Consumption Research in Cairo, Egypt
by Taline Djerdjerian
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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