From the Pyramids to Pyramids Road

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From the Pyramids to Pyramids Road
When most Westerners think of Egypt, they think of mummies and pyramids. So entwined is the West’s image of Egypt with its ancient monuments that it seems self-evident to European and American tourists that they should visit the pyramids while they are in Egypt. But for Gulf Arabs visiting Egypt, the pyramids are low on their list of destinations. Arabs engage with a more contemporary imagining of Egyptian culture, one which is grounded in the regional circulation of singers, dancers, and movie stars. Tourists from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates notoriously spend their time on Pyramids Road, a long street lined with nightclubs featuring famous singers and bellydance performances that start after midnight and run to the early morning hours.

The difference in Arab and Western imaginations of Egypt have 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 bellydancing.

Yet ultimately these different views of Egypt also 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 Western imperialism. And the Egyptian stereotype of Gulf Arabs as spending long nights salivating over bellydancers reveals a Middle Eastern migrant labor economy marked by cultural and class difference.

Based on 2-1/2 years of anthropological fieldwork in Cairo and Alexandria, this book explores parallel Western and Arab experiences with Egypt as a way of reflecting back our differences and similarities.

chapter summaries

The book is structured as a series of chapters which juxtapose Arab and Western experiences in Egypt, each of which illustrates a point about cultural difference. The Introduction shows how differently Egypt is seen by Westerners and Arabs.

Western tourism in Egypt has a pedigree that dates back to the ancient Greeks. The West’s ancient fascination with pharaonic monuments received new impetus in the modern period with Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1798, which brought home the Rosetta Stone and launched a fad of “Egyptomania” in Europe. 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.

But for its Middle Eastern neighbors, Egypt is less the “antique land” of Shelley than a contemporary cultural and media giant, broadcasting its movies, television serials, and popular music to the entire Arab world. For Arabs, Egypt evokes images not just of pyramids but also of famous politicians, such as Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, literary figure Naguib Mahfouz, revered singers such as Umm Kalthoum, pop culture heartthrobs like Amrou Diyab, and other assorted comedians, actors, and bellydancers. Arabs are all aware of the Egyptian pyramids, but in the Arab world the more immediate picture that Egypt brings to mind is one of songs, soap operas and movies, and an exotic accent where the letter “jīm” is pronounced “gīm.”

The comparison of Westerners and Gulf Arabs in Egypt in this chapter reveals that these different imaginations of Egypt are centered in different regional and international politics, regional economies, and circulation of goods, people, and popular culture. It shows that culture and identity are not only found in neatly bound villages, tribes, and clans. Culture and identity are defined in moments of contact with outsiders, because it is when dealing with cultural others that people really have to stop and think about who they are and how they are different from other people.

Chapter Two, “Buried Treasure,” begins with a review of the history of Egyptology, starting in the days when it was less archaeology than a mad, free-for-all European treasure hunt. There are colorful stories to tell, from the exploits of Belzoni, a retired Italian circus strongman who acquired pharaonic treasures for the British consul, to the Indiana Jones-style race between a German and a French archaeologist to acquire the spectacular Zodiac of Dendera. (The Frenchman won, actually using gunpowder to blast the Zodiac out of the temple ceiling because there wasn't time to cut it from the stones using regular tools.)

Medieval Muslims were interested in the pharaonic past, seeing it as evidence of an ancient race of giant-magicians. A 15th century treasure-hunting guide, the “Book of Hidden Pearls,” was translated from Arabic in 1907, complete with incantations and fumigations to help one find buried treasure. (Maspero, Director of the Antiquities Service of Egypt, had it published in English to amuse and distract European tourists.) And in the early 1900s, Prince Kemal El Din of Egypt was the patron of Count László Almásy, a Hungarian explorer (and the so-called “English Patient” of the film) who was trying to find Zerzura, a city of Arab myth that was said to be hidden in the desert. But for centuries Egyptology has been dominated by Westerners, and even today Egyptian Egyptologists are still forced to publish in English, French and German, while few Western Egyptologists even speak – much less write – Arabic. The explanation lies not in Arab disinterest in pharaonic Egypt, but rather in the history of Western colonialism in Egypt. French control over the Egyptian Antiquities Service lasted until Egypt’s 1952 Revolution, and most Egyptians were deliberately excluded from it before then.

