Return to Inscriptions Volume 6 | Return to Inscriptions

Scenes From Cairo's Camel Market

Maureen O'Malley

One is never tired of traversing these half-lighted avenues, all aglow with gorgeous colour and peopled with the figures that come and go like the actors in some Christmas piece of Oriental pageantry.
--Amelia Edwards,
A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1878)

Although the intention of travel is far from noncommittal, its commitment is luxuriously selective: relieved of responsibility for the failings he encounters, the traveler can enjoy the haunting quality of the antique without its terror; the poetic emanation of past strivings without their anguish; the energy of the future without its aridity. A condition of the unknown is that it remains inscrutable.
--Shirley Hazzard,
"Points of Departure" (1985)
Amelia Edwards, a Victorian "lady traveler," describes scenes from Egyptian daily life as tableaux vivants, "figures" choreographed for an expectant western gaze. By Edwards' era, colonial conquest enabled 19th century Orientalist literature, painting, photography, and scholarship to generate a strongly influential archive of imaginary postcards. This imagery drew on a binarism of observer/ observed and a discursive power to command the spectacle.[1] Edwards' travel writing expresses recognition and a viewer's centrality: "... every turbaned group is a ready-made picture ... they all look as if they had been there to be painted" (20).[2] What was often discovered on tour was always already familiar, preceding the traveler's journey.

More than a century later, Shirley Hazzard, a New York Times travel writer and novelist who features an array of international locales, heralds a similarly motivated staging. Travel scenes are selectively shrouded in mystery, affording a kind of aestheticized sanctity. Present histories are elided by a romantic re-visioning of "the past." This process serves to domesticate cultural difference and uncomfortable consciousness, obscuring complexity through the promise of personal discovery. What is experienced is poetically preconditioned. "If, on our travels, we are not precisely surprised by such apparitions, such enchantments, it is because we always dreamed we might see them" (xxii).

The above scenarios indicate a continuum, a similar imaginary wielding the authority of a ubiquitous gaze. How is the construction of a western traveler's "private" imagination inextricably bound to larger colonial histories and "postcolonial" conditions? How can the description of Oriental pageantry or so-called inscrutable conditions be understood as processes of what Mary Louise Pratt calls imperial meaning making in travel and travel writing? A representional predicament surfaces in the attempt to "abdicate the a priori relation of dominance and distance between the describer and described (222).[3]

My description of Cairo's camel market is a kind of travel account that calls attention to historical complexities elided by the tradition of Edwards and Hazzard. It also attempts to expose an authorial, all-seeing space of Orientalism, a position in which this essay itself must cautiously negotiate. Both the writer and reader are implicated here, typically having the option to remain "outside" circumscription, involved in controlling acts of representation. In this text, the use of "we" interchanged with "the traveler" serves as a strategy of repositioning from a kind of "observation tower" to being written into the visual landscape. The "we" is also a countering mechanism of the tendency to individualize travel experience (e.g., through the marketing of tourism). These acts of "personal discovery" ignore late 20th century international politics and the responsibility for how meaning is constructed. Despite my intentions, the "we" risks restoration as an authoritative group, protagonists of dominant western discourses that appear free-floating and ahistorical. The traveler, in this tradition, is figured as commanding agency through mobility and imposing stasis on the people and "scenes" empirically described. My account of the market writes both within and against a world-view deeply embedded in ways in which the west has imaged the non-west. There is no one totalizing resolution for eliminating active dominations. But perhaps there are many possible interventions for disrupting the hegemonic forms of representation that nominalize both an "exotic familiar" and an "inscrutable other."

