In Egypt, Society’s Well-Being Is Reflected in the Mangoes

The once-reliable arrival of the fruit’s season used to herald the warm embrace of summer. Now, climate change has soured the mood

In Egypt, Society’s Well-Being Is Reflected in the Mangoes
People attend the Mango Festival in Ismailia, Egypt, in August 2022. (Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Aug. 18, 2023, mango lovers from across Egypt gathered in Ismailia, a northeastern city situated on the west bank of the Suez Canal, to attend the second annual Mango Festival.

The two-day extravaganza, which organizers call the “juiciest festival in Egypt,” featured a range of performances and folk art shows, as well as a mango bazaar and a market where participants could buy more than 50 local varieties of mangoes at wholesale prices. Apart from boosting local tourism, the festival was well attended by export companies as well as diplomatic and political delegations from more than 25 countries, emphasizing the economic and agricultural significance of the summer delicacy.

Egypt is one of the largest mango producers in the world, with cultivation flourishing in the northern Nile delta, Upper Egypt and Suez Canal regions.

Many of these governorates are expanding upon their mango season by hosting festivals that showcase the distinctive fruit as a quintessentially Egyptian agricultural product.

Yet despite the relative success of the recent festival, an ongoing economic crisis and extreme heat related to climate change are threatening Egypt’s agriculture industry, including the country’s harvest.

“The mangoes aren’t good this year,” a local fruit seller told me as I approached him to buy some mangoes shortly after the Mango Festival. “The yield is lower, the prices are higher and the taste isn’t right.”

“What went wrong?” I asked.

“The heat and the humidity,” he said. “This summer has been hell.”

He was right. The mangoes were not as good as they usually were. One of my favorite varieties, the Alfons — a cousin of the Indian Alphonso — was bitter and inedible, while the reddish Naoumi carried a muted sweetness that left me craving a phantom taste. The Fas variety — the father of Egypt’s mango — was stained by sunburn. Something was wrong.

I grew up with a fascination for mangoes. To me, they were the ultimate representation of Egyptian summer: the sweet, earthy fragrance, the golden flesh, the sugary bursts of flavor that underpinned my childhood happiness.

Every summer, I would return to Egypt with my parents, both of whom, at the time, were expats working in the Gulf. I would eat as many mangoes as I could, like a bear preparing for a long, mango-less winter.

My obsession with mangoes only intensified years later, when I immigrated to Canada, got married and tried to build a new life. While I have come to accept my existence in Canada, one of the hardest things to accept has been the shortage of good mangoes. Now, whenever I return to Egypt in the summer, I immediately resume my quest for the perfect mango — a mission now rooted in nostalgia and an immigrant’s need to shake the feeling of otherness after returning home.

I most recently returned to Egypt in August 2023, shortly after the Mango Festival. I returned to find that the country’s mango season had been decimated by extreme heat and a burgeoning economic crisis. As I wandered through the markets, I saw Egypt’s existential socioeconomic challenges reflected back at me in the poor mango crop and the tense, strained look of the vendors. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the rich history of mangoes in Egypt intertwines with the very origins of modern Egypt itself. Mangoes, I realized, could be understood as an allegory for the well-being of Egyptian society.

The first mango shrubs were imported from India and Sri Lanka in the early 1800s and planted in the Shubra palace garden during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Albanian military commander who became the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. Muhammad Ali literally planted the seeds for the fruit’s legacy.

While Muhammad Ali was a foreign conqueror, he is regarded as leading Egypt into its modern age. During his transformative reign, he upended the country’s bureaucratic structures and reorganized its economy through agrarian reforms and a commitment to manufacturing. These reforms, coupled with improvements to education, laid the bedrock upon which an autonomous Egyptian state could flourish.

Beyond his statesmanship, Muhammad Ali held an affection for the mango.

In those days, mangoes were the epitome of opulence, a rare delight procured from foreign shores and reserved exclusively for the echelons of power and the elite. The mango’s succulent sweetness became emblematic of Muhammad Ali’s nascent dynasty — a dynasty that would endure for more than 150 years. Some of the oldest mango trees in Egypt can still be found in the Shubra palace garden, which is now the premises of the Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

The process of introducing mangoes to the broader populace was far from instantaneous. It would take decades for the fruit to find its way into the hands of the general public. In fact, it was in my neighborhood in Cairo — Maadi — that the inaugural generation of mango trees took root and flourished.

In the early 20th century, Maadi — a leafy suburb situated along the Nile — served as a haven for a blossoming community of expatriates from around the world. Mangoes found sanctuary within Maadi’s climate, leading many of these newcomers to cultivate the trees in their personal gardens. Eventually, Maadi became home to a large proportion of the country’s mango trees.

