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Who is afraid of Disneyfication? A response to Sonja Hegasy

About the author
Mona Abaza is associate professor in sociology at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her publications include Islamic Education, perceptions and exchanges (Paris, Cahier d'Archipel, 1994), Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: shifting worlds (Taylor & Francis, 2002). She researches religious networks across the Middle East and south-east Asia, and consumer culture in a comparative perspective.

The relationship between Arab and western culture is a key issue of our times. Sonja Hegasy clarified her view of it in her openDemocracy article, Fear and loathing: Arab cultures need a strategy of resistance. There, she charges Arab intellectuals and the Arab press of having succumbed to a culture of victimhood, “a passivity and cultural pessimism which is its own worst enemy”. I would like to respond to her challenge.

I know Sonja Hegasy and appreciate her work. She is an inspiring example, a second generation Arab-German ‘hybrid’ who has established herself in German academia. But I was disturbed by her critique; it contains important points, but for the most part the historical context which is absent from her essay provides its own response.

She asks, for instance: “why are there no ‘authentic’ African art festivals in Cairo, if such a thing exists?”, and answers: “because, even if Northern interest is only à la mode, the North’s interest in the South is much more vibrant than the mutual interest existing among southern countries.”

As Hegasy knows, the vibrant interest of the ‘north’ in the ‘south’ owes a lot to long colonial histories, during which study of the colonised ‘other’ became institutionalised in their academies of knowledge. The colonial archives have accumulated and classified knowledge which simply does not exist in our societies.

Life is difficult for any scholar from the south aspiring to specialise in a fellow southern country. There is not a single library or institution in Cairo specialising (for example) in Latin American, Asian or south-east Asian studies. The non-aligned movement founded at the Bandung conference in 1955 was one attempt to address this absence, but it was aborted in the 1970s.

The general thrust of Hegasy’s critique, however, disturbed me as much as its detail. I believe that she has fallen for the Enlightenment myth: the west’s own Olympian view of its disinterested rationality. I was particularly troubled by her seeming equation between anti-globalisation and cultural parochialism.

Who is parochial?

Despite all the contemporary talk of the ‘postmodern condition’, virtual reality, hyper-reality and the compression of time and space brought about by modern technology, the physical location of an intellectual continues to be a shaping influence on her or his discourse, dreams and visions.

My own life-experience – returning to live in Cairo after a long residence in Germany – may have made me especially sensitive on this point. But when Sonja Hegasy explains that she might have focused on the work of “various prominent Arab intellectuals – figures such as Gamil Mattar, Burhan Ghalyun, Samir Amin, and Ahmed Abdallah”, but decided instead “to address my argument to Sherif Hetata, a renowned Egyptian novelist and medical doctor” – she does not say why she considers him (or Fatema Mernissi, whom she also critiques) to be a representative example of Arab intellectuals today.

The first issue I have with Hegasy’s critique is that her dichotomy between ‘indigenous’ Arab writers like Sherif Hetata and Fatema Mernissi versus hybrid, cosmopolitan ones like Edward Said and Ahdaf Soueif is artificial. The latter – both cosmopolitan self-exiled intellectuals who lived (Said) or live (Soueif) in the west – their writing is mainly addressed to an English-speaking audience.

Hegasy’s own intellectual reference points are western theorists like Wolf Lepenies, Rudolph Stichweh and the Frankfurt School’s critique of Enlightenment. She locates as ‘third world’ those who disassociate themselves from such cosmopolitan terms.

She also takes the writing of Sherif Hetata and Fatema Mernissi out of context. Like many of the older generation of oppositional intellectuals in the Arab world, Hetata has operated for a long time in an authoritarian society, a police state where martial law has been endlessly extended and where human rights are routinely violated; where academic integrity and standards have withered and where the role and status of the intellectual have been consistently undermined.

