Imagine two Egypts. The first is a mystical, antique land. A vast shimmering desert is bisected by a narrow strip of lush green running from south to north. Along the fringes of the fertile Nile Valley lie the ruins of ancient civilizations, more than five millennia old, whose pyramids and temples and tombs have been preserved through the centuries by the sand and the dry desert climate. Secret passages have been found in the pyramids, low crawling passageways that open out onto hidden inner chambers with empty sarcophagi. Ancient avenues are guarded by sphinxes and obelisks, sunbeams frozen in stone. Towering granite statues of long-dead kings and queens preside over vast, echoing halls of temples in the south. You can walk through these ruins, dwarfed by huge columns carved with lotus flowers, your heels echoing on the stone floor, and imagine that they were the palaces of a long-extinct race of magician-giants. These ancients had sophisticated astronomical knowledge and built their monuments to align with the sun and the stars on solstices and equinoxes.
The land of Egypt today is peopled by the descendents of these pharaohs. The ruins are best toured in the winter, but if you have to come in the summer, you go to bed early and rise with the sun so you can visit the monuments in the morning, before the blinding sun reflected off the glassy desert sand makes your eyes ache from squinting and you wilt in the intense afternoon heat. The evening is reserved for trips to the Khan el-Khalili, the maze-like bazaar where you can buy gold and silver pendants with your name worked in hieroglyphs, or you can haggle with shopkeepers over souvenirs made by local artisans such as mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes, alabaster vases, or delicate hand-blown glass bottles containing fragrant oils that the shopkeepers will tell you are the same scents that perfumed the bodies of Nefertiti and Cleopatra.
The other Egypt is vividly alive, and its pharaonic ruins are mere background for more modern dramas. The pyramids, on the outskirts of Cairo, are the set for romantic trysts in numerous Egyptian films where lovers steal kisses on the tumble of lower blocks. In this Egypt, Cairo is the center of the Arab world, and it's like Hollywood and New York all rolled into one big, dusty, overcrowded city of more than fifteen million. In the more elegant neighborhoods of Mohandiseen and Zamalek, people keep their eyes peeled for a glimpse of a famous movie star or singer. Omar Sharif has retired to an apartment in Mohandiseen, and many fondly remember how forty years ago he was so smitten by actress Faten Hamama that he converted to Islam to marry her, only to be divorced by her a few years later because of his gambling addiction. When the beloved classical singer Umm Kalthoum died in 1975, millions thronged the streets to walk in a funeral procession more than a mile long, and the entire Arab world mourned "the Lady." This Egypt is a political powerhouse, with an outspoken foreign minister (now head of the Arab League) who mediates regional conflicts, and a popular singer who achieved instant stardom all over the Arab world with his hit single, "I Hate Israel." This Egypt brings to mind visions of glamorous belly dancers who whirl in sequined costumes that glitter like the surface of the Nile at night as it reflects the colored lights of the city. The beautiful dancer Dina performs wearing a four-carat diamond on her dainty foot; it is rumored that a wealthy admirer gave it to her and she had it set in a toe ring to show her disdain for him.
In this Egypt, the only time to visit is the summer, when throngs from all over the Arab world come to Cairo for vacation. The days are hot and dull, so you sleep through them, waking up in the late afternoon and going down to the garden cafés of the hotels for a breakfast of stewed fava beans, and you sit and watch young women promenading along the length of tables while you leisurely smoke an apple-scented shisha (water pipe). This Egypt comes alive after sunset, when the uniform brown of the dusty city dissolves into a cool night of velvet indigo, speckled with pinpricks of light from streetlamps and towering office buildings and neon shop signs. You stay up all night, going to restaurants and theaters and discotheques. You go to see the latest Alaa Wali Eddin summer blockbuster hit, and when you go back home you will gloat about seeing it long before it came out on videotape. You might go with your family to see a belly dancer perform on a boat that cruises down the Nile, or you might take in a "Russian show" where five or six Eastern Bloc beauties wearing thong leotards over fishnet stockings and feather headdresses execute a perfectly synchronized dance routine to a medley of Western and Arab tunes. You don't visit the pyramids, but you see them from a distance when you make a pilgrimage to Pyramids Road, the long street leading from Cairo to the pyramids which is famously lined with nightclubs and cabarets that are open from late evening until six or seven o'clock in the morning. There, patrons show their appreciation for a favorite dancer by literally showering her with money, handing a wad of ten-pound bills to the stage manager, who fans the notes and lets them spill over the dancer's body as she shimmies, scattering onto the stage where they are quickly retrieved by a waiter while the dancer steps over to her admirer's table to thank him with a smile and a nod. You leave the nightclub as the sun is starting to rise, and you stumble back into your hotel just as the Western tourists are filing onto tour buses destined for the Giza pyramids or Saqqara or the Egyptian Museum.
