looks back on the consumer culture of the 1960s
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Clockwise from top: advertising locally produced radios; IDEAL; FIAT; local couture (photos: Courtesy of Mona Abaza)
Many of our generation would agree that the most drastic change they ever experienced in their life style was during Al-Sadat's infitah. It was during Sadat that Egyptians discovered the unlimited desires, but also frustrations of the eternal unfulfilled desires of consumption. Sadat's shift of alliance from the Soviet Union to the Western capitalist world in the early 1970s was followed by the policy of the "open door". This concretely meant further privatisation at the expense of destroying the "public sector" and the state monopoly over large scale industries.
This was followed by the World Bank and the IMF's increasing intervention in internal Egyptian economic planning decisions. The Nasser regime's achievement in "import substitution" came under attack. The shift from the Nasserite "state capitalist" era to full integration into the world capitalist system went hand in hand with encouraging consumerism among Egyptians as a new lifestyle. This led to an astonishing and swift transformation in the consumer norms and shopping customs of Egyptians. On the one hand, the Nasser regime through its socialist orientation led to the creation of middle classes with consumerist attitudes which were somehow fulfilled by the expansion of a local market and local industries. This went hand in hand by somehow isolating the country from international markets. On the other hand, the long years of promoting a Nasserite ideology, encouraged mainly an official ideology of "tightening of the belt" and frugality among these middle classes. For many Egyptians the infitah transformation was symbolised in boasting to changing from smoking the Egyptian Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Belmont cigarettes to the American Marlboro and Kent brands which cost double if not triple the price of Egyptian cigarettes, from driving the locally produced Fiat and Nasr cars to higher status BMW and Mercedes, from home made clothes to imported clothes, from replacing the local Sico, Randa and Sinalco all much notorious for swimming cockroaches with imported cans.
IDEAL AND OTHERS: The generation of the 1960s can recall that they grew up in households which had locally produced Ideal company consumer durables. The Ideal national company produced complete metal kitchens, stoves, fridges, metal cupboards, beds and desks and even toys which were perhaps aesthetically unattractive, but one could agree that these consumer durables were functional and practical. Al-Nasr Company produced all-sizes Egyptian televisions, including portable and transistor televisions. Sharikat Al- Delta Al-Sinaayah (The Delta Industrial Company), Ideal, was the regime's symbol of success. The weekly magazine Al-Musawar in 1966 displayed a "propagandistic" article with a picture of Nasser visiting the industrial fair. The article boasted the company's triumph in conquering African markets in Dakkar, Senegal and in Lagos, Nigeria. The sub-title said that markets all over the world have been competing over Ideal fridges and air conditioners. Ideal fridges were even sold to Eastern Germany. The company proved so successful that it multiplied its capital to 80 times after the revolution. Ideal company started in 1962 as a merger between Sharikat Al-Delta Al-Tugariya (The Delta Trading Company) and Sharikat Al-Taadin (The Metalurgical Company). The former company was founded in 1920 starting with a capital of LE20,000. Ideal company started producing the first fridges in 1954 -- probably the first fridges ever produced in the Middle East -- the air conditioners followed in 1956. The company had by then expanded into three large factories with a capital reaching one million and six hundred Egyptian pounds. In summary consumerism was the pride of the "public sector" which nationalised the grands magasins like Hanneaux, Sednawi, Shemla and Tarbishi and took over various previous companies and expanded them.
Bauhaus architecture, a German invention born out of a situation of scarcity was adopted by the ruling regime in order to seek for functional solutions. The aim was to solve the housing problem for the needy. Such a style was functional and operative in a "developing" nation like Egypt . Popular housing could have been a replica -- but much worse maintained -- than the German social housing. In fact, Bauhaus taste applied to Ideal products.
Middle class families drove locally assembled Fiats. The tiny Ramses car, a close imitation of the Italian Topolino was the first truly Egyptian locally produced car. Ramses did not last long, but at least the attempt was to be taken into consideration. One had to reserve in advance to purchase the Nasr cars. It took sometime more than a year to be able to obtain it by turn from the government.
State employees adopted an informal uniform that reminded many some attires in socialist countries. Those older than me would recall the famous government slogan al-badla al-shaabiya ahsan min al- gallabeya, ie the popular suit is better than the gallabeya (the long peasant robe). Was not this the best example the regime's imagination of modernisation? Away with baladi culture ?
