North Africa, West Asia

Whatever is happening to the Egyptians, Pt. 5: colonizing Egyptian bodies

This is an invitation to every Egyptian to review what s/he really wants and make active personal choices that transcend the inherited imperialist norms.

Hesham Shafick
18 October 2016
Nariman El-Mofty AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Nariman El-Mofty AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Edward Said dedicated his career to the theorising of Orientalism and to proving a point: the grouping of everyone non-European into the devalued category of the ‘orient’ was simultaneously a cause and an effect of European aspirations to develop themselves as sole representatives of humanity.

The question that arises is, when did the “orient” become convinced by such a euro-centric conceptualization of humanity? Why did they identify themselves as an extension of the European “human”, who were they supposed to juxtapose themselves against, given that the very construction of the European identity they were imitating was created on the basis of being the “orient’s” antithesis?

In the first article of this series, I shone the light on a potential answer in the form of the valuable work of Galal Amin “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians”, which also inspired the title of this series. Although he did not make this argument explicitly, his excavation of the changes in the Egyptian middle-class’ standards and aspirations demonstrated the persistence of an image of a classical imperialist aristocracy that was inspired by European bourgeois conceptions.

Amin traced an alternative elite-model, triggered by post-Infitah mass immigration to the Gulf, in which Gulf Sheikhs, rather than European aristocrats, served as the compass for aspiring ‘elitism’.

In both cases, Amin recognised that in both models, a local other – grouped, degraded and disdained in the same way that the classical imperialists did the ‘orient’ – had been created. This Other is often popularly referred to as ‘balady’, an Arabic term which literally translates into local, i.e. embodying local, rather than European, traits and culture.

Thus, to understand the Egyptian “neo-bourgeoisie”, a combined understanding of the European or Gulf models that this class aspires to, as well as the “orient” local (balady) image they seek to break away from, is required.

Egypt’s neo-bourgeoisie’s construction of a balady ‘other’ was not only a psychosocial project, but a project that had material implications for the daily practices of this class.

These material creations, such as the creation of gated communities, reinforced the psychosocial image of the disdained, threatening and dehumanising the local “other” while enabling the gated class to rationalise why they need to isolate themselves inside these gated communities.

The gates here serve as an intersection between ideational and physical class segregation. The ideational pertains to gated communities as a socioeconomic border; conceptualising the balady as a threat and solidifying the concept of societal exclusivity and purity. The physical, on the other hand, pertains to the gates as a physical border and the distance of these compounds from the capital.

But these gates do not prevent the two classes from interacting in what remains of public space (mainly roads, markets, and government agencies). In order for the neo-bourgeoisie to distinguish themselves in these public spaces, a more portable border (than the heavy gates) had to be exported from European aristocrats.

Here, we must note that European imperialists did not only live far from their colonised “black” or “brown” communities, they were also “white”. They were identified and recognised by their colour, and possessed their own racial gates. This is, however, tricky when it comes to the differentiation within Egypt, in which no significant skin-color difference is present a priori.

Nonetheless, the creation/division of socio-racial differentiation on bases other than skin-color was possible. Physical differences were artificially created through a new ideational-physical conception of ‘class’.

This article is an attempt to shed light on this new development; particularly on how the bodies of the Egyptian middle-class were used as a means of differentiating between the “local/balady” and the Europeanised “neo-bourgeoisie”, the latter holding the virtue and appearance of elite humanity, while the former embodied failure to aspire to full human functioning/appearance (in a European sense).

What covers the body: the political economy of clothing

The most obvious bodily-appearance politics concerns what the body is covered in: clothing.  The widespread terms of ‘white-collar’ and ‘blue-collar’ to distinguish middle-class from working-class subjects demonstrates vividly the decisive role clothing plays in defining class worldwide. Clothing also distinguishes the outdated from the modern and the oriental from the European or ‘European-look-alike’.