In what follows, information and encounters circulate through a late 20th century "site" in Egypt. I describe the stock of mental images that enables recognitions of this non- western location. Selective monumentalizing of the past and the dehistoricization of the present are exemplified in travel guidebooks that elide current economic conditions in favor of heralding the more "controllable" sites of antiquity and its mythologies. Of course, many of these sites are very much alive today, populated by locals, tourists and the tourism service sector. The Giza pyramids, arguably the most popular on the tourist route in the Cairo area, were re- settled by Bedouin families who have engaged in the tourist trade for a century. They have provided guides, horses and camels for colonists, Victorian travelers, expatriates, package tourists, and film crews. One owner of a horse stable (and a Mercedes car), who speaks several western languages, mimicked Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia as he escorted me across the nearby desert. While his "performance" might be referenced in a travel piece or guidebook as clever touristic entertainment, what kinds of complicity, parody, and displacement are produced through relations with colonial/"post"-colonial ventures?[4]

Today's expansive tourist network, rivaling oil as the largest global industry, clearly produces more than guidebooks.[5] It extends both local and global service sectors, circulates hard currency, and may unexpectedly deliver parodic savvy back to the western traveler. The marketing of "the rest of the world" has involved harnessing the tropes of romanticized colonial imagery and reproducing them with a contemporary sense of nostalgia, leisure, or adventure.[6] Tourism's traffic in desire and fantasy is powerfully reflected in the phenomenon of millions of bodies moving across its sites yearly. Significantly, tourist mentalities and marketing tactics only hint at the legacies that textually transform local terror, anguish and aridity into "enchantment." The tourist imaginary is part of much larger systems and histories, and operates through colonizing the unfamiliar, designating the unknowable and partaking in a certain will-not- to-know.

Although I focus on Cairo and its Imbaba camel market, the following juxtaposition of competing knowledges could be directed towards a variety of subaltern sites. This particular location is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Egypt has a long history of western travel due to its Pharoanic monuments. Second, since the infitah , Sadat's "Open Door" policy, Egypt's tourist industry competes as the largest source of hard currency, thus creating a structural need to develop that resource. Third, this predicament involves complex double binds of (post)modern Egypt: "pastoral" scenes and pharaonic mythologies are produced for the tourist industry, while promoting modernization to accommodate that industry and other ventures in a global economic market. The local effects vary, but Cairo, as a transnational and internal migratory center hosts, produces and negotiates a diverse range of discourses and lifeways. The Imbaba camel market is a microcosm that exemplifies some of the contradictory pressures on a modernizing "third world" state. As a site of representation, the market is also mired in the problems of hierarchical discourses.

The Pharaohs, emblems of a mystical and sophisticated antiquity, sell Egypt in the highly competitive international tourist market and most travelers come ill- prepared to face Egypt in the late twentieth century. Depending on a variety of factors such as the traveler's relationship to powerful western cultures, "Islam," and discourses of development, modern Egypt is constructed/confronted through a multitude of "knowledges." This includes familiarity with major 19th century Orientalist works such as the writing of Flaubert and Lane, paintings by Ingres and Gerome, drawings by David Roberts, and photographs by Bonfils and Maxim du Camp, to name only a few. These images have in part provided the "palatability" of imperial ventures. Pharoanic sets such as that featured in a recent Michael Jackson music video, versions of the Thousand and One Nights , and conflated representations of Arabs in Hollywood and the media continue to circulate through the late 20th century.[7]

For the traveler "on location," the guidebook re-orders this orientalizing stock and serves as both an informational supplement and protective navigator. Charted are sites and spectacles waiting for confirmation. This kind of traveler re-animates the scenes through a complex lens involving contradictory notions of representation. If this essay can be called in part a participant-observer study of the tourist imaginary in action, what are the implications for myself as a meta-tourist, Berlitz plus, whose guidebooks are now authored by theorists such as Foucault, Said, and Spivak?