For most Westerners, Egypt evokes mummies and pyramids. Westerners have been touring Egypt since the ancient Greeks, following a well-traveled tourist route up the Nile River. The Nile has been the central axis of civilization in Egypt, from ancient to modern times, and, except for the development of beach resorts in the Sinai and on the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts, the Nile cruise remains the basic tourist route even today.
So entwined is the West's image of Egypt with its ancient monuments that it seems self-evident to Europeans and Americans that the pyramids are Egypt's number one tourist attraction. But the pyramids are low on the list of destinations for Gulf Arabs visiting Egypt. Arabs engage with a more contemporary imagining of Egyptian culture, one that is grounded in the regional circulation of singers, dancers, and movie stars. Tourists from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are famous for spending their time not at the pyramids but rather in the nightclubs of Pyramids Road. The difference between Arab and Western tourism is literally night and day: the pyramid tours start early in the morning to beat the midday heat, while nightclub evenings don't come to an end until the early-morning light.
Arabs and Westerners don't see the same Egypt. What they see is influenced by their own culture, language, religion, history, and politics. These different imaginations of Egypt have in turn shaped Egypt's own view of itself, creating overlapping layers of identity: Egypt as the land of the pharaohs, pyramids, and mummies, but also Egypt as the center of Arab cinema, Arab music, and belly dancing. Centuries of transnational exchanges have produced layers of imaginations of Egypt.
Ultimately these different views of Egypt reveal as much about Westerners and Gulf Arabs as they reveal about Egypt. The Western fascination with pharaonic Egypt cannot be understood without seeing how Egyptology was intertwined with the history of European imperialism. And the Egyptian stereotype of Gulf Arabs as spending long nights salivating over belly dancers is symptomatic of a Middle Eastern migrant labor economy marked by cultural differences and resentment over the uneven distribution of oil wealth. This book explores parallel Western and Arab experiences with Egypt as a way of reflecting back their differences and similarities.
Herodotus as Their Travel Guide
For millennia it was tradition for Western travelers—from Greeks to Romans to nineteenth-century Europeans—to read Herodotus as a kind of travel guide to Egypt. The "Father of History" traveled to Egypt around 460-455 BCE, and his travels generated a peculiar mix of history, observed fact, hearsay, and myth. He described the most ancient of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and claimed that the pharaoh's daughter funded its construction by prostituting herself:
Now the priests told me that Cheops enjoined all the Egyptians to work for him. ... Cheops, they continued, descended so low, that for want of money he placed his own daughter in a chamber, and charged her to get a certain sum of money. ... She not only obtained the sum appointed by her father, but on her own account was minded to leave a memorial behind her, and asked each of her visitors to give her one stone for the work. Of these stones, they said, the Pyramid was built which stands in the middle of the three before the Great Pyramid.
Herodotus's combined fascination with the pharaohs' monumental buildings and his erotic fantasies of the exotic were echoed more than two millennia later by Gustave Flaubert, whose letters gave an account of his travels up the Nile, where descriptions of climbing pyramids are interspersed with graphic accounts of his visits to dancing girls and prostitutes. Having read in Herodotus that the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mykineros, as the Greeks called it) was built by order of a Greek courtesan named Rhodopis, in his notes, Flaubert insisted on calling it the Pyramid of Rhodopis. The European Orientalist imagination of the mythically decadent sexuality of the East that Rana Kabbani, Edward Said, and others have written about has a very long pedigree indeed.
