Ethar El-Katatney

Color Me Indian

Posted in Uncategorized by Ethar El-Katatney on June 15, 2009

Color me Indian
Egypt Today
June 2009

Available at:
Photo Credit: Fareena Alam

The Indian community thrives in Egypt, thanks to our cultural affinities and the Indian worldview of tolerance for religious and social diversity.

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Music, spices, jewelry, Bollywood, long jet-black hair, floral wreaths, candles and color — all the things that usually come to mind when one thinks of India. And all things that featured heavily in Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas’s 2001song “Nari Naren” (My Fire is Two Fires). The song, which became an instant hit, captured the essence of the Indian-Egyptian relationship, one that began when Ancient Egyptians chose to wrap their mummies in linens imported from India: a relationship of fascination, mutual affinity and genuine fondness.

Filmed in Kerala in the south and at the Taj Mahal in the subcontinent’s northern region, “Nari Naren” is an explosion of colors, passion and life. Captivated by a beautiful Indian woman, Abbas sings to her at the Taj Mahal, chases her through a busy Indian market full of men in turbans and women in saris, and dances with her amid temples and lush scenery.

Dancing in a traditional sari, decked out in gold jewelry with braided hair reaching halfway down her back while she croons to him in Hindi, Abbas’s muse epitomizes a vision of India that has been cemented into Egyptian’s minds by decades of Bollywood hits, whose dramatic storylines filled with love, tragedy, tears and death have always struck a chord with the drama-loving public.

“Egyptians love Indians,” says Ajay Mehra, Vice President of Finance at Mena House Oberoi, a property managed by the Indian-based luxury hotel chain. “The first thing I am always asked when Egyptians realize I am Indian is whether or not I know Amitabh Bachchan, the famous Bollywood superstar.”

In the mid seventies and early eighties, Bachchan — the undisputed king of Indian cinema — was not only one of India’s most revered actors, but also one of Egypt’s. Rivaling both Omar Sharif and Nour El-Sherif, in Egypt, Bachchan became synonymous with India. His movies were screened regularly on Egyptian TV, he starred in Eid movies, and his posters sold abundantly. He was so famous that one Egyptian singer actually renamed himself Hamdi Bachchan (of the infamous folk jingle “Eih el asatok da”) in an effort to make his music more marketable here.

Today, Bollywood may no longer have such prominence in local cinemas, but its allure and memory remains. Ask any Indian here what reaction they get from Egyptians when they reveal their nationality, and the answer is unanimous: “India. Oh, Amitabh Bachchan!”

As Abbas’ video proved, Bollywood is still in demand. The recent popularity of productions such as award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire and MTV India, as well as an increased interest in yoga and the spread of Indian restaurants here also speak to the revival of a fascination with the country and its culture. Yet what is not as commonly noted, but equally thriving, is Egypt’s small and vibrant Indian community.

India and Egypt

In recent years, the number of Indian tourists visiting Egypt has surged. According to the Egyptian Tourism Authority, 47,000 Indians visited the country in 2005; that number almost doubled within two years, with 90,000 Indians visiting in 2008 — a number that has already been reached in 2009 thus far.

Along with their visiting counterparts, the resident Indian community in Egypt has increased substantially, and much of this can be attributed to economic relations between the two nations. The trade relationship that began during the Pharaonic era is now booming, worth almost $3.5 billion (LE 19.42 billion) in 2007, quadrupled from $700 million (LE 3.88 billion) in 2003. Encouraged by these figures, a number of Indian companies have set up shop in Egypt. In addition to Oberoi, which manages two luxury properties and two Nile cruise ships in the country, the Mumbai-based Marico locally manufactures leading hair care brands Haircode and Fiancée. Indian companies are also involved locally in healthcare and the automotive industry, among other industries.

Egypt’s exports to India are worth $2.1 billion — 95 percent of that is oil and gas — which is almost double the value of imports, making the subcontinent Egypt’s third largest trading partner behind the US and Italy as of 2006. (For more on trade between India and Egypt, see “Indian Summer” in the February 2009 issue of Business Today Egypt). As a result of increased trade, more Indians are choosing to settle here, with the Indian Embassy estimating that roughly 3,000 Indians currently live in Egypt, compared to fewer than 300 a decade ago.

