbreviated forms, has qualities similar to an alphabet.
Arabic has been the common language of all Egyptians since the eighth century. The dialect most often spoken in Egypt is Cairene Arabic, which is also the Arabic dialect most widely known throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Cairene Arabic is widely used by all Egyptian Americans at informal social gatherings. The great popularity of Egyptian singers and movies assists the dissemination of this dialect. Formal Arabic is used in religious services by Muslims and Copts. Recently, Copts have introduced English into their church services (usually in sermons) to maintain the participation of new generations of American-born Egyptians.
Family and Community Dynamics
The nuclear family is the basic social unit of Egyptian society. Although the extended family also continues to play a dominant role in the intricate family grid, familial ties are beginning to loosen, even in Egypt. Some of these changes have become more accentuated in the United States. Wide distances may separate children from their parents, brothers, and sisters and from other members of the extended family. Whereas once people would grow up and spend their lives in the same neighborhood and would die and be buried in the same city, today things have changed so that families are scattered throughout the 50 states. More often than not, most Egyptian Americans opt for burial in the United States.
The growing prevalence of intermarriage between Egyptians and Americans—most commonly between Egyptian-born men and American women—has challenged the family structure. A Muslim woman's husband is required by religion and law to convert to Islam, while a Muslim man's wife may retain her Christian or non-Muslim faith. In either case, the children must be raised as Muslims. Christian Egyptians experience relatively fewer difficulties integrating into American society, although Egyptian Copts tend to be conservative and prefer that their children marry within the Coptic church.
Having been raised in a conservative and traditional society, Egyptian Americans—particularly Muslims—worry about their offspring's dating habits and urge their children to marry someone of Egyptian descent or to choose someone from the larger community of Arab peoples. Families commonly send their children back to Egypt to immerse them within Egyptian society in the hope that they will choose a bride or groom there. Some Egyptian Americans encourage marriage between cousins, a practice common in Egypt.
For these reasons, the role of the mosque as a social center and as a religious gathering place is changing from what it was in Egypt. Today, for instance, women not only pray at the mosque but also participate in social activities there. The custom of women praying at the mosque has now become prevalent in Egypt, having been brought back there by returning Muslim Americans.
Boys are often treated differently than girls and are given more leeway when it comes to curfews and dating. However, because education is highly esteemed by Egyptians, and because many members of the first generation of Egyptian Americans possess advanced college degrees, children—both boys and girls—are encouraged to attend college. Children who decide to attend school out of state generally obtain their parents' blessing, although some parents still prefer to have their children—especially their daughters—nearby. In some cases, mothers will move to another state just to live with their children. Some parents encourage their children to return to Egypt to obtain a degree, not only because it is less costly to do so (medical students receive free education in Egypt), but also because it ensures that their children will be supervised by members of the extended family.
Because the majority of first generation of Egyptian Americans are highly educated professionals, they have a tendency to apply to the best schools, private or public. In rare cases their children attend religious-affiliated schools; there are a few Muslim schools in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. However, because of the emphasis on higher education, Muslims attending these schools tend to join regular school systems beyond the primary level. The vast majority of Egyptian Americans go on to four-year colleges. There is still a premium on the traditional professional disciplines such as medicine, engineering, and accounting. Yet growing numbers of Egyptian Americans are now enrolled in business or law schools or are pursuing degrees in the humanities. Many Egyptian Americans are enrolled in Ivy League schools, especially if their parents can afford the high cost of tuition, but larger numbers are entering state schools. It is not unusual to find young Egyptian Americans working their way through school to help pay for their tuition. Some opt to work after high school for a few years before going on with their studies. While some Egyptian Americans do not complete high school, they represent a very small percentage of the Egyptian American population.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Since the nineteenth century, women in Egypt have come to play a more prevalent role in improving their status and in increasing the degree of their participation within society. World War I and World War II brought radical change in the status of women in Egypt. By the 1920s women began to enroll in universities and entered the workforce as physicians, lawyers, and educators. They became fuller participants in the workforce after the 1952 Revolution and after the implementation of the National Charter in 1962, which stipulated that "women must be regarded as equal to men, and must shed the remaining shackles that impede their free movement." Consequently, they have enjoyed a relatively long tradition of active participation in the public domain. Many Egyptian American women carried this tradition to their new home in the United States.
Whether they immigrated to the United States or are American-born, most Egyptian women are active within American society on several levels. Women tend to participate within the workforce, even those who are raising families. This is especially true of the second wave of immigrants, some of whom have not acquired employment on a par with their college backgrounds. These underemployed immigrants work in jobs as foodstand operators, baby-sitters, or waitresses either in family-run restaurants or in the catering trade. Many Egyptian American women have created lucrative catering businesses that specialize in preparing foods for Egyptian households. Many others have successful careers in medicine and accounting, with a high number of them in academia.