Pharaonism, an identification with ancient Egypt, is one key strain of modern Egyptian nationalism. Zahi Hawass’s discovery of the tombs of the pyramid builders in the 1990s was hailed in the Egyptian press for proving that the pyramids were built by Egyptian laborers and not Israelite slaves, a point of pride vis-à-vis Israelis claims that it was their ancestors who built the pyramids. But for Islamists, “pharaoh” does not evoke a proud cultural past but rather idolatrous despotism. Sadat’s assassins proudly shouted, “Pharaoh is dead!” and some Muslim tourists refuse to crawl through the narrow inner passages of the pyramids, lest they appear to “bow to pharaoh.” This chapter examines these conflicting attitudes towards national pride in Egypt’s pharaonic past.

Chapter Three, “Atlantis, Reptilian Shapeshifters, and Red Mercury,” returns to the politics of archaeology from a different angle, examining New Age rewritings of pharaonic history. It starts with a fieldnotes excerpt about two mystics, one Western and one Arab. One morning, a Peruvian named Felipe came to visit Dr. Zahi Hawass, Director of the Giza Pyramids. Felipe was convinced, thanks to regression hypnotherapy undergone in Australia, that he was the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian and claimed that he knew of a particular stone in the Great Pyramid under which the secrets of lost civilizations were buried. To Dr. Hawass’s consternation, Felipe insisted that he begin excavations to unearth these treasures. Later that very same day, Dr. Hawass was visited by a prince from Saudi Arabia who was seeking a cure for his comatose mother. He was accompanied by a sheikh, a religious mystic from Saudi Arabia, who had told him that the only cure that would save her was a pharaonic elixir called “red mercury.” The sheikh said that the red mercury would be unearthed in one of Dr. Hawass’s excavations, but Dr. Hawass apologetically informed them that no such thing had ever been found.

Meeting both Felipe and the prince in Zahi Hawass's office on the same day illustrates that both Arabs and Westerners have mystical imaginations about ancient Egypt. This chapter reviews a wide range of myths and legends about ancient Egypt, from Plato’s Atlantis to Freemasonry and the psychic Edgar Cayce. Both orthodox Egyptology and New Age constructions of ancient Egypt thrive on the myths of swashbuckling adventurers on a treasure hunt, but Egyptologists fiercely defend their status as chief interpreters of Egyptian history, attacking the New Age theorists in journal articles. Yet New Agers and Egyptologists often lecture side by side to tour groups and television programs, revealing a common audience. There are other odd connections as well: Mark Lehner, a world-renowned American Egyptologist, first came to Egypt under the auspices of a mystical group that believes there is a secret chamber hidden under one of the paws of the Sphinx containing records of the lost civilization of Atlantis; only later was he converted to orthodox Egyptology.

The Y2K celebrations in Cairo revealed tensions between Egyptian nationalists and New Agers. The Egyptian government planned a special concert at the pyramids that would culminate at midnight with a helicopter lowering a gold-plated capstone onto the top of the Great Pyramid. Conspiracy theorists in cyberspace claimed that the capstone event was a plot by “Illuminati elite.” David Icke, who has a theory that connects the pyramids with a race of human-reptilian hybrid shapeshifters who rule the world through mind control and human sacrifice, argued that the millennium party at the pyramids was part of an evil Masonic conspiracy to usher in a new age of reptilian mind control over the planet. The local Egyptian press ignored the Illuminati theories, but seized on the Masonic symbolism of the planned capstone event, calling it part of a “Masonic-Zionist conspiracy” in Egypt. Amidst the negative media attention, the Ministry of Culture cancelled the capstone ritual.

New Age theories are offensive to Egyptians because they attack Egyptian national pride in its pharaonic legacy. When people claim that aliens or Atlanteans were the ones who built those monuments, this is seen as an attempt to deprive Egypt of its glorious ancient history. New Agers insist on claiming the Egyptian monuments as a world heritage, emphasizing the unity of all human kind. But this implies that the monuments, if they belong to the "world" at large, are not Egyptian, thus denying the Egyptian appropriation of the pharaonic past as a means of shoring up the timeless identity of Egypt as a unified nation-state.

