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Egypt’s Identity Lies Beyond History’s Pages

July 28, 2023
Cairo Downtown. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

While living as Egyptians in Europe, one encounters an astonishing array of misinformed beliefs about Egypt’s history. Despite the diminishing prevalence of cliché questions like “do you ride camels to school?” owing to increased outcry against such naive stereotypes, they have been succeeded by other historically inaccurate beliefs that might sound more refined or intellectual.

“I once met someone who was staunchly convinced that Egypt should have remained a part of the Roman Empire,” shares Hadil Adel, an Egyptian engineer, recalling an encounter at a conference in Germany. “I had an encounter with someone who believed Egyptians spoke Greek,” recalls Eyad Ibrahiem, an Egyptian student residing in Germany.

Generally, many people fail to fathom that Egyptians speak Arabic. Some even express pity upon discovering this fact, unaware that Egypt boasts what is considered by many the heart of Arabic music and arts within the entire Arab region.

When I encounter non-Egyptians abroad who passionately argue that Egypt is not genuinely an Arab country, a topic that even echoes within our own borders, I am intrigued by the opportunity for a meaningful discussion.

However, as I delve into the topic, I often discover that they’ve never heard of Coptic culture or any other native culture intertwined with our heritage. Instead, they tend to mention the Graeco-Roman period and cultures that we do not relate to today much, and it becomes evident that their bold opinions are rooted in something other than well-informed education.

What Prompts the Inaccuracy?

Having attended a German school in Egypt throughout my entire life, I had the opportunity to study Egyptian history from both the local Derasat Egtema’eya (social studies) curriculum and the German history curriculum, which dedicated a full chapter to Egypt.

The Egyptian curriculum presented history as a living account, extensively covering modern Egyptian history. Even when exploring ancient history, there were attempts to link the ancient wonders to our modern cities and UNESCO World Heritage sites. While there are many valid criticisms of the Egyptian curriculum, such as its reliance on memorization and bias in depicting historical facts, I believe the German curriculum had its own biases, if not more.

The German history books painted Egypt as an intriguing tale of bygone empires that once fascinated Europe with its vibrant trade and cultural exchanges. However, as the pages turned, it became apparent that Egypt’s relevance to Europe waned. An empire that had served its purpose, and now, in the eyes of Europe, was no longer relevant.

The history was presented from an outsider’s perspective, making it feel distant and foreign. Egypt’s role lied in it being Europe’s periphery, occasionally benefiting or suffering from Europe’s actions.

I believe the European interest in Egypt waned not when exchanges with Europe ceased, but when the relationship lost its symmetry and started shifting towards European colonialism—a period that was less like a tale of powerful empires trading or engaging in mutual wars and more like a one-sided atrocity with repercussions that are still felt today.

European history books cover ancient Egypt extensively, but challenge them for a proper coverage of colonialism from an Egyptian perspective—or through consultation with an Egyptian historian—and you will find yourself empty handed. It is precisely during this phase that their interest dwindles. Yet, post-colonial structures exert far greater influence on Egypt now than the remnants of the ancient empires they obsess over.

Embracing the Present

At first, I found it endearing when people would express their love for Egypt, only to follow it up by listing their knowledge of ancient Egypt and their admiration for Egypt’s historical heritage. Yet, as I reflected on it all, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened by a declaration of love for Egypt which seems confined to the fascination with ancient history.

Egypt is so much more than just its ancient past.

True appreciation for Egyptian culture and identity require a profound understanding of its lively and complex present. Egypt evolved and transformed through millennia, shaping the way modern Egyptians identities surpass what European history books may portray. The most authentic way to gain an accurate depiction of what is truly fascinating about today’s Egypt is by directly asking an Egyptian what being Egyptian means to them.

The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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