Ancient Muslim values compete with the mall in Egypt
Two worlds living uneasily side by side –
Frank Viviano writes:Cairo — The conflict now raging in Afghanistan is not a war between the United States and Islam, the Bush administration insists.
Yet in jarring contrasts throughout the Middle East, even down to the level of two Cairo neighborhoods, the war’s underlying tensions pit distinctly Islamic traditions, with roots deeply embedded in 1,400-year-old Muslim values,
against the unmistakable symbols of a 21st century American lifestyle.
“These are two competing world views, both of which have a universal appeal, ” says Esam el-Arian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that has been outlawed as subversive by the Egyptian government. “Anyone in the world is eligible to be a Muslim. Anyone in the world can be an American.”
But to many, Islam embraces an entire complex of religious and social views,
whereas America, in its exported form, represents godless mass consumerism.
This clash of values, which existed long before the events of Sept. 11, is nowhere more starkly apparent as in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 62 million citizens. To understand it is also to understand why several Egyptians — including the alleged commander of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Mohammed Atta, and Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Dr. Ayman el-Zawahiri — have played key roles in bin Laden’s violently anti-American al Qaeda network.
In Cairo, the battle is symbolized by an immeasurable fault line that lies between a nameless outdoor tea shop in a rundown slum and a chic mall on the city’s north end, close to the official residence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In their own courteous terms, the slum dwellers echo Osama bin Laden’s assertion that they, too, are engaged in a “decisive battle between atheism and faith.”
Four men are seated at the tea shop, located just behind a mosque in the warren of narrow working class lanes known as al-Sayyida Zeinab, when an American reporter approaches. By the time he has been served a cup of heavily sweetened tea, a dozen more residents have pulled up chairs to join them.
Goats graze in a nearby empty lot, on scraps of greens thrown to them by a vegetable peddler. Women, all of them veiled and many with their faces covered,
hurry by with enormous brass water jugs balanced on their heads.
“You are not to ask them any questions, it is only allowed to speak with men,” an interpreter warns.
The scene might have been set in a rural hamlet in the Prophet Mohammed’s own time, but it unfolded less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in one of the most congested urban centers on earth, a city where an estimated 90 percent of all dwellings have been illegally built or are below government-set standards for sanitation and safety.
The conversation is polite, but pointed. “When you drop bombs on the Afghan people, you also make war on us, on our ways,” says Mohammed Nasrut, a construction worker, pensively inhaling from his she-sha, the Cairo version of a water pipe.
The ways to which Nasrut refers include harsh limits on the lives and behavior of women, and a firm code of respect for elders. “I can neither smoke nor stretch my legs out for relaxation in front of my father,” says Ibrahim, a 30-year-old hotel worker. Relations between the sexes, he adds “are not like 100 years ago. They are like 1,000 years ago. It is forbidden to meet a girl at all away from her family.”
But as in traditional hamlets anywhere, this urban village also enjoys warm,
intensely strong bonds reaching back generations. “We look out for each other every day, make sure everything is OK, just as our great-grandparents did in the same streets,” says Nasrut. “Al-Sayyida Zeinab is not just a place, it is the blood that runs through our bodies. Even if I move away from here, that blood will still be in my veins.”
And the bonds are inseparable from the beliefs. Islam, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan explained, “is not just a religion, it is an entire way of life.” In short, the code of Islam and the lifestyle of al- Sayyida Zeinab are interchangeable. To threaten one, however unintentionally, is to threaten the other.
By contrast, it would be hard to find a place more American in spirit than the Genena Shopping Mall in the wealthy district of Heliopolis seven miles to the northeast. If al-Sayyida Zeinab conjures up a timeless country village, Genena has the controlled, air-conditioned chill of an upscale Midwestern American suburb — right down to the startling sight of an indoor ice-skating rink, where teenaged girls in tight sweaters and short skirts pirouette through figure-eights, oblivious to the 90-degree desert temperatures outside.
McDonald’s is present at Genena, along with a Ciao espresso bar, a Nike sports shop, a giant video game arcade, a booth selling subscriptions to Showtime and boutiques displaying the latest in push-up bras and lace thong bikinis. A Timberland outlet is a few hundred yards down the street. The local cinema features “Jurassic Park II,” “Legally Blonde,” Nicole Kidman’s “Moulin Rouge” and “Planet of the Apes,” all in English.
So thoroughly has America been implanted in Genena that the most incongruous sight there is six teenagers dressed in the traditional ankle- length gowns of the upper Nile Valley, country boys gawking at the ice-skaters.
“They are window-shopping at Genena, that’s all,” the interpreter says. “No harm in it.”
In fact, he maintains, “these boys probably consider the people who actually buy goods at Genena to be fools, because you can find better things much cheaper in a place like al-Sayyida Zeinab.”
Others are less certain about the harmlessness of this exposure. Such U.S.- based chains as McDonald’s, Hardee’s and KFC have opened outlets all over Cairo, even in poorer areas. Spending on fast food has doubled since 1996, according to government statistics. Increasingly, says Dr. Magdi Nazeh of the National Nutrition Institute, Egyptians “do not have set times for meals,” a trend that threatens the close family ties associated with traditional Muslim societies.
Satellite television is increasingly bringing the gospel of consumerism into old Cairo, as well as its affluent neighborhoods, offered on $25-per- month time-purchase plans that put modern communications within the means of al-Sayyida Zeinab.
On each block, a receiving dish or two has bloomed, allowing residents to watch Arabic transmissions from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf — but also from Israel, Western Europe and the United States. The sounds of “Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld” rebroadcasts and “The Young and the Restless” vie with the muezzin’s prayers from the venerable Zeinab mosque.
One result is a tendency among young Cairenes, even in the poorer neighborhoods, to dream the unthinkable — moving to America, the source of the most seductive consumer images, and a country to which mostly well- educated Egyptians emigrated in the past.
“A few of the local kids come up to me and ask about the U.S., but never in front of their parents,” says a 55-year-old former dockworker returned recently from Brooklyn.