Posts Tagged ‘orientalism’

After a long and painful day of recovering from a party down on Falaky Street, Rumi and I decided to go out and live the dream and find Cairo’s last remaining Turkish bath.

Steam dreams of luxurious relaxation

Turkish baths once dotted the medieval city aplenty: an Ottoman take on what was a Greco-Roman practice that has been described as “the wet version of a sauna.” Bathers move from progressively hotter rooms together, sweating out the dirt from their pores before being scrubbed down violently with a loofah, massaged, and then rinsed with cold water. In the past, every neighborhood in Cairo had a hammaam (please note the double m) and the fires that were used to heat the baths also cooked the neighborhood fuul in giant tin pots. Steam baths were a social activity that was completely gender segregated, and as a consequence, social taboos were generally removed. People spoke freely, and the women’s bath was an oft-discussed subject of orientalists’ speculations.

Presently, however, the hammaam has fallen into disrepute. Rendered unnecessary by modern plumbing, the steam bath has become the whispered haunt of (gasp!) homosexuals, who are supposed to meet in dark liasons to rub each other with various oils. This, not too long ago, was actually kind of true, as Flaubert writes:

It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve a bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms…

Thought I doubt that Egyptians stay away from the last bath in Egypt because of Flaubert (what a reason that would be!), I suppose the reputation has stuck. Friends have had some rather rude encounters with gay men who were more than a little too pushy in a couple of places, and as a result, the bathhouse is something to be a little cautious of (besides, who knows what would happen to your wallet while you soaked up the steam). Either way, Rumi and I were determined not to face the bath alone (just in case things turned out seedier and more unpleasant than we were expecting); always good to have a friend around when you find yourself in unknown environs wearing only a thin cotton towel.

To get to the last operating bathhouse in Cairo (known as 7ammaam al-Malatili), walk down al-Mu3izz Street on the northern side on the way to the mosque of al-Hakim, past Bayn al-Qasrayn, until Amir al-Gyushi Street, which opens up on the left. About a hundred yards down on the left side is the bath, which is not much more than a hole in the wall about several steps down from the street level. All the locals know where it is, though, and it’s not difficult to find.

But it’s a dump.

Brightly painted on the inside, with light coming in dimly from glass-laminated holes in the roof, the reception room is manned by the hunched Muhammad Ali, who gives you a winding sheet and a pair of plastic slippers, points you to the changing room, and guards your phones, wallets, and watches. Once you strip and wrap yourself up in the sheet, you shuffle down a cracked, soggy corridor to a waiting room on a dais, presumably for the steam room to be vacated, and watch the cockroaches scuttle. Not for the faint of heart.

The floors are cracked, mildewy marble that has clearly seen better days, and there’s a faint sucking sound like that of a drain as water, dripping everywhere, seems to flow down to the narrow slots in the floor.

The steam room is a tiny compartment, filled mainly by a little pool of scalding water. You attempt to sit beside it in a modest fashion, and soon give up. It’s heady and the air is thick, though certainly not fragrant, and you begin to soon sweat profusely. Flaubert goes on:

I was alone in the hot room, watching the daylight fade through the great circles of glass in the dome. Hot water was flowing everywhere; stretched out indolently I though of a quantity of things as my pores tranquilly dilated. It is very voluptuous and sweetly melancholy to take a bath quite alone, lost in those dim rooms where the slightest noise reverberates like a cannon shot, while the naked kellaks call out to one another as they massage you, turning you over like embalmers preparing you for the tomb. (From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert)

After about twenty minutes, your eyes start to get heavy.

At that point, a crooked-jawed man in ratty pants and a wet flannel shirt motioned us out one at a time with his loofah to the central room with an octagonal fountain in the center (not running, and black), motioned for me to lie on my stomach, and proceeded to rough me up with a smelly loofah mitt and soap. He flips you over. Repeat. He flicks his cigarette against the wall, and motions toward the cold shower in the corner. I rinse. Rumi goes next. Soaking wet, and wrapped in wet sheets, we return to the dressing rooms, where Muhammad Ali tosses us giant, rough towels, and we dry off. We pay, collect our things, and are off.

Not exactly Flaubert (NOT what I was hoping for, either), but you couldn’t help but want to ask, “Serious? That’s it?” A pleasant massage. A room filled with gossiping men and incense. Perhaps tea. Music. An oud player, even? Orientalist, yes; but perhaps that’s my soft spot for the occasional indulgence taking over. Instead, it was all rather matter-of-fact.

