copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi

11/25/2004

November Daily Camera column

Ramadan has come and gone and the world has started up again. Ramadan was a strange season in Cairo. It was like living in a time outside of time, somewhere between two worlds: the “modern” world that is my everyday context and another strange no-man’s-world lost somewhere between then and now. When was “then”? I’m not sure. Frustrated by the failings of modernity, Egyptians are turning to Islam, back to an idealized past for answers. Ramadan is part of that turning back. Cairenes used Ramadan as a time out from the modern world. All month long, offices opened late and closed early – if they opened up at all. Schools shortened classes, avoided giving homework, and closed the libraries at 2pm. Restaurants and shops didn’t open up until late afternoon. Meetings were put off or crammed together so people could beat the horrendous mid-day traffic jams as everyone rushed home for iftahr, the breaking of the fast. Afternoons were deserted streets and a quiet so soft one could hear the birds sing… and then the sun went down. With darkness everything burst alive, shouts and frenzy extending long into the wee hours of the morning. People wolfed down iftahr, settled in front of the TV, munching snacks while breathlessly watching the newest Gulf States extravaganza. (Weight gain is a serious problem during the Ramadan fast.) Some gathered with friends and fired up the sheesha, smoking scented tobacco and drinking coffee while drifting into a haze of dreams. Still others jumped into their cars and headed for the Cairo nightlife, promenading through the streets with shouts and honking horns and the occasional firecracker. I’m told that some people spent the nights praying in a mosque, but those quiet souls were very much an exception to the rule. All this partying took a heavy toll. Sleep deprivation and fasting made people sullen – in week three (cranky week), I even saw a couple of fist-fights break out. People wouldn’t answer the telephone and disappeared for days at a time. Work on projects came to a complete stop. For someone trying to get work done, Ramadan was a maddening experience. I kept feeling like I was trapped in a badly run doctor’s office, where appointment times were approximate, commitments fluid and time had no meaning. Did this “time out” help Egypt cope with modernity? I doubt it. It certainly did not strengthen relationships with people outside – folks are more likely to write Egypt off as too much trouble than they are to adapt to Egypt time. Did Egyptians use the “time out” to reflect on the wisdom that Islam can offer in coping with the modern world? Maybe, maybe not. From the perspective of an embedded observer, most Cairenes seemed to use the “time out” as an excuse to slack off and party. Egyptians have a love-hate relationship with modernity. Less than a generation after Mohammed Ali launched modern Egypt in the mid-19th century, his grandson Ishmael mortgaged the future to finance his infatuation with the West - and lost the country to Britain when the West foreclosed. The Brits brought Egypt into the modern world by building infrastructure while squashing democratic institutions. The last 40 years of Egyptian rule has been no better: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak have all continued a pattern of building economic wealth for the few while repressing the rights and aspirations of the many – aided and abetted by a West intent on protecting its oil. Time and again, modernity has offered ordinary Egyptians hope of a better life, then dashed those hopes against the cold realities of autocratic governments and international geopolitics. A Ramadan card sent out by a colleague sums it up: “Stocks decimated, material wealth mutilated…let us all observe Ramadan and see our spiritual stock soar.” And yet, for all their disenchantment with modern “values,” Egyptians are eager to reap the chief benefit of modern life: consumer goods. Egypt has one of the most intensely consumer-oriented cultures I have ever seen. Streets are lined with shops filled with Western clothing, shoes and toys. Egyptians love to buy stuff, to give and receive gifts. But where will the money come from to buy the modern “stuff” Egyptians crave? This is not Saudi Arabia - there is no “oil daddy.” Egypt is a net importer of food, has no mineral wealth, no manufacturing to speak of, and a labor force that is largely unskilled and too expensive to compete with China. Egypt must have a functioning economy to support itself in the style to which it hopes to grow accustomed – or in any style, given that half its population is under the age of 25. And creating a functioning economy means dealing with the modern world. Which takes us back to Ramadan. Will Islam provide Egypt with answers on how to cope with a globalizing world? The seeds are there: the Islamic empire was, after all, the great globalizer of its time. In its golden age, Islam was outward looking, intensely engaged with the “modern” world of its day. And Prophet Mohammed’s vision of a community rooted in social justice, political liberty and accountability have strong resonance today. An updated, energized Islam could offer a welcome alternative to the cruel capitalism that seems to be engulfing the globe. But Ramadan needs to be more than just a “time out” if Islam is to offer any answers. It needs to be a time of real spiritual reflection, of a community reflecting on the life it has made and the future it is providing for its young people. Islam provides Egyptians with the strength to endure – and lord knows there is plenty to endure in Cairo, with the heat, the dust and the psychic pressures of sharing space with 17 million of your closest friends. But endurance alone is not enough to cope with the modern world. Mother of the World she may be, but Cairo today needs the modern world more than the modern world needs Mum.

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