Egypt’s “McDonaldization”

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El-Moshir Tantawy Mosque in Cairo. Eloquently encapsulating religion’s meeting with modernity.

Those that waft between places gain the gift of being able to see the changes more clearly than those who are in that place everyday; the incremental changes steering clear from their attention. I want to focus on two points in this post, of things that are, by late 2018, quite prominent and relevant:

  1. China-Egypt Relations

It should be no news to many that China-Egypt relations have been improving and increasing in the past years. Sisi came back from China last week, to discuss the FOCAC cooperation (China-African cooperation). The bilateral partnership is being strengthened by many projects the Chinese fund in Egypt, including creating Chinese language schools in Cairo, the Northwest Suez Economic zone, indeed, the new capital of Egypt is being funded largely by China. From a more macro view, Africa-China economic relations is an increasingly beneficial relationship, with China often funding infrastructure projects in return for resources for their rapidly growing consumption.

Beyond the international relations, political discussion, culturally I have seen very interesting developments in regards to China-Egypt relations. However, the racism prevalent in both countries is both sky-high. As a biracial person with a Chinese mother, I have spent my middle school and high school years in Shanghai, and often return to see my mother. This last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I experienced horrible remarks regarding black people that I will not repeat here. In Egypt, I am constantly mistaken for Japanese. A cab driver once translated what he was trying to say (which was objectification) into Japanese and handed me his phone. I stared at the Japanese on his phone before stuttering out “I’m Chinese” in poor Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Political sensitivity, “PC culture” (Political Correctness) is not a luxury developing countries can afford. This is something that I believe developed countries should take into account. It almost seems as though once a country largely pulls itself out of masses of poverty and corruption, they forget the authenticity of humans – it becomes individualistic, the race to make the most money, get the best car, the best house, the most charming spouse, etc., seems to be the entire point of life. Not that I know what the point of life is, nor does anyone else for that matter, but I am as certain as I can be that that is not it.

In these developing countries, people are the most important. Human connection. Having clean water, some shelter, food, and health. In Egypt, bread is literally called “Aesh”, the word for “life”. This isn’t the case in the other Arab countries. Yet, paradoxically, developing countries like Egypt and China also experience higher rates of racism and oblivion to racial ideologies and thoughts. It is yin and yang- there must be a give and take for everything.

At the end of the day, I hope China-Egypt relations will continue to flourish and will not turn sour. I suppose China is Egypt’s new papasito, after Russia and the US. Let’s hope China will be a benevolent papasito.  I saw a few Chinese people walking near me yesterday in Ikea, precisely in the bedroom section (I knew they were Chinese because they were speaking Mandarin), and I thought, ah, they must be struggling with being in a country where they can’t speak the language. This, I’ll admit, was a presumptious thought on my part, because later on I saw them again, and one of them was yelling down the phone in rapid Arabic, with a strong Delta accent. I hope to see more of this, everywhere- one of the positive results of globalisation. Things brings me to my second point of focus.

2. “McDonaldization”

The second point of focus I’ve been pondering upon regarding Egypt today is its “McDonaldization”. Originally coined by sociologist George Ritzer, the term is rather self-explanatory, referring to the rapid spread of McDonaldization globally. However, more deeply, and more importantly, it refers to the homogenisation of cultures due to globalisation. Some would argue it isn’t the homogenisation of cultures, but the Westernisation of cultures. This is a point of contention many argue within academic circles and the public sphere. There has been, up until recently, largely a Westernisation of cultures. However I believe the rapid dispersion of things like China Town, Korea Town, Japan Town, and restaurants of all around the world popping up around the world might be showing a shift to the homogenisation of cultures. It is simply too early to say, although we must be aware of ideological simplifications, such as the clash of civilisations theory, or the theories of the Edward Said-ians (the “West vs the Rest” notion is oversimplified and arguably outdated in today’s post-modern society).

Being in Ikea, I forgot for those two, stressful hours, that I was still in Egypt. Indeed, being in the complex in New Cairo – Festival City Mall – surrounded by fast food restaurants, clothing stores like DeCathlon, Toys R Us, and TGIF (not to mention McDonald’s itself, KFC, Costa coffee, etc) – I could have been in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Shanghai.

If I were driving by in a car, it would just look like any of those cities, just with a few more covered women. Another experience I had that shows this “McDonaldization”, or homogenisation of cultures, or perhaps the intertwining of cultures, was the boy who took care of the camels in Giza, one of which I was riding, and who was wearing a galebeya* with a sports cap – this strange and awkward juxtaposition perfectly captures this sentiment. As more and more of these places pop up, completely derived from any cultural authenticity, perhaps this is creating a new culture – a global culture.

*traditional Egyptian dress wear.

Things Are Not What They Seem

The second time I visited Egypt was one week after I had left – that’s how long it was bearable for me to be away. I wanted to find a tabla (Indian drums) for my aunt, who lives in Oxford and loves playing the tabla. I found myself walking along Muhammad Ali Street, chaotic and full of musical shops. Not realising the word for tabla in Arabic was “tabla”, I had the image of a tabla on my phone, which I would gingerly show men* as I walked down the street.

