Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
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The middle way

Middle Egypt is a curious mix of the secular and the sacred, the new and the old, the foreign and the local, writes Galal Amin*

Galal Amin The idea leapt to my mind as I was walking around in last January's Cairo International Book Fair. I looked at the families shopping for clothes and kitchenware and children's toys, at the groups of university students leafing through books or sitting for a light meal at the small cafés in the compound, and suddenly I was certain: this is a pure and unadulterated sample of what middle Egypt is all about.

These were people who had a lot in common -- much more than their accidental decision to be in the one place at the same time. They wore the same clothes, particularly the women: most of them were veil-clad. They were of a similar economic standard, men and women. You could tell from the type of clothes they had on; even from the type of glasses those of them who needed them wore: black, thin-rimmed, and covering only a small portion of the face. The young men had similar haircuts, as if they all went to the same barber.

This type of homogeneity is not to be found in the streets of the more affluent parts of Cairo, as in Zamalek, Heliopolis, or Maadi, not even in downtown streets, as in Talaat Harb or Qasr Al- Nil. You may find a high level of homogeneity, but not to this extent, in the campuses of Egyptian universities. During a visit to one of the Alexandria University colleges, I had come across two distinct groups of students, standing a few steps apart but looking as if they were two worlds apart; for the difference in living standards between them was unmistakable. One group was obviously affluent, better dressed, had a near-even mix of sexes, and stood closer to the stall that sold imported drinks and pricey food.

No such schism existed in the book fair. Every now and then you'd come across an unveiled woman, but this was a rare occurrence. Every now and then you'd see a man you could tell was of a higher income bracket than the rest of the crowd, but the odds are that he is not a casual visitor, but a guest attending one of the seminars, a man who was allowed to drive onto the premises in his own car and would almost certainly leave the fair grounds as soon as he's done. There are, of course, the cleaners and janitors and peddlers, who belong to a much lower class than the average visitors, but don't worry about those -- they are neither part of this analysis, nor any other.

There is another aspect of homogeneity that has to do with the fair's main purpose -- the books. The overwhelming majority of books were religious, for this is the type of books middle Egypt likes best. The publishers, regardless of their intellectual leanings, had to display such books as visibly as possible, to attract buyers.

Consider the names of the bookshops exhibiting in the fair: Taqwa (Piety), Nur (Light), I'tisam (Sanctuary), Yaqin (Conviction), Wafa' (Loyalty), Fadila (Virtue), Iman (Faith). The list is long. I even saw a bookshop called Maktabat Al-Thaqafah Al-Diniyah (Religious Culture Bookshop), as if the point needed stressing.

Even publishing houses with a long history of secularism now place religious, or religiously- related, books at the front of their stalls, hoping to lure buyers inside. The loudspeakers -- all on high volume -- relayed recitations of the Qur'an, or announced the latest editions of one or another exegesis, now available on computer disk

You're left in no doubt about the dedication of the large majority of the fair's visitors to religion -- their full respect to everything religious, and their utmost commitment to the rituals. This is obvious not only in the proliferation of scarves among women and beards among men, but also in the books they stop to examine and the ones they finally buy. It is interesting to notice the transformation that happened in religiosity over the past decade, the changes that occurred in the thinking and sentiments of this particular class that came to the fair and, I believe, in their social and economic circumstances.

Look, for example, at the metamorphosis of the headscarf. Yes, many women -- particularly the older ones -- still prefer the old-style hijab that starts halfway up the forehead, drapes around the head like a tent, then descends halfway to the abdomen, hiding completely the shoulders and bosom, almost like the headdress nuns use. Such a hijab is almost at one with the dress, which is usually a loose garment obscuring every bodily detail. This type of outfit is still prevalent, but it is being challenged by another type of hijab, favoured by the young. The latter hijab, which comes in various colours and fabrics, is tighter around the head, frames the face like a picture, as if, instead of discouraging viewers, its purpose is to enhance facial details. It ends suddenly under the chin, concealing nothing but the hair. This accomplished, why not enhance the presentation with a touch or two of makeup? Another, even more dramatic sartorial change, is the growing popularity of trousers among young, and youngish, women.

The increasing popularity of trousers among women in Egypt is not without significance. I remember clearly how, 20 years ago, most Egyptian women would refuse to wear trousers, considering them too immodest, or too masculine. Back then, women wore loosely-fitting dresses. Trousers were for men. Until the 1960s, a similar situation existed in the West: "who's-wearing- the-pants" was the expression once used to indicate the male power within the family. With this in mind, one may speculate that the preponderance of trousers among women has something to do with women's emancipation, increased participation in public life, and entry into professions previously reserved for men.

The increased visibility of Egyptian women, and the high ratio of women among the book fair's visitors, customers, and seminar participants, is remarkable. Even some of the menial jobs, such as cleaning and distributing commercial notices, which used to be exclusively male a few years ago, have a noticeable infusion of women. There is safety in numbers, and women are becoming more assertive, less restrained in expressing themselves, by words, motions and gestures.

