Dumplings in the Desert: Reflections from Cairo’s Chinese Community, from AC4 Fellow, Sophia Antoun

After three weeks in Cairo, I have developed a quiet affection for this place. Maybe it’s being in one of the most ancient societies in the world that has left me a bit star-struck, or maybe it’s the fact that the city itself requires a certain amount of infatuation to avoid constant infuriation with dangerous roads and insufferable heat. Either way, my impressions of Egypt aren’t nearly as interesting as what’s going on here. My stay thus far has been focused on discovering the growing Chinese community in the Cairo neighborhoods of Ma’adi and Abbasia. There is a rough estimate of around 10,000 Chinese living in Egypt, and while that number may seem minute compared to other immigrant populations in the country, the Chinese community is building a presence here that cannot be ignored.

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Photo: Chinese restaurant in Cairo’s Ma’adi neighborhood

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Photo: Chinese restaurant in Cairo’s Ma’adi neighborhood

My research is intended to explore a side of Egypt that many do not see. The world sees a country post revolution, one that perhaps attempted a democratic process with the election of Mohammed Morsi, but whose efforts were usurped by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup. Many foreigners have left Egypt since 2011 due to political instability, sectarian conflict, and general economic decline. In short, Egypt’s revolution is often unfairly depicted as a disappointment, and this disappointment is what the world is shown of the country. We are not shown, however, the thousands of Chinese immigrants that move to Egypt each year seeking employment and starting businesses of their own throughout the country.

The Sino-Egyptian relationship is growing stronger, not just on a political level, but on the grassroots level as well. Cultural exposure and integration via Chinese-owned businesses are encouraging the two communities to interact and become interested in one another’s ways of life. The interview questions I asked both Egyptians and Chinese focused on their impressions of cultural diversity in Egypt and the role that the Chinese community plays in diversifying the country. Their answers suggest that Chinese-owned businesses play a key role in this process.

The Bismallah in Arabic and Chinese calligraphy hanging at Firdous Restaurant in Abbasia

Photo: the Bismallah in Arabic and Chinese calligraphy hanging at Firdous Restaurant in Abbasia

My research focused on Chinese-owned restaurants in Cairo. These restaurants offer diners a small example of the Chinese cultural experience, and as such, Chinese-owned restaurants are acting as unofficial ambassadors throughout Cairo’s budding Chinatowns. Interviewing restaurant owners, and both Chinese and Egyptian patrons has illuminated the cross-cultural friendships, influences, challenges, and successes that occur between the Chinese and Egyptian communities over plates of Chinese food and cups of Green tea.

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Photo: Chairman Mao still presiding over Ghangis Khan Restaurant in Ma’adi

Interviewing participants consistently for the past three weeks has given me the chance to reflect on the nature of research itself. Research gives us the opportunity to ask questions we would normally withhold in any other circumstance. The guise of researcher somehow opens a door of communication for both interviewer and interviewee alike, allowing details to peek through the usual drudge of friendly conversation. This project is yet another example for me of how important relationships are in communication. Without relationships, communication is limited to the conventions of etiquette and propriety. Relationships not only allow our research to be more robust, but they also magnify the human experience and encourage free and open communication. Research trains us to build relationships at lightning speed, and as researchers we are in a never-ending position of graciousness to our participants for engaging in and upholding these brief but significant interactions.

From top left to right: Niu Riu Mian, dumplings, and Muer mushrooms at Ghankis Khan Villa 5 in Ma’adi

From top left to right: Niu Riu Mian, dumplings, and Muer mushrooms at Ghankis Khan Villa 5 in Ma’adi

With a few more days in Cairo and several more restaurants to visit, I look forward to the new people I will meet and the relationships that will be built over that most universal of connectors: food.


Author: Sophia Antoun is in the International Education Development Masters Program at Teachers College, conducting research within Cairo’s growing Chinatowns where native Egyptian and immigrant Chinese communities are engaging in informal cultural exchange. By collecting both Egyptian and Chinese narratives via interviewing, this research seeks to explore if and how a peaceful integration process between the two communities is occurring amidst the otherwise politically unstable and deeply sectarian environment of post-revolution Egypt.

Images: Photos from fieldwork, provided by author.

