Think upside down! “Upper Egypt” is in the south of the country and “Lower Egypt” is in the north because the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeblood, flows from the south “down” into the Mediterranean Sea north of Cairo.
Upper Egypt, home to 40 million Saidi-Arabic speakers, has a very conservative culture. Saidis are Sunni Muslims and are known as simple and sincere people. They are very devout and want to be faithful to Allah. In general, though, most people don’t know Islam well, as literacy rates are low.
Saidis have strong tribal ties and potentially deadly traditions. “In Upper Egypt, shame can be worse than death,” says an Egyptian man describing the culture of revenge killing that often characterizes family feuds in Upper Egypt. You will shame your entire family if don’t take revenge or ask for the feud to stop. This honor/shame dynamic permeates all aspects of their lives, including the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) of girls. Though outlawed in 2008 and practiced by non-Muslim Arabs as well, it is still considered important for preserving a family’s honor.
While tourist dollars are central to the economy of places like Luxor and Aswan, life for most Saidis centers around agriculture. Many cultivate a small plot of land to sustain their families.
One-third of all Egyptians live in extreme poverty, earning less than $2/day. Most of Egypt’s poverty is concentrated in Upper Egypt, and people suffer deeply. Dozens of villages across the region record poverty rates of 80-100%! It’s no surprise, then, that economic concerns weigh heavily on hearts and minds. Parents are also concerned about their children’s education. Young men and women who would like to marry find the financial burden prohibitive.
Upper Egyptians are stereotypically viewed as simple country folk by Egyptians from Lower Egypt. They are frequently the subject of Egyptian ethnic jokes.
Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East, with up to 20% of the population considered Christian – though most live without an understanding of what Christianity truly means. Approximately 4% are Evangelicals. Christians are often mistreated and sometimes experience violent persecution from their Muslim neighbors. The 21 men kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS on the seashore in Libya in 2015 were Coptic Christians from Upper Egypt. Many praised the name of Christ seconds before their death.
Since everyone has access to radio and TV broadcasts in Egyptian Arabic, Saidis understand a dialect beyond their own. The JESUS Film is available in Saidi Arabic and is used widely. A recording of the Bible is in development now. One worker noted that Saidis are open to personal relationships with believers who demonstrate the love God and show respect (honor). More resources – especially oral ones in Saidi Arabic – are needed for gospel proclamation, follow-up, and discipleship.