Girls played with the locally produced Sabrina dolls. These rather fat and kitschy looking dolls with impossible-to-comb disintegrating hair could certainly not compete with the popular Barby dolls which were forbidden to be imported or sold in the market. But there was always someone in my class who showed off her Barby doll and thus she drew envy and admiration.
We all grew up with one or two brands of powder soap for clothes, the Rabso and the Savo brands. We had no washing machines and certainly no dish washers because domestic servants were abundant; at least, this was the case until the early 1970s. So until then, a washing woman came once a week and would sit on the bathroom floor in front of large basin to wash our clothes.
Many would also recall the significance of the namliya, a kitchen cupboard that served for storing food like rice, oil and other household items like soap and detergents. This was a typical item in middle class households. It had to be always locked for fear that the servants would steal. The namliya was later replaced by large freezers and micro-waves. The idea of purchasing large quantities of food to be frozen did not become popular, I would say, before the 1980s.
We used daily plastic melamine plates and stainless steal cutlery, while the China set and silverware were locked and displayed only for important occasions. Every adolescent in the 1960s would remember the Egyptian television ad: Ana al- milamin gamed we matin (I am the strong and solid Melamine).
Plastic plates, boxes and other household goods were produced again by another public sector company the plastic company: Sharikat Al-blastic. Its motto was to promote economical products for the newly-wed couples.
Empty bottles of Whiskey were recycled for cold water. Biscuit boxes served for multiple purposes and all sorts of wrappings were used back again for wrapping presents. Those who possessed rare imported luxury goods were looked upon as the "elite" in the period of the 1960s. No one ever thought of buying bottles of mineral water. Anyway, they did not exist.
A large section of middle class women purchased the German Burda magazine which included sewing patterns. As economical and well intentioned frugal Egyptian housewives, they possessed Singer sewing machines. Every middle class housewife took courses in sewing to keep up with the last fashions in Europe. If clothes were not self-made, many are still nostalgic of tailors and shoe-makers who willingly came to homes to draw the size of the foot. Despite the feeling that one was deprived from consumerism, the upper middle class survived still very well and had services that if I trust my memory has vanished with mass production and the new consumer culture. I recall that until the late 1960s, there often came to our house my mother's female tailor, her shoe-maker and my father's male tailor. All these people spent hours fitting dresses and shoes. This was done with long discussions and socialising with my parents while they were sipping their coffee. The milk man used to bring every second day fresh milk which had to be boiled and the small grocer in our quarter brought many items home and mother paid at the end of the month. With the exception of domestic servants, all these crafts and home services seem to have today disappeared.
Today home delivery has become one of those privileges Egyptians enjoy indulging in. The modern female middle class Cairene can mainly do household tasks through her telephone. She can order fresh food, vegetables, meat, any item form practically all supermarkets, complete meals from restaurants, from fast food chains, medicine from pharmacies, cakes from hotels and have caterers set dinners for her. In other words, "one no longer needs to go out and struggle with the masses in the street" as would many Egyptians say.
The locally produced Bata shoes chain existed everywhere and everybody could purchase the unified brand of white sports shoes among other shoes. There were two shops down town which sold children clothes, and I recall my mother taking us there twice a year. Male and female underwears were made of Egyptian cotton, notably Gil company. Gil has survived and has gained a good reputation and was even exported to Europe.
Many who experienced the Nasserite era would say that much less money was available, but also much less was spent because there were not enough luxury goods to be purchased anyway. Fathers saved money for each member of the family in a daftar tawfir at the post office (a bank savings book). The Insurance Company propagated the idea of the importance of having a life insurance and sharikat al-taamin aamla boulisa li amm amin (the insurance company has made a policy for amm amin) became a famous Nasserite ad. Frugality and saving were the dominant culture which we grew up with.
Those who are nostalgic of this epoch would claim that in fact people were rather satisfied with what they had. They were less resentful of the continuous unfulfilled expectations of consumerism. The enemies of Nasserism would counter pose him to Sadat by arguing that abundance and display was the major achievement of Sadat. But if this were true why did then the masses riot in 1977 when the IMF ordered that subventions be lifted from basic goods like bread, oil and soap? Life never became rosy for the poor in the 1970s. It needed a tiny increase in prices so that the oil was poured on fire.