Despite the smelly loofah, we both felt quite clean.

Afterward, we trotted off to the Arabic Oud House behind the Hussein Mosque for a concert. Free.

These towers can be seen built on top of apartment buildings, offices, and slums alike: all to house the Egyptian country squire's delicacy: the noble and tasty pigeon.

Later, in the spirit of the Arabic jathr, or trilateral root, we decided to have hamaam (please note the single m) for dinner. Supposedly a pharaonic dish, pigeon is considered one of the finer Egyptian foods. My assessment: frustrating. Pigeons have remarkably little meat and are destroyed in the process of eating them (forget the knife and fork). The Gad restaurant by al-Azhar serves up a ma7shi variety, stuffed with cinnamon-spiced buckwheat rice and the head of the humble bird still attached. It’s a little disconcerting, but once over the initial shock, not entirely unpleasant.

Hammaam (a bath) and hamaam (pigeon). Quite a night.

Last night in Egyptland tonight.



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Khalid passed word on to me of a writer who was apparently working on a project researching foreigners living in Egypt and asked if I might want to meet with him as a part of his project.

We met in the windy Sporting Cafe on the seaside yesterday afternoon, which was a blisteringly white day — one of the those flat calm days in which  you can’t distinguish the horizon on the sea. He was a bizarre man, wearing a heavy fleece sweater with the hood up, obviously sweating bullets but not once removing the hood. I’ve also never met anyone who used quite so many insha’Allahs in his everyday speech. Ordinarily, Muslims and Christians alike use the phrase when talking about the future — i.e., “I will go to Spain next year, insha’Allah.” — but this guy must have used it once every sentence, sometimes twice: “Insha’allah, my name is Hazm, insha’Allah.” Dude, I get that everything is as God wills, but don’t overdo it.

Apparently, the man’s working on a kind of survey of foreigners living in Alex and Egypt, with an eye toward the forties, making a lot of comparisons between then and now, and as he explained it, trying to paint a portrait of what foreigners think of Egypt from the outside. His insights were interesting, and I found him particularly interesting because he essentially was explaining the same kind of idea of nostalgia toward a 1940’s Egypt and Alexandria that I also fond myself prone to most days. Remarkably, however, I also fond myself on the defensive, busting out my best postcolonialism: that we look back on the past and forget the good things, because art projects only the good, the easy — all Casablanca and no WWII. The paradigm shift was as interesting as it was unfamiliar.

What was intriguing about the experience was that essentially brought with it a kind of dialogue with Egypt; his questions were broad.

What is Alexandria like compared to your city?

What are the arts (and poets) like in your city in America?

What is the worst thing that you can think of about Egypt? What should Egypt do to become more like the past, and how do you see Egypt becoming more like Europe?

Things along that line.

What continually impresses me (bad way) about questions like this is the romanticization of the West, that the past was better, that the West is better, that there must be the imitation of something outside of Egypt in order for progress to occur. Things are cleaner, brighter, less crowded on the other side of the Atlantic.

Except for one thing; Hazm remarked that people are always afraid outside of Egypt.

He used the word khawf, which means literal fear. When I asked him to explain further, he went on to say it had to do with asking “service” of someone; people are afraid to meet new people, afraid to be introduced to strangers, afraid to talk to people in the street.

I told him that clearly that was not true; I was doing it with him. Then I realized what he was talking about.

A lot of Egyptians accuse foreigners of being cold and distant. We don’t say hi, we don’t stop and chat with people for ten minutes every time we see them. Nine-tenths of everyone I meet on the street will say,”Wa7ishtatni, bgad,” which means, “I’ve missed you, honest!” but at the same time, I’ve only just seen them the day before, maybe even hours ago. To the newcomer, it’s clinginess at its worst, but I’ve come to look on it as being a rather warm gesture. And the familiar company of people is always nice.

