Update: Letter from Cairo
Published: May 2009
By Lee Smith
Americans may be giving Egypt a miss this year, but Egyptians seem to have embarked on a new love affair with all things American
The most popular joke in Cairo right now is set in New York. An Egyptian cabdriver is taking a fare to the airport. He barrels through a red light, just missing a truck. "No problem," he explains to his passenger, "I'm an Egyptian cabdriver, I know what I'm doing." When he does it again the passenger lays into him. "Sir," the cabbie replies, "don't worry, I'm an Egyptian cabdriver." Eventually, he comes to a green light and makes a full stop. The passenger, now totally baffled, asks what's wrong. "Sorry, sir," he says, "there might be another Egyptian cabdriver coming through."
Maybe you had to be there, in Cairo, with an Egyptian cabbie telling the joke, turning his head to see how you liked the punch line as he careered through traffic. Of course, what would strike most Americans is the macabre setup: An Egyptian, New York, and an airport?Cairenes don't make the connection. That "Egyptian" might be taken as synonymous with "terrorist" would never cross their minds. The joke defines them as they see themselves: charming and able, if somewhat reckless, world citizens.
Many of the world's citizens think otherwise. A year after Cairo native Mohammed Atta allegedly headed the attacks on the World Trade Center, tourism from the United States and Western Europe is down about one-third from 2001. Yet Egypt hasn't been deeply introspective about its image problem. To Egyptians, this is ummu dunya, the mother of civilization. Plans are set for a new antiquities museum out by the Pyramids, and a show of the Egyptian Museum's collection of funeral relics is now touring the United States, part of an effort to lure Americans back. Egyptians may reason that visitors returned soon after Islamic terrorists killed 57 tourists in Luxor in 1997, but September 11 was a much larger manifestation of terror. It was hard for outsiders not to wonder whether Egypt itself was dangerous.
On that point, the Egyptian government isn't exactly forthright. Egypt receives more U.S. aid than any other country in the world except Israel. A major reason it gets that money is to ensure that an Islamic revolution, another Iran, never happens in Egypt. There are of course real Islamic terrorists in Egypt, mostly in prison, but "Islamic rage" has also become an economic resource exploited by moderate Arab states--the government needs to earn its money by showing that it's keeping the lid on a dangerous situation. The problem is that after September 11, Egypt found it could no longer play both ends by telling tour operators that the country is safe and the U.S. State Department that it's not. Americans had a vivid image of two New York buildings collapsing, and chose to stay away.
Yet in Cairo American influences are everywhere--and not just in movies, music, and fast food, which have been part of the landscape for ages. The rising generation of well-to-do Egyptians has fallen for urban, middle-class American culture: the bookstore café, the large art gallery, the furniture design store, the fashionable bistro.
In the spring, Diwan, which looks like a smaller version of a Barnes & Noble, or one drawing from both Western and Arabic culture, opened in Zamalek, one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods. Alongside a large collection of contemporary American fiction, the store carries almost every Egyptian film ever made. Egypt is the Hollywood of Arab moviemaking, and its films are among the gems of world cinema, ranging from the high nightlife musicals and smoky black-and-white romantic dramas of the 1930's through the 50's, to the more experimental European art film-influenced productions of Youssef Chahine. With its frequent book parties and special events, Diwan has become a meeting place for young professionals, mostly Egyptian but some expatriates as well. "There are plenty of Pizza Huts and McDonald's," owner Hind Wassef says. "This is an aspect of American culture we can really use."
Right next door to Diwan, on what's something of an Egyptian yuppie row, is one of the city's more fashionable restaurants. La Bodega occupies an entire floor in a block-long century-old mansion. The restaurant's name is Spanish; one side is a pan-Oriental fusion restaurant and the other is an American interpretation of a French brasserie. Co-owner Maher Maksoud, whose mother is Irish and father is Egyptian, says the cosmopolitan mix is intentional. "We wanted to invoke the feel of those classic Egyptian movies," he says, "to bring back Cairo nightlife in its heyday."
Maksoud is referring to a kind of golden age of Orientalism, an idea which, though somewhat discredited in the West, is still a point of pride in the Arab world. Arabs use the word Oriental to describe their own music, food, style, and themselves in pretty much the same way European travelers and adventurers used it over the last several hundred years, conceiving of everything east of the Balkans, from the Levant to Japan, as a single entity. The difference is that Westerners used the word to describe what wasn't the West. The Arabs don't see it that way. For them, "Oriental" is a large concept accommodating mixed origins--a thing, an idea, a person--that has come to rest here, where the world began.
A recent show at Townhouse, Cairo's preeminent gallery, played explicitly on this theme with several large Robert Rauschenberg-like canvases comparing Batman to the ancient Egyptian god Anubis. Contemporary American art has borrowed from pop culture and illustration since at least the sixties, but this served as a kind of reminder that, after all, hieroglyphs were the first cartoons.
Townhouse Gallery was founded by William Wells, a 50-year-old Canadian who spent a lot of time going back and forth between Egypt and England before deciding to settle here in 1998. "I didn't really know for sure that there was contemporary art in Egypt," says Wells. "But I knew Egypt, and I knew something was going on just beneath the surface." Wells's hunch paid off. Townhouse's artists have attracted attention from European collectors, and the gallery is now the center of a nascent art scene.
Egyptian cuisine is also on the move, thanks to Lebanese-born Nicha Sursock, Raouf Lofty, and Marod Sami, who own Abou el-Sid, one of the rare upscale restaurants in Cairo to specialize in Egyptian food. It is almost always packed with Egyptians, which turns out to be a delicate balancing act. "If you're serving Egyptian food," Sursock explains, "the Egyptians won't eat it because it's almost like they're insulting their mother or wife by not eating at home. So we have food mostly for the foreigners, and the bar is mostly for Egyptians. And there's a very Oriental atmosphere, which everyone likes."
It's a richly visual place--low tables, large pillows, a range of golds and browns, and of course the large water pipes, making this one of the few places in Cairo where young women can smoke shisha, flavored tobacco, without getting strange looks from men.
So if an Oriental atmosphere means pieces from all over the East in one room, postmodern design means Islamic and Japanese and Indian all in one piece, as in a chair and desk I saw at Alamein, a furniture design store in Zamalek. A few blocks away, another design store popular with both locals and expats, especially those in the embassies, is Beit Sherif, located in an amazing four-story villa with a newly completed attic based on descriptions in one of the classics of Oriental literature, The Thousand and One Nights.
Shisha pipes, The Thousand and One Nights—these seem like clichés of Orientalism even to a tourist come expressly to find them. To Egyptians they are aspects of Egypt, why they like being Egyptian. And Egyptians like the West enough not to feel self-conscious about being Oriental. They want to show you Haroun al-Rashid's palace in Old Cairo, where much of The Thousand and One Nights is set. Like Cairo, that anthology of different stories resists an ending, renewing itself repeatedly with whatever it finds at hand.
Lee Smith is currently living in Cairo and writing a book about Arab culture for Scribner.
Diwan Books 159 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/736-2578.
La Bodega 157 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-6761; dinner for two $55.
Townhouse Gallery 10 Nabrawy St., off Champollion St.; 20-2/576-8600.
Abou el-Sid 157 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-9640; dinner for two $30.
Alamein 15 Ahmed Heshmat St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-9987.
Beit Sherif 3A Baghat Ali St., Zamalek; 20-2/736-5689.