From Herodotus to Flaubert to modern-day tourists, travelers have followed a well-traveled route that starts in Alexandria, proceeds on to the monuments of Giza and Memphis (Saqqara), and then up the Nile to Karnak, Thebes, and Aswan. The West's ancient fascination with pharaonic monuments received new impetus in the modern period with Napoleon's invasion of the country in 1798. The French imperial spirit was self-consciously represented as a scientific expedition, concerned, among other things, with investigating ancient monuments. As historian Robert Tignor has observed, this gave it the noble pedigree of Enlightenment progress (Tignor 1993:1-15). A legacy of empire, the tourism industry in Egypt today directs Western tourists to see an ancient Egypt littered with the excavated monuments of a pharaonic past.
The touristic appeal of ancient Egypt seems obvious to a Westerner. But Gulf Arab tourists in Egypt rarely spend much time visiting pharaonic sites, nor do they constitute any substantial percentage of the tourists taking Nile cruises to Luxor. Instead, Gulf tourists bypass the pyramids and engage with a more contemporary imagining of Egyptian culture.
Within a Middle Eastern context, Egypt is more a contemporary cultural and media giant than it is the "antique land" of Shelley, broadcasting its movies, television serials, and popular music to the entire Arab world (Armbrust 1996, Abu-Lughod 2004). For Arabs, Egypt evokes images not just of pyramids but also of famous politicians, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Arab nationalism fame, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, revered singers such as Umm Kalthoum, pop culture heartthrobs like Amrou Diyab, comedians such as Adel Imam and Alaa Waly Eddin, dramatic actresses and actors such as Nadia el-Guindi and Ahmed Zaki, and famous belly dancers Fifi Abdou, Lucy, and Dina. Arabs are all aware of the Egyptian pyramids, but in the Arab world the more immediate picture that Egypt brings to mind is an exotic accent that everyone has heard in songs, movies, and television serials since childhood.
Even though I am American and was myself raised on images of pyramids and mummies, I first became interested in the topic of tourism in Egypt while living in Saudi Arabia and hearing accounts of my Saudi friends' vacations in Cairo. A monarchy ruled by the al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia is the site of Islam's two holiest cities. Its vast oil wealth also makes it a magnet for migrant workers from all over the world. I went to Saudi Arabia when I was twenty years old. My father, a geophysicist, had gone to work there, so I decided to leave school and go live for a while in Saudi Arabia with my family. It was just after the Gulf War had brought images of the Arabian peninsula to Americans, and my friends in New York thought that it sounded like a miserable place to live, but I didn't care. It sounded terribly exotic to me, and I was excited to go.
Saudi Arabia is indeed exotic for an American. Men (and it is almost exclusively men) sign contracts to work there, and if they are sufficiently high ranking in their company, they get to bring their families. Western expatriates live in compounds behind high walls. In recent years, with increasing violent opposition to Western occupation of Middle Eastern countries, the walls have a security function, but when I lived there in the early 1990s, the walls seemed to be primarily designed to separate cultures. Within them, women could dress as they pleased and not offend with their immodesty or worry about intrusive stares.
When I lived there, it was difficult for expatriate wives to find work in Saudi Arabia. Many just worked on their tennis games, or swam a lot in the compound pool. Families would often make the decision to go there when they had young children and the mother had decided to take some time off from her career to raise them. Expatriate men work with Saudi counterparts, so they have a measure of intercultural exchange with their colleagues. My father's company would sometimes host traditional Saudi meals of roast lamb and rice (kabsa) for its Saudi and expatriate employees. The Saudis would teach the foreign men the art of tearing off a piece of meat and rolling a ball of rice with the right hand without using silverware. The expatriates were informed that the eyeballs of the lamb were a delicacy, and the brave ones would give it a try. I often heard expatriate men talking about the different lamb roasts (popularly referred to as "goat grabs") they had been to and comparing notes on who had eaten the eyeballs.
