Home > Cairo > The Dual Realities of Egypt: Poverty vs. Wealth, Tradition vs. Innovation

The Dual Realities of Egypt: Poverty vs. Wealth, Tradition vs. Innovation

Hey all, thanks for coming back.  The past two weeks have been pretty busy, and seem to be indicative of what the rest of my semester will be like, but I’ll do my best to post more frequently if at all possible, so keep checking in!

The time since my last long post has been extremely interesting for me.  I’ve had a number of interesting experiences which have me thinking more and more about the contrast in lifestyle here in Egypt between the rich and the poor.  Though this contrast is obvious wherever I go here, this past week I found myself in a number of unique situations which highlighted this contrast and forced me to think about it more than usual.

For example, sitting in traffic a few days ago I looked to the lane to my left and saw one of Cairo’s elite being chauffeured around in a brand new Mercedes CL-63 AMG.  Just checked the price; that’s a $150,000 car (not including the cost of import taxes, which on cars in Egypt are often over 100%).  When I looked to my right, I saw two young boys  laughing and teasing each other, “driving” a beat-up donkey cart filled with recyclables.  Keep in mind, this was in the middle of the highway.  To my left a car most people I know at home couldn’t afford to drive, and to my right a mode of transportation I could probably have bought off of those kids for less than I’d spend on a new tv.

The contrast between the fortunes of those two blissfully ignorant kids (I’m talking 10 or younger here) with their donkey, and that of the wealthy, stoic businessman in the back of the AMG, completely blew my mind.  Given the overall backdrop of the scene — the assortment of hectic noises and odd smells, and the regal, yet tragic view of the polluted Nile beneath us — I couldn’t help but think that this isolated example of excessive wealth and brand new technology, contrasted with these two poor boys using the same method of transportation Cairenes have used for centuries, reflected perfectly the dual realities of this country; money and innovation juxtaposed with poverty and tradition.  I’m starting to see Egypt not only as the Arab and Islamic country I’ve thought of it as for years, but also, and increasingly more each day, as a third-world country with significant similarities to Latin America, China, parts of India, and of course the rest of Africa.

A few more lengthy recent experiences have helped framed this change in outlook and perception.  I went to both the Cairo Jazz Club and a rap concert last week (worth talking about in-and-of itself), as well as to dinner in one of the poorer (or more predominately Egyptian) neighborhoods of the city, Imbaba.  Contrasting my experiences at the Jazz Club and the rap concert with what I saw in Imbaba led me to a stark realization about wealth distribution and the cultural and buying-pattern differences of Egyptians at different ends of the wealth spectrum.

In one of my classes we’re currently studying modernization theory, essentially the study of how modern countries modernized and thus, as the theory goes, what those that aspire to be modern today must do in order to reach that end.  People around the world argue that capitalism and technological modernization bring with them cultural homogeneity or ‘Westernization,’ if you will, and from what little I know this is nearly universally accepted.   I’m getting to see that process at work here in Egypt.  Interestingly enough, exploring and thinking about these dual realities in the lives of the people here in Cairo, I’m starting to think that with a little time and effort (potential thesis?) I might even be able to draw a tangible line which to a certain extent shows where (in terms of wealth) traditional culture stops being the dominant influence on daily life and ‘westernization’ assumes control.  The question to be asked then is, is there a certain wealth barrier which allows families to transition from predominantly traditional cultural influences to more ‘westernized’ ones?  If so, where is it?  In retrospect, I’m also getting a first hand view of how traditional culture here isn’t going out without a fight.

I’ll continue this post this weekend, trying to elaborate on the examples I mentioned briefly above.  Ya, I know that I’m not saying anything we haven’t heard before or at least imagined must exist, but seeing how stark the dichotomy between these dual realities really is has been fascinating.

Take care,


Categories: Cairo
  1. Xuchi
    September 30, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Tommy, what do you think of the class system where even highly educated lower middle class individuals are unable to obtain employment even though they have doctorate degrees from western school or even local universities? What are your fellows saying about this issue of old world politics and the hoped equity of high education?

  2. Xuchi
    September 30, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    I should have said caste system. Apologies.

  3. Aunt Susan
    October 2, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Hi Tommy, I am really enjoying your blogs. What a great experience. Love, Aunt Susan

  4. October 2, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    That’s a pretty interesting question, Xuch. As I understand it, percentage wise, the educated actually have the highest unemployment rates in the country right now. There simply aren’t enough jobs that they are willing to do given their pedigree to go around. In contrast, though the lower class doesn’t live well, many of them are able to find the type of jobs that still classify them as unemployed yet keep them alive, such as running errands for the wealthy or collecting cans for recycling, as in the example of the two boys I saw on the road. Thus, you might argue that they’re not actually unemployed.

    It’s odd though, I’m not sure that I have really seen much of a lower middle class as of yet. I’m having a hard time figuring out quite who that would consist of and where they live. I’m also having a hard time figuring out where alot of the people I’ve met would fall in these categories. I don’t know any socialites well, that I know of, but everyone I’ve gotten to know seems to be doing quite well and have jobs. I’ll have to get back to you as I get a better feel for things, but I guess I would say that there isn’t so much of a caste system as you may think. There are definitely some staunch divides, but so far the only really obvious ones to me are between the haves and the have-nots; I haven’t noticed much of a hierarchical structure within that.

    As for what my peers are saying… the only answer I can really give is ‘nothing.’ Most of the Egyptians I’ve met, like most of the Americans I know my age, don’t really want to talk politics. Although here it seems to be more out of frustration or acceptance of things as they are than out of ignorance or complete lack of interest.

    Tell Todd I’ve been noticing alot of similarities between Egypt and China recently and though he might be intrigued to hear that given his interest there. I was just thinking a conversation I had with him at the wedding the other day. Hope the kids are well.

    – T

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