"Does love as it is here exist in Europe?"

Three ethnologists – a Finn, a German and a Swiss – set out to research the laws of love in Egypt. Their work shows one thing above all else: love is an obsession in the land of the Nile – and quite complicated too. By Iris Mostegel

By Iris Mostegel

All he wanted was to buy a few oranges. The lanky researcher from Berlin could not have known that his simple remark "Say, isn't that the love song 'Inta Umri' playing on the radio?" would prompt the Egyptian fruit dealer to round up his colleagues from neighbouring stands. Suddenly he was surrounded by a crowd of people enthusiastically clapping their hands and cheering "Ya khawaga, ghanni! – Foreigner, sing!"

So the German took a deep breath and began to sing. "Inta umri illi ibtada be nurak sabahu – You are my life that starts its dawn with your light." The people around him laughed – a foreigner who was able to sing the song of the deeply venerated songstress Umm Kulthum, they had never seen anything like that before. Once the researcher had finished, he began to do what he had come to Egypt to do: he spoke to the people about love, which they willingly did, because someone who knew the love poetry of Umm Kulthum was someone they could trust.

The researcher from Germany is called Steffen Strohmenger and is 51 years old. Today he is sitting in his office in Berlin-Kreuzberg, where he wrote down the findings of his field research in a book after his return from Cairo.

"What is fascinating," the ethnologist from the University of Halle says, "is that love is hardly visible for a Western visitor. There is little physical contact, let alone kisses in public. So you usually talk to the people about how the tomatoes have gotten more expensive or about politics. But then you amazingly discover that it is actually love that they are particularly concerned about."

Love is all around

O most captivating song
that my heart has ever heard,
and cannot be forgotten.
Take all of my life
but just let me live today.
Let me be beside you,
in the lap of your heart
and let me dream.

[Umm Kulthum, from the song "Amal Hayati"]

Steffen Strohmenger (photo: Anne-Catherine Escher)
The German ethnologist Steffen Strohmenger (pictured here) has been studying the characteristics of love in Egypt since the 1990s

In song, in film, in talk shows and in conversation with friends: il-hubb (love) is omnipresent and incessant in Egypt, cutting clear across all social classes from the intellectual university professor to the uneducated vegetable boy.

It is glorified and celebrated, feared and scorned. Scorned, given that the grand emotions run counter to the traditional concept of a marital bond based on reason; feared, because the power of love is capable of confounding these very considerations; but also glorified and celebrated for precisely the same reasons – the desirable, the unreachable that everyone is striving for. "Grand emotions are a disturbing factor in a marriage," says Strohmenger. "Some liken it to wanting to conclude a business deal in a drunken state."

Emotions versus reason. Can the two ever be united? "That is the question preoccupying society right now," note Samuli Schielke, the Finnish ethnologist from the Berlin-based research institute Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre of the Modern Orient) and his Swiss colleague Aymon Kreil from the University of Zurich, who, like Strohmenger, have been studying love in Egypt for years.

Schielke and Kreil had actually travelled to the country to do research on religious ideals in everyday life and ethical questions in Islam, yet whenever they discussed these issues with anybody, talk sooner or later turned to love. And in Egypt, they speak about love as being something ethereal. "Since relationships before marriage as well as love marriages are very difficult to realise, the notion of love assumes a grandeur that is hard for us in the West to comprehend. This is also the reason why the subject is so omnipresent in everyday life in Egypt," says Schielke, and tells of a young villager from the Nile Delta who approached him one day and asked him: "Tell me, does love as it is here exist in Europe?"

"Dear Ahmed, I miss you!"

In the land of the Nile, however, love speaks its own language, one even more difficult for foreigners to understand than for Egyptians themselves. The 26-year-old bank employee Ahmed Samir from Cairo is also having his problems with it just now. Sara is the name of the girl of his dreams. Warm and sincere one day, cold and unapproachable the next.

For months, he laments, it has been going on like that. Eventually it became too much for the bank employee, so he decided to take things into his own hands: he bought a second mobile telephone, whose number he stored in his own cell phone as "Sara" and sometimes, the 26-year-old explains, when he really needs the affection of his beloved, he simply sends himself a romantic text message. 1 new message from Sara: "Dear Ahmed," the bank employee then reads, "I am missing you so much that it hurts. When will I see you again?"

Cover of an Egyptian magazine (photo: Steffen Strohmenger)
"Il-hubb (love) is omnipresent and incessant in Egypt, cutting clear across all social classes from the intellectual university professor to the uneducated vegetable boy," writes Iris Mostegel. Here, its depiction appears on the cover of an Egyptian magazine

"Tuql!" says Strohmenger, "that is tuql." The German ethnologist has not only dealt with the importance of love, but also with its structural characteristics. And in this respect, the centuries-old deception manoeuvre known as tuql, particularly practiced by women, plays a central role. Tuql entails the woman feigning disinterest towards the wooer, although she is in reality in love with him.