Life in Saudi Arabia is marked by strict gender segregation, so while expatriate men work and even socialize with their Saudi coworkers, they almost never meet a Saudi woman. Expatriate men are warned that it is rude to even politely inquire after the health of a Saudi colleague's wife. Saudi boys and girls go to separate schools from age six, and Saudi men and women do not work together except in rare cases (and then it is usually kept a secret to avoid getting the mutawwa'in, enforcers of religion and tradition, involved). Saudi men also politely avoid interacting with their expatriate colleagues' wives and daughters. As a result, even expatriate women rarely have the opportunity to know Saudi women, since they can't even hope to be introduced to the wives of their husbands' coworkers. Saudi women are a mystery for most foreigners working in the Kingdom, as is expressed by two phrases I heard Americans use to refer to Saudi women: "UBOs," or "Unidentified Black Objects," and "walking black trash bags," a derogatory reference to the silky black 'abaya (cloak) and tarha (headscarf used to cover their heads and veil their faces) that they would see Saudi women wearing in the supermarkets and shops. Few Westerners speak Arabic, which further entrenches the cultural barriers that keep Saudi and expatriate women from interacting.
One day not long after arriving in Saudi Arabia, I got a call from an American woman whose husband worked with my father. She knew a Saudi woman who had lived for years in Colorado, and this Saudi woman was looking for a photography and English teacher for the girls' school where she was headmistress. I applied for both jobs, and for a year I taught English classes to the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, and three photography classes for the seventh through twelfth grades.
Over the course of that year, I got to know other teachers at the school and I became close to several of my photography students, who, after all, were only a few years younger than I. I also got to know Susan, a Saudi woman who was the school's official photographer. She photographed school events and many of the engagement parties of the students, and I worked for her, too, photographing weddings and engagement parties when she was already booked for another event on a given night. After a year of teaching, I returned to college, but I spent two more summers in Saudi Arabia before I started graduate school. I would meet up with my Saudi friends then and work during the summers for Susan.
I was close to the family of Meriam, a former student of mine, and many summer evenings, once the heat of the day had cooled, her father and mother would take us out. They would take us to a mall and buy ice cream for Meriam's younger brothers while we went to different shops, and her father, a laughing, crinkly-eyed man, advised me on the best Arabic music to buy. Rashed al-Majed was a good Saudi singer, he told me, but the best music as far as he was concerned was that of Egyptians Mohammed Abdelwahab and Abdelhalim Hafez. Once Meriam's father drove us to a place on the Corniche where we could park the car and walk, with a sea breeze to keep us cool. Meriam and I were wearing 'abayas and tarhas. Her father, wearing a white thob (the long white dress worn by Saudi men) and the red and white checked ghutra on his head, walked ahead, holding the hand of Meriam's youngest brother, who was wearing trousers and a T-shirt. We passed a group of young men all wearing white thobs who were having a picnic in the grass between the road and the sidewalk. As we passed by, they let out a cheer and started chanting something. Meriam took the edge of her headscarf and shyly drew it across her face, but she was smiling as she told me that they were reciting a verse in our honor. Her father genially ignored the flirting going on behind him. Thus did we entertain ourselves in the summer.
The last summer I was in Jeddah, I met Omar, who introduced me to several of his friends who were both male and female, including an unmarried couple who were dating—secretly, of course. All this Saudi male-female mixing was a little risqué, but it was not entirely new to me: I knew that a few of my high-school-aged former students had boyfriends they had met through friends, or in shopping malls in Jeddah, or at the beaches at 'Obhur, a lagoon resort area north of Jeddah where all the land was privately owned so the mutawwa'in (the so-called "religious police") could not patrol and enforce strict sex segregation as they did elsewhere.
Another place that young Saudi men and women met and dated was on summer vacation in Cairo. Saudi friends often planned their vacations to coincide and would meet up while abroad. The place people mostly went to at that time was Egypt: Cairo, Alexandria, and sometimes the beaches of Hurghada. Meriam had spent part of the summer with her fiancé in Egypt, and she had met other Saudi men and women there with whom she would keep in touch back in Jeddah. One of Meriam's friends had met her boyfriend—later her fiancé—while on vacation in Cairo.
