Egyptologist, Tour Guide, Business Woman, Cairo, Egypt
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, known commonly as the Egyptian Museum or Museum of Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt, is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Egyptologists who work there specialize in the study of ancient Egyptian history, language, literature, religion, architecture and art from the 5th millennium BC until the end of its native religious practices in the 4th century AD. Adding to the textbook history, Museum itself has over 120,000 items to feast your eyes on, with a representative amount on display and the remainder in storerooms.
Marwa Hafez is the only female egyptologist at the Museum, and the only female who works as a tour guide there. Having this role, in post-2011 Revolution Cairo is no small accomplishment. The country, at this present moment, struggles for tourism and Marwa knows just how hard it is to find work, especially in one’s field of study. She continues to elbow her way in among her male coworkers, just to maintain a status quo, find business and grow her international clientele. The woman is a walking encyclopedia and Wikipedia rolled into one. She is able to carry out a conversation about … pick a topic: Queen Nefertari’s blood line— in English, French, German, as well as her native Arabic. With an infectious laugh, Marwa’s hands do half the talking and it is no surprise that she boasts return clients and receives post cards from Gemany, Canada and Russia among others. She is a go-getter, and is a fabulous business woman, who early on realized that having reliable staff increases her revenue from tourists. Marwa’s tours are seamless, as she accompanies groups to the pyramids and Cairo’s historical locations, with a fervor to show you the best Cairo has to offer.
Throughout the interview, it also becomes obvious that this woman overcame countless obstacles that many in the west cannot fully appreciate. It is an honour to know Marwa and it would be fantastic for Egyptian girls to be able to look up to this superstar of Cairo. Study like Marwa, persevere like Marwa, work and prosper like Marwa!
Young girls visiting Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The following answers are written by Marwa (with a few spelling/grammar tweaks from me). Please keep in mind that English is a second (or third/fourth..) language and is not 100% perfect . Perfect is boring anyway! Enjoy.
My name is Marwa Hafez.
2. Where is your hometown?
I am from a small village close to small city called Hihya in Sharqia Governorate, east of the Nile Delta and around two hours from Cairo by train.
3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?
I am working as tourist guide, I also design my own programmes for tourists. I do everything by myself. It’s a lot of work but is fulfilling. Additionally, I work as a guide in Egyptian Museum.
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career-wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of, and what was the turning point to set you on a current path in life?
My father died when I was three years old. Eight years later my grandfather also passed away. Since the men died, my sisters, mother and grandmother had to figure it all out for ourselves. We did have some help from our uncle in Cairo, and that’s where my love for the big city formed. I fell in love with Cairo when we visited him in the summertime. I remember seeing people waking up at 5:00 am, hurrying to work as framers, teachers and doctors. It was my first exposure to the world.
As a young girl, I remember sitting with the women in our town, during lunches or dinners, listening to them talking about shopping, buying home goods, clothes, or talking gossip about neighbors, it all seemed very boring to me. I wanted more. My mother was different from the norm, actually. She was raising us without a man, making ends meet through working. Many relatives and neighbors told her to re-marry and leave her kids with the grandmother to start a new life. She refused and insisted that we study, to avoid dependency on anyone for money. On my first day of school she told me that I had to study hard, and that I only had one shot at it.
In high school, when girls turn 18, it is customary to arrange their marriage. But I studied so hard to catch up and now excelled at my studies. I didn’t want to get married and I told my mother so. I was adamant that I wanted to finish high school and join the faculty in a post-secondary education institute. My mother was thankfully supportive, and as a result both my sister and I finished our studies successfully (my sister is now a lawyer!)
We then explored Cairo. It was bigger than my dreams. However Cairo was too expensive, my faculty for studies was in Suez, a seaport city in north-eastern Egypt, located on the north coast of the Gulf of Suez. One of the options to me was becoming a tour guide. I studied history as well as learned English and French. I later studied German as well. When others were skeptical that I would not master it, I took that as a challenge.
Persevering was a challenge to my whole character. As an example of the crazy schedule that was my life: two days a week I had an early journey from home town in Hihya to my faculty in Suez (three hour trip). I finished my lessons at 3:00 pm and had to catch a bus to Cairo for my course at 6:00 pm (two hour trip). When that was done, at 10:45 pm, I travelled to my uncle’s house in Cairo where I slept couple of hours and continued at 6:00 am to my faculty in Suez for more classes, followed by a trip home to Hihya. With little budget I had to learn how to sacrifice, say no to new clothes or cruises on the Nile or other activities my classmates partook in. I also had to deflect the pressure from back home, as suitors were being found for me there. I studied so hard, and couldn’t give it up.
Upon graduation, I moved in at my uncle’s house and tried my luck looking for work. Again, my mother was asking me to return and enticing me with suitors back in the home town. I asked for one more chance, to find work and to try to succeed on my own. This is when I was hired at the Egyptian Museum. Although I was hired as one of 26 guides, I felt alone. I was (and still am) the only woman guide. These were bigger men, between 25-60 years old. There were times where I wasn’t given an opportunity to work, I felt alone and intimidated by them. It wasn’t until my uncle’s wife told me to fight back or go back home. I chose to fight. My work was noticed and reviews came back positive. I also started running tours in German and that brought more business as well.
The society isn’t supportive of strong women. Why do we have to fight so hard, and why are we expected to “catch a man” and marry him? It kills me, this mentality. I came from a small village, no father, brothers or grandfathers and I became independent. But it was brutally difficult. My sisters are also successful. I helped my other sister with school fees and she is now a lawyer back in my home town. Luckily she takes care of my mother. I visit as much as I can, but I am happy in my small apartment on the outskirts of Cairo. I feel independent.
5. What did you study in school?
I graduated from high school and then from faculty of Tourism and Hotels Management as well as department of Egyptology.
6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?
I became stronger than I thought I would be.
7. Was there a time when life knocked you down or out and how did you get back up on your feet?
2011 was a tough year, right after revolution. There was no work or money. I worked in sales and picked up jobs here while still working at the Museum.
8. Advice for other women?
You have to be yourself. There is no mercy in life. Fight to be a better you. You are strong and you can do and achieve what you want.
9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for "feminist values"?
Yes we can, but we must support each other and believe in our success.
10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
When I am working I feel happy. But I also feel that I need to travel more, to see USA and Germany (I really want to visit Berlin).
11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
I like walking, being active on social media, reading, shopping and travelling.
12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?
I want to be a better business woman and perhaps work at the Ministry of Tourism.
13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
14. Anything you'd do differently, if you had another go at life?
I would probably be a doctor.
15. What inspires you?
My god. I believe he gives me inspiration.
16. What do you wish for?
More success for women of Egypt and beyond.
17. What are some ingredients to a good life?
Money and culture.
18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
Close your eyes and just dream of a better life and go!
19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
I enjoy books in Arabic about history and medicine.
20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three (or more) women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description? What would you tell them if you had an opportunity, of why you admire them?
My mom. She is strong woman and a fighter. She fought for us to get a better life.
Queen Hatshepsut. She was the longest reigning female pharaoh in Egypt, ruling for 20 years in the 15th century B.C. She is considered one of Egypt's most successful pharaohs.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. She is strong woman, leader and a successful politician.
21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?
WhatsApp: +20 1229946242