I remember seeing almost all male role-players in the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) simulation of an Egyptian hara (slum) wearing a tarbosh: a head-cover from the nineteenth century never worn widely in a hara, as it was the dress code of an Effendi’s (middle-class bureaucrats) not the hara’s working-class. Only when I heard an organiser speak of the hara as part of Egyptian history, did I recognise how the tarbosh could pertain to it.

The tarbosh here signified the clothing of old Egypt, that was outdated by the standards of modern European attire. Those wearing a tarbosh and living in a hara were regarded as part of “history”, as one of the organisers explicitly uttered. That is not because the balady hara people no longer existed, because they actually do, but because their existence in itself is an extension of a history that failed to ‘modernise’. Part and parcel of this modernisation is dressing “modern-ly”, dressing like a European (event is covered in detail in the first article of this series).

The turmoil of this “clothing” class-war is quite evident in the ferocious crackdown on hijab, the Muslim headscarf for women. Most A-class public spaces (starting from beaches prohibiting Burkas to the abandonment of muhajjabat from almost all spots of classy nightlife - including AUC’s graduation party!), ferociously exclude muhajjabat (women with the head scarf).

Even private universities, so-called international universities, distinguish themselves from ‘local’ universities through enforcing a European dress code. I know for sure that the British University in Cairo, where I used to work, have a clear ‘clothing’ policy that explicitly forbids both female abayas and male jellabiyas. This is accompanied by an equivocal decision to abandon short skirts, leggings and men’s shorts from public universities.

there is a violent struggle in which two opposing classes compete over and through women’s bodies

This extends to being a global phenomenon. From Nice in France to La Vista, a gated community in Egypt. There seems to be a serious problem with what women cover their bodies with. In both cases, there is a violent struggle in which two opposing classes compete over and through women’s bodies: an “oriental” class that sees the exposure of female bodies as a serious threat to its cultural tradition, versus a “Europeanised” class that sees the covering of female bodies as a serious threat to its modernising project.

In both cases, the female’s agency, her very ownership over her body and personal right to choose to expose or cover parts of it, is utterly ignored. In both cases, there is a serious existential threat to the very notions and traditions that define each of the two misogynist classes. On one hand, this may reflect their weakness in controlling “their women”. On the other, it means they lose the battle against the men in the ‘other’ misogynist camp.

Maybe this explains why some middle-class Egyptians found Nice’s incident troubling, but not La Vista’s. The first was perceived as an attack on the right of a global Muslim population, which they belong to. The second was an attack on a class of local (balady) citizens, which they wish to exclude from their semi-European communities.

This contradiction shows that it is not a burkini problem after all. It is not the clothing per se, but the socioeconomic class the clothes (burkini) symbolise. Although the two incidents were extremely similar, women were asked to remove their clothes or leave, there was a key difference: the ‘class’ each woman represented.

Egypt Air vs. Rashid Boat: unequal bodies of the dead

Class is also what differentiated two cases of Egyptians losing their lives in a shocking accident on their way to Europe. The first was those who passed away in EgyptAir’s MS804 plane-crash. This accident was followed by a shower of official and unofficial condolences, beginning from the presidency down to the media and ordinary middle-class citizens. Egypt was in mourning because of the accident.

This discrepancy exposed how classist people are even when it comes to death.

However, none of that was done when the same number of souls were lost as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean by boat on their way to Italy. This discrepancy exposed how classist people are even when it comes to death.

This discrepancy is also vivid in the media coverage of militant operations in Sinai. When the dead are in uniform, their bodies are mourned as martyrs. When they are not, their bodies are shamed as terrorists. Rarely is any further scrutiny made.

To beard or not to beard? The political economy of facial hair

Some other body features are sometimes scrutinised to distinguish the corpse of a ‘terrorist’ from the corpse of a ‘martyr’. The beard, for instance.

The beard has been a point of intersection between the two battling classes. The oriental, traditional, class puts on a beard or other forms of facial hair for religious or traditional reasons. The Europeanised does it for fashion, as it suddenly became a code for sexiness and class.

