Despite India’s glorious history, outstanding architecture exemplified by the Taj Mahal and prominent political leader Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan has always been the solo icon of India for many Egyptians. The Indian actor was said to have been shunned from the Egyptian silver screen for negatively affecting the success of local cinema.
Egypt and India have always maintained strong bilateral relations, sharing thousands of years of civilization and parallel cultural ideologies. This relationship was strongly promoted under the reign of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who signed a Friendship Treaty in 1955 with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru. The treaty was regarded as the beginning of one of the most important investment partnerships on the African continent that eventually formed a wider Indian community in Egypt.
After decades, the community now comprises more than a thousand families of Indian expatriates as well as Egyptian citizens of Indian roots who were able to establish themselves economically and secure a decent livelihood in Egypt.
Unlike in Gulf countries, most Indian settlers in Egypt enjoy high-profile jobs in textile-intensive industries, multinational companies and international banks. Most notably they are the heads of HSBC, Citibank, Nestle and SCIB Paints.
The latter symbolizes one of the heavy Indian investments along about 50 other companies operating in Egypt. For its part, Egypt has made considerable investments in India since signing the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement in 2000.
“When the first generation of Indian immigrants came to Egypt, there was not large-scale investment between the two nations as witnessed today,” says Kaval Oberoi, head of the Indian Community Association in Egypt (ICAE).
As the years passed by, Oberoi continues, the following generations started to emerge gradually on the industry scene. Consequently, Indians have become more noticeable in Egyptian society.
Oberoi describes the Indian community as “close-knit,” with strong ties to its ethnic identity and heritage. From this came the idea of setting up the ICAE.
“Indians, who have been living here for decades, still maintain their traditions and customs. So, we thought of bringing together Indians from across Egypt and supporting newcomers in an effort to take them back to their roots,” says Oberoi.
For more than seven years, the ICAE has been holding social events and celebrating Indian festivals including Diwali, Holi and Dussehra at the Indian Cultural Center.
With growing enthusiasm for its activities, the ICAE announced its own headquarters in Maadi in January 2012, where a unique venue seeks to raise Egyptians’ awareness of Indian culture and hold yoga and Indian culinary classes.
Despite being a minority community in the country, the significant similarities in traditions and customs between both nations help Indian expatriates to mingle easily with locals.
Kumar Arora, a Indian resident, recounts, “Cultural nuances were one of my main concerns before moving to Egypt 11 years ago.”
Adjusting to a new country is always a difficult phase, especially when it comes to religion. However, “I adapted quickly to the environment because Egyptians respect others’ religious beliefs, as in my own country,” explains Arora, who is Hindu.
In addition, maintaining family ties, obeying parents, adhering to religious rules, and regarding marriage tradition as lifelong relationship are among the cultural similarities shared between Indian and Egyptian cultures.
When asked about the impact of the 2011 uprising on Indians, Oberoi replied that Indian residents living in Egypt did not flee the country, and the Indian Embassy didn’t issue a warning for its citizens not to travel to Egypt.
Egypt’s political unrest has not negatively affected Indian investment in Egypt. In fact, while some Indian companies launched new production facilities in the country last year, Egypt exported tons of fibers to India, one of the top importers of Egyptian cotton.
Oberoi has been married to an Egyptian woman, Noha, for seventeen years. They have two children and he runs his own business in Heliopolis.
“Most Indians here have built a new life in this country. They cannot easily take the discussion of leaving everything behind and return back,” Oberoi says.