Chapter Four, “Sex Orgies and Urban Myths,” looks at Arab tourists in Egypt. The word that Egyptians use to describe Gulf Arabs, “`Arab,” simultaneously expresses both sameness (since Egyptians are Arabic speakers and part of the Arab world) and difference (since it implies that, when compared to Gulf visitors, Egyptians are not Arab). Among Egyptians, the stereotype about Arabs is that they come to Egypt to do things that are forbidden in their own country: visit prostitutes and have sex parties, drink alcohol and gamble. Hence they are popularly associated with the morally suspect nightclubs of Pyramids Road. One hotel manager I interviewed claimed that Arab girls staying in his hotel engaged in lesbian sex orgies. I asked him how he knew this. "I see them!" he exclaimed. "Room service sees them!" This is an interesting claim, since as the hotel manager, it was unlikely that he was personally delivering room service. It also seemed unlikely that the hotel staff was catching girls engaged in lesbian acts, since they wouldn't enter a room without knocking first. So where do these rumors come from?

In a similar way, rumors circulated about Prince Tork, a Saudi prince living on the top floors of the Ramses Hilton in Cairo with a large entourage of servants and bodyguards who are famous for roughing up anyone who gets in their way. The prince made headlines in 1999 when two Egyptian cooks who had allegedly been held prisoner for months escaped by tying together bedsheets and scaling down the outside of the hotel. One made it down; another fell and broke his back. Egyptians started telling me fantastic stories about Prince Tork’s wealth and his exploitation of lowly Egyptians. These urban myths about power, wealth, and exploitation turned Prince Tork into the mythical prototype for the stereotypical wealthy Gulf Arab who thinks that he can buy everything, abuse anyone, and then use his money and connections to get out of any problem.

These negative images of “Arabs” can only be understood in the context of Arab identity politics, migrant labor, and the regional political economy. Stories like that of Prince Tork’s or the lesbian sex parties of Arab girls are told and retold until they attain larger-than-life meaning. Such cases do not represent the majority of Gulf Arabs on holiday in Egypt. Most Gulf Arab tourists are middle class, often travel as families, and probably no more of them frequent prostitutes than do wealthy Egyptians. So why does an exceptional phenomenon come to stand for the whole?

In part, these scandalous cases are believed to be representative because most Egyptians have little deep social interaction with Gulf visitors. Despite a shared language, religion, and many cultural traits, not to mention a shared Arab identity, there are key gaps between Egyptian and Gulf societies. These gaps are social, economic, and even cultural. They arise in a regional economy in which millions of Egyptians go to work in low-status labor jobs in Gulf countries, and some are exploited and abused. Such class differences limit the kinds of meaningful, one-on-one social exchanges between equals that might help provide alternative images of the Arab Other to temper the wild stories of excess, debauchery and vice that circulate.

In Chapter Five, “Transnational Dating,” Arab tourism is seen from a very different perspective, that of two young Saudi women. The chapter starts with the story of Mariam, a Saudi girl who was engaged to Ashraf, until she went on vacation to Cairo with him and his family. In Cairo, Meriam saw a new side of Ashraf: while his mother slept, he would go out at night and get drunk with foreign women; he even introduced Meriam, his fiancée, to his French girlfriend! The Cairo vacation revealed aspects of Ashraf’s behavior that Meriam would never have seen in Saudi Arabia. She broke off the engagement while still in Cairo, and a year later she was dating another young Saudi man named Saleh. This time, she insisted on seeing Saleh in Cairo before she would even go so far as getting engaged. Meriam had come to see the Egypt vacation as a crucible of a Saudi's character. So many things were legal there that weren't legal in Saudi Arabia and, Meriam argued, you could learn a great deal about a person by seeing what he would do when the law didn't prevent him from doing it.

