It was during a one-day conference on over-seas reporting, held at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism, that I learned of yet another element of what purports to be my cultural identity. It was an excellent conference, held by an outstanding school of journalism, where I had the privilege and pleasure of teaching a course on contemporary Arab political thought to a group of exceedingly bright students earlier this year. But nothing is perfect. A veteran and clearly well-intentioned American journalist was advising the young would-be foreign correspondents on some of the requisites of cultural sensitivity if and when their future careers took them to the Arab/Muslim Middle East.
“Everyone you interview will insist on offering you coffee or tea. You must accept; to refuse is considered a grave insult.”
I had come across a great many attributes of Arab/Muslim cultural identity over the years; these had become especially profuse since 9/11 transformed every Tom, Dick and Harry (who remain unable to locate Iyrak on the map) into experts on Islam and Muslims. But this one was new to me. The image of caffeine-hyped, anti-acid guzzling American journalists with queasy stomachs rushing from one interview to the next obliged me take pity on those among the young men and women in the audience who might eventually find their way to our part of the world. I explained that my own experience with interview-seeking foreign correspondents that refuse my offer of coffee or tea is actually relief. Not out of stinginess, I hope, but out of an often futile hope that they will keep it short so that I can get on with my own work.
But if our cultural identity does not lie in taking grave insult at being refused our offers of coffee or tea, or yet again at our failure to understand the “Western concept” of satire, as an American cartoonist tried to explain to me in the course of a debate on the Danish cartoon fracas –wherein then does it lie?
The mall on the outskirts of ever Greater Cairo is not really called The Super Animated Mall, but this will serve for the purposes of this article –in avoidance of unintentional libel, no less than inadvertent hidden advertising. The real name is in English, naturally. English has become a lingua franca of sorts for commercial activity in the country over the years that have followed the late President Sadat’s launching of his Open Door policy in the mid-seventies, restoring Coca Cola to the masses (the advertising jingle used to boast: “it has returned to us”) and providing us with our first hamburger chain (though the dejected British Wimpy has long since given way to its considerably more vigorous American counterparts). When your corner hole-in-the-wall grocer renames his barely surviving family enterprise “subermarket”, it is difficult to find fault with a super mall for opting for an English name.
The owner of the Super Animated Mall is widely known to be a Muslim Brotherhood entrepreneur (at an investment of LE 100 million, possibly middle rather than top-rung), which might explain its evident popularity with a conspicuously shrouded or hirsuted, and disproportionately sizeable portion of its clientele. Spread over 100,000 square meters, the architecture of the two-storey edifice is vaguely evocative of that of a mosque; that subtle architectural statement being further underlined by the similarly designed, if in miniature, mosque located at one end of the sprawling and perpetually brim-full parking lot attached to the mall.
A giant shopping cart with an equally gigantic mock package of a famous “international” detergent set in its middle stands heroically to the front of the mall, presumably providing esthetic flair combined with rather aggressive commercial promotion.
Now there are malls and there are malls, as we’ve been learning over the past 10 years or so. They come in all shapes and sizes; the generic term seems to cover a whole variety of activities. There are the slick high-rise malls –all with multiplexes, brand-name boutiques, department stores, and massive food halls –that have been springing up in the Nasr City suburb, and along the northern stretch of the Nile Cornice, the latter incongruously hiding from view the endless expanses of slum areas lying behind them. We even had a mall housed in a World Trade Center, including twin (smallish) towers; it went into swift and unexplained decline soon after the destruction of its world famous namesake, though as far as I know there is no connection between the two events.
The Super Animated Mall, on the other side of the Nile, is of a different sort, however. Essentially, it is a large supermarket, or what we’re being told is a new concept in supermarkets called the “hypermarket.” These sell everything from giant flat-screen TVs to frozen French fries. Beside this, there are some 20 shops, including two mobile phone firms, one marketing a network and the other a mobile phone brand. Inevitably, there is a couple of the new Starbucks-style cafes that have been taking the capital city by storm over the past five years (Starbucks itself is yet to make an appearance in Egypt, allegedly for political reasons; the chain apparently prides itself on its extremist pro-Israeli zeal). Then, of course, and as inevitably, there are the usual American fast food chain outlets, the MacDonald’s and Hardees, etc.
The Islamist orientation of our particular mall seems to be expressed basically in the fact that on Fridays it will not open its doors for business until after Friday prayers. There is also, if you want, the French-named boutique offering an amazing variety of headscarves for the moderately, and fashionably veiled woman. I very much doubt that the French name is intended as a political statement on the banning of the veil in French schools, however. The hypermarket’s PA system also blares the occasional Quranic recitation, and calls to prayer, interspersed by announcements of bargain offers, advertising jingles and popular songs.
And if you have any doubts as to the robustness of the Egyptian middle class, go to the mall. Almost at any time of the day or night, the place is packed with thousands of shoppers. Whole extended families, including dads and moms, rickety grandpas and grandmas, possibly even aunts and uncles, and swarms of little children, from new born infants to wayward school-age brats –all seem to wonder aimlessly, expressions of open-mouthed awe and sensual gratification on their faces. And there is not a shopping list in sight.
Journalists work highly irregular hours, and I’ve often found myself dropping into the Super Animated Mall around midnight or after to pick up some item on my way home, only to be amazed at the throngs of extended family shoppers, carts loaded with the latest “offers,” their children guzzling Cokes and munching on pizza slices –and this, on a school night.
It took me sometime to discover that going to the mall was not a purposeful practical activity, but rather a celebration, a cultural pursuit; indeed, the paramount cultural pursuit of a great section of our middle classes –that and fast food. Not surprisingly, perhaps, fast-food home-delivery is possibly the most (or is it, the only) efficient industrial activity in the country –order a Big Mac anywhere in the city and half an hour later you’ll have a young (very likely, an out-of-work law-school graduate) knocking on your door.
As a metaphor for contemporary Egyptian society, you can read what you like into the Super Animated Mall. For some it might be reassuring. Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood will look pretty much the same as it has been under Mubarak for the past quarter of a century –only the shops will be closed until after Friday prayers. For liberal dogmatists who count on the middle class as agents of reform; they might need to think again. They’re too busy shopping to stage an Orange Revolution.
For my own part, I see spiritual impoverishment, the loss of community and the nonexistence of citizenship. I don’t see cultural invasion, but cultural degradation. And yet, we continue to screech about our ever threatened “cultural identity.”
HANI SHUKRALLAH is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the former Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.