The majority of Egyptians are Muslim, while Copts (Orthodox Christians), the largest religious minority, are believed to form approximately eight percent of the religious community in Egypt. Both Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Copts have settled in the United States. Within this immigrant community, the number of Egyptian Christians possibly surpasses the number of Egyptian Muslims, although Egyptian Muslims in the United States have increased their numbers steadily in the past two decades.
Islam, which was introduced to Egypt by Arab Muslim invaders in 641 A.D., is a religious system that permeates Egyptian society at every level. Islam means submission to the will of God. A Muslim is one who has submitted to Allah and who acknowledges Muhammad as God's Prophet. Islamic tradition takes into account the doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims consider their Prophet Muhammad the last in a series of prophets that included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
Muslims believe in one God and in the afterlife as do Christians and Jews. Islam also acknowledges Jews and Christians as "people of the Book" or Bible (ahl al-Kitab ) and has granted them privileged status from the early days of the Islamic Empire. For this reason, religious minorities throughout the Arab world have survived and flourished during periods of severe cultural and religious repression elsewhere.
Islamic acts of devotion and worship are expressed in the five Pillars of Islam. The first Pillar is the profession of faith, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet," or the Shahada, which requires the believer to profess the Unity of God and the mission of Muhammad. The assertion forms part of every prayer.
The second Pillar is prayer, or Sala, required five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and dusk. It may be performed in a state of ritual purity. The worshipper has the choice of praying privately in open air, in a house, with a group, outdoors, or in a mosque. Because Islam opposes the practice of withdrawing into ascetic life, there is no priesthood. There are, however, Ulama, or learned men who are well versed in Islamic law and tradition. Muslims also pray in mosques on Friday, their holy day of the week.
The third Pillar is almsgiving, or Zakat. This embodies the principle of social responsibility. The fourth Pillar is fasting, or Saum, which is observed during the month of Ramadan when God sent the Qur'an to the angel Gabriel who in turn revealed it to the Prophet. Fasting demands complete abstinence from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan is followed by Iftar, a sumptuous banquet where friends and family gather to celebrate the break of fast. Dearly cherished by Egyptians in Egypt, this tradition is observed closely in America where it is celebrated with Christian Egyptians and American friends alike.
The fifth Pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca, which should be made by every able-boded Muslim who can afford to do so at least once in a lifetime. Attached to the experience of the pilgrimage is an added status: the person will henceforth be addressed as al-Haj or al-Hajjah, a title which carries great prestige. Many Egyptian Muslims living in the United States go on a Haj, or pilgrimage, as well as an Umrah, a modified pilgrimage which can take place at different times of the year and not necessarily at the officially specified time.
The other significant group of Egyptian Americans are the Coptic Christians. The Copts are native to Egypt, having converted to Christianity from their Ancient Egyptian religions as early as the first century A.D. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642, the Coptic language began to give way to Arabic; however, Coptic is still used as the liturgical language in church services, is taught in Sunday schools, and is employed in some daily communications among Ulama.
Today, Coptic is still used in church services in the United States where large congregations of Egyptian Copts are found. There is an archdiocese in Jersey City, New Jersey, where one of the first American Coptic churches was founded in the early 1960s.
There are well-developed cordial and reciprocal social relations between Egyptian Copts, Egyptian Muslims, and the general American public. In Egypt, many Copts have adopted a number of Islamic customs, just as some Egyptian Muslims have adopted certain Coptic customs, and this has carried over to the United States. Egyptian Copts sometimes share in the festivities of Ramadan, while Muslim Egyptians celebrate certain aspects of Christmas and the New Year.
Employment and Economic Traditions
The first wave of immigrants consisted of individuals who either had obtained a professional degree or had come seeking further education. They pursued careers as doctors, accountants, engineers, and lawyers, and a good number joined the teaching faculties of major universities. The second wave held college degrees but had to accept menial jobs. When they first arrived many drove taxicabs or waited on tables in restaurants. The economic recession and corporate downsizing undoubtedly have affected Egyptian Americans. Some enterprising citizens have gone into business for themselves. Because of the stigma attached to being unemployed or on welfare, Egyptian Americans have resisted receiving these benefits, but as time goes on their participation in social aid programs will become an increasing fact of life.
Politics and Government
Egyptian Americans are only now beginning to show interest in municipal and national politics. As with every immigrant group, they first had to establish themselves in society before venturing into the political arena. Unlike other groups of Arab Americans who have been in the United States for more than a century and who are only now coming into their own by being elected to positions in national and local government, Egyptian Americans are just beginning to get involved politically, by exercising their right to vote and supporting their preferred candidates. Because significant numbers of them do not belong to trade unions, they have not had a perceptible influence on union politics. Egyptian Americans are politically conservative and tend to vote Republican, although a growing number who have been in the United States for more than 20 years are beginning to lean toward the Democratic Party or to vote independent. A few Egyptian Americans have volunteered for the armed forces, especially physicians.