Mapping Imbaba/Tracking Ourselves

Having already visited Greater Cairo's high density tourist sites, the "ancient" pyramids and the popular Islamic counterpart, the Citadel, we (tourists-travelers) discover in the guidebook a more "adventurous" possibility: visiting the Imbaba camel market on the outskirts of the city. What is promised is a more spontaneous, colorful experience for the "independent" traveler.[8]

An ambitious traveler might "unearth" the historical detail that the village of Imbaba is inscribed into Egyptian history as the site of Napoleon's victory over the Mameluks.[9] However, this historical site is far removed from the urban squalor of a late twentieth century shanty-town on the outskirts of Cairo. Egyptian historiography tends to privilege the formal defeat of the Napoleonic venture in Egypt over the lasting impact of this first act of imperial penetration in Egypt. Similarly, transnational capital celebrates the success of the "democratic," "modern" Egyptian state, while the costs of this model, exemplified in places like Imbaba, are swept aside.

The guidebook suggests that for a sense of scenic transition "you" should walk from the middle class section of Sa'afayeen and cross over an old train track into Imbaba. You will soon approach the wide dirt road leading to the camel market, a thoroughfare filled with the "local color" of animal-drawn carts, old Fiat cars, donkeys and busy foot-traffic. The guidebooks do not describe the visible signs of the Egyptian post-modern economy: a polluted canal, the community's main water supply; and the plastic dishes that have replaced the "authentic" pottery (fetishized as "art" by the Egyptian bourgeoisie as well as by western travelers). The canal and the plastic appear as timeless "images of poverty," through the lens of a modernist discourse of western developmentalism. Poverty-producing effects of developmentalist practice are elided. The guidebooks rarely make any of these complex causal connections.

There are two somewhat distinct living quarters of Imbaba. The older, formally mapped part of modern Imbaba emerged in the first half of this century due to the expansion of third world industrial sites from the core working class districts of Boulaq and Shubra near old Cairo to the opposite bank of the Nile. At the time, the rural migrants coming to Imbaba were quickly absorbed into the urban proletariat, a process formally codified by the state with the construction of the Worker's City public housing project in Imbaba as part of Nasser's socialist policies.[10] In the latter part of the twentieth century, a larger, unmapped squatter area has informally absorbed the massive migration from the Egyptian countryside. Due to the inability of the urban economy to incorporate this rural proletariat, the squatter section remains rural in character and retains strong social and often economic ties to the countryside.[11] For these reasons, this part of Imbaba consists of struggling "outsiders." Among the displaced peasantry here, women tend to be the economic mainstay of family and community, due to their ability to secure wage-labor as maids in the wealthier parts of town.[12] In addition, women replicate village economic activities in the city, raising small livestock, in particular goats and chickens, on their roofs. The products of these animals (eggs, yogurt, and goat cheese) are then sold informally. Some women (or their male kin) go as far as taking multiple bus routes to the middle class and wealthier neighborhoods to sell their products door to door. The men are also engaged in a multitude of activities in the informal sector, such as carpentry, hauling, and re-fluffing the cotton batting in mattresses.

It all appears spontaneous for the traveler on the way to the camel market watching the children herding a few goats, the men praising their salted, dried fish, and the elderly women selling their day's cheese supply or the ever-present emblem of the post-modern economy of the Egyptian poor-- plastic.[13] These routines of labor are spectacularized as a circus of activity, a "pastoral chaos" for our enchanted consumption en route to the camel market.

Encounters "Inside" the Market

We find the space of the market separated from the neighborhood by a mudbrick wall. This is in distinct contrast to the cement walls defining the stores and stalls of the Kit Kat shopping district in an older section of Imbaba. (The name "Kit Kat" suggests a very different relationship to modernity available to this urban working class but not to the squatters surrounding the camel market.) As we approach the gate leading into the compound, an entrance fee of one Egyptian pound, about 40 U.S. cents, is collected by managers running the market.[14] The logic of a global division of labor gets immediately read at the gate: it is understood that a Filipina domestic worker accompanying a group of western or third world businessmen, diplomats, and their families is not here to "gaze," and thus as a worker in the international circuit of capital is not charged. For those designated (fee-paying) tourists, the market's authentic "inside" begins.

