14 June 2005

liberal guilt, trinket economy, etc.

[following is a cobbled-together, lightly edited mishmash of travel journal entries and current thoughts. enjoy and respond.]

what is my impression of the standard of living in egypt? i would answer something simple, like “poor,” if i weren’t so confused about what my impressions actually are. looking at poverty in egypt is vastly different, apples-and-oranges different, from looking at poverty in the united states. at home poverty is panhandling, sleeping under a highway overpass, spending time in a shelter, going on government assistance, being unable to pay the bills. in egypt poverty is starving to death in plain sight; small children in ragged clothes selling useless items on street corners; blind men wandering through subway cars, tripping over all the feet; women with babies tied to their backs pushing flowers through your taxi window.

and of course, that is just the most obvious part of poverty-in-egypt. there is also the matter of inefficient sanitation services and nonexistent garbage collection. wearing the same pair of plastic sandals every day. having only one or a few sets of clothes. on the other hand, as a professor of mine observed today, egyptian poverty is principally different from american poverty in that, by and large, it “has a lot of social capital.” that’s true: cairo is desperately poor, but the poverty is mitigated somewhat by the fact that cairo is a city of families and neighborhoods, a place where people know and speak to one another. walking the streets, i was more worried about communicable diseases than muggings.

i heard a lot of blather from both egyptians and foreigners while i was there about “the simple life” of the egyptian poor, and how people really prefer this style of life. i don’t buy it. but neither do i (would i) buy any sort of attempt to graft the experience of poverty in egypt onto some american sensibility about what an adequate standard of living might be. (how would someone from gamiliyya feel if s/he were suddenly transferred to kensington, or vice versa? that’s probably a useless question.) i don’t trust myself with any of these questions. it is too easy to generate some cult of victimhood, imagining universal misery and a feeling of dire necessity—and it is also too easy to romanticize the situation, to pretend that the poor in egypt are satisfied with their lot, or that they live as they do by choice, or that the fact that everyone is poor normalizes poverty.

but the “how poor is poor” question is, in a certain sense, peripheral to my experience. after all, i came for egypt for two weeks for no particular purpose outside of visiting, seeing, experiencing. i take vacations. i eat in restaurants. at home i have a large sunny flat, two well-fed cats, several hundred books, a closetful of clothes, an ATM card...the list goes on. so, whatever the seemingly shoestring nature of my travel budget, i am rich. the problem then becomes one of deciding what obligations come with that status. this is an easy sort of thought experiment to play with at home: the rich should be obligated to give something of their wealth, for which they likely relied on the labor or the needs of the poor, in order that the poor may be maintained at a minimal standard. i have rules for dealing with panhandlers at home, too: i will not give money; instead i offer to buy the person food. i give to some organizations that promote social justice. blah blah blah.

but everything is more immediate in egypt. i felt cheap and awful and generally nasty every time i refused to buy (or give) something on the street, but the requests were so constant and i so needed those one-pound notes. i wanted to ask the americans i met who were living in cairo whether that feeling goes away, whether the fact of extreme poverty finally attains some sort of status akin to that of smog: cumulatively irritating, but not often immediately noticeable. every day i would have some sort of minor Christian-liberal-guilt attack, feeling as if i should, for example, Get Off This Cruise Ship Right Now or Avoid Air Conditioning at All Costs or drag the contents of my rather overstuffed suitcase out to Midan Tahrir for public consumption.

and then again: my presence on the cruise ship means (indirectly, incrementally, but you get the picture) that someone is employed; it seemed to me, though i could easily be wrong, that the cruise ship jobs are probably quite decent jobs. more generally, tourism is a major engine of the egyptian economy, and understandably so. all the temples and colossi and museums and monuments that attract first-world sightseers attract those sightseers because they are in their grandeur and style and vastness of scale quite unlike anything else in the world. pictures cannot do them justice. and the fees that are constantly collected at the entrances, the tacky souvenir crap that gets pushed at you outside, the silly imitation-english pub in luxor, all of it—like my presence on the cruise ship, the tourist industry in general means money flowing into an economy that desperately needs it.

i have to say that i wish it weren’t so. i find it immensely depressing that yelling silly, ingratiating phrases at closed-faced white people, flogging knockoff papyrus or cheap jewelry, what have you, can be someone’s best option. i want to know what it is that has caused this to happen. is the degrading, disingenuous tourist economy an aftereffect of colonialism? is the sort of development we see in egypt a product of authoritarianism? of global capitalism? of...what, exactly? well. just as usual i have arrived at precisely no conclusion, except that it is no wonder that my favorite days were those spent tooling through the white desert or singing “the itsy bitsy spider” with paul’s host sister in abu sir. those were days when, despite the fact that i was surely and obviously a tourist, i could forget my own personal role in the trinket economy.