Italians in Egypt, also referred to as Italian Egyptians, are a community with a history that goes back to the Roman times. Perhaps the most famous Italian Egyptian is Yolanda Christina Gigliotti, also known as Dalida, a diva, singer, and actress. The story begins in 36 BCE when the last Queen of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, married the Roman, Mark Antony, to whom she offered her country as a ‘dowry.’ Egypt then remained part of the Roman Empire for seven centuries, and many people from the Italian peninsula moved to live there during this time. Since then, there has been a continuous presence of Italian Egyptians and their descendants. For the new generations, there was a considerable amount of cultural assimilation and influence, and there was even a Venetian Quarter in Cairo.
After Napoleon I, the Italian community in Alexandria, and in Egypt in general, began to grow exponentially. The 1882 census recorded 18,665 Italians in the country, and just before World War II, they had reached 55,000, forming the second largest expatriate community in Egypt after the Greeks. Most Italian Egyptians resided in Alexandria and Cairo, and consisted primarily of merchants, artisans, professionals, along with a large number of workers. As a result, many Italian words entered the Egyptian dialect and became Egyptian words.
Here are some of the many words we still use in Egypt that have Italian origins:
From sta bene, which means 'it's fine'. Egyptians use it to say 'we have a deal.’
From alla lista. In Egypt, it's used to denote that 'all is okay' or 'everything is under control.' It is especially used by sailors.
Ballo in Italian refers to parties or dance. In Egypt, it refers to noise... ‘This is our ballo!’
From Roba Vecchia, or junk. Egyptians use this one to describe old possessions they are ready to get rid of and give to the Robabekya uncle.
From gonnella, meaning skirt. Just don't try this at home... or anywhere! In my opinion it is not used now and you will be considered an old fashioned person if you use it.
From guanto, which means 'glove.' Cool glove, eh?
From parrucca, a wig. Watching old Egyptian movies, especially in the 60s and 70s, one can see many wigs that were all the craze back then!
In Italian mobilia refers to portable furniture. But every kind of furniture to us is now mobilia, movable or not.
Prova in Italian means 'to try'. We use this word till today, to describe fitting rooms, rehearsals, and fitting sessions at the tailor shop!
From falso, meaning 'false' or 'fake.' In Egypt, falso is used to describe anything fake, especially when referring to fake gold.
From Tenda, a cover or sort of curtain.
From Vaso, meaning vase.
From Pagliacco, meaning clown.
From Veranda, meaning balcony.
This means hall or reception area.
This means bath.
This means invoice or bill.
From Benzina, meaning gas station.
From cartone, meaning cardboard.
From Insalata, meaning salad.
21. Makeena / Makana
From Macchina, meaning machine.
From Meccanico, meaning mechanic.
From Vetrina, which means shop window.
This means theater.
This means brand or make.
This means cake or pie.
This means villa.
All remaining Italian Egyptians are Catholic and speak Italian as first language, and speak Arabic and English as second languages.
Egyptian Arabic is the first language of 100 million Egyptians. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, and so it's Arabic is the most widely spoken Arabic dialect.
It is understood by almost all of the 300 million Arabic speakers in the world, thanks to the Egyptian cinema and media industry. It is spoken primarily in Egypt, but listened to in many countries.
Egyptian Arabic has many similar features to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). It also has been influenced by a number of other languages, including Coptic (the language of pre-Islamic Egypt, which is now mostly used in Coptic Christian religious contexts), Turkish (Egypt was a part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years), French, and more recently English.
Vocabulary in Egyptian Arabic is mostly based on standard Arabic, but also borrows words from Coptic, Turkish, French, and English.
- ‘Ah’ = ‘yes’ (origin: Coptic)
- ‘ōda’ = ‘room’ (origin: Turkish)
- ‘asansir’ = ‘elevator’ (origin: French)
- ‘yisantar’ = ‘to center (something)’ (origin: English)
The Egyptian dialect is full of creative, amusing, and sometimes absolutely ridiculous terms and expressions that are unique to Egypt.