Document Sample
    IN THE
    By David Kaner
  Mentor: Carrie Clark
This project would not have been possible without the patience,
support, suggestions and good cheer of the people in my life. On
   the academic front, I would like to thank my mentor, Carrie
   Clark, for her enthusiasm, prudent guidance and incredibly
  helpful constructive criticisms, my outside consultant, Sally
   Booth, for helping me think like an anthropologist, and the
 Senior Project Coordinator, Devon Parkes, who kept us all on
   task. In Egypt, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful host
 family, the Mokhtars, and scores of new friends Egyptian and
American who were invaluable in helping me navigate a new and
 alien culture. I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents, without
    whose support I would have never gone to Egypt and been
 inspired to do this project in the first place, and all the other
 family members and friends who talked to me about my project
              and gave me encouragement. Thank you.
                       Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION                                                              4

THE CITYSCAPE OF CAIRO                                                    6

HIJAB, EAST AND WEST                                                     21


WORKS CONSULTED                                                          31

        “You must always know the past,” William Faulkner once said, “for there is no
real Was, there is only Is.” It is a true statement, one perhaps exceptional coming from
a fellow American. We are a young people, and the weight of history seems light to us,
at times nonexistent. We are told to focus on the future, not the past, to not dwell too
much, to let bygones be bygones. In our country, we are told, anything is possible with
hard work and dedication, so who cares where you come from?
        That was why, in part, spending a summer in Egypt was such a perspective-
altering experience. Six thousand miles away, but even further removed in mindset,
Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole, is a place where history is a living, visceral thing
with an unmistakable and constant presence. The collective memory is long and runs
deep. Relations with the West are informed by events stretching back to the Crusades
or even earlier. In the US, it sometimes seems, we act as if our experience with the
region and its millions of people started the day nineteen of them crashed jets into the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
        Treating 9/11 as the beginning of time is ludicrous, of course, but it speaks to
the wide-reaching impacts of the day’s events, which will be with us for years to come.
They were a symptom of strained relations between the Middle East and the West,
born of resentments rooted especially in European colonialism, the creation of Israel
and Western support for unpopular regimes past and present The divide between the
two regions on many political and societal issues often seems like a vast chasm. For
extremists on both sides, our differences are irreconcilably great.
        However, part of what is so interesting about this moment in relations between
the two regions is that they now arguably share more in common than at any other
time in history. Cliché as it is to note, cheap, fast transportation and mass media have
truly shrunk the globe. When the United States dispatched its first military mission to
the Middle East, in 1801, it took the navy several months at sea just to find the Barbary
pirates they had been sent to defeat. A similar trip can be accomplished today in a few
hours. With the advent of satellite television, the Arab World now watches many of the
same T.V. shows and news networks Americans and Europeans do. Moreover, the last
50 years have seen millions immigrating from the Middle East to the West, while
sizable Western expatriate communities have grown up in Persian Gulf financial
centers like Dubai, bringing cultures into even closer contact. We are, in many ways,
all neighbors now.
        The Middle East, of course, was never cut off from the rest of the world in the
first place. It has been a global crossroads for longer than anyplace else. The various
states and empires of the region served as the nexus of trade routes that would come
to girdle the Old World from Portugal to China, Scandinavia to Zanzibar. From the 8th
through 14th centuries it was the world of Islam that could lay claim to the title of
global society, controlling or trading with nearly the entirety of Eurasia and substantial
portions of Africa.
        Europe, then a backwater, benefited greatly from this exchange, receiving
everything from the orange to the astrolabe. The valuable ideas and goods imparted by

Arab traders spurred the West to innovate, launching it out of the Middle Ages and into
the Renaissance. The Arab monopoly on trade with India and East Asia created an
incentive for European explorers to find alternate routes, resulting in the discovery of
the New World and the vast influx of wealth that followed. It can be said that without
the Arabs Europe never would have achieved the level of economic and military
success it did. The fall of the Middle East to the colonial powers was, in a sense, that of
a victim to its own success.
         Today, a decade into the 21st century, the Middle East is once again an axis upon
which world affairs turn. The Cold-War era conflict between Communism and
Capitalism has been replaced with a fight between the forces of Westernization and
religious moderation and those of fundamentalist Islam. The verdict is still out on
which side is winning. Most Middle Easterners have adopted many of the
accoutrements of Western living as their own: the television, the mobile phone, the car.
On the other hand, there is anger towards Western governments, especially that of the
United States, for their handling (and instigation) of the conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and
Afghanistan, their support for dictatorships and perceived lust for oil at all costs. There
is also a feeling among the people of the Middle East that the West has extremely
negative feelings towards them and towards Islam. The situation is, in short, difficult,
the stakes high, the game impossible to understand and nearly as difficult to play.
         The Middle East is many things (exotic, friendly, threatening, misunderstood,
hot), but never dull. In my short time there, during which I lived with an Egyptian
family and started learning Arabic, I got a taste of a culture, society and politic
fascinating and unique. In the essays that follow, I have strived to use my personal
experiences, coupled with research, to shed a little light on the Middle East and its
relations with the rest of the world in a relatable, human way. After all these months of
work I’m still hard-pressed to make a conclusion about the state of affairs within the
Middle East and its place vis-à-vis the world, nor would I trust anyone else to make
one. Like the desert itself, the region is one of shifting sands, of mirages.
         I will say this: it is vital that we attempt to learn more about each other.
Whatever our differences, it is worth keeping in mind that we are all human. We share
the same Earth, the same dreams, ambitions and needs. The human story has not
always been pleasant, but nor has it been entirely depressing or futile. More than
anything, it has been one of exchange; of ideas, of goods and of people. We are a richer,
better world for our astounding diversity, For all the conflict it causes, differences in
belief, opinion and lifestyle have been a defining factor of civilization from the very
beginning. Homogeneity has never really caught on with humanity. If everything goes
right, if we are wise, compassionate and, yes, lucky, our human family will continue to
be around for quite some time. Like any family, we may not always be able to get along.
Let us try, at least, to understand one another.

                   The Cityscape of Cairo
        ‫ . ال قاهرة‬Al-Qahira. The City of a Thousand Minarets. Cairo. It is a city of many
names, and that is, perhaps, only fitting. More than most metropolises, Cairo has borne
witness to, and been buffeted by, the winds of history. From a small settlement, it has
grown into one of the world’s largest cities, cultural heart of the Middle East and
capital of a nation of seventy-seven million people. Along the way, it has been touched
by war and prosperity, empire and revolution. It has served as a grand stage on which
some of the proudest and most shameful episodes of global history have played out.
Most of all, it has been a crossroads, a place where people and cultures intersect. To
know its story, the one told by its buildings and streets, is to understand a little piece of
some of the critical questions that need to be answered about the Middle East. Who are
its people? In what direction is its society moving? How does its culture fit into a
globalized world?

                                         I. The Nile
        There is only one place you can start looking for answers to these questions.
The Nile is Egypt, and Egypt is the Nile. The two are inextricably linked by the bonds of
nature and history, including at least 9000 years of agriculture. For millennia, the
river’s waters have soaked into the ground, the grain has grown, and the people of
Egypt have ground it into aish. Bread. Life. The word means both, and each means the
other. In the midst of a sea of sand, the Nile boldly cuts a green swath, offering
sustenance, safety and civilization.
        The river was, at times, a cruel benefactor, surging beyond its usual plain during
the yearly flood, submerging everything for miles around and wiping the landscape
clean. Other years, it failed to rise, the crops would wither, and the desert would
temporarily advance. The riverbank dwellers learned how to weather the bad times
with great granaries, irrigation and waterworks. When all else failed, there were
always their prayers. More often than not, the pleas were answered, and the people
        This paradigm has changed little in the modern era. The vision of Egypt from
space today, mottled brown bisected by a thin line of emerald, terminating in the great
fan-shaped flourish of the delta, is nearly identical to what one would have seen from
the same vantage point thirty centuries ago. The borders of the modern nation, straight
lines running through depopulated deserts, are nearly discardable pieces of political
fiction. The chief psychological border in Egypt, as it was in ancient times, is the line
separating the Nile valley, home to nearly all its people, from the expanse of desert.
        The Ancient Egyptians, whose cosmology was chiefly one of dualities, put great
importance on this division. One of their chief gods, Osiris, was associated with the Nile
through his status as the source of sprouting crops and the annual floods. Though god
of death, he was also god of resurrection, and so represented the ultimate triumph of
life, much as the verdant river defied the dry lands that surrounded it. It was he who
taught the Egyptians the arts of civilization, including agriculture.