The popular Egyptian stereotype about Gulf tourists holds that they come to Egypt to indulge in scandalous activities and exploit poor Egyptians. But Saudis claim that Egyptians take advantage of them and use them for their money. A look at Saudi youth vacationing in Cairo shows that, for these Arab tourists, summer vacation in Egypt is as much about meeting other Saudis as it is about taking advantage of Egyptian freedoms. Saudi girls love coming to Egypt so that they can date young men in an atmosphere which is more liberal than back in Saudi Arabia, yet still basically defined by Saudi social and cultural parameters. As a fundamentally Saudi cultural phenomenon that takes place outside the borders of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi summer vacation in Egypt is an extraordinary example of transnational culture.

Chapters Four and Five portray encounters between Egyptians and Gulf Arab to compare the imaginations that each group constructs of the other. Moments of cultural contact become opportunities for defining self and other: Egyptians nurture stereotypes whereby Gulf Arabs embody the transgression of social proprieties, while Saudis see Egyptians as obsequious economic mercenaries. Both groups portray the other as sexual predators. Linguistic and cultural differences between the groups get mapped out on a regional economy marked by labor migration and extreme differences of wealth.

The concluding chapter, “Blonde Bellydancers,” addresses the phenomenon of foreign (non-Egyptian, non-Arab) bellydancers in Egypt. Contemporary bellydancing is a product of a long history of transnational encounters centering around an fantasy of Oriental dance, which has created new versions of “traditional” cultural forms. After Oriental dancers appeared in several World Fairs around the turn of the century, “bellydancing” entered Western popular culture, and Hollywood incorporated bellydancing into some of its early films. But Hollywood livened up the dancers’ costumes, adding sequins and baubles and revealing the stomach. This was then adopted by dancers back in Egypt, and now is regarded as the traditional costume.

Bellydancing has become popular outside the Arab world, and American, European, and Japanese women who have become professional bellydancers dance all over Europe and the Middle East, but their ultimate goal is to make it in Cairo – for bellydancers, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. At the turn of this century, foreign bellydancers easily outnumbered Egyptians performing at the top hotel nightclubs and Nile cruises. Egyptian dancers started to worry about the future of the art form: with bellydancing stigmatized in Egyptian society and with foreigners taking all the good jobs, there was little hope for a new generation of Egyptian dancers. So in 2003, a law was passed banning foreign bellydancers from performing at the clubs. An Australian bellydancer named Caroline is currently fighting the law in court.

From the Pyramids to Pyramids Road links up political history, regional and international economies, and cultural production with an ongoing process of national identity construction. Though the research topic centers on urban Egypt, it tracks characters through locations across the globe, telling a story about how transnational encounters actually create culture and identity. It illustrates how, through encounters with Others, we define the Self.
the book’s audience

This ethnography is not the classic anthropological village study. It maps networks of different people and ideas that all intersect in the vast urban sprawls of Cairo and Alexandria. Locations include nightclubs and hotels, the tourist bazaar, the Pyramids of Giza, and Mediterranean beaches. Informants include Egyptian and American archaeologists, belly dancers from Japan, Sweden, Russia and Argentina, tourists from Australia and Saudi Arabia, and an Egyptian casino dealer. It is an experimental ethnography that will be of interest to anthropologists thinking about how to write about culture in untraditional ways.

The book will also be read in Middle East studies, with its examination of national identity in the Arab world as seen through regional cultural production and interactions between Egyptians and the Gulf Arabs. With its exploration of the politics of Egyptology, it will also be of interest to archaeologists and sociologists of science.

But the book is primarily written for a more general, intellectual audience. It makes anthropological points through lively stories and anecdotes intended to appeal to a wide readership, not just anthropologists. Disciplinary jargon is kept to a minimum, and the chapters make their points with stories, anecdotes, and fieldnote excerpts which read like journal entries. With its revealing exposition of the stories behind the famous excavations and theories of ancient Egypt, it will appeal to tourists in Egypt who are eager for a “behind the scenes” look at the tourism industry. After all, as the sociology of tourism literature itself points out, getting “behind the scenes” is the goal of anthropologists and tourists alike. But while anthropologists are relatively few in number, there are over one million English-speaking tourists visiting Egypt yearly, giving the book a very large potential audience.

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