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Finally, one young boy took my phone, and began to walk away with it, while motioning for me to follow him. Alarmed, I immediately began following him, preparing myself to sprint after him if he decided to bolt with my phone. He brought me to a little shop where there was a round, little old man sitting inside, with a pair of spectacles hanging around his neck, and he was happily talking away in Arabic on the phone. The young boy and I awkwardly waited there (he still had my phone), before the little old man hung up the phone, looked at me with smiling eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and said (in quite good English) to me, “Good Morning!

It was a great feeling to find someone who could speak some English, perhaps the first for a few days. “Good Morning!” I replied back to him happily. Soon enough, he and the young boy had invited me in for tea at least three times. I could no longer refuse. So there I was, sitting in a store with this round little old man whose name I can’t remember, drinking hot tea in little plastic cups with no milk, chatting away happily. He asked me many questions, and had me write my email down on a piece of paper. Ah, the difference between the Instagram, Twitter, and FaceBook dominated first world! At one point I was on the phone talking to his brother who lived in England and his brother’s wife. Finally, he led me to another shop, where they sold tablas, and where I, according to him, got a tabla for supposedly much cheaper the original price.

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My experiences in Egypt are filled with stories like this. The kinds of stories that only happens in a country free of the burdens of the everyday rush, the 9-5, the commutes, the competition of who-can-make-the-most-money-the-quickest; it is a society where human connection, a conversation over some tea, under the golden haze of the sun that is only quite so golden in Egypt, and عيش (“aish”, the Egyptian Arabic word for “bread”, literally meaning “life”- this is symbolic of their society and views), is everything. It wasn’t long before I had fallen in love with the Egyptian sun, their aesh beladin (Egyptian flatbread) ,طعمية (“ta’ameya”, Egyptian falafel made with fava beans) , and the Egyptian people and society itself.

One of the nights that trip I found myself at a concert of Ghalia Benali, the Tunisian singer who is extremely influential in the Arab world for contemporary Arabic music. It was set inside a huge mosque, with babies, grandparents, families with members of all ages there, spread out across the grass. Some had brought stools. By the time it was the end of the concert, people had stood up on stools to see her better (some brave individuals even stood on the backs of chairs). Everyone clapped to the tune, as, in that moment, we were all connected, through the same vibrations that coursed through our bodies, our hands clapping in the same movements harmoniously.

*Men due to the fact that most of the people on the streets in Egypt are men. There are many factors due to this. As a religious, military state, where women do not enjoy the freedoms such as they may in the US or UK, or other democratic Western countries, the men are often sauntering in the street, gazing at you. This is also due to the destitute state of the economy currently, rendering many bored out of their minds everyday.

Greatly Misunderstood

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“Boy on Dirt Road.” Taken in downtown Cairo, August 2017.

“Greatly misunderstood” was one of the most prominent, recurring thoughts that occurred to me when I first went to Egypt. Alone, armed with a few months of self-taught Arabic as well as a one month intensive course at SOAS, I arrived in Cairo in July of 2017. Something had propelled me to go to one of the four most ancient civilisations of our world, alongside China, the Harappan civilisation and Mesopotamia. The country of the pyramids, of camels, of heat, of pharaohs. But Egypt was so much more than that. Not only a strategically important area in the region, with it’s history of battling the Sinai over Israel, but also connecting the African continent to the Middle Eastern world, while also at a crossroads between Europe and Africa.

I had constantly been warned of going to Egypt. My experiences showed me a kindness of people’s that didn’t have much – as Egypt’s economy is suffering even more so after the 2011-2013 Arab Spring(s) than before. Tourism has inevitably taken a massive hit in the country due to the current political climate, and tourism accounts for around 13% of the Egyptian economy. Taxi drivers, shop-keepers, and the like each would bring up the degree to which the economy has suffered since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Egypt is currently a military state. There are tanks on the street, military checkpoints every few blocks. However, I saw people approaching the policemen on the street, asking for help with parking their cars. The police would be sitting on pulled up chairs by the side of the street, holding little glasses of شاي (“shay”, meaning: tea) with no milk. The second or third time I arrived in Cairo, I had forgotten to bring USD currency with me. The reason why I needed USD was due to the fact that they only accepted USD to purchase a tourist visa at Cairo International Airport, and I had foolishly arrived with Chinese Yuan (RMB) and the Egyptian Pound. This is one of the ways they get USD into the country, and the rules were therefore rather strict. I found I was unable to purchase my tourist visa without USD. Panicked, I ran to the ATM in the airport. Alas, it was broken. Not knowing what else to do, I hastily approached a police officer. His sun-beaten face quivered with the slightest hint of a smile as I frantically explained to him the issue. Once I was finished, he motioned for me to follow him. He went up to the desk where they would issue visitors their visas, yelling at them in rapid Arabic. The young man behind the desk looked at him a bit crossly, then, without so much more as a nod, beckoned for my cash. Once I had gotten my visa, I thanked the policeman. It was then that he looked at me, smiled, and said “welcome to Egypt.”