        His brother, Set, was his polar opposite. Lord of the Desert and of Chaos, god of
foreigners, Set embodied the Other. He was responsible for anything that stood in
contrast to Egyptian civilization and the river that flowed through it. Though originally
seen as a natural and necessary counterpoint to Osiris and his realms, later Egyptians
would equate Set, and by extension the desert, with evil.(McDevitt)
        Thus, it is only natural geographically, theologically and psychologically that
Cairo’s heart, as with all Egyptian cities before it, is the Nile. It is constantly crowded
with sailboats, barges, police ships and faluka, the touristy motorboats that take
passengers on brief cruises of a mile or so. On shore, there seems to always be a crowd
on the Corniche, the waterfront promenade extending for miles along both banks. The
waterfront is densely packed with skyscrapers, and the Egyptian Museum, the
Parliament and Midan Tahrir, the city’s chief public square, are all a stone’s throw
away from the water.
        Between its storied past and its fast-paced present, the river seems to often act
as a mirror to the society that lives upon and around it. In its current form, the picture
it paints of Egypt is a complex one. Modern innovation has allowed Egyptians, for the
first time, to subvert the river to their will, rather than the other way around. In
medieval times, the city center was located quite far from the river, keeping it at a safe
distance from the yearly flood. Today, the great towers and important governmental
buildings of the new Cairo come right up to the water’s edge, built on reclaimed land.
The flood, once the source of so much chaos, no longer even occurs. Hundreds of miles
away, at Aswan, a great dam now regulates precisely the flow of water.
        Of course, modernization has had its costs. Though the river no longer brings
mayhem, nor does it carry vital nutrients from upstream, forcing Cairenes to import
more and more food as local output dwindles. The problem of pollution, a concern
throughout the city, is especially striking at the river, given its great symbolic
significance. Thousands of years on, the Nile is still treated as a garbage dump, with
devastating effects. The water gleams with oil slicks. Boats occasionally must cruise
through great patches of garbage like icebreakers cutting though a winter pack. The
joke, among my friends and me, was that you would not want to even touch the water;
by the time you pulled your hand out, your fingers would have already disintegrated.
        The Corniche is an excellent example of both the success and failure of Egypt as
a modern state. Built in the 1950s under socialist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, it still
serves the purpose for which it was constructed: to serve as a social space for all
Egyptians. It even managed to get in a dig at the British, who only a short while before
had ruled the country. To make way for the promenade’s completion, the gardens of
the British Embassy were, to the cheers of the public, leveled. The nightly outings of
fathers, mothers, daughters and sons offer a glimpse of the impressive importance
Egyptians place on the family.
        Yet there are also jarring signs of the socioeconomic issues facing the country.
The crush of pedestrians in the evening is due not just to the locale’s beauty, but also to
the lamentable lack of public space elsewhere in the city. The children begging in the
shadow of luxury apartment buildings highlight the deep economic divide that rends
the country into haves and have-nots. The hulking pleasure boats and floating
restaurants, occupying what is supposed to be public space and blocking views, are
one of the excesses of a country that has swung 180 degrees on economic policy, from

the stifling socialism of the 50s and 60s to the unchecked, unplanned development of
the present day.

                                       II. Old Cairo
        The origins of Cairo, like so much of Middle Eastern history, are ancient,
complicated and confusing. Although the area had been settled in ancient Egyptian
times, and the nearby city of Memphis, founded around 3000 BCE, held great strategic
importance, it would only rise to prominence over a period of centuries. The first
major structure still extant, a Roman fortress with the grandiose name of Babylon
(stemming, perhaps, from a yet-earlier building constructed by Babylonians around
the 6th Century BCE, during the Persian Empire), once collected tolls from river craft
crossing the boundary between Lower and Middle Egypt and is today the oldest
building in the city. Around its walls grew a town that is now referred to as Coptic
Cairo. A crossroads even before the formation of the eponymous Christian sect, the
town is said to have played host to the Holy Family during the “Flight into Egypt,”
when a young Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, sought refuge from the wrath of
King Herod. They were not the only persecuted group to take up residence in Coptic
Cairo during its early history. The Christian community that took root in the centuries
after Jesus was, as it is today, overwhelmingly composed of Copts, who were seen as
heretics and oppressed by the Catholic Church. It also played host to a number of Jews,
another group that faced persecution during the Roman and Byzantine
periods.(Egyptology Online)
        It was disgruntled religious minorities such as they who enthusiastically
supported the Arab invasion of Egypt in 641. Immediately upon arrival, the Arabs
established the fortress city of Fustat just to the north of Coptic Cairo, and thus began
the area’s traditional status as administrative capital of Egypt. They established the
first mosque on the continent and used the city as a staging point for their conquests of
the rest of North Africa. It was during this period that Cairo as an influential and,
predominantly, Islamic metropolis began to take shape.
        Over the ensuing centuries, Fustat would be conquered and re-conquered by a
succession of different dynasties. This resulted in the construction of several new
centers of power, each slightly removed from the preexisting city, until the Abbasid
dynasty’s second conquest of Egypt in 905 returned Fustat proper to preeminence.
Under the Fatimid Caliphate in the late 900s, yet another new city was established
north of Fustat. In honor of the arrival of the Fatimid Caliph, it was christened al-
Qahira, “the victorious”. Though the government would remain in Fustat, the new city,
known in English as Cairo, became a great center of learning, home to a library of
hundreds of books and Al-Azhar University, the second-oldest degree-granting
university in the world.(
        When, in 1168, Fustat had to be burned to protect Cairo from invading
crusaders, the administration was moved to the latter locale. In time, the new capital
would lend its name to the amalgamation of all previous cities situated nearby. Though
Cairo would finally be fixed as the permanent center of government, the nature of how
the city, and the nation, would be administered remained the same: through military
might. The next year, the new Sultan of Egypt, Saladin, began construction of the
intimidating citadel that, almost a thousand years later, still looms large, visually and

psychologically, over the old city. Today, it hosts the National Military Museum, an
expansive complex given over to the glorification of the armed forces. Now, as then, the
military is chief powerbroker in Egypt.(Lev)
        Through it all, Cairo continued to flourish and, after the Mamluk dynasty came
to power in 1250, even benefited from several centuries of relative geopolitical
stability. While Baghdad, crown jewel of the Muslim world, and much of the remainder
of the region was ravaged by the Mongol invasions in the 2nd half of the 13th century,
the Mamluks managed to prevent a similar fate from befalling Egypt. Subsequently,
Cairo would become the cultural capital and most populous city in the Arab World, a
status it has retained into the modern era. Its importance was further heighted by its
position at the crossroads of the spice trade routes between Europe and Asia. Wealthy
and confident, the city expanded and developed into a cultural and economic
powerhouse that, by 1340, was home to almost half a million people, more than any
city west of China. It is their magnificent mosques, elaborately ornamented buildings
and bustling markets that compose much of what is now thought of as Old Cairo. Even
today, looking down a richly appointed street or staring up at the soaring al-Azhar
Mosque in the old quarter, it is easy to imagine, as the Cairenes of the time must have,
that such a successful city had nowhere to go but up. (Shillington)
        As history tells us, however, Cairo’s splendorous pride of place would be
fleeting. In 1348 the Black Death passed through the city for the first time, leaving in its
wake 200,000 corpses and a society, like that of Europe’s, no longer so assured of god’s
grace. Through the early 16th century, the plague struck more than fifty more times,
reducing Cairo’s population to perhaps as little as 150,000. (Shoshan) Meanwhile,
Europe, which since the collapse of the Roman Empire had been a backwater, entered
the Renaissance and began to progress technologically once more. In one of the first
major expeditions of the “Age of Exploration,” in 1497, Vasco da Gama successfully
sailed around Africa to India, circumventing the Arab World entirely. The spice trade
through Cairo disappeared almost overnight.
        20 years after losing its economic preeminence, its political sovereignty
disappeared with the 1517 Ottoman conquest. For the first time since the destruction
of Baghdad, Cairo was merely a second city, this time subservient to Istanbul. Though
still culturally important, and with a certain degree of economic vitality remaining
through the trade in coffee and textiles, the Ottoman city was in many ways a mere
shadow of its former self. Tellingly, its story as a mere provincial capital during the
period is considered a rather inconsequential time, during which Egyptian culture and
society remaining relatively static. (Tour Egypt)

                               III: The Early Modern Era
       Though it remained under the Ottoman yoke for hundreds of years, Egypt
retained a separate identity. Arabic continued to be the language of daily life, and
native customs survived most attempts at encroachment by Turkish ones. The
Mamluks, the previous rulers, continued to be a privileged military caste, holders of
most of the country’s land and, thus, its wealth and power, as personal fiefs. Within a
century of the Ottomans’ arrival, the Mamluks would once again wield political power,
nominally at the behest of their Turkish overlords. By the 1760s, the Mamluk beys, or
rulers, had driven the Ottoman governor from the country, effectively reclaiming

