Snapshots from Cairo: Pop Culture and Tradition Juxtaposed
I moved to Egypt last August to work as an intern at the American University in Cairo. Here, I’ve had the pleasure of having a glimpse into the lives of typical Egyptian college students, and much to my surprise, I’ve been both introduced to a new world and comforted by simple reminders of the college life I lived back home in the United States.
Less-informed people might assume, thanks to mainstream American media, that life in the Middle East is highly conservative and even dangerous: strict rules and religious traditions, somber streets, and women living in the shadows. The truth is that in Cairo, life is anything but the image that American media often pastes onto life in the Middle East. I frequently go out in the evenings with my group of friends (made up of Egyptians, Syrians, Europeans and Americans) to get ahwa (coffee) or shay (tea) with mint at outdoor cafés where patrons smoke shisha, eat dessert, watch soccer matches, and talk and debate with their closest friends. Nightlife is very important to Egyptian culture; when the sun sets and the moon is out, friends wander the streets or the corniches (waterfront promenades) of the Nile together, get dinner, shop around, take selfies, and listen to music. Whole families even stay out as late as 2 a.m. on the weekends, living leisurely and enjoyable lives outside of work and school.
Therefore, experiencing art in its many forms during my nights in Cairo is one of my favorite pastimes here. The city is intriguing at night, showing remnants of different worlds pieced together in one landscape; the minarets of mosques built in past millennia, the European-style buildings from Egypt’s colonial era, the grit from modern pollution, graffiti remaining from the revolution, and laughter and music from the shabab (youth) walking by.
Although American and European culture does greatly influence Egyptian youth culture, Arab musicians still hold a large spot in Egyptian daily life. Amr Diab is perhaps this generation’s most famed Egyptian pop star and his love songs fill the cars that drive down the busy streets of Cairo. Cairokee is a popular band that revived after the 2011 revolution after releasing an album of protest songs. Young Egyptian DJs play at bars and other venues, showing an Egyptian interest and love for house music.
In September, I had the opportunity to listen to Mashrou’ Leila play in concert. Mashrou’ Leila is an alternative rock band from Lebanon that is widely popular across the Middle East. The all-male group sings in Arabic, and their lyrics bring to light injustices in modern Arab society and in the Lebanese government. They also sing of love and heartbreak in haunting yet beautiful lyrical poetry. The concert I attended had thousands in attendance, mostly young people, and the event was brought to international attention due to the fact that one of the concert’s attendees raised a rainbow-colored flag in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government has since arrested the concertgoer who raised the flag and banned Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Egypt.
Instances like these show that Cairo truly is a mix of different worlds. The ideals of the Egyptian revolution remain under a government that is strict and repressive. Young people in modern fashion coexist with their more traditionally clothed, elder counterparts. The strength of Cairo’s youth is constantly seen side-by-side with the traditional side of this ancient city, and, here, musical artists often double as activists. I am eager to see more of this during my time here in Egypt.
(Photography courtesy of Sofía Vargas/ Photo of band courtesy of Arab American National Museum)