Ingy remarked on this a few classes ago, saying how when you meet someone new, you want to know all about them. I think Laura and I hit on this phenomenon a few years ago when we talked about how you can “fall” into friendship in the same way as you fall in love; there’s the intense enthusiasm of the initial stage — yet at the same time, you really have to control it in American culture lest you freak the other person out. This is something that is not moderated in Egypt, where a newfound acquaintance may send you what appear to be psychotic e-mails or text messages or call you ten times when you’re in the shower and then say “Why didn’t you answer, are you angry?” when you call them back. Even my students seem to have an inability to put off answering phones; one actually protested roundly, saying “If I don’t pick up, she’ll think I’m mad at her and that I don’t want to talk to her!”

Just call her back. Serious.

Also, Hazm seemed to have an incredible misperception of three enormous things: 1) how many Jewish people there are in the US, 2) what atheists are and how they can be nice people too, and 3) what racism is. I’m going to section these things off and talk about them separately, because I get kind of angry when someone tells me what I’m “supposed” to think.

Apparently, there are over fifteen million Jews living in America, and they’re something like a quarter of the population (this is not the case). There are, in fact, something closer to 5 million, and they’re 1.5%ish of the population (thank you, Wikipedia). His reasoning was that they had to be that much because, quote, the Zionists control the American government anyhow.

Also, he asked about religious sects in “my city”: I pointed out that most people in America that I knew tended to be culturally religious, and I knew many atheists (question: how do you say agnostic in Arabic? Both atheist and agnostic come up as الملحد in GoogleTranslate, which just means “atheist”). He said that “that was a problem,” and that atheists were not good people.

Long rant on my part followed on how religion is a personal obligation and that the relationship between God and man was something which should not be judged (this is an Islamic sentiment as well; an individual cannot tell if someone is devout or no).

Response: “But they will corrupt everyone else! They will make them not believe in God!”

Counter: I’m talking to you about Christianity. You’re talking to me about Islam. Am I going to change your ideas and make you a Christian? (No). Are you going to change mine? (No). So? Same things follow for atheism (::silence::).

“In America, people judge black people, they don’t let them do things. What do you think about racism there? In Egypt, we are friends with many people, foreigners, other Arabs, Europeans, but in America, everything is the same, right? You are only friends with people from the same background, the same area, no? That is why it is good you are here, you can meet different people.”

Counterargument: go to the Pyramids. Look at the sign for entrance fees. Foreigners and foreign students: 50 LE and 25 LE; Egyptians and Egyptian Students: 2 LE and 1 LE.

“But that’s because foreigners have more money than Egyptians!”

You just proved my point.

I could go on, but I’m already above word count. But to sum: it was like having to yell at a personified “Egypt” for all the things that were wrong, after he asks,  and then have him say that I’m an imperialist cog in the machine.

SO angry.

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Continuing my rant about cafe chains in Egypt, I’m sitting in Cafe Olé with Rumi and a few others, and it seems just as good a place as any to continue the discussion.

Few places in Egypt have any atmosphere. Most cafes on the Corniche — where you would expect that atmosphere was the prime aspect of the real estate, it being next to the sea and all — actually do a fine job of avoiding atmosphere altogether. Chairs are clattered together, sawdust thrown on the floors, and the tables covered in Coca-Cola advertisements. Actually, if you haven’t been living here and found a seaside ahwa of your own, it’s pretty dire.

Otherwise, you’re in a place with Christmas lights, a lot of shabab, and Amr Diab — in fact, one place in between Sporting al-Soghra and Ibrahimiyya on the sea has quite the collection of blue-light marine taxidermy.

You wish I was kidding.

Nice cafes exist, however, and Cafe Olé is one of them. The walls are painted a warm shade of umberish-orange, and texted, the lighting is recessed (something relatively uncommon, I think — I’ve never seen so many naked lightbulbs as in peoples’ houses or on the street), and the music played at a relatively low volume. Leather couches, dark wood. Paintings and black-and-white photographs of flamenco dancers and bullfighters. Big square glass jars of randomly colored glass pebbles.

Stop. Look at the big pictures of flamenco dancers.

I just finished reading Robert Irwin’s book, Dangerous Knowledge, in which he gives a counter-narrative to Edward Said’s pretty omnipresent Orientalism. Dude tears the guy apart (more on that later, because I’m thinking that a book review in order). But one of the terrible things about orientalism is that portrayal of any culture by an outsider turns into an enormous debate about the legitimacy of that portrayal. Is it effective? Is it stereotypical? Does it use the act of portrayal as an element of power that controls and dominates the subject? Etc. etc.