Egypt’s independence. The new leadership would open the Port of Suez to shipping,
repositioning the nation as an important link in the network of world trade. (Metz)
        Egypt’s growing wealth did not go unnoticed by the expanding empires of
Europe. Of special importance was the country’s strategic position, between the
Mediterranean and Red Seas and, therefore, Great Britain and her most economically
vital colony, India. The nation got its first taste of European control in 1798 when, in a
bid to cleave that link, the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded. Within a
month, the Nile Delta and Cairo fell, the Mamluks having retreated to Upper Egypt.
Nevertheless, the French position was precarious, as they faced the enmity of the
Mamluks, the Ottomans (who still claimed sovereignty over the country) and the
        In October of that year, the people of Cairo rioted. Though the French claimed,
as they did elsewhere in the Napoleonic period, to have delivered the people from
oppressive local rule rule, their presence was still seen as an occupation, made
especially onerous by the fact that the French were not even fellow Muslims. The
religious element of the protests was made clear by their rallying place, Al Azhar
Mosque and University. The mosque’s leaders, who by that time were the preeminent
moral authorities in Sunni Islam, thus began to take on a political role. The
transformation of the mosque into a place of worldly influence continues into the
present era, where the rulings and proclamations that echo through its loudspeakers
reverberate throughout the Muslim world, and form an important part of Islamic
jurisprudence as it addresses the new challenges of the 21st century.
        By mid-1801, despised by the locals and defeated by an Anglo-Ottoman army,
the French had left Egypt for good. Internally, the occupation’s impact was be limited
by its short duration. Externally, however, it gave Europeans their first real glimpse at
the country, thanks to the observations and discoveries of the scientists who
accompanied Napoleon. The “Egyptomania” their writings and sketches stoked in the
West generated continued interest in the country.
        For the moment, however, Egypt remained free from foreign rule. The power-
struggle in the aftermath of the French occupation resulted in the downfall of both the
Mamluks and the Ottomans. Muhammad Ali, leader of the Albanian contingent of the
Ottoman force in the country, managed to play both sides off one another until, by
1805, he had become the leader of the nation. The decaying Ottoman Empire was in no
position to resist. In 1811, his only real rivals, the Mamluks, were defeated by a swift
and total assassination campaign. Ali dedicated the rest of his rule, which lasted until
1848, to transforming Egypt into a modern, industrialized state, earning him the title of
“Father of Modern Egypt.”
        Ali was successful at constructing weapons factories and shipyards and
cultivating a cotton industry that, in later years, became one of Egypt’s most

      Four views of Cairo. Preceding page (from top): Cairo in 1847(Baur and Szultz),
Cairo in 1888(Thuillier), Cairo in 1933(Nicohosoff), Satellite image of Cairo
today(Google, TerraMetrics)

important. Notwithstanding, his impact on Cairo’s cityscape was, with one exception,
quite modest. This was due in part to stagnant population growth over the course of
his reign, a result of epidemics and competition from rapidly developing Alexandria.
Furthermore, salary growth in rural areas, amounting to a quadrupling in farm wages
during Ali’s rule, kept people in their native villages.
        The exception, however, was a stunning one. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali,
commissioned in 1830 as the ruler’s state mosque and not completed until 1857, is
today the most prominent structure in Cairo’s citadel. Its soaring white domes and
slender minarets are visible for miles around and serve as a symbol of the city. The
building is a political statement as much as an architectural one, as the style of its
minarets and domes were reserved for mosques built by the Ottoman Sultan. This
implied Ali was a leader on par with the one in Constantinople and Egypt was,
therefore, an independent state.
        In contrast to Ali’s relatively light imprint on the city aside from the mosque, his
grandson Ismail was directly responsible for downtown Cairo as we know it. Ismail (r.
1863-1879) ruled during a time of rapid change for both the city and the nation. When
he came to the throne Cairo had already been connected by railway to Alexandria, and
thus Europe, for a decade, allowing a flood of European visitors and immigrants into
the city. During the early years of his reign the economy grew tremendously thanks to
the American Civil War, which forced Britain to look from the American South to Egypt
as a supplier of cotton, the engine of England’s textile industry. Demand surged, more
than tripling the crop’s export value between 1862 and 1864.
        Flush with cash and confidence, Ismail was invited to the Paris Exposition of
1867 as a special guest of Emperor Napoleon III. Like the other visitors, the Khedive of
Egypt marveled at Paris’ distinctive, beautiful and brand-new urban environment,
consisting of wide avenues, formal parks and ornate department stores, which rapidly
became the template for a modern city. Baron Haussmann, the architect of the new
Paris, even met personally with Ismail and his entourage, no doubt heightening the
interest of a ruler who wanted his country to be the equal to Europe in all matters. He
returned home determined to create a similar city, at the cutting edge of industrialism,
rationalism and design. Furthermore, he did not want to wait the nearly two decades it
took for Hausmann’s plans to be carried out. He wanted it done in just two years, in
time for the opening of the crown jewel of Egypt’s economic progress, the Suez Canal.
        Thankfully, Ismail chose not to overlay his new city on top of the old, as the
Parisians had done, but rather chose to lay out whole new neighborhoods west of the
city’s old core, right along the banks of the river. Like Haussmann’s Paris, the streets
were laid out in straight lines, with roundabouts for intersections. The land alongside
was subdivided into plots for apartments and villas. Though the European expatriate
community complained that the essential character of the city was being destroyed,
they could not refuse the deal Ismail, desperate to meet his deadline, offered: free land
to anyone who would build a structure worth at least 30,000 francs within 18 months.
        Thus, the new neighborhoods began to fill up quickly. As there were few
Egyptians trained in architecture or engineering, they were primarily designed and
built, as well as owned, by Europeans. Many of the professionals and laborers were
Italian, and so Cairo is home to many Italian Renaissance-style buildings, complete
with Tuscan columns. The preeminent aesthetic influence, however, was French. The

city has hundreds of structures that, with their baroque styling and wrought-iron
balconies, would not look out of place on one of Hausmann’s boulevards. A few of the
streets and squares in the downtown are still lined with the block-long, wall-like series
of buildings with similar facades Parisians call immeubles haussmannien.
        Before long, Cairo acquired all the amenities of a wealthy modern city. It had a
new train station and gasworks, grandiose commercial buildings and palatial hotels.
Barillet-Deschamps, architect of the Champ de Mars park in Paris, created a grand
French-style pleasure garden, complete with exotic trees, a lake, tea rooms and a
photography studio. Nearby, the Khedive himself had an opera house constructed in
just five months using forced labor. He even commissioned Verdi to write the opera
“Aida,” originally to inaugurate the opera during the celebrations marking the opening
of the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, the costumes were not ready, and so “Rigoletto” was
performed instead.
        It is a testament to the sheer force of human ambition that this was the urban
landscape that welcomed visitors to the canal-opening fête, whereas a mere two years
before the area had not even been part of the city. The royalty of Europe and their large
entourages descended on Cairo, and were put up in style, often in the Khedive’s own
palaces. If one was rich, the entire year was “one big festival of balls, banquets,
theaters, operas and horse races.” (Fox) The locales created to host the crowned heads
of state were so luxurious many have stayed in continuous use to this day; the palace
the Khedive constructed for the Emperor and Empress of France, for instance, is today
the Cairo Marriott, and its surrounding neighborhood, the mid-Nile island of Zamalek,
is presently the most up-market residential area in the entire country.
        Though Cairo had been transformed into a glittering metropolis, it would, in the
end, come at the cost of both its architect and his country. When the cotton boom
burned out as the American South recovered from the American Civil War, the Khedive
began to raise Egypt’s already high taxes, fomenting great public discontent. Even this
could not pay off his huge debts. In 1879, his European creditors informed him that his
lavish spending had resulted in a national debt of 100 million pounds. Given the
exorbitant arrears owed to them, British and French governments insisted upon, and
received, advisory power over the Egyptian treasury. That June, the British and French
counsels visited Ismail and demanded he surrender his estates and become a
constitutional monarch. With neither economic leverage nor popular support, he was
forced to comply.
        When, that same year, a nationalist movement gathered steam under the
leadership of Colonel Ahmed Urabi, Ismail failed to oppose it, at first because he
thought it could free him from European oversight and, later, because it had simply
grown too strong. Concerned the revolt would weaken their influence over the
country, Britain had Ismail deposed and replaced by his more pliable son, Tewfik.
When Urabi’s revolt showed no sign of diminishing, the British invaded and crushed
the rebellion. For the next seventy years Egypt would, in effect, be a colony of Britain.
        After the start of the British occupation at the dawn of the 1880s, the cotton
market recovered and Cairo continued with its breakneck pace of expansion. The turn-
of-the-century introduction of trams allowed suburbs and satellite cities to grow up
around the core. One of the earliest and most successful was Heliopolis, established in
1905 by the Belgian architect and banker Baron Empain. Built on a plot of desert 15