RELATIONS WITH EGYPT
Only recently have there been attempts at involvement in the politics of Egypt. The Egyptian government is interested in its expatriate communities and maintains good relations with them by encouraging them to invest in its economy. For instance, in the past few years the Egyptian American Businessmen's Association has taken official tours to Egypt, meeting with officials and advising the country on various economic matters. The Union of Egyptians is a loosely structured organization that claims to meet Egyptian needs abroad by securing links with the homeland. Other organizations, such as the Egyptian American Professional Organization, prefer to avoid political matters, instead focusing on educational and cultural ties between Egyptian Americans and their home country.
Individual and Group Contributions
FILM, TELEVISION, AND THEATER
In Hollywood, Egyptians who have made a name for themselves include the sitcom director Asaad Kelada.
INDUSTRY AND FINANCE
Fayz Sarofim is an investment banker and financier who is one of the wealthiest people in the world. Many prominent Egyptians work in Washington-based organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, notably Ibrahim Shehata, Vice President of the World Bank.
Boutros Boutros Ghali is the Secretary General of the United Nations. Dr. M. Sherif Bassiouni, who was born in Cairo Egypt in 1937, has written a number of books on International Criminal Law; he is the founder and first Vice-President of the Association of Egyptian American Scholars.
Halim al Daabi', composer and musician, has written scores for ballets of Martha Graham.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Farouk Al Baz was born in Egypt in 1938. Since 1975 he has been the Research Director of the Center for Earth and Planetary studies at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; Baz was one of the principal scientists involved in the NASA lunar-landing project. Dr. Samy Farag, who was born in Egypt in 1942, served as U.S. delegate to the Congress of Rheumatology in Paris in 1981.
American Research Center in Egypt Newsletter.
Reports quarterly on the Center's activities, plans, and projects. Covers archaeology, history, culture, and language of Egypt in all periods from pre-history to contemporary times.
Contact: Joan Meisel, Editor.
Telephone: (212) 529-6661.
Fax: (212) 529-6856.
E-mail: [email protected]
Formerly WJPF-AM and WHPI-AM, broadcasts continuously and offers 40 percent local programming.
Contact: Mike Murphy.
Address: Egyptian Broadcasting Co., Box 550, Herrin, Illinois 62948.
Telephone: (618) 942-2181.
Fax: (618) 988-8111.
Organizations and Associations
In addition to those listed below, prominent Egyptian American organizations include: Association of American Muslims; Egyptian American Businessmen's Association in Greenwich, Connecticut; Egyptian American Physicians' Association; Egyptian American Professionals' Society in Westchester, New York.
American Coptic Association (ACA).
Founded in 1974. Copts (Christian Egyptians) who have immigrated to the U.S. Promotes Coptic culture and history; defends human rights of the Copts in Egypt; helps U.S. immigrants to be good and productive citizens. Sponsors lectures; conducts research and charitable programs.
Contact: Dr. Shawky F. Karas, President.
Address: P.O. Box 9119 G.L.S., Jersey City, New Jersey 07304.
Telephone: (201) 451-0972.
Fax: (201) 451-3399.
American Egyptian Cooperation Foundation (AECF).
Founded in 1987. Companies, organizations, and individuals having an interest in promoting commercial, investment, tourism, and closer relations between Egypt and the United States. Focuses on efforts that increase international understanding.
Contact: Abdel Fattah Zaki, CEO & President.
Address: 330 East 39th Street, Suite 32L, New York, New York 10016.
Telephone: (212) 867-2323.
Fax: (212) 697-0465.
E-Mail: [email protected] .
Contact: Sarwat Fahmy.
Address: 10586 Creston Drive, Los Altos, California 94024-7417.
Museums and Research Centers
American Research Center in Egypt.
Independent, nonprofit research organization operating in New York and in Cairo, Egypt, centering its attention on ancient and Islamic civilization in Egypt, including humanities and social studies in all periods.
Contact: Dr. Charles D. Smith, President.
Address: 30 East 20th Street, Suite 401 New York, New York 10003-1310.
Telephone: (212) 529-6661.
Fax: (212) 529-6856.
E-mail: [email protected]
Sources for Additional Study
Brewer, Douglas J., and Emily Teeter. Egypt & the Egyptians. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Brugman, J. An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984.
Marsot, Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid. A Short History of Modern Egypt. London: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Orfalea, Gregory. Before the Flames: A Quest for the History of Arab Americans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
Stevens, Georgiana G. Egypt Yesterday and Today. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.