Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Cultural selections

By Fayza Hassan

Fayza Hassan Several generations of Egyptians imbibed French culture. It was offered not as an alternative model to Arab culture but, rather, as its negation. The mission civilisatrice toiled hard to produce Arabs whose thinking and first language were French.

I remember one of my schoolmates confessing to the class that she wrote poetry... in Arabic. Our teacher gazed at her in total incomprehension. Her look of puzzlement was sincere. "Where is this going to get you?" she asked her young pupil in earnest. The girl squirmed under our ironic stare, but gathered enough courage to whisper that she loved the Arabic language and intended to teach it one day. Our teacher seemed pained by the answer, as if her efforts had been completely wasted on our companion.

The curriculum disregarded centuries of Egyptian civilisation, merely touching upon Ancient Egypt before launching into a detailed study of the Napoleonic wars. Despite the intense interest in Egyptology that the French themselves harboured, they were not willing to share their passion with us. It was their domain, not ours; having taken their charges for a short morning field trip to the Giza Pyramids, they considered that they had fulfilled their duty to the locals.

Most of us graduated with a solid baggage of general knowledge and the firm conviction that the Arabs in general, and the Egyptians in particular, had little to offer worth dwelling on. Most Egyptians, however, never regarded the French as particularly inimical, even during the Algerian war. We vaguely thought that, although they might not hold our customs in great esteem, they displayed a sincere respect for our intelligence. More importantly, they had dedicated time and effort, with no particular benefit to themselves (they were poorly paid), to open our minds and start us on the path of a rich intellectual life.

It was therefore with great surprise that I noticed a drastically different atmosphere when I enrolled at the American University in Cairo. Our American professors often discussed Arabic literature and poetry with admiration, referred to past historical events with none of the sarcasm I had become used to. They held little interest in us as individuals, however. On the whole, they had few cultural values to impart, if one refuses to consider the pursuit of self- interest and good business acumen as outstanding qualities.

In those days, America provided us with role models nevertheless. The French were gone, and we had broken their idols after 1956. We adopted American literature, music, and ways of dressing. Many aspired to a chance to enrol in a university in the US. Others found their style in rock-n-roll and in assuming an American accent or abusively using American slang and swear words. Even during the Nasser era, the US remained the promised land for a large number of youngsters, Russian influence notwithstanding.

It is hard to pinpoint the time when the tide changed. For me, the turning point occurred during the Sadat years, when oil companies descended upon us, their employees acting as if they had bought the country along with their prospecting rights. They were loud, vulgar and arrogant in general -- not to mention instrumental in a price hike that hurt the millions who were not on the American payroll. I tried to convince myself that those who now dwelt among us were not representative of the average American, but belonged to some less educated class. This was why they displayed such ignorance and disrespect of our customs. It was not always easy.

While the Palestinian cause remained a sore point, its ache always present in our hearts, the woes resulting from the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, later combined with the unnecessary suffering of the Iraqi people and the hateful sanctions, brought America tumbling off its pedestal.

The swiftness of the American response to the attack on Kuwait was repeatedly compared to Western indifference to the Palestinian conflict. The well-known meddling of the CIA in Third World politics took on a new meaning, and now every American who lingered in Egypt was suspected of belonging to the infamous association. It was commonly believed that spies had infiltrated the university, the embassy and all the organisations masquerading as aid and research centres. The French had surrounded their archeological discoveries with secrecy. They had been suspected -- rightly -- of smuggling antiquities; but when the Americans began adopting the same tactics, they were immediately accused of much more sinister endeavours.

When satellite television entered our homes, we became much more aware of the slights to our culture that we detected in the programmes specifically designed for the Middle East. Why do CNN and the BBC, for example, regularly choose Arab experts and spokespersons who know little English? Many Arab politicians and journalists are perfectly fluent in foreign languages. Why not invite them to express their opinions instead? Why do American anchors and officials still find Arabic names impossible to pronounce, yet seem perfectly capable of enunciating, say, Chinese or Israeli names? Why have the howling mullahs become representative of everything connected with the Middle East? I never see them roaming the streets, sitting at sidewalk cafés or behind desks in offices. One has to look quite hard to find them; yet whenever Islam is mentioned on television, one can be sure that a mullah is about to appear.

The US seems to have reversed its policy recently, and now appears intent on soothing the Arabs' latent antagonism (a direct consequence of the way Israel is given free reign to massacre the Palestinians). Perhaps they should inform their principal organisations in the Arab world of their new position -- namely, that Arab sentiments must be reckoned with momentarily. This would go a long way toward clearing the atmosphere and avoiding regrettable faux pas, such as having the Israeli ambassador as guest of honour at an event to which Egyptian officials and journalists have been invited.

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