km from Cairo as a pleasant residential area for wealthy Europeans and Egyptian
aristocrats, the new settlement was linked to downtown Cairo by a tramway, the city’s
first. Empain also constructed a sporting club, horse track, amusement park and the
Heliopolis Palace Hotel. Then the most extravagant hotel on the entire continent, it fell
into disuse in the 1960s and 1970s, but today serves as the Presidential Palace.
        Though the city’s buildings (at least in neighborhoods frequented by the
wealthy) continued to lean heavily on France stylistically, certain elements of native
art and design began to creep into the vernacular, both within Egypt and abroad. This
was spurred especially by two important archeological discoveries that reinvigorated
the world’s fascination with ancient Egypt. The bust of Nefertiti, discovered in 1912,
became the most copied piece of Egyptian art and significantly influenced the 20th
Century’s new standard of beauty. The 3300-year old tomb of Tutankhamen,
unearthed in 1922, triggered a craze for all things Egyptian. The artifacts found inside,
with their luxurious appearance, use of lustrous materials like gold and lapis lazuli,
strongly contrasting colors and geometric and animal motifs, became some of the
principal sources of inspiration for the emerging Art Deco style in Europe and the
United States. The transfer of Ancient Egyptian style then came full circle; after being
unearthed in its native land and reinterpreted by the West, it returned in the form of
the Art Deco buildings constructed in Cairo during the 20s and 30s. In the latter
decade, the architecture became more explicitly Egyptian, with many architects openly
embracing “scarabs, cobras and other pharaonic motifs.”(Fox)

                                 IV: The Post-Colonial Era
        The sociopolitical foundations on which Egypt rested during the first half of the
20th century were anything but firm. While the European community lived in modern
opulence, most native Egyptians had a far lower standard of living. Politically, the
masses, including the growing middle class, felt oppressed. The British had complete
control over political life in the country, and sought to curb dissent as much as
possible. After a widespread, violent revolution in 1919, Britain unilaterally declared
Egypt an independent constitutional monarchy, with the sitting heir to Muhammad Ali,
Sultan Fuad I, as king. This failed to quell popular discontent, as the British still ruled
the country behind the scenes, while their occupying army and officials continued to be
        After WWII, with an anti-imperialist Labor Party government in power in
Britain, British troops were withdrawn to the Suez Canal Zone, but further negotiations
stalled over the long-contentious issue of Sudan, which was an integral part of Egypt to
Egyptian nationalists, but a distinct nation deserving full sovereignty in the eyes of the
British and Sudanese. Meanwhile, the monarchy, already unpopular for its ties to the
British and aura of corruption and decadence, lost further support over King Farouk’s
(r. 1936-52) incompetent handling of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
        In 1951, the crisis came to a head when parliament unilaterally abrogated the
Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which governed relations with the United Kingdom and
guaranteed a continuing British military presence in the Canal Zone. The next year,
rioting broke out in Cairo, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of British-owned
establishments and other symbols of the Western presence. With neither the King nor
any party in Parliament capable of channeling the populist anger, a third group seized

the opportunity. The Free Officers, a group of young military officers led by Gamal
Abdel Nasser, a hero of the ’48 war, overthrew King Farouk in a coup d’état on July
23rd, 1952. Within a year, the monarchy was formally abolished and the Arab Republic
of Egypt was born.
        The ensuing decade was marked deeply by Nasser’s socialist policies and his
warm relationship with the Soviet Union. At the same time, Egypt’s nationalization of
Western assets, especially the Suez Canal, strained ties with the West and even led to
armed conflict with France and Britain during the Suez Crisis of 1956-57. Urbanization,
industrialization and better living conditions for the poor were all high priorities of the
government. As more peasants moved into Cairo looking for higher-paying jobs, its
population ballooned into the millions. To house all the newcomers, the government
began an ambitious program of housing construction, blanketing the city with Soviet-
style tower blocks.
        During the same time period, Cairo began to acquire the trappings necessary for
a fully independent state. A British barracks building by the Nile was torn down and
replaced with Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square, which became the city’s new focal
point. Situated at the intersection of several busy streets a block from the Nile, the
square is dominated by tall commercial buildings, including the Cairo Hilton, one of the
oldest large Western hotels in the city, dating to just a few years after the revolution.
Other anchors of the area include the downtown campus of the American University
and the red-hued edifice of the Egyptian Museum. Just down the street is the
headquarters of the Arab League, a testament to Nasser’s Pan-Arabist ideology, one of
the most important schools of 20th century political thought in the region.
        Most imposing, however, is the Mugamma (office complex) Al-Tahrir, a Stalinist
behemoth that looms like a grey battleship over the square. True, it was conceived and
constructed in the early 1950s, the twilight years of the monarchy, but it is Nasser’s
Egypt, with its huge, inefficient bureaucracy, that the building would become
synonymous with. Within its warren of 1400 unmarked rooms are the offices of
several ministries and the municipal government of Cairo. Though seemingly spacious
enough to host the work of even the largest government, Nasser’s policy of guaranteed
employment for college graduates swelled the ranks of the civil service to the point
that many employees came by just once a month, to collect meager paychecks; there
were not enough chairs for everyone to actually sit and work. The 18,000 or so who
managed to fit inside were not known (and still are not) for their efficiency. Under
Nasser, secretaries could often be found peeling potatoes or knitting sweaters. Even
today, long lines are obligatory and Cairenes know one should either arrive early in the
morning or not bother at all. (Farag)
        My own personal sojourn there, to have my visa renewed, began at 7 in the
morning and lasted until 4 in the afternoon, when my second visa application was
processed after the first was rejected for being in red ink. The interior was even more
depressing that the outside, almost to the point of being impressive. It is dark, dingy,
hot and crowded with thousands of weary citizens. It is a testament, perhaps, to the
languid relationship Egyptians have with time that there is no screaming, no cries of
frustration. It is all very orderly, very deadening and very much like a Kafka novel.
        If the Mugamma epitomizes the worst things about the new régime, another
centerpiece of the downtown, the Cairo Tower just across the river in Gezira, is a

reminder of the real progress the country made post-Revolution. The 187 m tall tube of
latticework concrete (almost 50 m higher than the Great Pyramid) was built in the
early 60s to convince the world of Egypt’s technological prowess as it attempted to
build the Aswan Dam. The dam itself, completed in 1970, is a point of intense pride for
Egyptians, an engineering triumph that defends against both flood and drought and
that, upon completion, doubled the nation’s electrical output and allowed many
villages access to electricity for the first time. The tower, for a long time the tallest
structure in Egypt and, even today, Cairo’s most recognizable landmark, is a beguiling
mix of ancient and modern motifs. The form itself is meant to evoke a lotus, an
important flower to ancient Egyptians, while socialist-realist mosaics celebrating the
people, industry and technology dominate the lobby. From its observation deck, one
gets a rare treat: a beautifully unhindered perspective of the city, stretching for miles
in every direction and covered in haze. Its no wonder Nasser often chose to dine at its
rooftop restaurant and enjoy the view from the observation deck.
        The pervasive smog blanketing is but one symptom of the economic growing
pains Egypt has experienced as an independent nation. Though growth occurred under
Nasser, his successor, economic reformer Anwar Sadat (r. 1970-1981), managed to
expand the GDP even faster. Expected by many to have a brief, caretaker presidency
dwarfed by the shadow of his predecessor, Sadat instead surprised his critics by
purging the government of the most ardent Nasserists and making sweeping changes
to the highly bureaucratic, centralized command economy developed under Nasser.
Under Sadat’s intifah, or “Open Door” policy, the economy was decentralized and
diversified, with the goal of boosting trade and attracting foreign investment. In some
respects, the changes worked; while the GDP grew 85% in the last decade of Nasser’s
rule, it more than tripled in the 11 years Sadat was president(World Bank). On the
other hand, inflation skyrocketed, inequality deepened and the removal of price
controls led to food riots.
        The air quality problem is due largely to the biggest change to Cairo’s landscape
over the last four decades, suburbanization. The growing middle and upper classes,
tiring of the cramped quarters of the inner city, increasingly chose to live far from
downtown. The government, concerned about urban encroachment onto scarce
agricultural land, obliged by funding road construction and opening up state-owned
land to development. Highways like 6th October Bridge, which after 30 years under
construction now soars over the downtown and carries a staggering half of the city’s
traffic everyday, pushed the edges of the city miles into the dunes. The demand has yet
to abate: flying over the area, one can see miles of streets sketched out with lines in the
sand, crisscrossing the desert with as-yet unfulfilled ambitions.
        Once a city of trams, Cairo, with a skyrocketing number of drivers, became one
of the most notoriously traffic-choked places on earth. Even the construction of a
metro system in the 80s and 90s, which now ranks as one of the world’s busiest,
carrying 700 million riders per year despite running on a mere 40 miles of track
(Montreal, with the same track mileage, manages just half the ridership), hasn’t
alleviated the congestion problem. Interestingly, dealing with hours-long traffic jams
has had a noticeable impact on society’s relationship with time. Meetings are set not
for 6 o’clock, for instance, but rather, vaguely, “after the evening prayer.” The time
Cairenes say they have to be somewhere is often, in fact, the time they leave the house.