Comments

  • Alex James says:

    Hi Sophia,

    Thank you for posting about your research. I found it to be a fascinating topic. I think you chose a great title. You touched on a lot of interesting points in your post, especially the Chinese immigration in the midst of political turmoil, the role of food and restaurants as cultural emissaries, and the challenges and successes of the integration there. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about these and give us some greater insight into the types of conversations and responses you experienced during your interviews.

    • Sophia Antoun says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thank you for your kind words and interest in my project. I’m very happy to hear that you find the topic interesting. I will try to briefly capture some details from the interviews I conducted. The majority of the Chinese restaurant owners I spoke with had been in Cairo for five or more years. They originally came to Egypt to work, many of them in Chinese-owned textile factories. After living in Cairo for some years, they saw a demand within the Chinese immigrant community for Chinese food that retained some authenticity. Prior to Chinese-owned restaurants, there were several Egyptian-owned Chinese restaurant chains that serve food akin to the popular “Americanized Chinese food” that we often see here in the states. The restaurant owners I spoke with initially opened the restaurants for the Chinese immigrant community, but presently they employ both Chinese and Egyptian servers to accommodate their diversifying clientele.

      I also spoke with Chinese and Egyptian patrons at the restaurants I visited. The population of Chinese immigrants in Cairo is split between those working for a Chinese company such as Huawei, or those who are studying Arabic either at Al-Azhar Mosque or other academic institutions in the city. Egyptian patrons were eating at these restaurants either with Chinese friends, because of a Chinese co-worker or friend that brought them before, or because they themselves were students of Chinese.

      From my research, the primary challenge for Sino-Egyptian interaction is language . This was reported by almost all of my interview participants, both Chinese and Egyptian alike. At many of the Chinese companies where Egyptians and Chinese work side-by-side, the language used is English. However, you see both Egyptians and Chinese making an effort to learn the other’s language.
      Cultural differences discussed in the interviews included differences in work ethic and lifestyle.

      The successes I observed were great. Many of the Chinese interviewees all reported that they had Egyptian friends and enjoyed and appreciated the Egyptian people that they knew. Restaurants owners reported that their Egyptian clientele was increasing, and Egyptian patrons said that even though many Egyptians are reluctant to try Chinese food, once they do, they really enjoy it. Both Chinese and Egyptian interviewees viewed Chinese-owned restaurants as a positive factor in Egyptian society, saying that it offers Egyptians a small example of a Chinese cultural experience.

      Cairo’s Chinese immigrant population does seem to be aware of the political instability in the country. Many participants said that Egypt is good when it is safe and stable, but when it isn’t they are sure that they will return to China. Where this mentality may be similar to Western foreigners, the biggest difference I observed here was that Chinese immigrants saw the present as a good time to be in Egypt, and for many Westerners this has not been the case.

      All of my interview participants were incredibly generous with their time and responses. They seemed perfectly comfortable with expressing their opinions about diversity in Egypt and the Chinese community’s role in this process. Many participants, both Chinese and Egyptian, believed that the Chinese community does play a role in diversifying Egypt, and that restaurants aid in this process. There were also many participants who hadn’t really thought about that possibility before, and saw the restaurant as only a place for eating. Either way, it was not only fascinating, but incredibly uplifting for me to be able to use Chinese to communicate in an Arabic speaking country, and to see these two communities interact.

      I hope this provides more of the details you were seeking. I truly appreciate you taking interest in my research!

  • Nancy says:

    Sophia, this was an pleasure to read. As a Taiwanese-American immigrant, travel addict and documentary photographer, I am fascinated by this topic and also sometimes chat with Chinese restaurant owners in unexpected places, looking for insights on how they’ve integrated. I wish I’d known about this Chinese community when I visited Egypt years ago, but I’m always looking for excuses to go back!

    I tried Googling a bit about this, but wasn’t clear what the end result of this research would be. Will you publish more articles? I would also love to get in touch privately if possible, as I’m still very interested in exploring this topic (in other cities), and would like to know more about your process. Thank you!

    • Sophia Antoun says:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you so much for your interest in this research. In response to your questions, you are correct in observing that there isn’t much coverage of this topic either in the media or in academia. I hope to post more through the AC4’s website during my data analysis process, and ultimately wish to compile an ethnographic study on the data that I collected for both my Master’s project and for publication. If you would like to further inquire about this topic, you can e-mail me at sca2131@tc.columbia.edu. I hope this is helpful to you!

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