Getting back to her review of Galal Amin's Whatever else happened to the Egyptians, I thought it may interest readers to take a look at my own review of Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Amin's first book in this series, which was published in the Cairo Times in December 2000. It's not online, so click below to view the full post.
Egypt's slippery slope
Galal Amin contemplates the progress--or lack thereof--of Egyptian society in a new collection of essays
The new year always seems to be a good time to take stock of one's progress and assess choices made and alternatives forsaken. The end of a century, and indeed a millennium, provides altogether too great a temptation to deny oneself a little self-indulgence, and, why not, a tad of contemplative navel-gazing. This is what the renowned economist Galal Amin, currently professor at the American University in Cairo, offers in this collection of essays tracing the changes in Egyptian society over the past century--one he was a direct witness to for much of its duration.
Most of the essays in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? were previously published in the Arabic language magazine Al Hilal (The Crescent) in the late 1990s as part of a group discussion among Egypt's leading social commentators. These were subsequently translated, and again updated by Amin to prepare this book, with the addition of two larger analytical essays focused more on his specialty, economics. As such, the essays vary from being chatty, personal and anecdotal to rather serious and, well, tedious pieces in a work that is seemingly geared towards the curious layman rather than the academic. Hence, sparing the reader from a lengthy chapter on the history of Egyptian economists throughout the century would have probably only enhanced this work, and likewise, some of the more technical analysis of economic phenomena could have been toned down in light of the low brow tone of the rest of the book.
In the shorter, more personal articles, Amin often resorts to childhood memories, family anecdotes and other similar stories to illustrate his points. Looking at the changes in the position of women, for instance, he compares the lifetyles and social status of his mother, sisters and daughter, and finds himself astonished at "the degree of intellectual and psychological emancipation that Egyptian women have achieved." Yet he also warns that "one should beware of seeing in all this an unequivocal sign in progress on all fronts, for it is far from certain that women of my daughter's generation are in all respects better off than those of my mother's generation. For all their subservient relationship to their men, women of my mother's generation did enjoy a greater degree of stability and less disruption of family life." In this chapter much like the other ones, Amin glumly concludes that "wider opportunities and greater economic freedom seem to have been obtained at the price of less freedom in other realms of life."
This is the problem with Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? At every turn of his reflections, whether they are on religious fanaticism, weddings or Westernization (each one the topic of one of the book's 14 chapters), Amin evokes some pristine past and compares it to the present. But the present, it seems, is systematically corrupted, degraded--a fall from the paradise lost of his childhood. Although he does evoke some of the social problems of pre-1950s Egypt, the overall impression he gives of the era is one of solid family values, a patriotic people and a society with integrity and pride in itself. Compared with today's Egypt--Egypt being defined largely from a Cairene perspective--this bygone era has decayed into the current, almost intolerable cultural, linguistic, economic and political apathy. It is then no surprise to see Amin ending Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? with the following moribund conclusion: that the changes through which Egypt is going through "could be nothing less than a process of metamorphosis in which everything is gradually being turned into a commodity, the object of a commercial transaction, including man's very soul."
This decline, a malady which Amin attributes essentially to the rise in social mobility combined with the spread of what he calls, borrowing from the British economic historian Karl Polanyi, "market culture," may be irreversible. Not content with decrying a consumerist present, Amin sees little hope for the future. Almost every chapter ends with a recognition that while he is quick to point out what the causes and symptoms of the ills of Egyptian society, he has no cures.
The recurring, grating pessimism in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, while in many ways insightful, brings to mind the image of an out-of-touch grandfather complaining to his grandchildren about the general moral decay of society, interspersed with nostalgic vignettes of life in the good old days. Indeed, Amin's complaints with contemporary Egyptian society tend to be conservative ones. While he denounces the current, hypocritical (and apparently unprecedented) religious fanaticism (which he attributes to both large segments being excluded from material success and from the more widespread phenomenon of undeserved financial success), he constantly longs for a time during which there were more certainties and stability to life. What he perceives as the decline of classical Arabic in public discourse--a practice that, in this reviewer's opinion, served more to alienate a large part of the population than anything else--is a cause of much chagrin to Amin, much like the fact that there are a lot more private cars and that public transport standards have plummeted. Another prominent complaint is one against Westernization, which he sees as not only endangering Egypt's national culture but also as necessarily bad, if only because he seems to see the West as bad. Would Amin prefer a return to the days of tarbushed pashas or Nasser's paranoid dictatorship simply because Egypt's cultural production was then of a higher quality and life (retrospectively) simpler?
These criticisms should not take away from the fact that Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? is--aside from the more academic articles--a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one bound to provoke much debate. Many of the changes that Amin highlights are undeniable, even if his interpretation of them is highly impressionistic. In addition to his prognosis, many will also undoubtedly disagree with his sociological analysis of these changes, which he almost entirely attributes to rather traditional interpretations of the class system and a sometimes simplistic theory of social mobility. But perhaps it does not help that Amin occasionally lapses into economic theory, making the book at times an uncomfortable compromise between academia and social commentary.
Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? will hopefully provoke a louder debate on where Egyptian society stands at the turn of the century. One could start with a topical concern that Galal Amin raises in his digressions:
"Thus the Ramadan lantern is rapidly coming to occupy the same position as the Christmas tree in the West, converted from a beautiful religious symbol to an expensive and elaborate ritual around which revolves a great commercial fanfare. Very soon we will see the Ramadan lantern transformed into one of the essential pillars of the holy month of fasting, without which fasting itself may become incomplete and unacceptable. Once this is done, the 'market system' will have won a complete victory over some of the most intimate aspects of everyday life of Muslims, as it had already done in the West."
Food for thought indeed.