         The other major effect of post-Nasser economic reform, coupled with the
country’s shift from the Soviet to Western sphere of influence and peaceful relations
with Israel after the 1979 peace treaty, was a blossoming of tourism. Arguably one of
the world’s oldest (the pyramids appear in most of the classical world’s lists of
wonders, predating Lonely Planet and Frommer’s by 2,000 years), Egypt’s tourism
industry was significant during the colonial era, but had shriveled after the revolution.
Friendship with the Soviet Union may have brought Egypt military and economic
assistance, but the people of the Eastern Block were not prolific tourists. After the
ideological and economic shift of the 1970s through the present era, however, tourism
became a mainstay of the local economy. In 2007, 11 million foreign arrivals provided
jobs for over 1.5 million people and generated 16.3% of GDP.
         The tourist presence in Cairo is both large and narrowly focused. In the core of
the downtown, where the large luxury hotels are, westerners seem to be everywhere.
On Midan Tahrir, dining options tend less towards ful and koshari and more towards
Big Macs and KFC. Every day, hundreds swarm into the narrow alleys of Khan el-
Khalili, where they delude themselves into thinking they are skilled hagglers as they
walk off with items they were still charged double for. Arabic is seldom heard;
shopkeepers shout instead in English, French, German and Spanish. In their neat
uniforms, the tourism police stand ready nearby to assist any troubled traveler.
         Then, of course, there are the Pyramids, ground zero of the neat, orderly,
Disneyfied Egypt of the Western traveler. If you have never been there yourself,
perhaps you are imagining the structures among some pure desert vista, solitary and
awesome in their grandeur. There is a camel in front of them, perhaps a palm tree, and
little else. Now that you think about it, there would be other tourists, you suppose, but
in your mind’s eye it has always been just you, the sand and the stones.
         Here is the reality. Each day, thousands of tourists clamber into air-conditioned
busses, not caravans, and make the pilgrimage to Giza. Not Giza the outpost in the
desert. Giza the sprawling suburb of an extremely large city. The subdivisions and
shops end a few hundred feet from the Pyramids. The site is now a cul-de-sac of desert,
with homes and businesses on three sides. Looking south, one still gets the pristine,
endless landscape they were looking for, and it is perhaps only this satisfying
intersection of imagination and reality that stops developers from paving over those
dunes, too. The Sphinx is even worse; at its paws lie seating for a laser light show and,
just beyond that…guess! A bazaar? Some pasha’s palace? No? Give up? A Pizza Hut.
         Of course, it is unfair to judge too harshly. The Pyramids, for all the jarring
unexpectedness of their context, lived up to my personal conception of them better
than most historical sites have. They really are man-made mountains, and
contemplating how such monuments could have been created with nothing but
primitive tools and willpower still boggles the mind. Though discovering that the
Pyramids are a massive commercial enterprise can be disappointing, Egypt does have a
right to profit off of them. Garish as they may seem, the souvenir hawkers and
knickknack stands near the pyramids are injecting desperately needed money into a
country where half the population lives on $2 per day. If a few postcard stands are
staving off poverty for a family then, surely, their presence is worth it. After all, even
the largest annoyances are still dwarfed by the grandeur of the monuments.

       Tourism is so crucial to the economy, in fact, that it has become a battleground
in the war between Islamic extremists and the government in Egypt. Starting in the
early 90s, foreigners started getting killed in the crossfire, mostly in small incidents
usually aimed at strategic domestic officials and institutions rather than visitors. Then,
in 1997, the violence ratcheted up tremendously. Gunmen from al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya,
a group dedicated to turning Egypt into a theocracy, stormed the Temple of Hatshepsut
in Luxor, systematically killing more than 60 with guns and knives before mutilating
some of the bodies.
       The attack horrified the world and was met with great sadness and
mortification by most Egyptians. Not only did the attack deal a blow to their most
important industry, but it also ran counter to the nation’s renowned welcoming spirit.
For Egyptians, as for most Arabs, the way in which a person (and, by extension, a
nation) treats its guests is one of the most important measures of virtue. Regardless of
ideological differences, making a visitor’s stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible
comes first. This might explain, for instance, why one of my fellow travelers in Egypt
was hosted by a family that treated her with genuine warmth and generosity even as
they admitted admiring Osama bin Laden. It is not cognitive dissonance that allowed
them to reconcile these two roles, hosts for an American and Al Qaeda sympathizers,
but rather the absolute seriousness with which Arab culture treats the concept of

                           Epilogue: Al-Azhar Park, Cairo, 9:10 pm
        We stand at the wall, all eight or nine of us, looking out at the city from Al-Azhar
Park, a verdant oasis clinging to a rise above the old city. It is a comfortable night, our
last in Egypt. We want to make it last. Down below, millions of lights twinkle, a little
diffused by the ever-present haze. A few yards away, couples talk in whispers beneath
trees. Off to the left, someone has brought a radio blasting tinny pop music, and young
people dance. It is odd, being on that hill, part of the city and yet above it, beyond it.
        Then, the calls start. First just one, faint and far away. It is joined by another,
and then one more. Soon they begin chiming in by the dozen. The whole city
reverberates with the evening call to prayer from its thousand minarets, chanted by
muezzins each following slightly different clocks. The dancers shut off the radio; to
have music playing during prayer time is rude, almost gravely insulting. A slight hush
falls over the crowd, as if it must whisper so as not to disturb the devout.
        After a few moments, the call stops echoing and the sounds of the park return to
the din of a few minutes before. People chat on cell phones and take pictures with
digital cameras. Their photos, of friends and family against the glowing backdrop of the
skyline, will probably end up on Facebook. Were it not for the sound of Arabic in the
air and the ancient mosques silhouetted against the velvet sky, it was a scene that
could have easily been taking place anywhere in the Western world.
         This was, in essence, the central conflict of the modern Middle East, playing out
in front of me. On the one hand, the region feels the pull of a rich and glorious heritage,
one responsible for many of the advances that made the modern world possible. Part
of that heritage is a religion, Islam, that a small minority has corrupted into an
extremist form that shuns the modern world as decadent and corrupt and seeks to roll
back the tide of globalization. On the other, the region is but one part of a rapidly

transforming planet, home to an emerging shared global culture based largely in
Western values and norms. From the internet to blue jeans, the overwhelming majority
reflect this shift in their consumption habits, if nothing else. The relationship between
these two forces has been highly volatile and often violent. The present moment is, by
all accounts, a watershed moment for the Middle East, in which it must decide what
political and cultural course to choose.
         Though this narrative of conflict is compelling, it is not a new one. For
centuries, Cairo has been a place where faiths, ideas, cultures and peoples collide and
combine. Its residents are a mixture of African, European and Arab. They dress like
westerners, shop at malls and watch Hollywood movies. They also maintain many of
their customs, foods and celebrations. As this brief overview has, hopefully, shown, the
city itself mirrors the hybrid nature of Egypt and its people. Medieval mosques bump
against glassy skyscrapers and colonial villas. It is, in general, a peaceful coexistence,
with one era smoothly transitioning to next.
        As one walks its broad avenues and crooked alleyways, the question of the
future often lies heavily on the mind. In a city with such a long and storied history, the
realities of the present and indications of what is to come always seem to lie in the
past. What does the city say to the modern observer? It suggests Cairo will continue to
be a dynamic place, a cultural and economic powerhouse. Critically in this age of
intercultural conflict, the cityscape reminds us of a tradition of heterogeneity
stretching back to the city’s origins. Cairenes continue to live, and Cairo continues to
exist, at the convergence of many different cultures. Though this can and has led to
conflict, then as now, this characteristic also clearly enriches the city and its people.
        The existential crises of the modern Middle East are, indeed, worrisome, but the
city is a proven survivor. The mosques of the old city, survivors of a thousand years of
struggle, continue calling the people to prayer each day. The Europeans’ ornate
buildings and elegant avenues maintain their grandeur, long after their builders left.
The Mugamma, for better or worse, has weathered the transition to capitalism and a
half-century of intense public hatred. The Pyramids, already ancient when Cairo was
founded, still dominate the area and no doubt will outlast most other works of
mankind. Whatever fate throws its way, the record shows, Cairo will, as it has so many
times before, live up to its full name. Medinat al-Qahira. The City Victorious.

