In Search of the Modern Egyptian Identity

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“It was better when we were searching for our identity, now we don’t have an identity, we don’t look like us,” exclaimed Ms. Lucy Tadros, a 57-year-old retiree, when asked about what she thought the Egyptian identity entailed. The idea of an Egyptian national identity is one that has persisted for the longest time, it has endured the Ottoman Empire, the French and British invasions of Egypt, the kings, and the presidents; each of these leaving their mark on us as a people before dissipating to make room for what is newer to mould us into our future selves.

That being said, whether it was during the King’s time where the wealthy wore the tarboosh and the majority were peasants wearing ragged clothing, or whether it was during the 70s when Egypt began importing western fashion and music trends, it was always clear to Egyptians who they were.

What we did not know as a people, however, is that the leviathan that is globalization had already set in motion a series of events that we were all oblivious to. A series of events that are more evident than ever now. Malls are popping up next to each other, providing us with a wide enough variety of brands that we do not realize that we are all wearing the same things. We get Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest haircut and we cheer on as our favorite contestants on Arab’s Got Talent make it to the next round. “I think it’s all more of a symptom of a deep identity crisis that a lot of countries are going through in the age of globalization,” said Emilia Valsta, a 28-year-old student currently acquiring her master’s degree from the American University in Cairo.

This symptom has found its home in Egyptian society in a form that some academics refer to as “fetishism.” We, as a people, have fetishized the west in a way that is not true to what the west is; we have projected this image of them as a society and then we imported it. In a paper published by the London School of Economics, Derek Hook explains that fetishism is a result of a feeling of inadequacy and that leads to a compensation for that inadequacy by fetishizing whom you believe is superior, who you aspire to be like.

Unfortunately, that aspiration is based on a warped sense of what western society is. It has been adopted in the most superficial manner, to only affect our sense of fashion, décor, food, music and entertainment. We call Gamal “Jimmy” and we place the word “shoes” in the middle of an Arabic sentence for reasons that differ from one person to another, however all the reasons are rooted in the same source. Of course, the irony that this is being discussed in an article written in English is not lost on us here.

Alternatively, we do not seem to dig any deeper towards our aspirations to become westernized. We are not part of the current global conversation regarding women and women’s rights, or equal pay. There seems to be this disassociation between us and the rest of the world, where once the global pandemic of patriarchy is being discussed, we take a step back as if it’s not happening to us. Issues like climate change and water and food security are thought to be academic discussions, with no room for the laymen to participate.

This is not to say that the blame is on any specific group of people, it is not. We are all accountable for ourselves. When asked about the difference between now and 30+ years ago, Tadros was not reluctant to respond: “It’s who controls the information. The media used to be run by educated men and women who were well read and would therefore craft an informative product. Now on the other hand, it’s all about pandering to the lowest common denominator, for likes or hearts or something.”

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