Likewise, Mernissi’s essay on “Why I will not go to the West in 2002” was much more than a symbolic protest. After 9/11, the same thought had crossed the minds of many of us in ‘the south’ with privileged access to international conferences and foundations. What we saw was the racism in the west, coupled with a virulent paranoia about all things Arab and Muslim.

But Mernissi and Hetata are the last intellectuals who can be accused of cutting themselves off from the west. Mernissi is a Francophone, American-trained academic who is widely published; in all likelihood, she has a much larger audience in the west than in her home territory. Her essay speculated about what would happen if Arabs started considering the contemporary western and Christian world as one entity (rather than vice versa).

This is hardly a defensive posture. Salman Rushdie, that supreme cosmopolitan, was saying much the same about America in 1985, in Imaginary Homelands: “When the activities of a nation’s representatives begin to diverge so dramatically from its self-image as the guardian of freedom and decency, then the country has to find ways of turning away from the truth into cosy simplicities (God, patriotism), in order not to see that the picture of itself is in many ways a false one.”

A new world for the Arabs

Across the Islamic world, the temptation of responding to recent events by withdrawing into ‘cosy simplicities’ is ever-present; few would disagree that Arab cultures need a strategy of resistance. But these cultures – as anyone who knows the region will be aware – are awash with self-criticism. Indeed, Arab intellectuals have often, especially since the devastating defeat of June 1967, mourned the prevailing tone of self-laceration. Today, the context of their concerns has moved beyond Arab particularities to a common global experience – one of American imperialist hegemony.

The Bush administration has decided to remake the world in the image of the United States, in a way that undermines the entire planet’s right to self-determination. Europeans, Asians and others share the dilemma of how to live under the yoke of a unilateralist American empire. The Disneyfied vision hatched by the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – which seeks to convert the rest of the world into a sanitised, impotent adventure-playground – is an immediate presence. But its success is still a long way off; most of humanity does not want to adopt American lifestyles.

Thus, what depressed me about Sonja Hegasy’s article was its implication that resistance has collapsed in the Arab world, along with any attempt to anticipate and respond to future events through analysis. Human rights reports, the jailing of opponents, and battles with the censors all tell a different story.

Thinking through ‘the global’

Sonja Hegasy charges Sherif Hetata with failing to recognise that exclusion always involves interaction, and therefore the possibility of new intervention. According to her, his double standards are manifested in his simplistic dichotomy of the north-south divide, which disregards internal class conflicts in the south.

By contrast, Hegasy proffers her own approach [or rather Rudolf Stichweh’s in his book Inklusion/Exklusion (1997)]:

“‘exclusion’ in the 1990s had two aspects, replacing theories that use ‘class’ to describe social inequality, and taking the place of the concept of poverty. In this theory, ‘poverty’ is more than an economic phenomenon: it also indicates lack of proximity to the decision-making centres, perpetuating marginality.”
Here again, Hegasy misreads Hetata. The latter, a veteran Marxist, consistently applies a class-based analysis. For example, his essay “We will not be ruled by the World Bank” makes clear that his concern is with the alliance between Arab governments, corrupt elites and the World Bank, rather than the north-south divide. In his view, the policies (such as ‘structural adjustment’) of these established plunderers of the public domain have eradicated neither poverty nor unemployment. The local bourgeoisie is not spared in this critique.

Elsewhere, in his “Call to the European Social Movements” (12 November 2002), Hetata endorses an interaction between the Egyptian anti-globalisation movement and their European colleagues in coordinating protest movements against neoliberalism, social injustice and the marginalisation of the unemployed.

Of course, some arguments of the anti-globalisation movement about culture and consumerism are simplistic and should be challenged. But they have succeeded in creating an effective ‘global’ web of networks. They belong to a wider movement which does not believe that free trade offers magical solutions to poverty and global inequality. Nor can all Egyptian leftist intellectuals be characterised as anti-globalisers just because many of them militate for a network for global justice.