Despite the ironically growing efforts to differentiate the cool from the uncool beard, it remains hard to decipher which is which. But the growing beards on the faces of Egyptian neo-bourgeoisie youth, who were one year earlier making fun of the same ‘look’ when it pertained to Salafis or other religious groups, remains one of the most ironic scenes expressing this class’s contemporary condition.   

Getting 'ripped' for Marassi: muscles as symbols of class

Another ironic scene is that of tanned Egyptians. Although both bodybuilding and tanning have become a semi-global phenomenon, I would argue that this is more problematic when it pertains to an impoverished African country.

The idea of an African striving to be tanned is bizarre, for obvious reasons: we are already tanned! Less obviously bizarre is the growing trend of bodybuilding within Egyptian rich communities. Of course, the concept of being healthy has been there for quite some time, but the particular notion of building up a particular body form with a particular percentage of body-fat and body mass index (BMI) is extremely recent.

Perhaps this shift is was what inspired Marassi’s ads, as discussed here, persuading the Europe-aspiring masses to differentiate themselves from the local others by investing in their ‘looks’. Perhaps it was the other way around: the sudden aspiration of the rich to have a certain body form made those not in form ‘lose’ their class in the process?

Back in the day, weight was seen as a symbol of luxury. An overweight man was dubbed Ibn ‘Ezz [the son/product of luxury]. Today, with the rise of ‘efficiency’ as a guiding ethic of exported European culture, the same ‘mass’ symbolizes inefficiency in consumption and failure to control (eating) desires. The sexy, healthy, classy Egyptian of earlier days – from King Farouq to Farid Shawki - are not in any way similar to today's Egyptian elite.

The political economy of sexuality

Speaking of body efficiency, sexual efficiency comes to mind, especially the fact that Egyptians have spent over 800 million dollars on sex-enhancing pills this year alone.

Egyptians spent over 800 million dollars on sex-enhancing pills this year alone

An extremely informative anthropological study was conducted by Youssef Ramez. His valuable research, a must-read, interrogated the socioeconomic rather than scientific roots of a popular debate today in Egypt: is Viagra or Tramadol (an opioid pain medication) better in enhancing sexual performance?

He concludes that there are valid arguments for both Tramadol and Viagra, but each argument pertains to a particular socioeconomic culture: the working-class favour longevity over activity. Thus, the majority of the working-class are Tramadol users. The middle-class favour Viagra: power and vitality.  But the whole Viagra/Tramadol debate ignores a more significant question: what defines “good” sexual performance?

The promise of ‘enhancing sexual performance’ assumes a standard ‘performance’, in which those below standard need enhancement and those up to standard to seek further promotion.  A reverberation of the modern day’s “efficiency” discourse.

As such, the choice of Viagra/Tramadol is pertinent to cultural taste and social background.

As sexual activity, like other aforementioned social activities, was put into a classified hierarchy, the issue moved from a social/private activity to a competition. In this competition, like in the aforementioned hijab and bodybuilding competitions, two repercussions take place: the first is misogyny - the fact that women are not consulted about whether or not they prefer such ‘efficient’ to ‘durable’ intercourse, or vice versa. The other is inevitability, as ‘performance’ discourse becomes ubiquitous and individual males cannot avoid the competition, for they will very likely find themsleves judged by widely-communicated ‘performance’ standards anyway.    

Conclusion: cultural imperialism revisited

Who went so far as to determine not only what we wear, but what we eat, how we look and even how we make love to our partners? Who colonised our thoughts, appearances and standards? If this isn’t what Said called ‘cultural imperialism’, what is?

This is an invitation to every Egyptian to revise what he/she really wants (where to live? where and how to spend their leisure time? What to eat? What to wear? How to look? How to make love?) and make active personal choices that transcend inherited imperialist norms that have been determining everything we do or whatever ‘happens’ to us.

The question is: whatever IS happening to the Egyptians?

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