The Egyptian traditions endangered by rampant inflation

Long, generous celebrations and commemorations are becoming a thing of the past as people feel the pinch.

a couple poses before a video cameraman for their wedding video along a bridge by the Nile
A couple poses for their wedding video along the bridge connecting Cairo with its twin city of Giza [File: Khaled Desouki/AFP]

Multiday weddings, the bereaved feeding the poor, and households taking pride in having the best homemade bread are all becoming things of the past in rural Egypt as centuries-old traditions are squeezed by a punishing economic crisis.

Up and down the country, more and more Egyptians – crushed under the weight of 33.9 percent annual inflation, as of March – are having to abandon once-cherished rituals of celebration and mourning.

In the Nile Delta, grooms once threw elaborate bachelor parties before their weddings, erecting large traditional tents, hiring bands and butchering cattle to feed guests from far and wide.

“Hardly anyone does it any more,” 33-year-old engineer Mohamed Shedid told AFP news agency from his home town of Quwesna in Menoufia, 70km (43 miles) north of Cairo.

“We used to blame it on COVID, but then immediately afterwards everyone was hit by the economic crisis,” which has pushed the price of meat beyond the reach of most families.

Groom Moustafa Khaled dances with his father and guests
A groom dances with his father and guests at his wedding in Quwesna, Menoufia [Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Even before the current crisis – worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which destabilised crucial food imports – 30 percent of Egyptians were living under the poverty line, and the same number were vulnerable to joining them, according to the World Bank.

Not in a party mood

In the Nubian south at the other end of the country, “soaring costs mean our weddings and funerals aren’t what they once were”, said Omar Maghrabi, a 43-year-old Nubian language teacher.

“Things are really hard, families need the money we once spent on these events just to keep households running.”

In a year, the Egyptian pound has lost nearly half of its value, pushing consumer prices to more than double in the import-dependent country.

Weddings in Nubian villages are no longer three-day, nine-meal affairs to which the entire town is invited.

“A few months ago, there was a kind of agreement among the villages to make weddings more affordable,” Maghrabi told AFP.

“Now the hosts only have to offer a light dinner” instead of the old festivities, which used to last “up to a week for the richest families”.

top view of a wedding on the street
Guests gather between corn fields for a wedding in Shamma, Menoufia [File: Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

With everyone keeping an iron grip on their purse strings, brides have also grown less discerning when it comes to wedding rings.

“Rings had to be a certain weight of gold before,” the teacher said, but they have now grown finer and lighter.

With newlyweds unable to keep up with skyrocketing gold prices, the highest Muslim authority in Egypt said in March there was no religious objection to swapping gold for cheaper alternatives, namely silver.

Communal grief, downsized

In the tightly-knit agricultural villages of Upper Egypt, which extend southwards from Cairo along the narrow green strip of the Nile Valley, funerals are a communal affair.

With each death, families rush to bring convoys of food trays to the deceased’s relatives, who quickly run out of storage space and call on neighbours and guests to help rid them of the feasts.

But now, “it’s agreed that only the immediate family will cook for the bereaved”, former parliamentarian Mohamed Refaat Abdel Aal, 68, told AFP from his village of el-Adadiya in Qena, five hours south of Cairo.

“Some families are also suggesting that we limit ourselves to just the funeral, and forgo the wake,” which at the bare minimum means serving drinks to guests offering condolences.

a tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) drives along a road past a funeral memorial service in the northern suburb of Shubra
A tuk-tuk drives past a funeral memorial service in Shubra, Cairo [Amir Makar/AFP]

No commodity has been left undisturbed by price hikes, including coffee and – catastrophically for rural families who cherish their baking skills – flour.

Egyptian baladi bread is a staple on every table in every village, town and megacity. In Upper Egypt, it was a source of pride for families always to make their own.

“It used to be shameful for families in villages to go and buy bread from a bakery. It would mean the house had grown lazy and complacent,” Abdel Aal said.

But with the cost of grain rising 70 percent in a year, he added that “everyone is lining up outside bakeries” run by the government.

At least they can get subsidised bread there – even if it tastes nothing like what they would make at home.

trays of freshly-baked bread at a bakery
A young worker stacks trays of freshly-baked bread at a bakery in Cairo [Khaled Desouki/AFP]
Source: AFP