In Egypt, the problem is not that intellectuals have marginalised themselves, but that they have been marginalised in the interests of a world economic order which pursues stability at any cost, including alliances with corrupt regimes. The Anti-Globalisation Egyptian Group (AGEG) is an example. Created by some 200 activists and leftist intellectuals in July 2002, it has – like all human rights organisations and NGOs in Egypt – been closely monitored by the government. Some of its members have been subjected to police threats, harassment and internal security monitoring of their meetings. After demonstrations against the Iraq war, 800-1,500 people were detained. Some were tortured and are still in jail.

Hegasy blames the anti-globalisation movement for feeding new nationalisms. But is nationalism to be allowed only to the Americans, as they launch their modern crusades against the ‘Axis of Evil’, ‘Old Europe’ and the Frenchness of fries? Is defending one’s territory or protecting one’s culture to be equated with national socialism and war crimes?

What kind of globalisation?

The concept of globalisation has provoked a massive outpouring of words from all parts of the political spectrum. Hegasy drops a few names of those who have wrestled with the concept, but does not herself define the word.

Despite the limitations of the exercise, I would like to propose a few key notions as central to globalisation: the future of culture(s), hegemony, consumer and mass-culture, postmodernism, the McDonaldisation of the world, cosmopolitanism versus local culture, local heroes, ‘going native’, the ‘globalisation of the natives’, the global city, Disneyfication of the world, The Americanisation of Europe and the world, modernity and the third world, credit cards, the speed of money circulation in the world, simulation, the virtual, hyper-reality, consumerism and identity construction, post-industrialism, nationalism, ethnic cleansing, Jihad versus McWorld, the reshaping public space, the public sphere and democracy, the city as a shopping mall.

Among the scholars who have explored the phenomenon are Roland Robertson, Martin Albrow, Immanuel Wallerstien, Jonathan Friedman, Mike Featherstone, Arjun Appadurai, Ulrich Beck, George Ritzer, Bryan Turner, and Benjamin Barber.

Neither list, of course, is complete. But somehow, globalisation is a concept where ‘anything goes’. Intellectuals struggle to grasp its myriad aspects and side-effects. An uncomplicated approach would be to divide the phenomenon into positive, negative and intrusive. As world markets become integrated through tourism, social scientists have become interested in the complex interplay between the particular and the universal. They have started studying the paradoxical effects of the interaction between local and global; the way that traditions are being invented, cultures ‘folklorised’, ‘museumised’ and exoticised; how the right of difference is being reinvented and ethnic-religious sentiments revived.

But globalisation can equally be understood as a set of associations. Just as ‘democracy’, associated with the free western world, is often counterposed to the ‘despotic Orient’, for many people (in Egypt at least) ‘globalisation’ has become interchangeable with Americanisation – and following the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it has become equated with barbaric imperialism.

A global media

No one doubts that globalisation has transformed our world, but this transformation cuts two ways. On the one hand, the media tames spectators by cultivating a voyeuristic disposition to massacres, wars, and genocides, transforming them into mundane daily events. The internet too buries us daily in an avalanche of unfiltered information. On the other hand, there is indeed a great variety in the media.

In the Arab world, al-Jazeera counterbalanced the atrocious propaganda of Fox News and CNN. Yet even this variety carries a price; it led to the killing of a number of reporters, including the al-Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad (Tarek Ayoub), by the American air force.

The technology which documents these events is a double-edged sword too. Videotape may be a fantastic tool for documenting anti-war demonstrations for the international media, but it also caters to the internal security police. The images that feed worldwide audiences also provide the forces of internal suppression with a worrying source of information. Participation in an anti-war demonstration in Cairo has different repercussions from joining a demonstration in Berlin.

Anti-war expressions in Egypt have a long history of culminating in violent police repression, jailing, torture, long detentions in inhumane conditions and the deportation of non-Egyptian demonstrators. The rights of all the marginalised and excluded, as well as political dissidents, are violated. I am not confident that efforts by global activists against torture and other abuses in our part of the world will do anything to improve this situation.