I was fascinated, and I asked my Saudi friends what they did in Egypt, how they dressed (did they wear cloaks and veils?), how they met people of the opposite sex, and how it was that they got away from their parents to hang out with a mixed group of friends. I still have a picture Omar gave me that had been taken the last time he was on vacation in Cairo with his Saudi friends: the picture shows Omar and his best friend Abdullah in a hotel room in Egypt. Omar, just back from the pool, is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, orange or yellow, and he has longish, wavy hair that he now complained made him look like a hick from Jizan (a district in the southwest of Saudi Arabia). He is leaning back against the hotel room's dresser, his legs casually crossed at the ankle, and smiling broadly. Abdullah, a serious, almost haughty expression on his face, is standing next to him. He has short hair and a thin moustache, and he is already dressed to go out that evening, wearing a Versace silk shirt with a colorful, intricate print of red and yellow and green. I was struck by how different this vacation photo was from the vacation photos of Westerners I knew who had visited Egypt. Those generally featured pyramids, sphinxes, and pharaonic temples. None of Omar's Cairo vacation pictures showed any of these monuments in the background; instead they usually featured hotels or pools.
Omar told me surprising stories about vacation in Egypt. He had lost his virginity in Egypt, he told me, to a Saudi girl. She was young, not even twenty, and he claimed that she had seduced him. After they had sex, he saw there was blood and he was suddenly terrified that it meant she was a virgin. But she just laughed and told him that it must be her period starting. When I acted shocked, he brushed it off: it was perhaps surprising, he conceded, that such a young Saudi girl wasn't a virgin, but not unheard of; he told me that he had later had sex with other Saudi women he dated, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia.
I don't know how unusual his story was. I heard more surprising stories than that while I was in Saudi Arabia, but they came from liberal middle- and upper-class elites. (At the other extreme was my friend Nejwa, a strictly conservative Saudi woman who would not even show so much as her eyes to a strange man, wearing sunglasses to cover the space between her head covering and the veil she drew across the bridge of her nose.) Still, such stories unsettled my assumptions about strict Saudi conservatism and alerted me to ways that the younger generation, especially unmarried men and women, challenged the prevailing state-enforced cultural norms of sex segregation. Not only did they date to amuse themselves, they also managed to avoid arranged marriages this way and select their own partners (Wynn 1997).
When I came to graduate school to study anthropology, I doubted that I would ever get a research visa to do fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. But it occurred to me that I could still do an ethnography of Saudi Arabia—only the fieldwork site would be Egypt. I would explore the Saudi summer vacation as a window onto generational changes in Saudi culture and investigate the extent to which Saudi tourists upheld or deviated from Saudi cultural norms while they were on vacation in a more liberal Arab country.
But when I tried to find Western academic literature on Arab tourism in Egypt, I drew a blank. There was very little on the topic. At first I thought this was just because there was relatively little social science writing about Saudi Arabia in general. While there are plenty of Egypt "specialists," there are not nearly as many social scientists who write about Saudi Arabia, and even fewer of them have done research in the country; even for Western speakers of Arabic, Saudi dialects are little known.
But as I pored through the tourism literature, I realized that the near-absence of any discussion of Gulf tourism in Egypt was not just attributable to the scant English-language scholarship on the Gulf states. It also had something to do with the implicit assumptions of the literature, which generally portrayed tourism as a Western phenomenon. To understand why, it helps to quickly review social science writing about tourism.
In the 1960s, social scientists first started to write and theorize about tourism as a unique category of travel. One of the earliest was John Forster, who argued that the tourist industry created "a 'phony folk' with a 'phony folk culture'" (Forster 1964:217-227). Forster was interested in the ensuing cultural problems or paradoxes that emerge as a result of the "commercialization of courtesies," whereby a "moral nexus" (i.e., courtesies such as giving directions) becomes converted into a "cash nexus" (when someone takes money for that courtesy, which otherwise would be given willingly), or when ceremonies are turned into spectacles of tourist consumption, or when people dressed in traditional costume insist on a fee to be photographed by tourists.
With his use of the term moral in connection with a social exchange, Forster proposed that there were certain arenas within a culture that were overtly held separate from the realm of economic exchange and where commodification of such an exchange was morally reprehensible. For Forster, it was the way tourism turned common social interactions into commodities to be bought and sold that threatened to destroy cultural authenticity.
