Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Egyptian States of America

Egypt, my dear Egypt, what has happened to you?

I swear, I no longer recognize this place sometimes. I guess the most striking example of rapidly increasing Westernism in Egypt is the MASSIVE 7-story luxury shopping mall called "City Stars" in which you can find restaurants, a cinema, carnival games for children, coffee shops and the most expensive, luxurious and brandname stores I have ever seen in one place. It's easily 10 times the size of the Rideau Centre. Seriously, I have never seen a mall like this in Canada or anywhere else.

Another big sign is what appears on TV. Way more girls wearing bikinis and couples kissing. These things used to be taboo. Music videos no longer consist of the singer with his arms outstretched, singing in the middle of an empty field to an invisible audience. Now, they would totally fit in on MTV. And movies have lost their "Oh this was made in Egypt" charm. Instead of the usual family love story or ridiculous comedy, there are action movies and documentary type movies, made in a much professional (read Western) way.

And the homes. As Cairo contines to grow and grow (now at close to 80 million), residential neighbourhoods are being built on what used to be the outskirts of the city. One of the newest and trendiest places to live now is called 6th of October. I went to visit my aunt who recently moved there, and ... wow. It's like a Cuban resort. They live in compounds, meaning the "neighbourhood" is surrounded by a fence and you have to enter through the gate. It's the picturesque image of a cute residential neighborhood, like you see on TV. There are sidewalks, they are clean, bicycles line the grass-filled lawns, no traffic, no horns, just perfectly identical beautifully built homes, that are even more American-looking on the inside than on the outside. It's astounding. (Keep in mind, regular Cairo is non-stop horns blaring, sidewalks, if any, filled with garbage, cars stuck in traffic at every sidestreet, and no such thing as a front yard, let alone any sight of greenery).

You can easily sit at the neighbourhood Chilli's and feel that you are exactly at Jack Astor's in Kanata. The way people dress, the way they talk, the Westernism has permeated almost everywhere.

But that's not really the point. The point, or at least my question, is: Is this the only way countries can develop? Is development tantamount to westernization? Is there a way of developing poor countries without turning them into little Americas?

Arguably, all these signs of "westernism" in Egypt are good things. It means people are living in better conditions, they obviously have more money to spend, and are able to enjoy the non-essential things in life instead of focusing on their survival.

But you can still find places - lots of them - to buy fool and ta'amaya (beans and felafel) sandwiches for 15 cents. My cousins keep telling me that this side of Egypt (shopping malls, restaurants, etc) is the life of only 5 percent of the population and that most people - including doctors and people in respectable professions - do not have enough to feed their families.

So I suppose this isn't really development at all - it's just rich people spending their money, while the poor continue to be poor?

I'm not sure of the answer, but it seems inevitable that as countries pull themselves out of poverty, they will do so with the help of foreigners, and in the way that foreigners have. It seems to me (but I am no expert) that there are far more internationally-designed development projects than there are locally-driven measures to reduce poverty. Is it not logical that if poor countries are to develop, they will do so in the image of developped countries?

I asked my aunt this question, and she said there will always be people who hold on to their traditions. I saw evidence of this in Senegal, where despite nike, internet and coca-cola, Senegalese culture was very present. Still, I can't help but fear that one day, the whole world will look the same ... McWorld can't be that far away.

Any thoughts? More optimistic ones hopefully...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A piece of cake

This is a special posting courtesy of joint blogging by Heba A and Erin M:

It all started on a cold Egyptian day in Cairo. Erin was in a taxi on her way to Heba’s aunt’s apartment in the flashy residential district of Mohandisseen. She was eating koshari from a plastic cup and frantically trying to bring her taxi driver into contact with Heba on her cell phone in order that she would actually arrive at her desired destination and not in the hands of someone like the spry young buck in Aswan who grabbed her at the market and said, “How about Egyptian boyfriend?” The day was crisp, and she thought to herself how nice it would be to meet up with Heba and head over to the local Cilantro’s (Egyptian version of Second Cup coffee chain) for a triple-cream caramel apple cinnamon mocha-lattecchino. Everything is available in Egypt, all the time, from pizzas to shawarma to sushi, so why not?