The division of compounds in the market's interior articulates localized effects of the international division of labor. The camel trade occupying the western half operates through an extended hierarchy of middlemen, in contradistinction to other side. The eastern half serves as weekly market for the squatter community. Here, in one of three mudbrick sub- divisions, women sell smaller livestock, goats and sheep. In the adjoining compound donkeys and work-horses are on exhibit for local buyers. They are used in the informal economy (to pull food- carts, transport goods or people) and in small-scale agricultural fields which persist in these urban areas. Wandering through, we see a "photo-opportunity:" the animals' speed and strength are tested, and crowds gather round for the entertainment. The feminine compliment is imaged as women selling home-made handicrafts and popular religious icons to be worn by larger animals. The gendering of "scenes" is part of the authenticating process of a tourist imaginary.

The entrance money is ultimately connected to the older camel business, while the eastern half of the market is excluded from the contract. From the position of the displaced peasantry, the "entertainment" they indirectly provide can be had for free. The informal tourist economy at large is inaccessible to the Imbaba squatter community, due to lack of resources (owning a share in a taxi), skills (a command of "pidgin" English), and contacts (participation in Dr. Ragab's papyrus empire, a daily reenactment of pharaonic agricultural life for tourist photographs). Therefore, the quickest growing industry in Egypt, which enables sections of the middle and working classes to survive, has remained closed to the rural proletariat. In the last few years there has been only a slight effort to engage the tourist trade at the squatters' market: the number of women's handicraft stalls expanded from two to three. While an attempt is being made, particularly by girls, to get tourists to buy cloth or metal ornaments worn by donkeys, for the sophisticated traveler these are just "cheap" trinkets. The crudely crafted hand of Fatima might be purchased precisely because there is "embarrassingly" little for the westerner to buy here.

The entrance fee legitimates the tourist's presence and is perceived as a temporary right to gaze both with the "naked eye" and photographic lenses. The tourist's inability to purchase "authentic" material goods is consoled by the gaze and its prosthetic-like extension, the camera. Even for the more politically conscious tourist, the cash transaction legitimates an image- making free-for-all. It is precisely this dissecting gaze that creates its own "Orient." One Friday morning I am an uncomfortable witness to a dispute between an old woman and some camera- wielding tourists. The woman has been cooking tea in the mule and horse compound. She sits on the ground next to her cooker draped in black gauze with an intricate facial tattoo, something which is common among rural and Bedouin women of her age-group. While the old woman, and later her kin, make it clear to the tourists that she does not want to be photographed (gestures and voices that undoubtedly communicate across cultural divides), one particular female tourist uses the general commotion of this debate to proceed to take pictures. While the group eventually leaves with their "treasure," from this point on the old woman completely covers her face--only to be re- invented as a veiled "Oriental woman" by the tourists to follow.[15]

As we enter the third compound in the eastern half of the market the landscape has shifted away from the animals and the gender division of sellers. Cheap mass-produced clothing, cloth and used military dry goods are for sale. The presence of these assembled goods signals a connection to complex networks outside the market.[16][16] Some of the customers include the Sudanese camel transporters who venture over to the "local" side of the market. Among those passing through, whether camel transporters, tourists or local members of the displaced rural proletariat, the "inside" of the market is constituted by outsiders and well-traveled goods.