I also noticed a change in the conduct of some young men, a reflection perhaps of the newly gained confidence of Egyptian women. Is it the stronger and more pervasive presence of Egyptian young women that explains the greater attention our young men are paying to their appearance and hairstyle? Egyptian young men, judging by the cross-section that goes to the fair, still have trouble striking casual conversation, let alone flirting, with young women. Still, they try to look presentable and tend to speak more softly when women are in the vicinity.

The emergence of a new genre of preachers, the likes of Amr Khaled, can also be attributed to this same type of phenomenon. This new genre is more "modern" in their demeanor, dress and drift. I came across a bookshop that sold exclusively Amr Khaled books and tapes -- what better proof of the man's popularity? On each book jacket, there was a big photo of the fairly handsome and elegantly attired preacher. I bought some of Khaled's works -- most of which are small, inexpensive books -- to learn more about the topics he addresses and the reasons for his celebrity status. I had been told that many Egyptian women, just as they became more emancipated, tend to develop an affinity with the new style Khaled brought to religious advocacy.

In a book entitled Mahabbat Allah (Love of God), Khaled says: "I remember a young man, about 18 of age, who goes to a religious scholar and says: 'I know this girl and we do such and such things. If I leave her, would God be pleased with me?' The religious scholar replies: 'My son, if you do that, God will not be merely pleased with you, you will rise greatly in his eyes.' That same young man told me: 'I went home, phoned her up and said, 'I will not talk to you again, because God is more precious to me than anything else.' The young man then said this to me: 'I finished the phone call feeling happy, feeling something in my chest, as if a voice was telling me, 'We shall replace your love with another.'"

What caught my attention in this book was the frequent use of words such as love and adoration to denote the Muslim's love of God. These words must have had a different meaning at the time Islam appeared, and have since taken on new connotations from modern books, films and songs. This makes their current use fraught with modern meanings, ones that are attractive to the young but quite divergent from the meanings commonly intended by preachers.

It is clear that our young have done all they can to reconcile the traditions of their families with the requisites of modern life, and have somewhat succeeded. In dress code, girls have adapted the headscarf to their otherwise modern attire. In expressing their religious sentiments, they tried their best, Amr Khaled-style, to integrate religious rituals with a sense of conviviality. They have material ambitions -- ones that exceed those of their parents; ones that are constantly fuelled by the modern media. But they remain -- as much as possible -- faithful to tradition.

I came across an amazing bookshop, one I never knew before. The Gareer Bookshop publishes and sells books of high printing and design quality, almost all of which about material success. Among those books was one that came out in the 1940s when American culture, and everything American, was just beginning to permeate our lives: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. At the time, we knew that this book was a great success all over the world and had sold millions of copies in various languages. Yet, some of us remained dismissive of the book, because of its cynical approach to friendship and success. Now, this book is available, not to the handful of intellectuals who may be sceptical of its value, but to thousands of Egyptians thirsty for this exact kind of knowledge -- the very people who have grown accustomed to US television programmes, and who can easily identify with the book's content.

The Gareer Bookshop's further selection included titles such as How to Abandon Worry and Start Living? Discover the Leader Within and Stop Complaining and Start Succeeding. All are by American authors; all start with the phrase "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful."

This attempt to fuse the modern and the traditional, the extraneous and the indigenous, is everywhere. Next to Gareer was another bookshop specialised in computer disks containing educational material of the type that may help the young and motivated acquire marketable skills. Among the displays was a big box, designed in bright colours, bearing the image of a veiled girl with the caption reading: "Nuran learns languages." The bookshop apparently caters to this particular type of clientele, the one partial to such names as Nuran (Two Lights).

It is clear that the new generation of the particular class that frequents the fair is torn between two propensities: one to religious tradition, and the other to the new, to computers and foreign languages. The merchants were the first to identify these two needs, and used their knowledge to make money. Regardless of how far one merchant focusses on one end of the spectrum, because of his leanings or past, he is unlikely to resist adding some titles, or commodities, satisfying the other end.

This was quite evident in the large hall dedicated to computer products. As soon as you got through the door, someone would hand you leaflets detailing the special offers on computer accessories and instalment plans, or suggesting that you buy "the most powerful electronic dictionary" in cash or twelve monthly payments. You also were handed leaflets advertising computer disks containing religious sermons. As this happens, a computer set, placed right at the hall's entrance and emitting loud music, would be showing video clips of scantily-clad women, presumably to market both types of products, traditional and imported.

A few steps away from the computer, a veiled young woman was distributing leaflets explaining the instalment plans, with the air of someone embarrassed by having to be so close to a crowd of young men watching partially nude women on the screen.

* The writer is professor of economics at the American University in Cairo.

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