THE 1960'S LEISURE CLASSES: So far, this is only one side of the story. It would be a great illusion to describe the Nasser era as a mere mediocre emulation of "socialist" countries as his enemies would wish to remember him. If the official discourse promoted an ideology of scarcity, this far from applied to all. In fact the view of an economy of scarcity can be dangerously class biased and false. Social distinction survived; it rather took different paths from the previous monarchy. The bitter critics of Nasserism would say that the furniture and antiques of the older classes were appropriated through sequestration, or in private sales and these only changed hands to the rising class. Some previous Pashas specialised in such a trade and were astute in purchasing marvels from the needy declining old class. Others see that the Nasser period led to the expansion of consumerist appetites for the new rising middle classes which certainly created different markets. The 1960s ads inform us about locally produced air conditioners (Coldair), Tabrizi-Shirazi carpets produced in Damanhur by The Arab Company for Carpets and Textiles and fancy leather ladies coats. Corona produced Egyptian chocolate Nadler, cacao, pudding, and halva . Pick-up records, glass chandeliers, Sigal metal water heaters, stoves, fridges and pots are all ads in Al-Musawar 's 1960s. One could argue that the fact that there were many brands of cigarettes is in itself quite revealing of a great diversity.
During the 1960s the Al-Musawar magazine advertised the following brands: Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Florida, (Sharikat Al-Nasr lil dukhan wal sagaier) Belmont (Eastern Company), Cairo, 555 filter Kings, Paxton (A product of Philip Morris) and Simiramis and Craven A. The grands magasins which were all turned into public sector companies and run by the government like Sidnawi, Tarabishi, Hannaux and Omar Affandi offered then plenty of "occasions" and sales of all sorts of household goods.
The Montazah, former King Farouk's magnificent resort with its spacious gardens and fields was seized by the new regime. The edge of Simiramis bay was turned into Nasser's and his ministers summer residence. The other beaches were transformed into private resorts with luxurious expensive summer cabines for the declining aristocracy. While perhaps Cleopatra and Aida beaches in Montazah hosted the newly rising state bourgeoisies. These could afford second flats in Alexandria and residences on the Pyramid Road.
The rising "crème de la crème" in the late 1960s consisted of an alliance of the so-called old class which to survive opportunistically made marriage and work alliances with the bureaucrats and sons of the revolution. Montazah had morning and evening beach parties. Les petits chats and the Black Cats bands aired Frank Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, Claude Francois, the Beatles and what not. The "soirées dansantes" took place at the Palestine hotel, another interesting Bauhaus building which became the symbol of modernising. Every while and then, hotel Palestine was shot in soap films portraying the leisure classes' favourite place. These films showed sexy actresses who by today's standards would be too daring in Bikinis. The flair of cosmopolitan Alexandria had still survived its restaurants in the 1960s. At least I recall that restaurant culture was especially spread in Alexandria.
The Gezirah club which was restricted to British officers was thanks to the revolution Egyptianised. As a result of nationalisation, it turned to be the ideal parading space of show off, fashion, cars, dogs and golf playing. Women and young girls wore mini-skirts, bikinis and could freely walk in tiny shorts and sleeveless shirts. The middle class enjoyed the outings to the Hilton and Shephard's hotels and some down town bars continued to flourish in the 1960s. The new rising middle classes of officers and high government officials brought from the socialist countries fine crystal and glass. The appetite for acquiring valuable goods such as carpets, Western furniture, Western landscape paintings, silver cutlery was never hampered by the socialist ideology, even among the members of the revolution.
It is true that Fiat was the national economical car, but the old classes continued to drive their own old Bentley's, Citrouen, and some happy few Jaguars and one could still find quite a few Mercedes cars in Cairo's 1960s. Many ladies went frequently shopping to Beirut and had private sales at exclusive coffee meetings. Certainly travel was much more restricted than today but many of the old class knew how to maintain accounts in Switzerland and managed every year to travel overseas. One would be astonished of the large variety of brands of watches which were sold in the late 1960s. Al-Musawar in 1970 had the following brands: Vulcain Switzerland, Camy Watch, Switzerland Felca, Switzerland Cortebert, Nivada's Colorama, diver's watches, Elasto-Fixo and Jupiter.