Consuming Cairo

Sonja Hegasy is critical of Sherif Hetata’s simplistic attitude towards consumerism. Here it is hard not to agree with her. His is an attitude that predominates in the old leftist circles. But he is not a sociologist and he is ill-equipped to understand the transformation in consumer culture.

Hegasy is also right to point out how little attention consumer studies have received in the Arab world. This is indeed strange, considering how pervaded by consumerism the region is. In the last ten years, twenty-two shopping malls have been constructed in Cairo alone. The city’s supermarkets carry every imaginable consumer item. There are 4.9 million subscribers to mobile phones; the president of the republic has ordered a feasibility study for a third company – in addition to Mobinil and Click-Vodafone – to satisfy the demand. Some claim that satellite channels will make us happy, as we will no longer need to travel abroad. At the university level, teleconferencing will mean that academics will no longer need to travel.

There are fancy coffee houses and restaurants all over Cairo with names like La Bodega, Le Morocco, Le Peking, Villa Rosa, La Creperie des Arts, Casablanca, Shahenshah, La Gourmandise. Leisure resorts, secondary residences, walled or gated communities such as Qattamiyya Heights and Beverley Hills have multiplied. There are multiple internet cafés.

International music is available everywhere and Arabic music video-clips are becoming increasingly hybridised by international tastes and music. Professional belly-dancing has been globalised in Cairo, and a large foreign contingent of Russian, Argentine, Scottish and American dancers ply their trade. Russian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian and Western European prostitutes compete with the local courtesans.

A branch of the French hypermarket Carrefour recently opened its doors. East Asia has become an exotic tourist destination for the Egyptian rich. Tourism – first in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and then all along the Red Sea – has changed male sexuality and notions of masculinity. The fantasies of men of rural origin working in tourism have changed, as they experience sexual encounters with western women. Meanwhile in Egypt, around eleven million people are living in unplanned housing; slums without sewerage and running water.

But how new is all this? In modern Cairo, the western grid architecture of the area known as ‘downtown’ and its double, the Islamic old city, always did present split worlds. Cosmopolitan life in Cairo and Alexandria existed centuries before the concept of globalisation.

This strange new world cries out for investigation. But consumer studies are still considered trivial by Arab academics – unlike their Indian or south-east Asian counterparts, among whom Chua Beng Huat has developed a much more sophisticated understanding of the interactive process of consumerism.

In Consuming Asians: ideas and issues in consumption in Asia, Chua Beng Huat explored the contrast between an older generation of Singaporeans, who were conditioned by state policies to be frugal, and the more affluent, ‘westernised’ younger generation. His chapter “Singaporeans ingesting McDonald’s” sees George Ritzer’s argument about ‘McDonaldisation’ as the trope of a worldwide form of rationalisation. He demonstrates that in order to conquer the market, McDonalds had to undergo a process of Asianisation.

In Cairo, by contrast, the McDonalds’ outlets are carbon copies of those in America, only less efficient. As consumers, Cairenes do seem less able to participate in the interactive process of consumerism; among academics, the nuanced sociology of consumer studies has yet to arrive. There is a connection between this and the wider problem that intellectuals have no autonomy from government. The state machinery sees the manipulation of knowledge as its business.

Westoxification – true or false?

The idea that consumerism is mainly imposed by an outside force has wide currency in the Arab world, not only among the left, but among Islamists and nationalists too. In her critique of Sherif Hetata, Sonja Hegasy takes issue with this view. Invoking the Frankfurt School, she says at one point:

“We might conclude from rereading Horkheimer and Adorno that advertising and television artificially create needs, as a means of compensating for alienation. But for Hetata, global Americanisation is solely responsible, with its quest for ever-increasing numbers of consumers...”
In Hegasy’s view, Hetata fails to understand that consumerism also brings increased choice. She cites the peasants who today can decide whether to play Elvis Presley or Cheb Khaled at their wedding.