              Hijab, East and West
        A few days after I arrived in Egypt, a young pharmacist named Marwa el-
Sherbini returned to her native Alexandria, several years after immigrating to
Germany with her husband. Her journey back to Egypt began in Dresden, where she
stood across a courtroom from Alex W., a 28 year-old stock controller. A year earlier,
she had asked the man to move off of a swing for her toddler. Her religion apparent
due to her headscarf, she was met with screams of “terrorist and “Islamist whore.” The
accused, an immigrant from Russia, had appealed the court’s decision to fine him 780
Euros for insulting and abusing her. Though his aggressively racist sentiments had
been made clear, there was no extra security for the appeal hearing. This made it easy
for Alex W. to smuggle in a knife. He strode across the courtroom and plunged it
eighteen times into the pregnant Sherbini as her 3 year-old son looked on. As her
husband ran over to help her, he was shot and critically injured by a police officer, who
mistook him for the attacker. By the time the plane carrying Sherbini’s casket touched
down, the press had already dubbed her “The Headscarf Martyr.” (Connolly)
        Perhaps no issue sums up the friction between East and West, and between
different elements of Middle Eastern society, quite like the question of Islamic dress.
From being banned in France to being imposed in Iran, hijab1 has played a central role
in the discussion on what, exactly, should and should not be worn by Muslim women.
In this debate, one can see a microcosm of the broader issues affecting both sides:
immigration, religion, identity and women’s rights.
        In the United States, Islamic dress is perceived as a foreign issue. Comprising
just 0.6% of the population, a little more than Hindus and a little less than Buddhists,
and generally considered more assimilated than comparable populations in Europe,
Muslims in America usually seem to barely register on the nation’s social
consciousness. Under the stringent protections of religious practice prescribed by the
first amendment, a woman’s right to wear hijab in the United States is effectively
universal. Almost all legal cases dealing with the issue of whether the scarf is
permissible, in contexts as varied as a jail, a Navy training program, America Airline’s
hiring policy and a 6th grade classroom in Muskogee, Oklahoma, have been found in
favor of the wearer. (Headscarf Headlines)
        The situation in European countries, whose immigrant communities are often
more isolated from the rest of society, is markedly different. The debate over dress was
stoked by the 2004 ban on religious wear in public schools in France, a nation that is
6% Muslim, the highest proportion in Western Europe (Miller). To its proponents, the
ban, which also applies to crucifixes and yarmulkes, was necessary to protect both the
secular nature of the French Republic and women and girls forced into religious
conformity. To its critics, the ban is at best an affront to the rights of free expression

1 An Arabic word literally meaning “curtain” or “cover.” It can refer to the head covering
traditionally worn by many Muslim women, but can also mean modest (by Islamic standards)
dress. In Islamic scholarship, the meaning is expanded to include privacy and morality, and can
also refer to the “veil” which separates the earthly from the divine.

and free religion. Some even go as far to say it is a codification of anti-immigrant
hostility rooted in racism. (What are the issues, Human Rights Watch)
        Since much of the politics surrounding hijab in the Middle East are a reaction to
Western criticism of it, noting the status of hijab in various locales outside the region is
helpful to an understanding of its status within it. Attitudes toward Islamic dress have
changed markedly over the last few decades, part of a broader regional trend away
from the relative secularism of the decades after WWII. Thus, even as its use has been
restricted in some Western European countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium
and Germany, as well as France, the wearing of hijab has undergone a resurgence in its
        Therefore, when I arrived in Egypt, almost a decade into the 21st century, I came
across far more women wearing hijab than I would have forty or fifty years earlier. As I
walked down the street with my host brother on my first night, I could not help
remarking on a woman covered completely from head to toe with a garment that only
had a slit for her eyes.
        “This is not so common in Egypt,” Mahmoud said, “Here women can dress as
they like. It is about half who wear the hijab and half who do not. But it is rare for
women to dress in the Afghan way. The Grand Mufti has only said women must dress
modestly and wear the headscarf.”
        My host brother, I would come to see, was playing down the prevalence of the
niqab, the full head-to-toe covering. Although certainly in the minority, I saw women
wearing it every day. He also clearly misrepresented the proportion of the population
who wore headscarves. I would estimate upwards of 90% of Muslim women in Cairo
wear them. Although he did not say so explicitly, I think my brother may have been
minimizing the issue of the headscarf because he saw Westerners as having a negative
perception of it.
        So why is it that so many more Egyptian women are wearing headscarves
today? It is not necessarily that the modern Egyptian woman is more conservative than
her mother, who likely grew up in an era in which Egypt may have looked more
westernized in matters of style. If the number of women sitting with boyfriends on the
Nile Corniche is anything to go by, the new generation has more liberal attitudes when
it comes to conduct. The trend has much to do with identity politics. As one Middle
East expert explained, it is akin to the fashion trends of the 1970s, when African
Americans responded to racism by being, as he put it, “blacker than black,” leading to
the age of the giant afro. For many women, according to this expert, hijab is a way of
asserting one’s Muslim identity in the face of the westernizing and, to many people,
explicitly anti-Muslim pressures exerted by Europe and the United States. (Dorph)
        However, increasing religiosity in many sectors of society has played an
important role in hijab’s rise in prevalence. Modesty in dress is a key cultural
touchstone of the Islamic Revival, the aforementioned region-wide movement towards
greater religious influence over civic and social life. The revival began in the 1970s
with a quadrupling of oil prices, which gave Saudi Arabia immense financial resources.
The country’s ruling House of Saud dedicated much of the windfall towards spreading
its conservative, fundamentalist strain of Islam, known in the West as Wahhabism, to
the broader Middle East. Meanwhile, the 1979 revolution in Iran toppled an American-
backed government and replaced it with an Islamic theocracy. The rapid, stunning

events in Iran, culminating in the 444-day long hostage crisis at the US Embassy, called
into question the power of the United States. As a result, a growing number of Middle
Easterners joined what was once the religious fringe in questioning whether
Westernization was either desirable or inevitable.
        Of course, any pan-national movement looks different in each country. In Egypt,
the success of Islamic Revivalism has much to do with the failure of the government to
live up to the expectations of the masses. The first leader of the Egyptian Republic,
Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power soon after the 1952 Revolution overthrew the
monarchy, was a secular, pan-Arab nationalist. His successors, Anwar el Sadat
(president from 1970 to 1982) and Hosni Mubarak, the current president, held
similarly unenthusiastic attitudes towards Islam that put them out of touch with the
increasing religiosity of the people. Meanwhile, the state of the economy grew
progressively worse over the course of the 70s, 80s and 90s, to the point where, today,
the number of unemployed tops 7 million (compared to 200,000 in 1960) and more
than 20% of the country lives on less than a dollar a day. (Unemployment in Egypt,
        The political situation also fomented discontent, as promises for political
reform came to naught (the country has yet to have a free and fair election). Nothing
triggered anger against the Egyptian regime more than its assignation, after the 1973
Yom Kippur, or October, War, to a peace treaty with Israel. Israel is, it almost goes
without saying, a country Egyptians universally disdain. Two years after the 1979
signing, the man responsible for Egypt’s consent to the treaty, President Sadat, would
be violently assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists during Armed Forces Day
celebrations. By then, the great hopes of the early years of the republic, when Egypt
was the undisputed leader in the region and chief defender of Arab nationalism, had
clearly faded.
        Disillusioned Egyptians turned in large numbers to the opposition, an Islamist,
arguably extremist, group that has been the populist underdog since the days of British
rule: The Muslim Brotherhood. From a schoolteacher and six employees of the Suez
Canal Company in the late 20s, an era also rife with resentment toward Western
imperialism, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown to a transnational movement that
functions as the opposition across much of the Arab World. It seeks to unite all Muslim
nations into a single caliphate, governed by the social and political dictates laid out by
the Quran. As per its interpretation of Islam, it also strives for social justice and the
eradication of poverty and corruption, which has led it to operate a large system of
charitable organizations throughout the Middle East. Though officially nonviolent, the
organization has long been suspected of engaging in assassinations, bombings and
other destructive acts, include the fires that swept the haunts of Cairo’s local and
expatriate elites in 1952, an event that “marked the end of the liberal, progressive,
cosmopolitan direction that Egypt might have chosen.” (Wright)
        Although outlawed, the group’s popularity, with the working class especially,
has nevertheless caused the Egyptian president to go to great lengths to out-pious the
pious. Recently, this effort was directed at the pig, an animal that, while vilified as
unclean in Islam, has long served as the primary means of waste disposal in Cairo.
Thus, when I arrived, the streets were even dirtier than usual; mere weeks earlier, the
government had ordered, based on no scientific evidence, the slaughter of every pig in