Women complained that they could not get cosmetics like Revlon (It was boycotted because of trade with Israel) or Dior in Cairo but there existed a locally produced joint venture Max Factor and Elisabeth Arden. In 1970, the year of Nasser's death, Al-Musawar advertised various Western cigarette brands such as Marlboro, Benson and Hedges and Craven A.
The old class always complained that the country was "closed" and the regime was clearly anti-Western. But if one recalls carefully Egyptian television, it in fact showed in the 1960s plenty of American films. American serials such a Bonanza, The Fugitive, Perry Mason, or Lost in Space were extremely popular. Hollywood continued to be the ideal for many of our generation. Elvis Presley's films were celebrated in Cairo's cinemas by an audience of youngsters who would be dancing wildly during the screening, as one old acquaintance recalled. To what extent then was the socialist regime that conscious of having a clear-cut anti-Western consumerist stand? And to what extent was life that hard or the belt tightened for the urbanites middle and upper classes?
THE RATION CARD AND THE SERVANTS: In 1966 Al- Musawar again published an interview with the Minister of Supply titled: Why did I cancel domestic servants from the new rationed card? The interview was written with the intention of announcing to the citizens that the government had cancelled the old rationed cards because these were only leading to greed and exploitation. The new cards were distributed with precise information about the exact number of the members of the family using it. The argument in favour of removing the domestic servants from the rationed card was that these new cards include five million families each consisting of five members. Therefore, if the government would add to each family one domestic servant, this would make it one million more who are profiting from the government's subvention. Furthermore, it has been revealed that some families managed to register many "fictive" servants to obtain more goods. The article then provides the history of the first bitaqa, rationa card, ever in Egypt which was launched by the government in 1945. The decision was made after WW II when the country was suffering from shortages in sugar, oil and kerosene. The government then issued rationed cards for four million citizens.
After the 1952 Revolution many complaints were heard about the difficulty of obtaining these cards. In 1957 the door was re-opened for citizens to make new cards and the system installed until the 1960s survived for 20 years. For a family of five members the government paid subsidies of 6.5 pounds yearly. When a control measure was undertaken by the government in 1964, it was found out that there were 3,670,650 cards issued. Out of these 197,000 cards were under fake names. These consisted of 1,378,724 inexistent names. This meant that the state was paying two million pounds for inexistent citizens as the interview informs us. ie this system was royally sustaining the black market.
Obviously, the issue of domestic servants was hot in the 1960s, especially that these were the ones who stood in queues and brought in food to the household. I also recall that there was so much trafficking during that period over chicken, soap and oil when the clever servants would then sell in the black market.
Today the newly created shopping malls, super and hypermarkets and mega-stores in Egypt have become the symbol of this transformation. Shopping malls are to be found in many towns in the delta and they have spread in the countryside. To my knowledge, Cairo has alone 22 malls.
But many still have a vivid memory how hard it was in the past to purchase these basic products. Such an ordeal was one reason why Egyptians developed an art intertwined with a great sense of humour in trespassing the long queuing. Pushing others has remained an instinctive reflex, or rather a trait of national cleverness. Although the pictures in the press in the 1960s displays long queues and people fighting over basic goods for some, of course the happy few, it was never a problem to have on the table, Whiskey, fine cheese, meet, very elaborate dishes and other delicatessen never disappeared.
But the "memory of scarcity" is still alive in the collective consciousness once Egyptians have to queue. I am far from stating that queues have today disappeared. Many fear and rightly so, that queues have exacerbated with the current economic recession. Even more so after the flotation of the pound and alarmingly for the basic item of bread. Would the prediction of the corroboration of the bitaqa be generalised? What does this mean when long queues for rationed food are re-appearing side by side with mushrooming Alfas, Carrefours and Metros supermarkets, displaying most exquisite imported delicatessen. Today even though basic products are abundantly available in any supermarket in Zamalek or Maadi district, the spectrum of hunger and poverty is haunting the silent majority. Unfortunately scarcity and waste are the two sides of the same coin pertaining to the consumerist logic. But for how long can it be sustained?
* The writer is associate professor at the American University in Cairo.