How One Word Reflects a Class Split in Egypt’s Social Dynamics

How One Word Reflects a Class Split in Egypt’s Social Dynamics

Credit: Martin Roemers/Anastasia Photo
Credit: Martin Roemers/Anastasia Photo

Most of those who live or have lived in Egypt know what bee2a means but for those who don’t, bee2a is an Arabic word that, literally translated, means “environment.” In terms of slang, however, the word carries an entirely different meaning – a meaning that helps to shed light upon social classism in Egypt. As part of the colloquial jargon and slang heard everywhere in Egypt, the word bee2a is used to describe anything that is perceived to be lacking in good taste, vulgar or ostentatious.

Seems like a normal word, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

The word has evolved from trying to describe a lack of taste, to describing the taste of the lower social classes. It has gotten to the point that some people describe certain dishes, as in types of actual food, as bee2a because they’re a poor man’s feast or because they are lacking in terms of luxury.

It doesn’t stop at the food, though.

The term bee2a is used first and foremost to describe material possessions; driving an inexpensive or second-hand car can be described as bee2a, wearing cheaper brands of clothes can be described as bee2a, listening to certain types of local Egyptian music can be described as bee2a, and hanging out or living in certain neighborhoods could be considered by some to be bee2a. Even going to vacation in certain places is considered to be bee2a. This can be all attributed to the notion that Egypt consists of a hyper-consumerist and elitist society that is irreversibly obsessed with brand names and labels over quality.

Many would think that this concept of bee2a stops at the material possessions of the world but very unfortunately, it does not; it goes much deeper. The term started being used to describe those who speak broken or imperfect English – a language that is not even our mother tongue. Many who do not speak fluent English, have a noticeable accent or have an impediment in terms of learning another language are considered to be bee2a.

Videos are shared over social media showing footage of people who are speaking bad English as a joke now. There is an undeniable cognitive dissonance towards the fact that the reason not everyone babbles in perfect English is because our country has a systematically failing public education system that can’t teach people in Arabic, let alone an entirely foreign language. This is not even taking into consideration the fact that people don’t even need to speak English in Egypt but the negative social implications of not speaking English have started pushing people to try and learn.

This all may be attributed to the fact that a fair percentage of Egyptians are obsessed with the West, especially those who are considered to be from a “higher” social class, and have therefore integrated English into their education and their daily lives. Therefore, when people who move to metropolitan Cairo from the suburbs or try to climb their way out of the slums to achieve a higher standard of living look at the relatively better-off community, they see them speaking English, and they start associating the better standard of living with the Western language. This is a false association; you don’t need to speak English to live comfortably.

The word bee2a is used to describe an array of other things, and the more well-off you are, the greater of an opportunity you have to look down at people and call them bee2a. At this point, you may ask, what’s the problem with all of this? Let me tell you. When a certain activity or habit is consistently described as bee2a, a term associated with the poorer and less fortunate, a notion is born. This notion is that your goal should be to try to change yourself, your habits and your culture in order to embrace those that are not looked down upon by individuals who are considered to be the elite in Egyptian society.

This notion distracts people who have the capacity to achieve unimaginable heights, and makes them think about how to try to look “better” and sound “better” and go to “better” places. This notion brews a hatred and a disdain between people who consider themselves “classy” and “better,” and people who are considered bee2a, creating a social divide that damages Egyptian culture and the contemporary Egyptian community. This notion also destroys culture; it makes people want to associate less with things such as local Egyptian music, certain dishes and different practices. This notion is one of the big problems Egypt faces till this day.

The gist of this is that you do not need to be considered trendy or not bee2a to be a decent person. A person is not their clothes, nor their taste in music, and is definitely not the size of their wallet. Stop describing people’s taste as bee2a because they listen to Oka and Ortega, Mohamed Hamaki or Amr Diab instead of Drake or Kanye West. If you enjoy the culture and the art you choose to immerse yourself in, you don’t owe anyone anything. Stop looking down on people and calling them bee2a if you already do that, and stop looking up to people and aspiring to possess their material objects because of the systematic discrimination you face.

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be better, better-off and more comfortable; we all do that. What is wrong is aspiring to do so because a group of elitist and classist people have made you feel that you don’t have enough so they can feel like they do. The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough; you don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.

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Currently based in New York City, Ahmed El Wakeel, or what everyone usually calls him, Wakeel, is a sophomore studying economic policy and applied mathematics at NYU. He's also an avid foodie, hunting down the best food between NYC and Cairo, whether it be in world-class restaurants or hole-in-the-wall joints; check his food instagram @WakeelEats out. Beyond academics, Wakeel has developed an interest in social dynamics and cultural development, and how government and economic affairs can affect both.

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