the country in an effort to prevent the spread of “Swine Flu”, the H1N1 virus. Though
the decision made a bad sanitation problem worse for all Cairenes, it was a complete
disaster for the pigs’ owners, members of the already-embattled Christian minority. It
was, clearly, a policy based on religious and political, rather than scientific, concerns.
        The religious revival movement the Muslim Brotherhood is a part of, whose
followers believe the Quran is clear in calling for women to cover their hair with the
headscarf, has increased social pressure on women to wear the veil. An anonymous
email circulating in Egypt contains illustrations comparing a woman in proper Islamic
dress to a wrapped piece of candy, and a woman in provocative Western dress to an
unwrapped piece, covered in flies. The message below reads :“A veil to protect, or eyes
will molest.” Sexual harassment is, indeed, a problem in Egypt, and many supporters
of the headscarf capitalize on the issue by arguing that hijab can actually be liberating,
deemphasizing one’s physical appearance. It engenders respect and also provides a
feeling of protection in a society plagued by rampant sexual harassment. There is,
however, also the counter-argument that covering hair actually makes a woman more
alluring. Given the fact that, of the 83% of Egyptian women who say they have
experienced harassment, 72% say they were wearing the veil at the time, this
argument may have merit. At a bare minimum, the statistic suggests veiled women are
no safer than the unveiled. (Knickmeyer)
        Clearly, there are many reasons a woman may wear the headscarf, and making a
blanket assumption equating the headscarf with oppression is incorrect. However, the
Middle East also has much to do in advancing the cause of women. In most rankings of
gender inequality, the Middle East falls at or near the bottom compared to other
regions. The literacy rate for women in Egypt is only 71% of that of men.
(EarthTrends) Egyptian feminists say that, although the general attitude towards
women has improved, the privatization of the economy, and the subsequent rise in
unemployment, has disproportionately affected women. Many employers are unwilling
to pay for “extra” expenses women employees can incur, such as maternity leave.
        The American girls in our group experienced a little of what life as an Egyptian
woman was like firsthand. Some of them chafed at their host families’ requirement that
they be home by seven or eight while their male classmates could stay out until twelve
or later. They also had trouble adjusting to a family structure wherein their host
brother, three or four years their junior, could tell them what to do. They were much
more restricted than the boys were in terms of dress and conduct. Worst of all, many
experienced the catcalling, looks and unsolicited conversation that has earned Egypt a
reputation as one of the worst countries for female foreign travelers in terms of
harassment; one can only imagine the effect of having to put up with it for an entire
        What Westerners need to avoid when approaching women’s lives in the Middle
East is what our media has done: paint with a broad brush. The status of women in the
region varies wildly by class, family and location. In the last year, Kuwait elected
several women to Parliament (four years after women won the right to vote) (Kuwait)
and Sudan sentenced a woman to a lashing for wearing pants. Even Saudi Arabia,
practically a byword for religious conservatism, has a broad spectrum of views and

conduct. Saudi women go about their day-to-day lives in full-body veils, but on a flight
from Riyadh or Jeddah to liberal Beirut, before landing, a sea of black becomes a
rainbow of fashionable shirts and jeans. At home, behind the cloth, many Saudi women
lead active lives in medicine, education and other fields Westerners might not expect
to see them in. (Gaouette)
        The women I met in Egypt were a group as diverse as any. Almost all the host
mothers in our group were homemakers, but many had held jobs before starting
families. The Egyptian volunteers included several female college students; one was
even majoring in Hebrew and Israeli studies. I met several women who worked as
professionals, including a relative of my host family who practiced medicine. These
women were smart, educated, and could stand up for themselves. They also faced
greater restrictions on their behavior and severe employment discrimination. Women
only make up 25% of the labor force in Egypt, and have in the last four years
experienced an unemployment rate of as high as 25%, three to four times as high as
the rate for men, depending on the year (World Bank). Although the situation of
women in Egypt cannot be categorized as the worst in the world, I did get the feeling
that much of the country’s potential was being squandered because of the unfair
hurdles that women had to negotiate.
        When I returned to the United States, it would be several weeks before I saw a
woman in a headscarf, at a supermarket in Queens. She strolled nonchalantly down the
aisle, taking things off the shelf and putting them in her cart. Around her swarmed
dozens of people from different countries, chatting with their families in more
languages than I could recognize. No one looked up in surprise at the woman’s dress.
There were no shouted slurs defaming her religion. We were in the middle of the most
ethnically diverse county in the United States and, yet, save for the multitude of
dialects being spoken, the scene would not have been out of place in any store in the
country at that moment, busy with people doing their Sunday shopping in more-or-less
peaceful coexistence. It was, in many ways, quintessentially American.
        This got me thinking about the place of hijab, both here and abroad. When my
parents were my age, seeing a woman in Islamic dress in the United States would be a
rare event. It was only a few years earlier, in 1965, that Congress had done away with
the national-origin immigration quotas that had kept America an overwhelmingly
white, Christian nation. What has emerged in the decades since is a far more diverse,
pluralistic society, one in which global issues have become local ones. The Middle East
is no longer so far off. The question of where women’s rights fit within the context of
both Middle Eastern culture and Western cultures experiencing immigration from the
region has become one for societies worldwide. It is a question I ask not just because it
affects me as a citizen of the world, or even as a citizen of the United States, a country
now projected to be home to a Middle Eastern immigrant population of 2.5 million
(Center for Immigration Studies). I ask it because, among the millions of women who
wear hijab each and every day, are now a few I am proud to call friends.

             The Virtual Public Forum:
             Media and Democratization
                 in the Middle East
         When I first arrived in Egypt, I made the assumption my host family weren’t big
TV watchers. After all, the box in the living room had sat completely unused in the days
immediately following my arrival. It was only well into my first week, as I walked into
the room for dinner and saw a repairman hunched over the set with his tools, that I
realized what was really going on. Soon enough, he had finished his work and turned
the set back on. It was just before midnight. The shops were still busy and I could hear
the shouts of playing children echoing from the street. Primetime.
         That night, and for many nights afterwards, I found myself transfixed. It was not
due to any pre-existing television addiction on my part. American television could
never compete with Arabic satellite television in terms of holding my fascination. Here,
thousands of miles from home, it wasn’t just entertainment flooding the room with
light. It was the collective consciousness of an entire region. Maybe, just maybe, there
was also, embedded in what I was watching, the seeds of something else, tentative and
fragile: a revolution.
         It was not so long ago that the media landscape of the Middle East had been
very different. When television arrived in the 1960s, it offered little in the way of
diversity. First and foremost, it served as an official mouthpiece for the people in
power, playing up their accomplishments and ceremonies in newscasts. Any other
programs were pure entertainment, devoid of even the weakest critical eye towards
government and society. Shows imported from abroad were, though standards differed
from country to country, universally subjected to censorship.
         Then, in the 1990s, CNN arrived on the screens of the small number of people
with satellite dishes, just in time for the 1991 Gulf War. For societies that had virtually
no previous access to international news coverage, what followed was a revelation.
Audiences across the region were spellbound by the spectacle of a current event being
shown in real time. More importantly, CNN, as a Western network, was unbeholden to
the government of any Middle Eastern country and at no risk of having its operations
shut down by an autocrat. Therefore, it could show events and have on-air discussion
uncensored, with coverage in accordance with modern journalistic standards. Once the
public had gotten a taste of what television could be, their appetite for it was
unquenchable. With that demand grew a number of entrepreneurs eager to profit from
the growing market and, in the process, gain strategic power over public
opinion.(Wide Angle)
         These events created a perfect storm of technology, consumer demand and
available capital, resulting in rapid changes to the media landscape. In September
1991, while oil wells still burned in Kuwait, a Saudi businessman launched the first
privately owned station in the region, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). It
was also the first to broadcast in Arabic and be staffed almost entirely by Arabs, a stark
contrast to the already extant international news networks, mostly based in the United

