The Unlikely Young Cosmopolitans of Cairo

Issue 12, Winter 2010

By Heba Elsayed

Commuters about to board the Cairo metro - picture by Asim Bharwani

Commuters about to board the Cairo metro - picture by Asim Bharwani

 (Note:  this paper was presented at the ICA conference in Singapore 2010)



"As I come out of my modest house and walk towards the metro station to catch the underground into central Cairo, I just have to look up and I see a completely different world to my own. People my age looking chic and wearing the latest fashions step out of modern villas and hop into expensive cars, while their personal chauffeur drives them to their destination. Although our worlds are mutually exclusive, all that separates us is a wall. I'm not jealous, however, but I'm content, as I know God must have done this for a reason, and my religious faith is very strong. What upsets me the most is that although we are forced to look at such people everyday and be reminded of our own inadequacies, they hardly realize that we exist" (21-year-old lower middle class female).


Cairo, a divided city home to many numerous worlds within, is part of the global condition which characterizes cities of the developing South. While a new network of 'global spaces' (Oncu & Weyland, 1997: 1) occupied by five-star hotels, multinational companies and world-class shopping malls has invaded its metropolitan life, beyond the sleek facade of Cairo's urban skylines, an altogether different story subsists. Although its modern 'global spaces' have become zones of "first world" sophistication and global belonging for some, for the vast majority, they are unattainable zones of exclusion and segregation which bar them from taking part in these acts of belonging. Thus, Cairo looked at from ‘below’ reveals a gloomier yet increasingly more dynamic and unpredictable narrative of struggle: a daily struggle for space, identity and recognition. Such juxtapositions and inconsistencies, characteristic of contemporary cosmopolitan cities, have become a backdrop against which fresh possibilities for new and unusual forms of imagination and belonging are constantly being created and re-created. By understanding cosmopolitanism not as westernization, but as a form of internal heterogeneity, where through personal strategies and performance we incorporate the global into our own local repertoires, this paper is arguing that it is lower middle class Egyptian youth who are more deserving of the cosmopolitan label owing to their ability to undergo a careful and inclusive negotiation between alternative cultural repertoires. It is important to note that in the Egyptian context, the lower middle class have many characteristics that the west would associate with the working class. Most of my participants in this category come from families where the parents work in badly paid government institutions, and have an average family income of $290 per month. Although they place a strong emphasis on university education, they tend to end up in some of the lowest paid jobs due to their lack of language and global cultural skills. Nevertheless, through an intricate integration of Islamic discourse and Islamic media into their daily social practices, members of the lower middle class are engaged in the production of dynamic cosmopolitan imaginations that draw from both a global and local cultural stockpile. This is a contrast to upper middle class youth who are forging for themselves more exclusive identities based solely on what they perceive to be "first-world" superiority and western modernity, while distancing themselves from what they regard as the vulgarity and tastelessness of the local.


Although attention has been paid to how neo-liberal policies and global cultural influences have affected global cities of the South, few studies have used ethnographic practices to examine the intimate everyday negotiations of such transformations (De Koning, 2009: 534). One of the most important practices which has become an influential part of the fabric of everyday life in non-western contexts, and indeed across the globe, is media consumption. Martin-Barbero (1993) uses the concept mediations to suggest how the media are an ever-present part of everyday life and influence it even when they are not directly being consumed. He believes that in a development context, we should move beyond a focus on the imperialism of the mass media and their role in homogenizing the cultures of non-western societies, and instead, explore the intense variety of modes of media use in the daily lives of citizens in these places and the ways audiences resist, appropriate and undermine media messages. Similarly, Canclini (1995: xv) suggests that communications technologies cannot be blamed for replacing traditions or homogenizing them, as they should be regarded as altering the conditions for obtaining and renewing knowledge. Media consumption should be regarded as a part of the hybridity which is an ongoing condition of all human cultures. Such cultures contain no zones of purity as they constantly undergo processes of transculturation- a two-way borrowing and lending between each other. The usefulness of Martin-Barbero and Canclini comes in the fact that they overcome the binary opposition that many globalization theories erect between the local and the global in mass-mediated culture. Instead, they propose a more grounded and context-specific dual examination of both everyday life and transnational media with a focus on the hybridity at their intersection. In a similar light, my research focuses on how cosmopolitan imaginations are created and sustained through everyday experiences of exclusion and belonging within different spaces of the city, and through media practice. Thus rather than looking at how the global is impacting upon the local, this study is an examination of locality in its daily cultural complexity and the importance that media and communication practices have in its constitution (Kraidy, 2002: 187).


My project is based on nine months of intense ethnographic research in Cairo, with participant/non-participant observation and focus groups being the main qualitative methods I use. Additionally, however, I employ the technique of triangulation, using a survey which enables me to collect more specific and widespread information about the media consumption practices of 100 lower middle class youth. The depth and profundity which ethnography accords, makes it the most suitable method for the study of the complex areas of identity, the everyday and media consumption. It provides me with the opportunity of immersing myself into Egyptian culture, and developing an in-depth understanding of the experiences, sensations and events which Egyptian youth commonly experience on a daily basis. Although the original project on which this paper is based involves a comparison between Egyptian youth of three different class backgrounds, to report all their experiences is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, the present analysis offers a specific focus on the lower middle class, although references will be made to the experiences of the other classes for reasons of comparison


Where are we Inside the Onion? - Cosmopolitanism as Internal Heterogeneity


What is the relationship of an onion to such vital theoretical concerns? Interestingly, Beck and Sznaider (2006) use it as a very vivid, visual metaphor to help distinguish between the terms cosmopolitanism and globalisation. They suggest that rather than seeing globalization as the primary mechanism which invades and impacts upon people's intimate spaces, cosmopolitanism allows us to shift the emphasis to internal developmental processes within the social world. While globalization refers to something taking place out there, cosmopolitanism happens "within". Globalization presupposes, but cosmopolitanism dissolves the 'onion model' of the world where the local and the national form the core and inner layer, and the international and the global form the outer layers (Beck and Sznaider, 2006: 5). By adopting a cosmopolitan outlook, therefore, I attempt to overcome the basic dualisms such as domestic/foreign or national/international which globalization theories tend to presuppose. It is essential to rework the assumption that humanity is naturally divided into a limited number of nation-states, organized around set territorial boundaries. This is not suggesting that the nation-state has become obsolete or irrelevant, but that it can no longer be regarded as the sole or primary reference point for a global citizenry.


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