If that’s the case, what do we think about these Spanish cafes (Rushdie has two such “Spanish” places). I’m hesitant to think that they’re actually run by legit Spaniards. Does that mean this place is a terrible, awful, stereotypical portrayal of rich and vibrant Iberian culture, Egypt’s imperialist attempt to reconquer Spain?

Sometimes, I think, a café is just a café. And a good one at that.

Even if the sign for the bathroom is misspelled “Toillet.”

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Two days ago, one of my students sat me down and asked me, “Sir, why do you hate Egypt so much?”

I was completely flabbergasted.

Apparently, the student in question found my blog online, and I can only imagine that, with the posts in recent weeks, that’s exactly the conclusion you might make if you didn’t venture beyond the first page. That, I confess, is my own doing, I suppose.


I don’t hate Egypt. Egypt’s given me a lot. I’ve found a lot in Egypt. I love Egypt, when it all boils down to it, and the country has really become a part of me, for better or for worse. I’m looking to spend as much time here as about 2/3 of college, which had a profound impact at me (ah, Midd!), and the only other language I can claim to speak fluently is the language of this country.


I suppose it’s the kind of criticism that one expects (or at least I do) from family members. When something you love seems to turn a corner for the worse, or do something terrible, or fuck things up, plain and simple, you get frustrated. You get angry. You cry a little on the inside, sometimes. And I guess I write, to let it all out. Spilling it in blogger-like fashion is my way of working out the problems and the chaos and things that I have trouble with.

I’ve been accused of everything from being “ethnocentric” to outright colonialist in my perception of Egyptian culture. I don’t think so. I’m just trying to understand a society, a culture, a couple of religions. And I’m an outsider to all of them. When I call myself an “orientalist,” I’m drawing attention to that fact. How can I study Egypt as anything but an outsider? Not only am I not willing to give up my own identity, my own religion, my own society, but I couldn’t even if I tried. Egyptian society is closed to that possibility. You are ibn al-balad or a khawaga, plain and simple. There are no in-betweens, and when I have told this to Egyptians, most grow silent and think and say, “Yes, you are right. Foreigners are foreigners.”

This is not a bad thing, it’s just unusual to me. I come from a culture that puts a premium on self-creation. It’s one of the beauties of America. You can become whatever you want to be. Rags to riches. Horatio Alger. And I point out the difference not because I’m claiming superiority of one to the other, but the difference. Perhaps one is better than the other, but it’s just as incredible to me when someone tells me about that division and I tell them about the lack one one. This is probably the third time that I quote this on this blog, but it’s still my favorite verse:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا

Oh People! We have created you, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another (and not despise each other). Q 39:13.

Truer words were not ever spoken.

What I find frustrating in recent months is that despite my several years of trying to understand Egypt and Islam, many people seem very unwilling to extend the same courtesy to me. At home, I find myself pretty consistently under fire for knowing Arabic, for studying Islam (and sympathizing with it), and being more or less in love with the Middle East. That’s in between accusations of being a CIA agent, a terrorist-lover, and un-American. These are ignorant statements all, and I get angry at these things, too.

But how does one “deal” when the society and religion you try to defend to your own countryman essentially screws up big time? How do you defend a religion you sympathize with and appreciate when its followers appear to cross your own principles, both social and religious?

You don’t deal. You talk. You work it out. You write.

My criticisms of Egypt and Islam and Coptic Orthodoxy have not been out of snobbery. That seems masturbatory and ill-conceived (that’s my actual writerly snobbery kicking in). I have no interest in debating what is religiously or theologically sound or correct at this point (mainly because I’ve discovered that the vast majority of time you just end up cementing other peoples’ conclusions, rather than finding your own personal insights — except that people are hard-headed and can’t discuss religion dispassionately). Rather, I ask for insight; I want to hear commentary. I want to hear how I am misinterpreting, how I am crippled by my own inquiries, exactly because I am from another culture.

I elicit an emotional reaction because I want the same from others. But I also want reason, and I feel like I give my own. I am from another culture, and I only have my own culture’s standards to apply to this place. Someone help me.

What else can be said? I’ve left one contradictory society for another.

But hate?


Misunderstanding, perhaps. I am trying my best, Dalia, to understand.

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Give me a break!