States and Europe. Since it was transmitted by satellite, it could be headquartered in
London, where it would be free to broadcast uncensored news and opinion, and
beamed into countries whose governments would have shut it down had it been a
terrestrial station under their jurisdiction. Other stations quickly followed, and within
a few years roofs from Morocco to Masqat would be blanketed in the now-ubiquitous
satellite dish.
        By that point, even some Middle Eastern leaders were interested in making
money off of the satellite boom. From our vantage point more than a decade down the
road, we can affirm the prudence of their decision to invest. While oil supplies dwindle,
media has seen near-exponential growth as a sector of the local economy. Spending on
advertising, for instance, increased nearly 25% in 2007 and more than 22% in 2008,
besting the rest of the world by far. The market is evolving so rapidly that even in 2010
and 2011, predicted to be “minor recovery” years for an industry strongly affected by
the global economic crisis, ad spending in the Middle East will still see percentage-
point increases in the double-digits(Traffic Online Media Solutions).
        Thus, Al Jazeera, the first 24-hour Arabic news network, launched in 1996,
bankrolled by the emir of the relatively liberal nation of Qatar, where the network is
based. Al Jazeera’s success was in large part due to its unedited debate shows, which
often including a call-in component to allow for viewers to join the discussion and
cover a broad swath of cultural, political, societal and economic issues. For the West,
such a format is old and tired. For the Middle East, it was, at its inception, radical.
        The idea first introduced by Al Jazeera rapidly propagated amongst the many
networks. The newfound freedom of public expression through talk shows was, for an
Arab World home to not even one full-fledged democracy, irresistible. Despite flying in
the face of the climate of censorship and conformity that had long been the status quo,
governments were largely unable to hold back the push for openness. The nature of
satellite technology put them in a bind. Satellite TV systems are set up to receive the
signal from a specific satellite, or group of satellites, mostly carrying content aimed at
the same region. In the Middle East, therefore, when one buys a dish and a box with the
Arabic chip installed, one is effectively purchasing access to every Arabic-language
channel in existence, in addition to a smattering of international channels such as CNN
International. There is no way to block some channels while permitting others. The
only way governments could avoid having their populations being exposed to content
they don’t want them to see would be to ban the satellite dish entirely. Although this
has happened in a few extreme cases, such as the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan, most
governments have not taken such a step, probably fearing the immense popular
backlash it would no doubt trigger.
        Thus, a sort of proxy democratic society, existing purely on the airwaves, took
shape over the course of the 1990s. Viewers everywhere could, for the first time, see,
hear and, critically, discuss issues while thousands of mile apart. Topics long held as
taboo, from criticism of the government to sexuality, became topics of conversation.
Such conversations were unrestrained by boundaries; if it was being discussed on the
most liberal talk show in Lebanon, it could be viewed in the most conservative
household in Saudi Arabia.
        The satellite TV revolution also helped unify a region where shared history and
culture were ignored by arbitrary, European-imposed borders, leading to much of the

division and strife seen today. Two hundred and fifty satellite channels, hailing from
every country but concentrated especially in the media hubs of Beirut, Lebanon; Cairo,
Egypt; Doha, Qatar and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, now knit together the
region. With the increasing number of shared cultural goods, from shows to movies to
cultural icons, made possible by TV, the Arab World is arguably closer than ever before
to the ideals of Pan-Arabism. Had that movement’s halcyon days of political favor in
the 1960s coincided with the technology-fostered unity of today, the geopolitics of the
Arab World might look vastly different.
        The question, invariably, is whether the virtual society Arabs have been
participating in for almost two decades with their phone calls (and now their text
messages) is effecting change in the real world. By some measures, it unquestionably
is. The viewing public is now, through the myriad talk and call-in shows, accustomed to
the idea of freedom of expression. By shining a light on societal and political ills, news
programs can foster and increase momentum behind the forces of change. By making
freedom, balance and diversity of opinion the norm, the satellite networks are
prompting even the staid state-run channels to raise journalistic standards in order to
avoid irrelevancy. Though few have ever cast ballots in a free and fair election, the very
concept of voting is no longer alien; millions of votes now pour in by text message to
competitions like Star Academy and Super Star.
        However, there is also cause for pessimism. For all its promise, the leap from
telecommunications to democracy has, from Chinese dissidents and their fax machines
in the ‘80s to twittering protesters in Iran last summer, often failed. Despite the
aforementioned progress in public discussion, the on-the-ground reality of flawed
governance has remained roughly the same. Freedom House, a non-profit organization
that studies democracy and political freedom, identifies only two nations in the Middle
East as electoral democracies: Turkey and Israel. Both nations are considered cultural,
ethnic and political outliers in the region. In its 2009 Freedom in the World report,
which measures a country’s level of freedom based on metrics drawn largely on the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Israel was the only country in the region
identified as “Free.” A handful of nations were ranked “Partly Free”, while the majority
of nations, including regional powerbrokers Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria, were
ranked “Not Free”. (Freedom House)
        Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that widespread availability of
satellite TV and Internet service can actually entrench dictatorships. “Authoritarian
deliberation”, as it is known in political science, refers to the strategy being adopted by
many regimes within the region, and globally, of actually allowing debate to occur.
Though counterintuitive at first glance, doing so offers the government several
advantages. A free discussion allows those in power the strategic advantage of hearing
and seeing opposition opinion and its propagators, who would otherwise be
underground and harder to follow. Information can therefore be gathered quickly and,
especially on the internet, where people are linked through blog posts, Facebook and
the like, associations between dissidents far more easily understood. Often,
governments will not only allow, but also encourage, discussions and ideas with the
false promise that they will be considered in the decision-making process. This
charade not only placates the masses, by giving them the illusion that they can
influence government, but also makes it easier to share the blame with them if

something goes wrong. Last but not least, it confers a legitimacy upon the government
that heavy-handed tactics cannot (TED Conferences). Though I knew during my time in
Egypt that getting a safely private connection to the internet was impossible, the fact
that, once on, I could easily access dissenting opinions nevertheless dulled the unease I
felt at being in a dictatorship. This was, clearly, authoritarian deliberation at work.
         To dwell only on the news aspect of television in the Arab World would do a
great disservice to the fascinating breadth of programming. The main reason I became
interested in the topic, after all, was because of the incredible ability I had while
watching TV to easily sample cultural products from dozens of countries. I could watch
overly fashionable divas belt out love songs in Lebanese music videos on one channel,
and listen to taciturn Saudi imams deliver sermons on the next. Reality shows provided
spectacle, but so, too, did overwrought soap operas and hard-fought soccer games.
         Most of the time, at least when my host brothers were watching TV, I didn’t
even have to worry about the language barrier. Unlike my host parents, who generally
watched movies and talk shows produced locally, my host brothers mostly watched
American shows and movies with Arabic subtitles. Many of the programs my host
brothers watched regularly, predominantly sci-fi, mystery and action shows, were only
vaguely familiar to me, obscure also-rans in the ratings race at home. They seemed to
enjoy far more popularity in Egypt, reincarnated with Arabic subtitles, than in their
country of origin. Perhaps, I surmised, these low-rated programs were cheaper to
         One the other end of the spectrum, a few channels down and a million miles
away ideologically, was Al-Aqsa TV, the official station of Hamas. Nothing brought
home to me how different the media landscape in the Middle East was compared to
that of the United States more than the fact that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah
could, and did, have their own television networks. It was both fascinating and, I must
admit, a little disturbing to see first-hand programming from one of the world’s most
prominent terrorist organizations.
         Al-Aqsa might be familiar to a western audience as the home of Tomorrow’s
Pioneers, the children’s show that attracted widespread global condemnation a few
years ago for being co-hosted by a hate-spouting Mickey Mouse-lookalike. The
character, named Farfour, was broadcast across the world saying things like “you and I
are laying the foundation for a world led by Islamists!” In the face of the firestorm of
criticism for using a beloved (read: copyrighted) character to spew hate speech, the
writers killed Farfour off-literally. After his martyrdom at the hands of an Israeli
official, who beat the mouse to death for calling him a terrorist (Episode 5: “Farfour
and the Jew”), Farfour was replaced in quick succession by Nahoul the bumblebee, who
died a martyr’s death after being unable to leave Gaza for medical treatment, and
Assoud the suspiciously Bugs Bunny-like hare, who ends up martyred in an Israeli
attack. Nassur, the current co-host, is a brown bear/mujahedeen(Staff
Writers)(Associated Press). It would be almost comical, were it not for the fact it is,
indeed, a real show, with a target audience the same age as that of Sesame Street. I was
appalled but, to an even greater degree, saddened.
         The ideological landscape of television is by no means as black and white as the
examples I gave. 500 channels leaves plenty of room for endless shades of gray. The
picture that emerges is one not of polarization, but of complexity. Shows may use

formats recycled from Western originals, but the content is totally native. Music videos
borrow equally from MTV and local tradition, so that even the most fashionable
performer is often accompanied by indigenous instruments such as the oud or the
simsimaya. TV is usually a hybrid, sometimes uneasy and sometimes quite smooth, of
outside influence and centuries-old tradition, just like Middle Easterners themselves.
        In short, television in the Middle East can be said to be much more than the sum
of its parts. It’s a microcosm of the region. For a place as diverse and vast as it can be, I
can think of little that could serve as a better encapsulation of the feelings and
aspirations of its people. There’s a wonderful dynamism to this new nation of picture
and sound that, unfortunately, doesn’t feel present in the world of bricks and mortar.
Someday, I hope, participatory democracy in the region will be robust enough that
retreating to a simulacrum of it will no longer be an attractive option. Until that day,
television will continue to be an important story for the contemporary Middle East-and
the phones will keep lighting up.

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