Egypt: The Shawarma Dispute

They can be seen everywhere those thin slices of meat, grilled on a rotating vertical spit. A globalised and fascinating dish, the shawarma is an object of exchange but also one of discord. In Cairo, it has become the symbol of an identitarian rejection of immigrants, particularly those from Syria.

An employee of one of the largest Syrian-owned fast-food chains in Giza, opposite Cairo’s Old City.

The huge shawarma spit is here, all by itself. Rotating slowly, letting the fat drip and the meat grill gently. Just two hours before the breaking of the fast, the personnel of a famous Levantine fast-food chain are preparing the meals they will soon be serving. They chat among themselves in a mixture of dialects and with different accents. Some are from Cairo, others from the Nile delta, not to mention those who are from Syria and sometimes even from Palestine. Their boss is from Jordan. He and his local partner have opened several branches of their chain of restaurants, Al-Agha. There are other house specialities on the menu, but shawarma is just about everybody’s favourite.

Yet for some time now, this dish is in the crosshairs of certain city dwellers who look upon shawarma vendors with a jaundiced eye, as forerunners of a foreign invasion. Their reactions speak volumes about the crises in the Middle East and their repercussions in Cairo, but also about regional geopolitics, migratory streams, the refugee problem, the economic crisis plaguing the country and the fervent nationalism which is surfacing again as a result.

Making the refugees profitable

These last few months, hashtags calling for a boycott of Syrian snack bars have flourished on the Web, especially on the platform X (formerly Twitter). But it isn’t the first time. For some ten years now, these waves of accusation targeting immigrants recur in keeping with the mood of the times and above all in response to governmental hints. Recently, several official announcements have stressed the fact that Egypt is already hosting 9 million refugees – 4 million Sudanese, 1.5 million Syrians, 1 million Libyans and as many Yemeni.1 Until such time as Egypt shall be thanked for its role as a rampart against Mediterranean immigration to Europe in the form of substantial monetary aid from the international community, the authorities will continue to treat the immigrants as ‘a burden’. They demand of the refugees a regularisation of their residential status. Which will, of course, produces an inflow of the foreign currency so cruelly lacking in the Egyptian treasury. Those figures, which make no distinction between refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers, are aimed at maximising the number of dollars Cairo can collect from these foreigners. But among the people and in the media, they have led to a boycott campaign targeting Syrians, very active in the fast-food area. Their street-food stalls for eating on the go and their sit-down restaurants have made them very visible across the city. Thus, shawarma has become a symbol of xenophobia and rampant nationalism.

And yet different surveys on Syrian integration into the Egyptian business scene show that they have managed to create several large and medium-sized companies, that they employ a majority of Egyptians and that their investments are in the neighbourhood of 900 million dollars, concentrated mostly in the food, textile and household goods sectors. They are certainly better organised than the other communities, since in 2014 they created an association of businessmen, an investors’ advisory service and several Facebook pages, as wells as platforms designed to facilitate integration and recruiting. On the latter, small ads of this kind are frequent: ‘Looking to hire experienced Shawarma chef’.2

One sandwich, several variants

Nohad Abu Ammar has seen a lot of water flow under the bridge since he settled in Cairo in 2005, well before the massive arrival of his compatriots. His grandfather had opened fast food in 1999. In those days, there was not much competition: the only Syrian shawarma available in Cairo was made by one Abu Mazen starting in 1994. Abu Ammar Sr decided there was room for him on the market. The challenge consisted of adapting Syrian recipes to suit Egyptian eating habits, and getting the locals to accept his version of the sandwich. Because the shawarma recipe varies from country to country, but also from region to region, or even from one restaurant to another. Only the bosses know the secret of the various ingredients and combinations of spices. And they don’t reveal these to anyone, not even to their oldest collaborators. These they let prepare the meat, remove the fat, add the vinegar, cut the beef into thin slices, marinate it for at least ten hours, assemble the slices of meat into a cone on the vertical spit ringed with a few chunks of mutton fat. But they keep to themselves the magical proportions of aromatics and spices.

‘We are from the town of Zabadani, in the Tif Dimachq governorate, near the Lebanese border’, Nohad Abu Ammar tells me. Standing in front of his big snack-bar in the Helioolis District, where his personnel is mostly Egyptian, some of whom have worked here for twenty years, he told me his story:

I studied aeronautic engineering but came here to be with my uncles and grandfather who had settled in Cairo and founded their business. We will soon have four branches in the capital, all run by the family after the death of our ancestor in 2018. We have always felt an affinity for Egypt. One of my uncles was an officer in the army of the United Arab Republic, when Egypt and Syria joined together from 1958 to 1961 in the days of Nasserian pan-Arabism. He was killed in the October 1973 war against Israel.

For the month of Ramadan, Naha Abu Ammar plans to provide takeaway meals for the poor people who will come timidly asking for their share. The head of the chain who, after all these years has lost part of his Syrian accent, still keeps a map of the shawarma shops in the city and points to the ones that claim to be run by Syrians in order to profit from their reputation and know-how.

People’s tastes have changed today on account of all the restaurateurs from our country. Abu Haidar’s place is just a few minutes from here, he’s been in the neighbourhood since 1968. Now his heirs are running the business, but their shawarma is more like the Egyptian version. Abu Mazen was taken over by an Egyptian when the former owner left. The Karam Al-Cham chain has branches everywhere, especially in the city centre, and was founded by an Egyptian veterinary from Alexandria who embarked on a food market venture and also opened a chain of oriental pastry shops. Several restaurants have taken names suggesting that their owners are from Damascus or Aleppo, when many of them are actually Egyptians. Some even worked for us before setting up on their own.