Over the next two decades, Forster's argument about the cultural inauthenticity engendered by tourism was echoed by many theorists. These sociologists and anthropologists bemoaned the way tourism was transforming cultures (e.g., V. Smith 1989, Greenwood 1989). For these commentators, it was the commodification of cultural forms (and not merely courtesies) that rendered traditional culture inauthentic and therefore meaningless. This perspective, a common theme in the tourism literature, seemed to derive from a fundamental pessimism about capitalism and modernization. In this view, culture is seen as the last refuge of meaning, and through tourism, even culture is being assaulted by the onslaught of capitalism and its tendency to commodify and consume everything in sight (MacCannell 1976, Graburn 1989, K. Adams 1997).
In these writings, modernity was portrayed as an alienating state, and the meaninglessness of work in industrial society led people to seek meaning and authenticity in culture. This quest took the form of tourism, since viewing one's historical past (as in historical tourism sites such as those which attempt to re-create colonial times or a Viking village) or another contemporary, less industrialized way of life serves up the cultural authenticity of other people as substitute for the loss of one's own. In this perspective, the tourist and the touristed are locked in a dialectic: authenticity lost and sought, authenticity voyeuristically consumed and thereby eroded. Unsurprisingly, this literature portrayed tourism as a devourer of culture that was destroying the very thing it consumed.
MacCannell, a sociologist, proposed that there was a direct relationship between the alienation of modernity and mass tourism. Grounding his argument in anthropologist Edward Sapir's formula for "genuine" and "spurious" culture, MacCannell argued that the work experience under capitalism was inherently devoid of cultural meaning and satisfaction. For Sapir (1985), whenever there was insufficient integration between economic and other cultural spheres (religion, art, kinship, ritual) in a society, that culture was "spurious" and life in such a culture was spiritually unfulfilling. Similarly, for MacCannell it was the splitting off of cultural meaning from the economic part of life that produced the alienation of modern man. This alienation, in turn, propelled the modern quest for authenticity through other people's lives and cultures. Modern men and women traveled to see other cultures, as if to prove to themselves that cultural authenticity still existed and to find a brief respite from their own culturally and spiritually barren lives.
The assumption that tourism is a kind of travel that is a paradigmatic practice of modernity has pervaded much of the literature since MacCannell's influential argument in The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976). MacCannell saw in tourism not just a harmless fetishization of other peoples, cultures, and places, but a deliberate desire to categorize, demarcate, and exclude. In this view, the difference between tourist and touristed is not just their positioning in a global economy but a concomitant worldview.
The link drawn by these theorists between tourism and modernity is a critical one, because it led to a set of assumptions about tourists that colored anthropological research on tourism: with tourists as paradigmatic moderns, and modernity generally regarded as a Western phenomenon, the tourism literature has been heavily biased toward describing tourism as an almost exclusively Western category. There is often an implicit assumption that not only is authentic culture only to be found in the lifestyles of non-Western peoples, the only authentic tourist is the Westerner. For example, John Urry assumes that non-Westerners have better things to do than to waste their time and money on tourism, and he lumps non-Western travelers together under a friendly view of the eager, industrious, practical immigrant, claiming that "[m]any recent immigrants at least would consider that travel should have a more serious purpose than this: to look for work, to join the rest of one's family, or to visit relatives" (Urry 1990:142-143).
These theorists' assumption that the tourist is a Westerner is partly reasoned on the idea that it is only Western society that possesses the economic base to generate mass tourism, but it also derives from the association of tourism with modernity and a distinct attitude toward travel as leisure. However, in Egypt, Arabs from the Middle East and North Africa constitute approximately one-third of the foreign visitors each year, with Gulf tourists comprising roughly half of that group. Further, Gulf tourists stay longer and spend more money than their Western counterparts, making Arab tourism a significant component of the tourist economy. Arab tourists are not only prominent in Egypt, they also flock to Beirut, Morocco, and other European and American cities in the summer months. Recognizing the category of Arab tourists is important not only because it challenges an outdated image of the tourist, but also because it unsettles assumptions about the relationship between modernity and Western culture.