Listening to music by Vasilis Papakonstantinou while eating a halva panini were the kind of simple pleasures I enjoyed while walking around Athens. The Greek capital is the only European city where I can hang out alone, but never feels lonely. Strolling along the streets and alleyways of Athens always evokes memories of my bygone days in Cairo and serves as a strong reminder of the similar history and culture the two cities share.
For me, Athens is a bigger version of my native Cairo neighbourhood, Heliopolis. The beautiful Greek Orthodox Church, which is still one of Heliopolis’s landmarks, is located on the route I used to take to my primary school every day. On summer weekends, my mother would treat me to a dessert and lemonade in a Greek café, Charinos, nearby.
Egypt and Greece have solid historical bonds. A quick visit to the British Museum can help explain that simple fact. The giant granite Rosetta Stone, which stands three feet tall and two feet wide, is a centrepiece in the British Museum, and is inscribed with three hieroglyphs as well as demotic and Greek scripts. These clearly evidence our long history dating back to Alexander the Great. In fact, a bust of Alexander the Great, which is also displayed in the British Museum, was found not in Greece, but in Alexandria, Egypt. The Temple of Dendera near Luxor
shows how Queen Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, embraced Egypt and won the hearts and minds of the locals.
The bonds between Egypt and Greece, however, run deeper than just ancient links. In modern times, a little-known fact about Egypt’s Suez Canal is that Greek workers participated in its construction, which began in 1859. Out of 7,000 foreign workers, 5,000 were Greek. In 1956, most of the Suez Canal Company’s Greek employees stayed after its nationalization. Navigation pilots, especially, contributed decisively to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s diplomatic victory during the Suez Crisis. His rule helped Egypt’s Greek community survive Nasser’s era of nationalism and hostility towards “Egyptianized foreigners,” and is still honoured by Egypt today.
Nonetheless, if Egypt’s post-monarchy nationalism in the 50s and 60s, contributed heavily to the dwindling of the country’s population diversity, the rise of Islamism has made matters worse. With its civic activism and provision of social services within Egyptian society, Islamism has effectively, albeit quietly, implanted a sense of contempt among its followers towards modernity and diversity, eroding Egypt’s social bonds with its non-Muslim neighbours – countries such as Greece and Cyprus.
The fall of the Mubarak regime, however, triggered a chain of events that helped many Egyptians finally see the negative impacts of Islamism in their society and reignited their yearning for the golden age of diversity and tolerance. This yearning is not just from the Egyptian side; I read many testimonies from Greek Egyptians who left the country but are still nostalgic about their good old days in Egypt, with “its many different religions and nationalities who lived in harmony and had great respect for each other.”
Currently, relations between Egypt and Greece are growing increasingly stronger, with strategic collaboration on various fronts, including military, naval, economic, electricity, and energy. “Egypt and Greece are indispensable allies in the Mediterranean, and their national interests coincide in many fields,” wrote Ioannis Kotoulas, a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.
This alliance, however, needs deeper social and culture bonds to cement it and make it a true model for the rest of Eastern Mediterranean countries and to further entrench relations between Europe and its southern neighbours. In a region mired in deep instabilities, weak states, and violent Islamist groups, Egypt and Greece can work together to fight regional polarisation, shake off past colonial baggage, counter the project of Islamism that aims to divide us into Muslims and non-Muslims, and forge relations that are not based on religion, ethnicity, or mere strategic interests.
Besides the endless opportunities in joint projects related to sustainability, environment, and organic farming, there are real opportunities for building cultural bridges in art, music, and even culinary experiences.
It is time for the Greeks to look south and return to Egypt. Their old neighbourhoods in Cairo and Alexandria may have completely changed, but there are new cities emerging in Egypt, from the new administrative capital to the city of Alamein on the North coast, among many others. More importantly, more and more Egyptians yearn for a cosmopolitan life style that can fit their naturally tolerant religious values which welcome, not discourage, others from being part of their society.
Our similarities can bring us together, and our differences can enrich our alliance. Together, we can turn nostalgia into a reality that stands firm against the forces of isolation and regression.