The thing that has been making me mad for days: read the article entitled “New Age Orientalism,” by a BikyaMasr columnist, Joseph Mayton. SO angry. Glad that the comments are what they are. Here is mine:

While I don’t doubt this article was well-intentioned, there are a number of serious inconsistencies and flaws with the author’s argument. I agree (for the most part) with the preceding comments above, but I’d also like to point out that Mr. Mayton has become an Orientalist himself through the execution of his own anti-Orientalist article.

First of all, this article relies far too heavily on Said out of context—especially scholarship of the last twenty-five years in which Said has come under serious academic fire. He selects the elements of history that fit his argument and neglects a wider context of scholarship; Orientalism, for him, is defined by a Foucaultian model of knowledge as directly correlative to power: i.e., by describing and cataloguing something (a culture, a people), one exercises power over it. Thus, the prolific writings of British imperial Orientalists furthered their colonial agendas of political control by giving them intellectual power over conquered cultures. Most recently, though, Ibn Warraq points out that Said neglected the contributions of German and Italian Orientalists, who had little colonial influence or ambition in the Arab world at that same period – or even certain elements of French scholarship which stood to gain nothing in the realm of colonial influence (because it didn’t exist yet). This gross neglect of entire spheres of historical background has led Warraq to call into question the real gravity of Said’s scholarship.

That aside, Mr. Mayton completely neglects the context at hand, thereby falling victim to the very philosophy he claims to criticize. The first great “sin” of Orientalism is the generalization of multiple, nuanced cultures into a single, vast “Orient” of “the Other.” And yet here, the author blurs cultural lines whose dignity he claims to preserve. By calling opening his article with references to “a new Middle East,” he obscures national and cultural boundaries, defining what is effectively “an Orient” of sorts (a vague, amorphous geographical region). Let me be clear: I am not saying we shouldn’t say “Middle East”; I am saying that by calling it a “new Middle East,” he is effectively redrawing the boundaries, uniting places via the choices of the author’s “irreverent study abroad American who has chosen Cairo, Amman, or Beirut […] replacing Paris and London.” These are very different places, but Mr. Mayton’s implication is that they are now the same because “droves” of Americans have descended upon them.

Furthermore, there is also the issue of insight. The author has taken three students and turned them into a single, representative “Student Abroad” that drinks to much and is a product of a beer-guzzling, resume-padding, collegiate culture—he makes a point of making them cartoonish, faceless, anonymous, and most certainly backwards. He has created an Other out of the American Student Abroad, using almost the same criteria as Said, and the implication is that the author (who clearly cannot be associated with them) is the direct opposite of such a foreigner. And yet, these caricatures become the central representation of an entire culture—American study abroad culture. Essentially, Mr. Mayton has orientalized them. No only have they been “othered,” but the author alone knows better. He alone has insight to this particular problem; he has even “penetrated” the veil as an eavesdropper in a café, and sees into the seeming backwardness of the study abroad experience, bringing it to us, the reader, for our enlightenment. We are meant to pity those three students—a sentiment that the author condemns.

Now, I don’t deny that such students exist, but to make them representative of students abroad everywhere is a bit much. I also tend to think (from my own experience once upon a time) that students that study in Arab countries tend to be pretty different. By focusing on these three, faceless, anonymous students – by making their conversation the conversation that “every” or “most” American students have about Egypt and Egyptians – the author neglects students that spend hours in baladi ahwas playing backgammon with old men, or girls that go niqabiyya on a daily basis their entire time here; students that have studied poetry and literature and religion and vetted themselves as much as the author probably thinks they should have before coming to the Mother of the World.

Mr. Mayton might have done better to leave the confines of his downtown area and expand beyond a single encounter before claiming to have encountered something representative of the American abroad experience. He might have gone to the stuffy apartments around Bab Zwayla, where English teachers and graduate students abound; or venture to the newer, ever-expanding Flagship and Middlebury College abroad programs in Alexandria, where students live in rotting university dorms and working-class neighborhoods in Muharram Bey. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the author’s encounter at the café (though I agree, it sounds a little canned), it seems to me less representative of American study abroad and more indicative of the author’s own bitterness at having his “exclusive” (and perhaps deep and hard-won) personal insight into another country trampled on by the invasion of the next generation who come and go in a few months. We all get that way sometimes. But it doesn’t mean the incoming class at AUC is chock-full of neocolonialists.


It’s still wicked hot in Alex.

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