‘The sons of Kemet’

On the Internet there are music groups like The Sons of Kemet who boast of their Egyptian nationalism. Kemet is a reference to ‘our fertile land’, the Nile Valley, as opposed to the ‘reddish earth’, the desert around it. By extension, the name refers to Egypt as opposed to foreign parts. These groups claim they are trying to defend the identity and culture of the country at a time when it is being invaded on all sides and its economy weakened. Given this environment, the shawarma is one of their battlefields. They claim that the Egyptian marinade is better than all the others, that the Syro-Lebanese one is rather tasteless Worse yet, there is the belief, historically unconfirmed but taken up on all sides that this oriental method of roasting meat originated in ancient Egypt. According to this legend, inscriptions on the temple of Pharaoh Ramses II in the southern governorate of Beni Suef, show that women created, around 6,000 years ago, a rapid composed of thin slices of meat, grilled and flavoured with spices and onion juice, so that their husbands and children could have a snack while working in the fields.

These people’s ideas began circulating in April 2021, at the time the State organised with great fanfare the Pharaonic parade of kings’ and queens’ mummies, followed by their transfer to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. One encountered slogans like ‘Egypt first’ in official speeches and documents, the idea being to mobilise the masses. In this spirit, even the shawarma can serve as a pretext.

Comings and goings across the Middle East

It isn’t an easy matter to retrace the story of the shawarma, considering the number of peoples that claim to have invented it. Some say that this meat recipe was first mentioned in a manuscript dating from the 14th century and that it was known to the nomadic tribes of Asia.

Others claim that it was a delicacy at the royal court of India in the 18th century. According to the most widespread version, it was a Turkish invention, and came out of Anatolia in the middle of the 19th century thanks to Iskandar Effendi who had a restaurant in the city of Bursa.

Thus shawarma is said to be a distortion of the Turkish word çevirme meaning to turn or ‘pivot’. The dish is said to then have spread to Syria, through the travels of the hajji making their pilgrimage to Mecca, or else carried by one Seddiq Al-Khabbaz who, after leaving his job with Iskandar Effendi in Bursa, opened his own restaurant in Damascus. He is then said to have added to his marinade the cardamom seeds which characterise the taste of the dish today. The Syro-Lebanese (Shawâm) who arrived in Egypt in two migratory waves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who acted as intermediaries between the various existing communities, later helped popularise and democratise the sandwich locally.

Ahmed Abu Ali, a shawarma chef who has been working four years for Al-Agha, learned all the tricks of the trade in Iraq during the eighties. In that country, the spit is much longer and the shawarma is called ‘al-gass’ or the ‘shears’ and is sometimes cooked with vegetables. His travels have made him a true connoisseur of all the varieties of the dish, since he spent several years in Jordan before returning to Cairo. Abu Ali watches the meat roasting on the spit while he takes care to point out that chicken shawarma is a Syrian invention, the secret of which lies in the mahaleb, an aromatic spice made from the stones of black cherries. In just 4 years, he has seen the price of a sandwich rise from 35 Egyptian pounds to 106 (72 cents to 2.16 dollars). Because of the economic crisis and the increasing cost of living, the price of certain foodstuffs has quadrupled, while those of others have been multiplied by ten. ‘Small businesses didn’t survive the Covid-19 crisis, only the big ones managed to stick it out,’ he explains.

His eighteen-year-old assistant nods in agreement. He came to Cairo two years ago to be with his elder brother, an experienced chef who has lived here for some ten years, and he promised his father, back in Damascus, not to come home until he too has become a great shawarma chef. His stay here will no doubt teach him the different ways of mastering the dish. Author of ‘The Food Question in the Middle East’3, sociologist Malak Rouchdy told me in an interview:

Every ingredient, every dish, originating in a particular place, subsequently travels and undergoes changes. In Egypt, where herbs were very rare until the 19th century, food was always connected with trade. Spices and aromatic herbs were always brought in from Africa or the Levant. And when the object was trade, dishes were always adapted to satisfy people’s tastes. With the rise of international exchanges and the beginnings of globalisation with the Historic Silk Route, trans-fers took place. The Syrians, who are dead clever, were to change the Egyptians’ food habits, as they had already done elsewhere. This was to be expected: in Egypt, we do not have a very complex gastronomy. Today, very simple people use a molasses made from pomegranates to re-vive traditional recipes, which didn’t used to be widespread at all.

And what about the fears linked with food?

In her mind ‘Those voices that are raised to save our national identity are reflecting a wish to overrate themselves, to set themselves apart, to say: “After all, you’re in our country! ” But between assimilation and exclusion there are plenty of nuances, many grey areas.’

1These figures are drawn from a report published by the Council of Ministers on the number of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers in January 2024? These four nationalities constitute nearly 80% of the foreigners living in Egypt.

2Mai Ali Hassan, ‘The Insertion of Syrian Refugees in the Egyptian Labour Market: with Special Focus on Food and Restaurants Sector’ AUC Knowledge Fountain, American University in Cairo, 2024.

3In Cairo Papers in Social Science, vol. 34, No. 4, American University Press, 2017.