Heba greeted Erin sporting fashionable new kicks in the form of pointy suede evening boots, recently purchased at a Spanish luxury footwear outlet called Scarpa. “Nice buy,” Erin said, “you needed those.” “And only forty bucks,” Hebs answered. “What a deal!” they exclaimed in unison. At Heba’s aunt’s place came the usual debate over what to do: how could money be spent and some form of nourishment be consumed this time? They drew a blank, and found themselves back in Kanata during their high school days, when “hanging out” with a friend inevitably resulted in cardboard cups of hot chocolate in the parking lot of the closest Tim Horton’s. There was really NOTHING to do, was there, unless they went somewhere and ate something, right?

“Stop!” Heba cried, “Something…doesn’t feel right about this!”


In total darkness, Heba lay on the slab of concrete considered a floor at a home in her friend’s natal village in western Senegal. In the same room, ten other girls lay on thin mattresses on the floor, protecting themselves from mosquitoes in their sleep by wrapping their thin sheets over their heads. The room was bare, but for a TV and some cockroaches. It served as the bedroom, the living room, the dining room and every room. As she lay there, Heba thought to herself: “Look at what these people have. How different their lives are.” The next morning, she awoke to the four-inch piece of bread for breakfast and the faucet outside the house with which to wash her hands – without soap. She spent the day meeting family, laughing, cooking, cleaning – a typical example of simple life in rural Senegal. There was no coffee shop, no restaurant, no Mac’s Milk or MacDonalds. Yet it was a beautiful day without boredom or unfulfilled desires. And when she left the village the next day, she left with longing in her heart to return to these people, live among them and leave behind all that she didn’t need in her homeland.

On the day of the Fire Festival among the Muslim communities in the region, Erin found herself baking in the oven that is the village of Larabanga in northern Ghana. Her “guide” and host, a young orphan by the name of Oli, showed her the small room she would stay in that night: a bare shack with faulty wires and a mosquito net draped over the straw mattress lying on the dusty floor. Outside, his grandmother, also the caretaker of him and his siblings, prepared their afternoon meal (rice with tomato sauce) over the fire. As Oli and Erin headed for the main street of the village, he indicated to her where the toilet was: she was free to use any in the row of outhouses built for the school across the road, which was what he and his family also used as their latrine, if you will. (Yes, I will.) “We’re trying to raise money to buy desks for the school,” Oli explained, adding that the primary school students were required to carry their chairs or stools to and from class with them every day, and that those who had nothing just sat on splintery boards on the floor. There was one food stall in the main village area, and over Erin’s time in Larabanga she quickly realized that it only served rice with sauce and either antelope or grasscutter (a large rat-like rodent) meat. That was it. There was one guest-house with similarly faulty electricity and a primitive bathroom, and almost no water – the residents of Larabanga walked 12km several times a day during the dry season to get water from the pumps in the nearby national park. Most of Larabanga’s residents lived, effectively, with nothing. Or do they only live with “nothing” in comparison with what I normally have? Erin wondered… (dun, dun, dun….)


“We can’t do this,” Heba said. “We said we wouldn’t do this!”

“This” referred to the horrible gutless tendency Western people have to fill their empty time with activities that are based on gratuitous consumption. Then the debate ensued: why do we as a culture feel that we need these things? More importantly, why do we feel that we need them even after seeing first-hand from our experiences in the sub-Sahara that we truly don’t need them? Why is it so difficult to succeed in curbing useless spending on unnecessary items (shoes, junk food, the latest fashion items, or anything to fill free time)? What drives us to consume like we do, and how could we put a stop to the madness and horror?

In Senegal and Benin, Heba and Erin had seen that they were capable of living without many of the things they had deemed “necessary” for life in Canada, and had even realized that it was, in fact, easy to live without these things. They had grown accustomed to live without small things like candy, brown bread or Tim Horton’s coffee, or slightly more difficult things like hot water or even running water. They had gone for lengths of time eating the same thing day in and day out (rice, rice, and more rice), and had gotten used to squatting in dark, smelly, cockroachy holes on a regular basis. They swore they would try to maintain some semblance of the concept of the simple lifestyle they had known and come to appreciate.

Then, enter Egypt. It’s amazing how fast things can change – often in the blink of an eye. Heba and Erin slipped frighteningly easily back into their old ways, accepting invitations to eat deep-fried mozzarella sticks, caramel-smothered ice cream and cheese-drowned nachos, like the past life-changing months had never even happened, or at least had more or less faded away. And they went right back to enjoying those things. Heba had entered a jewellery store and felt the immediate urge to purchase earrings and that perfect purse to match her new shoes. On the other side of town, Erin had been drawn by the warm light of a bakery beside Rami’s apartment where glossy cookies and puffy pastries had little to do to convince her she needed them.