On the one hand, this allows a woman to clearly demonstrate her virtuousness as if saying "I am hard to get; I'm not a loose woman". On the other, it allows her to test her vis-à-vis to find out his true intentions. After all, a man who is seriously interested in a woman will not allow himself to be brushed aside so easily. Finally, tuql also serves to heighten the man's desire – what is difficult to get increases in value. The man, however, at least outwardly, has to act as if he is in control of his emotions. Anything else is deemed unmanly and loses its attraction. A young Egyptian woman once commented about this point in a conversation with Strohmenger in an exhilaratingly clear way: "I want a man. Em-eh-en – a M A N. Got it?" The German laughs at the memory.

To make the matter even more complicated, the fact is that tuql – which can go on for months – only begins to work when the opposite number doesn't know about it: the feigned disinterest that is possibly real. As the Egyptian saying goes: tuql is an art (It-tuql san'a).

According to Strohmenger, it is the permanent communication of a "perhaps" and a balancing act that Egyptian women have down to a tee. "They hand you a cigarette and, as if by chance, touch your hand. But the moment you follow the touch with your eyes, they give you the cold shoulder." Tuql is an obligation for women. It is complicated, but it works and – what is more – is considered of great cultural value by men and women alike.

Different speeds

The ethnologist from the University of Halle has concerned himself with other structural peculiarities of Egyptian love, among other things, with the speed at which it moves. "The only legitimate form of a relationship for Copts as well as Muslims is marriage," says Strohmenger. "So what does one do in the time before that? Go on vacation together? Impossible! Get an apartment together? Impossible! As soon as it comes to the first kiss, the question of marriage pops up."

This question is then followed by more, really big questions: do the families agree? Has the degree course already been completed? Is there enough money? The young people are intuitively aware of this problem, which is why the time that passes between the moment they meet and a kiss with all that that entails lasts much longer than in the West. And that, in turn, has an effect on the nature of the relationship.

Mango juice in coffee shops, furtive touches and longing text messages – that is the way Egyptian togetherness often develops. The Swiss ethnologist Kreil describes it as "infatuated long-distance love that contains all possibilities of the dream but has not yet been hit by realities of an actual encounter." His colleague from Germany nods. From a Western point of view, Strohmenger says, it is a pre-love relationship. Although with particularly interesting characteristics.

Samuli Schielke (photo: Bassem Abu Gweili)
According to the Finnish ethnologist Samuli Schielke, Egyptian children learn about love from an early age

"Tell me a little bit about your love relationships," a 27-year-old ophthalmologist from Cairo once asked Strohmenger. While Strohmenger told him, the ophthalmologist ceaselessly nodded his head and said: "Yes! It was the same with me, too!" Strohmenger was confused and asked him: "What was exactly the same? You've never been in a relationship!" Whereupon the young eye doctor began to talk about a woman whom he had exchanged glances with over the course of a whole year – intimate, yearning, cool, rejecting glances: it was all there, except for an actual encounter. "But when he described to me what he had felt during that time," recalls Strohmenger, "I realised that he was right: he had experienced exactly the same feelings as I had in my real partnerships."

Religious loophole

Yet not everyone is satisfied with love from a distance. There are also those who live out sexual relationships. Due to their inherently secret nature, there are no statistics on them, but the number of those who religiously legitimise their liaisons through the so-called "Urfi marriage" – something the media terms a "serious issue" – is rising. Urfi marriage is a marriage that is not concluded in a registry office, but which is entered into on an informal piece of paper and in the presence of two witnesses – a religious loophole through which countless relationships have been entered into behind the backs of the families. Schielke grins. "The young people are doing what they have probably always been doing, only now they are more afraid of God."

Since the 1970s, religious conservatism in Egypt's society has increasingly gained a foothold: more Islamic beards and headscarves here, ostentatious cross tattoos on the inner arms of Christians and overfilled Bible study meetings there. That is the one side of things. The other is that the longing for two people in a romantic relationship is increasing. The stress here is on the partnership aspects at the expense of the traditional extended family collective; what counts is "happiness" and self-realisation.

Is this a paradox? No, says Schielke, since there is room for this in both religions. What's more, adds Kreil, headscarves and similar religious symbols have become so commonplace in recent years that they no longer have the same strength of meaning. "Just recently I saw a woman with a hijab featuring a tantalising pin-up girl and below it stood the words 'Please love me!'"

What remains is il-hubb – love. Even if Egypt has long become a talking point because of its politics and not because of its love, it is there. Complicated, but incessant, steady and omnipresent: from the young villager in the Nile Delta who had asked whether love exists in the West as it does in Egypt to Ahmed Samir, the miserable bank employee from Cairo with his two mobile phones, and 21-year-old Mona Sadek, who once said: "Nobody can define the meaning of love – its exact meaning. Nobody has ever done that and nobody ever will."

Iris Mostegel

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Brian Dorsey

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de