Cross-Cultural Consumption Research in Cairo, Egypt
by Taline Djerdjerian

Egyptian society has always had a unique cosmopolitan flavor. As a country located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and as part of the Arab Middle East, Egypt has been influenced by many cultures throughout its long history. Egypt has also been a major trade center between East and West, North and South, and goods from various parts of the world, have been sold and bought in the markets of its cities. Thus, being exposed to foreign ideas, beliefs, products and influences is not new to Egyptian society.
History has always played an important part in the everyday lives of Egyptians, who take great pride in their ancient Pharaonic Civilization, and in the influence of Christianity and Islam on their culture. In addition, hundreds of years of occupation and/or exposure to various cultures such as the Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French and British, have had a large impact and have played a major role in the shaping of Egyptian society and the characteristics of its people. As an Egyptian, I feel proud of this heritage, especially because Egypt is a country which has always accepted 'foreigners' in its midst; such as Italians, Greeks, French, Armenians, and many others, who have lived side by side, in peace, for hundreds of years.
This report is based on my research in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, on family history, and on my own experiences growing up in Egypt. Cairo is the capital of Egypt, and is characterized by a mix of all what is old and new; narrow streets, tiny shops and stalls, bazaars selling all kinds of traditional handicrafts and gold and silver jewelry, co-exist side by side with huge four or five lane highways, bridges, luxurious hotels, super markets, malls and shopping centers, which sell local and imported products from all over the world. "To the Egyptians and their fellow Arabs, Cairo is at once a seat of political power, of artistic creativity and cultural pacesetting, of religious shrines and religious learning, of scholarships and higher education, of industry as well as entertainment. For Egyptians and fellow Arabs, Cairo, therefore, represents singularly what so many cities may pluralistically represent to their respective nations. In terms of regional influence, Cairo is the equivalent of the likes of Paris, the Vatican, Oxford, Hollywood, and Detroit combined" (Ibrahim 1996: 93).
In contrast, Alexandria as the second largest city is much smaller and less populated than Cairo. Located on the Northern coast, on the Mediterranean Sea, it was founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Alexandrians are extremely proud of their Greek heritage, which manifests itself in the various Greek ruins and monuments around the city, and the statue of Alexander the Great, which stands in the main square of the city and which was a gift from the Greek government. My own family, which is partly Greek and partly Armenian, is an excellent example of this transnational mix of cultures common in Egyptian society.
Returning to Egypt as a researcher for the first time was a very rewarding experience, where I had to practice and apply all the anthropological skills I had learnt, to my own native culture. I was forced to see things in a different light, and question phenomena and occurrences, which I would have taken for granted, had it been otherwise.
However, this was not the only transformation, which had taken place in the span of the last two years, since I had last been to Egypt. The consumer culture in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, as unique as it is, and always has been, has seen many rapid changes in the last years.
According to the census of 2000, the population in Egypt was 65 million inhabitants (Helmy 2001: 31). This is a market with huge potential for many foreign companies, which have come to Egypt en masse, either producing their brand names locally, under license, or exporting their products from abroad to an ever-growing consumer market.
One of the most unparalleled of these foreign or Western goods, is non other than the 'mobile phone.' Mobile phones were introduced in the market in 1996, by the government owned public telephone company, Telecom Egypt. At that time, they were considered a luxury, and few people could afford them. Nevertheless, in the last three years, import of mobile telephones increased by 960% (Helmy 2001: 29). This is a number, which would alarm anyone. Who is buying all these phones? Why? How are they being used and for what purposes? These are only a few of the questions that come to mind when one hears that number.
But, in trying to answer these questions, we need to ask ourselves "what happens - when the culture of production and the culture of consumption are not the same?… In particular, we need to know more about the social relations of consumption -or in other words, the logic by which goods are received (acquired, understood and employed) in different societies" (Howes 1996: 2). As Egyptians, we love to talk on the phone, we need to stay in touch with friends and relatives, and it is not uncommon for family members to call each other several times a day to talk about their daily activities, to exchange views and advice on various matters, or for students to call each other before their exams and study together for hours over the phone. "Even if there is nothing important, we just enjoy it, we love to talk," nerghi, was the verb that came up over and over again, and the closest translation I can find to this word, is babbling or chatting, i.e. just talking for the sake of feeling close and staying in touch.