As they sat there on Heba’s bed debating how to spend their evening, stabs of guilt crept up their chests, which gasped for air after the almost continuous eating they had both done since arriving in Egypt. Although they hadn’t forgotten the lessons they had learned in Africa, the consumption suddenly seemed inescapable outside of the context where they had learned about it. It was in the fully-stocked fridge, the seven-story shopping malls, the speed dial of their landlines that allowed them to order delivery of practically anything existing in the known world. Egyptian youth socialize like Canadian youth: dinner, drinks, coffee, some form of smoking. How is it possible to have a social life here or in Canada, to participate in the norms of socializing with others, without letting ourselves get sucked into a culture that equates satisfaction with consumption? When one of our friends or family wants to treat us to something, whether it be a new shirt, a nice lunch, a Nile cruise, or a full-expenses paid trip to the Dominican Republic, how is it possible to reject this on the basis that it’s completely unnecessary and moreover, promotes rampant consumerism and materialism?

These thoughts and others circled the heavy fog of concern in the room. The challenge seemed insurmountable, and there was only one thing that could calm their nerves. They headed to the kitchen for a good ol’ slice of cake and a mugga hot chocolate.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Taking a cab in Senegal can be a painful experience. Before you get in, you have to explain where you're going and a whole debate over cost insues. You give your price, he gives his, you tell him to lower, he does, but not enough, you pretend to walk away, he calls you back and tells you to get in.

In Egypt, sometimes the traffic is so crazy, they just say "get in, get in!" and everything is discussed later. Most of the time, you tell them where you're going and when you get there, you hand them what you think is appropriate and get out before they say anything.

Erin Moores (friend from Canada who is in Egypt for a visit), Heba Bahgat (childhood friend who now lives in Egypt) and I went to Alexandria last weekend, and after one cab trip, I gave the cabbie a few rolled up bills and got out. I turned my shoulder and saw him put it in his money stash, without even counting it to see how it was.

Heba called it "Riddah", which means complete acceptance of what God has in store for you. I thought it was sad in one way - his life is probably such that he takes whatever he is given and that's it, even if it is less than he deserves. But mostly I thought it was beautiful - to have that kind of tranquility at the end of the day. ie. This is what God wanted for me, and I cannot ask for more.

I find that kind of attitude is much more present on this side of the world. And in the midst of greediness or ambition, or maybe just lack of faith, we lose track of it in North America.

Anyways, I won't give a detailed posting of Egypt as half of you have already been here, the other half have known me long enough to know what Egyptians are all about!

But I will refer you to a blog post by Erin, who is a wonderfully talented writer that has yet to come out of the literary closet:

Here are some pics with Erin and Mariam (family friend's daughter) along the Nile and with my new favourite cousin Nada (and Yasmine, her aunt!)

I'll be home in less than a month!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Lucky Little Heba

One week before I arrived in Chad, its government decided to bomb rebels hiding out in Sudan and everyone was awaiting a retaliation, either from Sudan (much bigger and stronger than Chad) or from the rebels.

Heba arrived. Nothing happened.

One week after I left, rebels stormed across the country and are now threatening to attack the capital!

Yet, while I was there, everything was calm and tranquil. Crazy! That's the thing about Chad, it can totally change in 5 minutes!

In other news, I cannot explain to you all how totally FREEZING it is in Egypt - not outside, but INSIDE. You have to wear at least 4 layers of clothing, a scarf and gloves to stay warm in these unheated homes. I can't believe it! I would seriously wager that I am colder here than you are in Canada. Add to all this that I gave my Dad all my sweaters when he came to visit me in Senegal because I thought what the hell am I going to need them for?

Ok, back to my writing. (It is extremely difficult to focus on writing articles when you have cousins you haven't seen in years offering you all kinds of fun things to do...) Take care!

p.s. Good news - I'm eating again. Yesterday, we managed to get some cheese through the system without problems (cheese, as you know, is essential in my diet). And today, vegetable soup. So I think I'm well on the road to recovery. Kinda like the Chadian rebels on the road to power.