According to the latest issue of the International Religious Freedom Report, 80.5 percent of all Indians are Hindus, a henotheistic religion that originated in India and is currently the world’s third largest religion, followed by 14.4 percent of the world’s population (for more on Hinduism, see box). In Egypt, it is estimated that over 90 percent of the Indian population is Hindu. Yet trade isn’t the only area where the two have found common ground; despite this being a mostly monotheistic country, Hindus report feeling very much at home here. In a country where religious tensions are often high, the commonalities between these cultures seem to bridge the divide between their fundamentally different religions.

A Sense of Community

Helping to unify the approximately 3,000 Indians living in Egypt is the Indian Community Association Egypt (ICAE), a volunteer organization that, according to their website (, seeks to “bring together Indians living in Egypt, and help them connect, share and enhance their life. [ICAE] takes us back to our roots, and celebrates our social and cultural events while away from home.”

According to Dr. Harish Pillai, current president of the ICAE and chief executive officer of As-Salam International Hospital, 70 percent of the Indian community in Egypt is based in Cairo, 20 percent in Alexandria, and the rest is scattered in Ismailia and the surrounding areas. The Indian community, he explains, is “a floating population,” with some 90 percent working in rotation jobs, only staying in Egypt for two to three years at the most.

Most of the Indian residents in Egypt, he says, have senior level jobs, with the majority being “very educated professionals working for multinationals in the oil and gas, banking and IT sector.” Unlike the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where an Indian community of over 1 million people works in all sectors of the economy in a variety of jobs, postings of Indians in Egypt are at senior positions, which means typically they are at least in their thirties and accompanied by their families. The overwhelming majority, says Pillai, are men.

Indian women who come to Egypt usually do so because their husbands’ companies have sent them here. Anjana Das, a 37-year-old Indian, moved to Cairo in 1999 with her husband; she is trained as a dentist.

“I’m not allowed to practice here because jobs are for Egyptians,” she says, “but I don’t mind because that’s what we do in India. Indian women in Egypt who want to work do what they can — I’m a freelance writer now.”

Pillai says, “India is more of a subcontinent of many languages and religions and habits,” therefore, Indians are used to living among different cultures and lifestyles.

“The only way to coexist is to have a strong belief in a common destiny. When we succeed there, we show everyone that in spite of all your differences you can coexist together and live a happy life.”

In addition, explains Pillai, members of the Indian community in Egypt usually come from diverse, often multicultural backgrounds, which helps them integrate well into Egyptian society. Pillai, for example, was born in Dubai and went back to India when he was 15 years old. He finished his education there, and returned to Dubai when he was 30 years old. After four years, in 2006, he was offered the chance to come to Egypt, and he brought along his wife, a microbiologist, and their two young sons.

Das has a similar story; she lived in Ghana until she was 13 years old then returned to India before coming to Egypt in 1999.

Unlike in the UAE where there are many Indian organizations because of the sheer number of Indians (approximately 40 percent of the total population), the ICAE is the only such organization in Egypt outside of the embassy. And because the community is relatively small, it is close knit — unlike in India, where until the 1990s, the linguistic divide between the Indian states prevented a greater national cohesion, Pillai says.

“[As a result] people identified themselves as belonging to their state and the pan-identity was not so imprinted. But though India is a very fragmented country, because our numbers are so small [in Egypt], we are all one unit, one family. It’s cohesive and special and everyone helps each other out. Almost 90 percent of Indians in Egypt are members of the ICAE.”

Many are also members of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Center for Indian Culture in Egypt (, part of the Indian Embassy. Open to the public, the center hosts Indian film weeks, lectures, yoga sessions, Urdu language classes, Indian photo galleries and much more. In November 2008, it hosted the first week-long Days of Indian Culture festival, with photo galleries, dance and singing performances at the Cairo Opera House.

Feels Like Home

Oberoi’s Mehra came to Egypt with his wife and two sons 11 years ago, and stayed because he felt very comfortable here. Apart from a two-year stint with Oberoi in Saudi Arabia, he had spent his entire life before that in India.

Mehra explains that “when we are children in India we are taught about ancient civilizations in class, and of course we talk about Egypt. When we get older and learn about politics, we also talk about Egypt because of the historical relationship between the two countries. You can say that Egypt for Indians is never an unknown country.”