People are also very keen on buying new, more sophisticated models of mobile phones as they appear on the market. But what forces drive them to keep renewing their mobile phones every few years or every few months? Well, I found the answer to this question myself when one day I went to a restaurant with some friends. As soon as we walked in, I noticed everyone taking out their mobile phones, and placing them right in front of them on the table. Unconsciously, I found myself doing the same thing, with my borrowed mobile phone, which was a very old model. A few minutes later, the conversation shifted towards mobile phones (as many conversations seem to do when any two people get together), and each person started showing off the model they had, and the various features of their phones. As they kept going at it, I was obviously not taking part in the conversation, as I had nothing to show off. On the contrary, I suddenly felt somewhat ashamed, but in a funny way, I told everyone, "I am afraid I can not participate in this conversation, because this thing I have is not really a mobile phone, it's just a pair of a very old shoe." Everyone around started laughing, because that is how several of them had described my now outdated and very big Nokia mobile phone, which five years ago, was the most expensive telephone on the market.
Almost everyone I saw on the streets, in cars, taxis, stores, etc, had a mobile phone in their hand or attached to their belts, or in their purses. Owning a mobile phone no longer has anything to do with age, or gender or social class. Garbage collectors or zabaleen, who are the poorest and most looked down upon category of workers in Egypt, have mobile phones. Taxi drivers, women selling vegetables in the local market, men selling fruits on their carts, all carry mobile phones, even if they had no account in it!
Mobile phones have come to be used in a variety of ways. When I explained to some of my friends and relatives that what they were doing with their phones was 'strange,' they did not understand, and simply refused to accept that what they were doing would be characterized as 'strange'. "This is how we use our mobiles, and why are you calling it strange?" was the usual reply I got. In fact, I realized how wrong I had been in my judgment, when after a few weeks of my stay; I suddenly realized that I had started doing the exact same things with my 'old' mobile phone.
A cousin of mine was to pick me up one evening, but since I had to conduct some interviews first, and as I was not sure at what time I would finish exactly, I told her I would give her a ran'na as soon as I was ready. Suddenly, she started laughing, and when I asked her what was the matter, she simply said: "a ran'na, oh, that is interesting, when did you start giving ran'nas to people?" and it was at that moment that I realized how much sense this option made to me.
Giving a ran'na or 'one ring,' is when instead of calling someone and actually speaking to them on the phone, you would agree with the person beforehand on the message that you will deliver. When the time comes, you simply call the other person on their mobile and hang up. The person would see your number on their call display, and hence, the intended message or agreement is transmitted, and you end up saving the cost of the call. To avoid paying the high cost of calls, this is one of the alternatives which many mobile phone users, especially the young have found.
Mohamed, one of my old colleagues, jokingly tried to explain: "we have created dialogue through rings. If we're lovers and I am thinking of you at three in the morning, it is impossible for me to call you on your home phone and wake the whole house up, instead, I just give you a ran'na, to let you know that I'm thinking of you, and you give me a ran'na in return, if you feel the same way, to confirm the message. The whole dialogue is agreed upon in advance." As some parents are strict about who their daughters see or go out with, this has become a very good option for friends to communicate.
Yet, one very important criterion that loses its significance in such conversations is eye contact. Eye contact is very important for us when we speak to each other. How you look at someone and whether you do look or not, is essential in face-to-face communication. If two people are having a conversation, and one of them does not look at the other in the eye, it is a sign of disrespect, and negligence, but on the phone, this is no longer a necessary criterion. "But we are used to it, and that is why while on the phone we always ask 'are u with me?' to be sure that the person is paying full attention to the conversation" was Mohamed's clarification.
Gestures and facial expressions are also emphasized in phone call conversations, even though there was no way for the person on the other side of the line to see these gestures. A neighbour explained it in this way:
You know how we are always using gestures when we talk to each other face to face, well, it is no different with telephones, on the contrary, we probably use more gestures when on the phone, as if to get our message across better. It is good that we use lots of expressions, gestures and movements. It is a healthy thing.