One such mango tree grew beside our old family home in Maadi. From the vantage point of the second-floor window, one could watch the mangoes sway gently from the branches, tempting passersby with their luscious bounty. This temptation brought with it an anecdote of familial nostalgia, as my mother once clambered onto the rooftop in an attempt to secure some of the fruit when she was a young girl. It was a tale that my grandmother used to recall — one that never failed to make me smile.

Egypt is now home to more than 200 varieties of mangoes, each with distinct flavors and appearances. Alongside citrus fruits, mangoes also make up a significant portion of the country’s agricultural output and its exports. According to recent statistics from the Economic Agricultural Affairs Sector at the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, the amount of land dedicated to mango cultivation in the country is roughly 320,000 acres, with a total production of more than 1.2 million tons per year.

A large percentage of these are exported to Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Egypt also exports mangoes to the European Union and Russia, the latter of which remains one of the biggest importers of Egyptian fruit in the world. In 2020, Egypt exported 231 tons of mangoes abroad. Mexico is the world’s top exporter of the fruit.

Yet recent shifts in temperatures and weather patterns associated with climate change are threatening Egypt’s agricultural landscape, including the country’s beloved mango season.

In the summer of 2021, Ismailia — home to one third of Egypt’s mango crop — suffered one of its worst harvests in decades, losing nearly 80% of the year’s output. That year, sudden heat waves had swept through the province in early winter before returning again in March. Farmers complained that the hot and humid days coupled with the cool nights disrupted the mango trees throughout the region. There were also reports of a breakout of a crop disease known as “black mold” that thrives in warm weather, further affecting mango production.

The low yield carried serious consequences for the city known for mango cultivation.

“Mango cultivation is the backbone of the economy of this city,” Sami Selim, a member of the Egyptian Parliament from Ismailia, told the news site Al-Monitor. “There is someone involved in the mango business in almost every home in the city.”

While 2022 was bountiful, the same cannot be said for this year’s crop. In July, yet another severe heat wave struck, harming a significant portion of the mango harvest. A considerable number of crops ripened prematurely, while others suffered damage from sunburn.

The sunburned fruit made its way to local markets across Egypt, including my local fruit seller. When I asked him about it, he said that he stopped ordering certain popular varieties of mangoes because the fruit appeared spoiled.

“The mangoes are edible, but they are not as good,” he said.

While the deterioration of Egypt’s mango crop is a blow to the country’s summer season — making the fruit a luxury item for the average Egyptian — it also speaks to the threat that climate change poses to agricultural production and overall food security.

By virtue of its geography and climate, Egypt is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Daily temperatures in Egypt have increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, with the current rate of increase standing about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, according to a 2019 study co-authored by scientists from the Egyptian Meteorological Authority (EMA), Egypt’s National Research Centre, Cairo University and two Paris labs. To put it simply: The weather in Egypt is turning hotter than the global average and doing so at a faster rate.

Rising sea levels are predicted to erode Egypt’s coasts and damage its coral reefs, while water resources continue to grow scarce in the face of rising temperatures and increased drought. Agriculture is particularly vulnerable, as large swaths of the Nile delta are also expected to be lost to climate change.

The extreme weather patterns are impacting other important crops, such as cotton, potatoes, rice, wheat and olives. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and has already suffered food shortages and price surges because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While some countries are taking steps to mitigate the effects of climate change by improving their methods of irrigation and fertilization and raising awareness about the effects of climate change among their citizens, Egypt has not implemented these countermeasures on a wide scale.

This essay, initially intended as a personal journey of nostalgia and rediscovery, unexpectedly evolved into a stark reminder of the global crisis we face.

Climate change knows no borders, affecting not only the landscapes we hold dear but also the stories we carry with us. In my quest to relive the mango season of my youth, I was confronted with the uncomfortable reality that the places we leave behind may change beyond recognition due to environmental shifts.

The once-reliable arrival of the mango season, heralded by the warm embrace of summer, has become increasingly uncertain. Rainfall patterns have shifted, temperatures have risen to unprecedented heights and the very essence of the Egyptian summer seems to be slipping away. The mangoes, once a symbol of abundance and tradition, now find themselves struggling to adapt to this changing climate. Their fragility mirrors the fragility of my own imaginings of Egypt as insulated and enduring, an experience that I admit is colored by the stability and predictability of youth.

And yet I cannot help but worry that the recent decline of the mango in Egypt and its shift from a summer treat available to all to more of a luxury item available only to the elite reflects the bitter threat that climate change poses to the Egyptian way of life.

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