It is true to say that we have seen some degree of choice, and the flowering of a new hybrid culture in Egypt. But I would argue that Hetata is all too faithful to the Frankfurt School in his pessimism about globalisation. If there is a criticism to be made of the School (and of Adorno and Horkeimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment in particular) it lies in their utter pessimism vis-a-vis the culture industry.

Max Horkheimer pointed to the ironic celebration of the individual in an age of commodities: the enlightenment dream had failed; machines were ‘doing men’s work’, while men were ‘acting more and more like machines’. A true follower of Horkheimer and Adorno would maintain that the simulation of choice, the hyper-reality created by the advertising of commodities and the imposition of the rules of the market was nothing but the subversion of individuality by technology, in what Herbert Marcuse called the “‘one-dimensional society’ of enslaved consumers and mass culture audiences”.

The view of consumerism as an outside imposition is quite popular in the Middle East. It partners the notion of ‘cultural invasion’, originated by French intellectuals, in the context of Americanisation. All evils stem from the materialist west, which confronts the purity and spiritualism of the east. This familiar discourse of Arab intellectuals was adopted by Indian intellectuals in colonial times too, as it was by Iranians leftists and Islamists before the 1979 revolution.

The ‘curse of Westernisation’, as Chua Beng Huat calls it, has been often invoked by the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia to defend their markets. More importantly, they use it to justify their authoritarian regimes. As he writes:

“...political differences are often… formulated, in Asia, in terms of the ‘Otherness’ of the West… the latter is criticised as an ‘unhealthy’ cultural penetration into ‘wholesome’ cultures of the former. The bridgehead of this insidious invasion… is inscribed in products imported from the West.”
However, for all his pessimism about globalisation, Hetata would be the last person to follow this rhetoric of ‘westoxification’. Indeed, his wife Nawal al-Saadawi was indicted for apostasy and if found guilty would have had to divorce him (as was the ruling in the similar case brought against the distinguished philosopher, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd). An international campaign launched by al-Saadawi eventually saved them, but at the cost of being blamed for abusing Egypt in international forums. So Hetata would never tar all influences from ‘outside’ with the same brush.

The life of the hybrid intellectual

At the heart of Hegasy’s critique of the parochialism of Arab culture lies the issue of hybrid literature, produced in the language of the ‘outside’ by writers like Ahdaf Soueif and Edward Said. Hegasy contends that Arab culture does not appreciate its own hybrid literature: “Few Arab intellectuals defend Soueif’s writings against allegations that they are not part of Arab literature at all.” She gives the impression that Soueif is fighting persecution from nationalist intellectuals. This is a fallacy.

Ahdaf Soueif did not initially welcome the translation of her novel In the Eye of Sun from English to Arabic (the state-owned literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab did attempt a translation – never easy in the case of an 800-page book). In a public lecture, Soueif declared that only she herself would be truly faithful to the text, but that she would rather write a new novel. This is understandable.

If Soueif had been a victim of the parochialism of Egyptian intellectuals she would not have been invited to the Higher Council on Culture’s conference on the Arab novel in 1998, at which she thanked the council Chairman Gaber al-Asfour for acknowledging her work as belonging to the Arab novel. Soueif’s The Map of Love has been translated into Arabic, and her work Zinat al-Hayat has been published by al-Haya’a al-’Amma lil kitab, the official government press. Fusul, a leading literary journal, dedicated a whole issue to Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun.

Ahdaf Soueif is a celebrity on the Egyptian intellectual scene – as was, until his recent death, Edward Said. Said’s column was published in Al-Ahram Weekly and was read religiously by the English-speaking intelligentsia. He was invited on countless occasions to give lectures as a distinguished professor at the America University in Cairo. These attracted packed audiences and heavy media coverage. Said’s articles in the London-based daily, Al-Hayat – which appeared simultaneously in English and Arabic – were also widely read. Both Soueif and Said achieved the status of intellectual icons as ‘Arabs who made it’ in the west.