It’s an affection, says Pillai, “which cuts across class barriers and is unique for Egypt. […] It is unique because the socio-economic background [here] is similar to back home. You don’t just have the very rich and middle class and poor, you have all segments and we can relate to that.”

Bollywood is only one reason Egyptian-Indian relationships are so smooth. It’s the similar values and common elements of culture, say Indians here, that make Egypt such a pleasant place to live.

“There is never any culture shock,” says Mehra over drinks in one of Egypt’s most famous Indian restaurants, The Moghul Room. “I felt like I was going home. It was a ‘wow.’ For most of us in India, when we come here, we feel like we are going home. There are so many similarities in the value system, especially [with respect to] families: Absolutely the same culture, tradition, respect for parents, so much love for next of kin. These are all common things.”

Mehra, whose two sons were both under six years old when they moved here, made sure that they learned to speak Hindi and remembered their roots and customs. “It’s up to each family to make sure their children do not lose their roots,” he says.

Das adds, “The concept of being an Indian is imprinted in your mind, and you are always sensitive about your culture. Most Indian families, no matter how far they go away from home, are still brought up in very traditional [households]. It is part of our culture to retain our culture. And since the cultures are similar here, it makes life easier.”

Das and her husband left Egypt after a couple of years, but returned “because people on the street were so very friendly. We felt that being Indian meant there was something common between us.”

Zaheer Shah, managing director of Coats Egypt and Coats Israel (branches of Coats PLC, the world’s largest sewing thread and needlecraft supplies manufacturer) is one of India’s Muslims, which make up 13 percent of the Indian population at large. Shah was born and lived in India until he was 44 years old, when he joined Coat’s international management pool. In 1990, he left India and spent the next eight years in four different countries. Ten years ago, he moved to Egypt, and stayed.

“The people here are lovely,” he says. “The way they accept the foreigner and react to us is very open and welcoming. I found you have the same basic culture, and that creates a bond.”

For Shah, that bond made marriage possible. Wrapped in a beautiful glittering sari, Abeer Shah looks like a traditional Hindu bride in her wedding photo, only her sari is green and she is an Egyptian Muslim.

“Zaheer has lived all his life in India and he is Indian through and through,” she says as she gestures around her house, lavishly decorated in the Indian style. “And although he is not Hindu, I can tell you that it is because of their culture that Indians do so well in Egypt. If you didn’t know, any Indian can pass for an Egyptian. We like felfel [green pepper], they like shatta [spices] — there’s little difference.”

Questions of Faith

In India, relations between Muslims and Hindus have often been strained, and the conflict occasionally becomes violent.

India’s Muslim population exceeds 150 million people, making it home to the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. Muslim revolutionaries played a huge role in India’s struggle against the British occupation (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the namesake of the cultural center in Egypt, was one of them), and Islam has influenced all aspects of Indian culture, from architecture and literature to food and politics.

However, India’s Muslims have often been in conflict with the nation’s Hindus. In 1947, the aftermath of the partition of India to create the predominantly Muslim state of Pakistan saw intense bloodshed. Enduring tensions have flared over the past decade, most notably with the Gujarat riots in 2002 resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1,000 people.

Pillai estimates that 90 percent of Egypt’s Indian community is Hindu, but points out that, unlike in India, there is no conflict here between Hindus and Muslim.

“There is no religious conflict because our religious practices are not manifested in the public sphere,” Pillai says. “In Egypt, there is no Hindu temple, and [even if] we had one, I do not believe there would be trouble.”

Rajesh Swami, press officer at the Indian Embassy, believes there’s one thing that makes it unlikely that any religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims would arise in Egypt. “Most of the Indians in Egypt are in very senior positions such as CEOs and vice presidents of companies,” he says, “and therefore they are very educated and wise enough to know when to talk about religion in what way depending on who they are talking to. Religious practices, if they follow any, are private.”

Das elaborates: “In terms of religion, people don’t understand that Hinduism is not really a religion per se. It’s a way of life, of restrictions, [of] our relationship with God. I get the questions [asking if] we pray to a lot of gods, the sun, the wind, etc, but I can’t explain it because the concept of religion doesn’t exist. Having no temple doesn’t signify anything for me. [] My temple is within me, my God is within me.”

