Rural to the core: Villagers keep their traditions at the heart of Cairo

Ahmed Maged
6 Min Read

CAIRO: Salama, a 33-year-old bawab (doorman) left his village in Beni Suef more than a decade ago to try to earn a decent living in Cairo. Despite his time in the polished neighborhood of Zamalek, he continues to adhere to the rural lifestyle he is accustomed to.

During winter he ignites a small fire to keep him and his family warm, brushing off warnings of the ill-effects of the practice. He makes his children use street corners as their public toilet. After he registered his four-year-old daughter at a kindergarten with the encouragement of the residents, he decided to send her back to his village to join the ‘kuttab’ – a typical religious rural school.

Migration from the rural areas to the city is motivated by hopes of settling in a hub for growing businesses and investments. Analysts had initially pinned hope on the second generation of migrants who are born and raised in the city to gradually communicate urban traditions to the countryside.

However, the invasion of urban development into the rural areas did not meet expectations; with the second generations deeply immersed in the rural traditions of their forefathers, eventually resulting in the ruralization of the city.

Experts attribute this trend to the increase in the number of slums across the outskirts of the capital as well as the presence of semi-rural areas like Dar Elsalam, Ain Shams, Ezbet El Nakhl and Bolaq side by side with posh districts like Maadi, Zamalek and Heliopolis.

Such extensive rural migrations, according to Saudi writer Abdel Rahman Al Habib, are marked by the preservation of threadbare traditions and way of life, all of which should endanger the city’s social structure and lend more support to the arch foe of all Arab governments: extremism.

The ruralization of the city negates the concept of citizenry, encourages tribalism and minimizes the role of the city as a cultural emissary, wrote Syrian intellectual Hazem El Azama.

“It is good to place the rural workers in respectable houses. But don’t underestimate the factor of pay, said Sayed Abdou, a doorman from Fayoum. “People breed poultry at home because simply they can’t afford the price of meat, chicken and clothes.

“They come here thinking the salary is big by the standards of the countryside, but soon realize they have to stick to the rural lifestyle in order to save.

Salama said the reason why villagers opt for a rural lifestyle in the city is their sense of isolation. “City-residents tend to look down on us, he said.

Salwa Sayed, a housekeeper whose parents had settled in Cairo more than 30 years ago, said, “Integration happens slowly over the years. It isn’t something you can simply carry out by providing training.

She elaborated: “I would also like to draw attention to the fact that many people living in the provinces have changed lifestyle; they wear tight jeans and shirts and use mobiles, but inside they are villagers to the core. Unless you change your mentality nothing will change.

This year the government is considering an extensive strategy to develop Greater Cairo with the support of Japanese expertise, an indication that rural areas will continue to be neglected even when many have voiced their concern that investment in such development should equally target other governorates to curb ruralization.

Many argue that the development of Cairo is an urgent necessity and that migration from the rural areas to the urban is bound to persist.

“The solution is in the hands of the government, stressed Nadra Wahdan, sociologist at the National Planning Institute in Cairo.

“In addition to the state’s keenness to expand Greater Cairo, the policies adopted are all aimed at maintaining the slums and other random residential areas of all kinds. That particularly happens during electoral campaigns when candidates promise the residents of these places water and electricity in return for their support during the campaigns, she added.

“Unless the government adopts a clear vision with regard to the issue, it’s impossible to suspend that kind of expansion.

Mohamed Abdel Meguid, an engineer and owner of a furniture workshop where he employs technicians from rural areas, believes that there are only two solutions to the problem: Either attract laborers to the city or provide the right opportunities for them back at their villages.

“Take the example of Damietta that has developed the carpentry and furniture businesses up to a degree that they provide a lot of job opportunities.

“Also consider Assiut which has specialized in producing carpets. If we make a point of establishing a certain industry within each province we will end up employing the local workforce. Look at how China has flooded the world with home-made products. Why don’t we follow in their footsteps? suggested Abdel Meguid.

For Tarek Ahmed, a mechanic from Qalyubia, the home industry in the villages is a sound idea, “but it should be accompanied by the urbanization of the countryside and the gradual removal of the slums and random residential areas in Cairo – two steps that can’t be taken without the government’s immediate support.

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