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...

5 comments:

Kamal Shaath said...

First let me say "Welcome back to your Blog!!!"

I would love to say my 2 cents here ... but I should not...
All I would add...is simply look at the faces of people as you are walking through the streets of Cairo.... They are all smiling.. it does not matter how much money they have, it does not matter how much debt the carry.. or how many dreams they can never fulfill...
They are all smiling.. it is the land of Happiness.... it is AMAZING.
I would not worry about the fake modernization phase... it will not last. Remember... Egyptians have gone through so many changes... and have not changed, simple things like .. have you ever seen an Egyptian speak in a different dialect??? never.. but everyone else.. Lebanese, Saudi, Palestinian Moroccan.. they will switch to an Egyptian dialect when speaking Arabic with and Egyptian.

Enjoy your koshari.. and I hear you have to go eat at a place called "ZoZo el-Nittin" apparently the food is to die for !!!

Keep on writing :)

Erin/Kristina said...

yo hebs
can't believe we're communicating by blog when we're in the same city but i had to voice my typical views on this. i think your friend who said 5% is about right. what is truly sad about all this is all this McWorld-type development is only accessed by that (in Egypt, very small) minority who are wealthy. For the rest of the 80% or 95% or whatever of the population, not a whole lot is improving very quickly about their standard of living. The McWorld in Egypt will keep growing and growing and growing, and same old same old: the rich will get richer and the poor will, let's hope, at least stay the same instead of getting poorer.

Salooly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Salooly said...

Makes you proud to be Egyptian, don't it? (*sarcasm*). That is why I will never live in Egypt. It makes me sick to my stomach to see the country try to emulate their American 'friends', while 90% of their population still lives in poverty. When I went to "City Stars" I was disgusted to say the least. However, it's not Egyptian money going into shit like that afterall. You know what they say...the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Despite my rant, I do like Chilis (even with the 50 pounds "minimum charge"...seriously...wtf??).

Can't wait til you're back babe! Hugs and kisses.

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