Rising costs spell doom for Egypt's rural traditional celebrations

Wednesday April 12 2023
Egypt celebrations

Guests on August 21, 2020 attend a traditional wedding celebration in the village of Shamma in Egypt's northern Nile Delta province of Menoufia. Multi-day weddings, feeding the bereaved and home-made bread are all becoming things of the past in rural Egypt, as centuries-old traditions are steadily squeezed by a punishing economic crisis. PHOTO | MOHAMED EL-SHAHED | AFP


Multi-day weddings, feeding the bereaved and homemade bread are all becoming things of the past in rural Egypt, as centuries-old traditions are steadily squeezed by a punishing economic crisis.

From the south to the north of their 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 anymore," 33-year-old engineer Mohamed Shedid told AFP from his hometown of Quweisna in Menoufia, 70 kilometres 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,” Shedid added.

‘Things are really hard’


According to the World Bank, 30 percent of Egyptians were living under the poverty line and the same number were vulnerable to doing so, even before the current crisis worsened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year which destabilised crucial food imports.

Read: Deadly Russian strikes pound Ukraine

“At the other end of the country in the Nubian south where tourists flock to see ancient pharaonic temples by the Nile River, soaring costs mean our weddings and funerals aren't what they once were,” said a 43-year-old Nubian language teacher Omar Maghrabi.

"Things are really hard. Families need the money we once spent on these events just to keep households running," he added.

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

Weddings in Nubian villages renowned for their long extravagant parties, 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," Maghrabi added.

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. But they have now grown finer and lighter,” the teacher said.

Families suggest alternatives

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.

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.

Read: Strengthening Africa’s food systems for greater nutrition

“But now, it's agreed that only the immediate family will cook for the bereaved,” former Egyptian parliamentarian Mohamed Refaat Abdel Aal, 68, told AFP from his village of Al-Adadiya in Qena 500 kilometres 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,” Abdel Aal added.

Commodities’ prices hike

No commodity has been left undisturbed by price hikes, including simple beverages, coffee and catastrophically for rural households that once cherished their baking skills, flour.

Traditional flatbread is a staple on every table in every Egyptian village, town and megacity. But 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, 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,” he added.