Through the use of such new devices as mobile phones, we see that a lot of 'old' and 'new' practices coincide or come together in various ways. One such example is that of the doorman or bawab, using a mobile phone. It is customary for most apartment buildings in Egypt to have a bawab, who guards the place, but also does some light shopping for the tenants. In the building were I used to live, my mother would call out for the bawab, to get us some bread from the bakery at the end of the street, or she would send him to the market for fresh vegetables. He would usually receive small tips from the tenants for such services. But in one apartment building in Alexandria, the tenants bought a mobile phone for the bawab, so they could call him and give him their orders, instead of calling out for him from their balconies. According to one of the tenants,
It has made life so much easier and of course quieter. Whereas before, I would sometimes call for him and not find him, now, I just call him on the mobile, if he is already at the market, I give him my order, it is easier for him too, instead of going to the market two or three times a day, for the different tenants. Besides the building is more quiet now, no more shouting and screaming or searching for the bawab.
As mobile phone use increased tremendously, criticism also increased along with it. In one very funny newspaper caricature (figure 1), husband and wife are sitting at the table having dinner and talking to each other on their mobile phones.
Husband: "hello, would you please pass the salt dear."
Wife: "hello, ok my love."
Public telephones have also spread in Egypt and have undergone dramatic changes. They are now available at almost every street corner in Alexandria and Cairo (Figure 2). Two new companies, Menatel and NilePhone provide these services, which have become extremely popular. Cards of various prices can be bought at most stores. Many people also use these cards to make direct or long distance telephone calls, in order to limit their calling time. The response to the spread and availability of public pay phones was very positive. One 32 years old housewife explained the advantages:
You pay in advance, so you have a certain time limit, and the screen shows you your account as you talk, so it's very practical. In addition, you don't have to worry about the coverage signal, or getting disconnected, its more reliable, and the rates are very reasonable.
For Mona, a 35 years old secretary, telephones are a crucial means of communication. She explains that mobile phones are essential to those who are often out late at night, who are on the roads, or those whose jobs are always on the go. As for public telephones, which many simply call Menatel, (which is the name of the company)
I call that progress. In my own home, believe it or not, last year I paid L.E.4500 (US$1125) for a six months telephone bill, of course afterwards, I asked the telephone company to remove the direct line, so my last bill amounted to L.E.160 (US$40) for the last six months. If I have the direct line, I will keep talking and talking, like most Egyptians, I don't really have a very good sense of time, (with a giggle) but this way, I have to buy the Menatel card for direct calls, and so I know how much I am spending on each phone call exactly.
There has been an influx of similar 'foreign' goods into the Egyptian market and hence into Egyptian homes. Egyptians are keen on incorporating these new goods and products into their everyday lives, in such a way so as to facilitate their lives, but in the meantime trying to cause as little disruption as possible.
Opponents of such phenomena have argued that 'Western' influence is destroying the 'traditional' way of life and practices of Egyptians. But we have to take into consideration that there are many factors that play an important role in this process, and it would be unfair to assume that the flow of goods and products is continuous and moving in only one direction. Goods have changing dimensions and meanings in different places and in different settings. "Imported goods take on new meanings and are transformed according to the "values" and "local realities" (Howes 1996: 5) of Egyptians.
Consumer goods have significance that goes far beyond the commercial value or utility that manufacturers and producers intend. They symbolically communicate cultural meanings that the wider community has assigned to them (Douglas and Isherwood 1978).
The 'West', I believe, cannot destroy the rest of the world cultures, and it would be inaccurate to presuppose that local products and goods are disappearing, and that local traditions are being completely replaced by Western ideals.
One headline in the daily Al-Ahram newspapers reads el'awlama la tonhee la el'ensan wala tarikho "Globalization does not put an end, neither to humanity nor to its history" (Al Ahram Newspaper: June 15, 2001).


Al Ahram Newspaper (Cairo), June 15, 2001.

Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood. 1978. The World of Goods: Towards and Anthropology of Consumption. London: Penguin Books.

Helmy, Soheir. Nesf El Donia 576 (Cairo), 25 February, 2001: 31.

Howes, David, ed. 1996. Cross Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities.
London: Routledge.

Ibrahim, Saad El Din. 1996. Egypt, Islam, and Democracy: Twelve Critical Essays.
Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

List of Figures:
Figure 1: Caricature from Al Ahram Newspaper, Ayamna El Helwa 6 (Cairo), 22 June, 2001.

Figure 2: A man using a public telephone in Alexandria. Photograph by Taline Djerdjerian, May 2001.

Figure 3: Billboard ads for Coca-Cola, Click and other goods and services can be seen in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph by Taline Djerdjerian, May 2001