December 9, 2023

Long, lavish celebrations and wakes are becoming a thing of the past as people feel out of place.

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Day-long weddings, mourning, feeding the poor, and households proud to have the best homemade bread are all a thing of the past in rural Egypt as centuries-old traditions are compressed by a severe economic crisis.

Across the country, more and more Egyptians, crushed by 33.9 percent annual inflation as of March, are being forced to abandon once-cherished rituals of celebration and mourning.

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In the Nile Delta, grooms once hosted elaborate bachelor parties before their weddings, setting up large traditional tents, hiring gangs and butchering cattle to feed guests from afar.

“Hardly anyone is doing this,” Mohamed Shedid, a 33-year-old engineer from his hometown of Quvesna in Menufia, 70 kilometers north of Cairo, told AFP.

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“We used to blame it on COVID, but immediately after that, everyone was hit by an economic crisis,” which put meat prices out of reach for most families.

The groom dances with his father and guests at his wedding in Kuvesna, Menufia. [Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Even before the current crisis, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year that destabilized imports of essential food, 30 percent of Egyptians were living below the poverty line, and an equal number were vulnerable to join them, according to the World Bank.

Not in a festive mood

In southern Nubia, on the other side of the country, “soaring prices mean our weddings and funerals are not what they used to be,” said Omar Magrabi, a 43-year-old Nubian language teacher.

“Things are really complicated, families need the money we used to spend on these events just to keep the household going.”

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In a year, the Egyptian pound lost almost half its value, causing consumer prices in the import-dependent country to more than double.

Weddings in Nubian villages no longer consist of three days and nine meals to which the entire city is invited.

“A few months ago, an agreement was reached between the villages to make weddings more accessible,” Magrabi told AFP.

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

Guests gather between the cornfields for a wedding in Shamma, Menufiah. [File: Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

Since everyone has an iron grip on their wallets, brides have also become less picky when it comes to engagement rings.

“The rings used to have to be a certain weight of gold,” the teacher said, but now they are thinner and lighter.

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

Communal grief, reduced

In the tight-knit agricultural villages of Upper Egypt, which stretch south of Cairo along the narrow green strip of the Nile Valley, funerals are common.

With each death, families rush to bring columns of food trays to the relatives of the deceased, who are quickly running out of storage space, and they call on neighbors and guests to help them get rid of the feast.

But now “it has been agreed that only the immediate family will cook for the mourners,” Mohamed Refaat Abdel Aal, a 68-year-old former parliamentarian from his village of El Adadiya in Qena, a five-hour drive south of Cairo, told AFP.

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“Some families are also suggesting that they limit themselves to funerals and forego wakes,” which means at least serving drinks to condolence guests.

A tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) passes a funeral service on the road in the northern suburb of Shubra.
A tuk tuk passes a memorial service in Shubra, Cairo. [Amir Makar/AFP]

The rise in prices did not affect a single commodity, including coffee and – disastrously for rural families who cherish their baking skills – flour.

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

“Before, families in the villages were ashamed to go and buy bread in a bakery. This would mean that the house became lazy and complacent,” said Abdel Aal.

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

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

trays with freshly baked bread in the bakery
A young worker stacks trays of freshly baked bread at a bakery in Cairo. [Khaled Desouki/AFP]