Shah’s wife Abeer, who has been married to him for six years, says that mixing with the Hindu community has not presented a problem. “Perhaps in the beginning they were worried how I would look at them, especially when they knew I was conservative and they dance and drink, but it’s okay. Hindus in Egypt are not like in India, where they worship cows and there are idols everywhere.”

This common misconception — that Hindus worship cows, when more accurately the religion reveres them as a symbol of life and thus prohibits people from killing them — reflects the need felt within the Indian community to educate people about its culture, which it often does by opening its cultural festivals to the public.

“We have celebrations where we spend time with community members, and everyone volunteers time,” says Shah. “We don’t look at it in a religious point of view, more of a socio-cultural point of view.”

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated at the Mena House Oberoi every October and is attended by the majority of the Indian community in Egypt. Symbolizing the triumph of good over evil, Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. The famous Indian singer Usha Uthup was flown in especially for the last Diwali festival. In March, Holi, the Festival of Colors, is celebrated in the Indian Embassy in Zamalek. Holi involves throwing dry colored powder or wet paint on each other to celebrate spring. These events bring the Indian community — and Egyptians — closer together.

The diverse backgrounds of their upbringing and education, their levels of professional status, and above all their rich and welcoming culture have contributed to the easy acceptance and transitions of Indians into Egyptian society. Theirs is a recipe for life that makes coexistence not only possible, but something to aspire to.

Hinduism 101

Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, is the third largest religion in the world, with nearly a billion followers — 90 percent of whom live in India. It has no founder or known date of origin; its name derives from the word Indian.

Hinduism is not a religion in the sense of having a specific theological system based on scriptures. It is much larger than that and encompasses philosophies, religious traditions and cultural practices. It is often believed to be a polytheistic religion, owing to the existence of many gods in Hindu literature, the most famous being the triumvirate of Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer and Brahma the creator. In reality, Hindu beliefs vary widely from henotheistic (believing in one god without denying the existence of others), pantheistic, and polytheistic. Most Hindus recognize a single deity —Brahman, the supreme spirit — viewing other gods and goddesses as manifestations or different aspects of that supreme god.

There are a number of beliefs shared by all Hindus. The first is samsara (reincarnation), which includes the goal of reaching nirvana or mosaka — liberating oneself from the cycle of reincarnation.

Mosaka is attained in two ways: by following dharma, the path of righteousness, by living religiously and ethically, fulfilling moral, social and religious duties and, the second way, by resolving one’s karma. Karma is the law of cause and effects, and is based on the belief that good acts are rewarded with a better status in your next life and vice versa. Once karma has been resolved, the atman (soul) attains mosaka.

Scriptures in Hinduism, collectively referred to as shastras, are a collection of laws discovered by different holy men throughout Hinduism’s history. They are split into revealed (sruti) and remembered (smirti), with the most famous sacred texts being the Vedas, Upanishads, Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. Most provide information on abiding by dharma and discuss theology, among other topics.

Hindu practices involve seeking awareness of God, and there are many practices and forms of worship (puja) that Hindus perform to help them connect with the divine. Puja usually involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras), meditation, chanting, scripture reading and prostrations in addition to applying a tilaka, a mark between the eyebrows made with sandalwood paste in order to identify followers of the faith.

Visiting temples, which are usually dedicated to one deity, is not obligatory. Instead, many Hindus have a shrine at home dedicated to their chosen forms of god, using icons to serve as a link between themselves and the deity. Their worship involves making personal offerings and repeating mantras.

Three types of religious rites exist in Hinduism — nitya, performed daily, naimittika, performed during special occasions such as birth, marriage and death, and kamya, optional but desirable rites such as pilgrimage to sacred sites in India.

A number of Hindu holidays are celebrated throughout the year, many of which are observed by all Indians regardless of their faith. The most famous is Diwali, the festival of lights. et


One Response

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  1. Marwan Elnakeeb said, on May 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Remarkable :o) Ethar, you are a world-class journalist writer. I applaude your professional and well-informed approach to each article, not to mention your interesting style which makes this article, and actually all your articles pleasant to read, and never boring. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

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