The different legacies of colonialism

There are reasons why colonialism in Egypt and the Middle East has not produced a significant tradition of literary English writing as it has in India. The English language did not play the same unifying role in the Middle East as in the sub-continent. English was the language of the colonial administration in Egypt, but the dominant foreign literary language remained French. It is only now that figures like Soueif are emerging from this cultural background; perhaps more will emerge.

But Hegasy’s reference to Edward Said and Ahdaf Soueif is no coincidence. Their work – and this is observation not criticism – stands in a different relationship from that of other Arab writers to their readers in the west. They belong within what Aijaz Ahmad in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures calls the “structures of metropolitan hegemony”.

The large, sophisticated middle classes which became professionalised in the ex-colonies, and the wave of migrations to Britain and the United States, are different markets of intellectual production. The latter, Aijaz Ahmad notes, consolidated a large middle class of foreign origin that paralleled the expansion of the working class. Ahmad places the success of Said’s Orientalism in the context of the growing second generation of this non-western middle classes.

The polarising legacy of 9/11

Hegasy’s own position on hybrid literature is that of Wolf Lepenies, whom she quotes: “There are only hybrid cultures. This fact alone makes the clash of civilisations prophecy appear unrealistic.” Hegasy remarks that “(d)enying blended cultures and one’s own contribution to a globalised world...has a self-constraining, ultimately self-destructive effect.” One can only agree with both that the ‘clash of civilisations’ is one of the greatest stupidities to have seen the light of day.

But Lepenies’ good intentions cannot hide the fact that racism in Europe is alive and well. Nationalistic, right-wing ideologies are on the rise: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider, Silvio Berlusconi, and now (in Switzerland) Christoph Blocher have enjoyed wide support and electoral success. After German unification in 1990, crimes against asylum-seekers increased and mounting numbers of hate murders were recorded. In German nationality law, the principle of blood still influences the right of citizenship despite recent reforms.

Since 11 September 2001, visa requirements, checkpoints at airports and borders have rendered travel to the north a nightmare for many Arabs and Muslims. Optimists may talk of the dissolution of borders, but a phobia of ‘anti-terrorism’ has reached hysterical proportions, with ‘campus watch’ actions in the US and the monitoring of emails worldwide. Bush’s success so far has been founded on his ability to translate the ‘clash of civilisations’ into a waking nightmare.

The resulting polarisation has affected the American University in Cairo (AUC). Sonja Hegasy refers to the university as being regarded as the ‘imperialist thorn in the heart of Cairo’. As a teacher there, I doubt whether this is still the case. Regardless of its inner contradictions and its struggles to overcome censorship, this ‘bastion of imperialism’ has ended up harbouring some of the most culturally and intellectually productive minds and institutions. It offers a space where a margin of expression can be exercised, and this sets it apart from the decaying national institutions of learning.

Several anti-Iraq war demonstrations were led by AUC students who resisted the police, were beaten violently and jailed. One of the two foreign students involved was deported. I would suggest that it is precisely because the students have been labelled as the ‘spoilt brats of the rotten elite’ that nationalist and Islamist sentiment is so strongly felt in the university today. Following the invasion of Iraq and America’s unconditional support of Israel, it is associated with a growing sense of humiliation. America, even here, has lost its image as the Egyptians’ dreamland.


Hegasy’s portrayal of Arab intellectuals tends, then, to parochialise them; but her critique contains its own contradiction. However much she may want to strengthen the ideal of ‘south-south’ collaboration, her argument implies that she still views the north as perpetuating an enlightened, rational discourse – one largely devoid of racism, sectarianism and nationalism. Her own reference point is the Frankfurt School. Yet it is through the work of these very scholars that we came to appreciate the limits of reason. What is lacking in Hegasy’s understanding of globalisation is precisely that dialectical, interactive relationship which they understood so well.

And it was their conclusion, after all, that the consequence of the Enlightenment project was barbarism.

I would like to thank Ferial Gazoul and Samia Mehrez of the American University in Cairo, as well as Mohammed Muftah and Atef Shahat, for sharing ideas and editorial assistance in preparing this article.

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