While the suq is a weekly market integral to the local squatter community, the touristic presence aside, it is still an inter-national site of sorts which subsumes the entire camel populated westside. Prior to arriving at Cairo's market hundreds of camels are herded in a month long journey from the Kordofan province in northern Sudan to Drau, north of Aswan by northern Sudanese men, a pastoral proletariat.[17] From Drau the camels are shipped by rail or truck to Cairo. Owned by wealthy northern Sudanese merchants, mostly Bedouin, the camels are tended and sold by Egyptian and Sudanese middlemen. The camels are what we, the tourists, come to see as a main attraction. But no matter how prosperous the business appears, it is a fading one, on the decline since the destruction of the caravan trade between Egypt, the Sudan, and Central Africa in the late nineteenth century. The mechanization of Egyptian agriculture further displaced the camel trade in this century. While the occasional camel gets sold to a Delta farmer for the hauling of crops, the last vestiges of a dying trade are hauled away in Japanese pick-up trucks to the state slaughter houses and occasionally to the sites of mass tourism, where the "ancientness" of the camel caravan can be reconjured in the tourist imaginary.[18]

In the late twentieth century, the local kin-bound Cairene squatter struggling for daily survival and the northern Sudanese camel transporter holding on to a fading "ancient" trade have a limited encounter in the camel market.[19] This is rooted in the historical relationship between Sudan and Egypt and in a continually reinforced construction of the Bedouin "other" within Egyptian hegemonic culture. Additionally, unanchored by local kinship ties, the Sudanese's free-floating masculinity designates him as another kind of outsider by the local community. Thus, the exchange is limited to the sale of a pair of well-worn army boots.

Some transactions themselves are exclusive, producing different combinations of outsiders. Occasionally one of the transient male vendors lined up along the mudbrick walls outside the formal market offers images of women on torn out pages from western magazines to Sudanese or western men. Hidden under the salted fish, I catch a glimpse of these re- circulated images, unavailable to me as the other gender.

Who also "meets" at the market, via the tourists and international routes, are northern and southern Sudanese. Egypt, largely because of its loosely policed southern border, has become a refuge for large numbers of southern Sudanese fleeing the civil war. Most of the refugees struggle to survive in Cairo.[20] It is these young male southern Sudanese who have increasingly ventured to the westside of the market in Imbaba to sell northern Sudanese hand-crafted knives to tourists. A sad irony here is that southern Sudanese offer the cultural products of the North, although the north/south civil war is responsible for their displacement. Away from mainstream tourist sites, the camel market is a place they can peddle their imports in less threatening conditions. They encounter the western traveler who has left the overpopulated tourist paths for different but not unrelated reasons: in search of artifacts and other evidence of the Orient. A key word of the foundational lexicon of a tourist imaginary, "authenticity" constructs a particular relation between a nostalgic west and its other. Is it a sign of survivalist cosmopolitanism that the southern Sudanese continue to sell these "authentic" knives among the tourists?

Main Attraction(s)

The camel market as an "unofficial" tourist site is attractive for revealing reasons. Appealing to the variously self-styled "adventurous" tourist, the market is not as yet on the luxury tour bus route and not a spectacle staged for tourism. In contrast, the women hired by the Cairo Marriott hotel to stage traditional bread-making for the Ramadan feast, perform in "native dress" but their audience is not afforded the imaginings of "discovery" as local activity in its own milieu. Compared with the aggressive tourist industry at a "historical," i.e., momumentally ordained, site the tourist may be more ignored rather than solicited, enabling a fortuitous encounter with "daily life." Encounters appear spontaneous because there is a predominant sense that business is being conducted around everyday matters outside the tourist trade. They are not performing for us. This encourages a fishbowl attitude toward the locals: they are too absorbed to notice that they are being observed.

We, the tourists, travel here to look, but at the same time become a spectacle ourselves. This was aptly expressed by a local goat butcher who approached our group and gruffly said, "Our children come to look at you." His response to our scrutiny was a rebuttal: it is the foreigners who are the objects of curiosity. As a consistent visual part of the market landscape, we have probably produced more tension and amusement than economic benefit. Stepping in animal droppings, stampeded by runaway camels, awed by the intricate "ritual" of goat butchering, we aim our cameras at "indigenous" life while attempting to keep the other tourists out of the frame. Absorbed in these experiences of discovery, we might not recognize our own state of appearances.[21]

While tourists have been written about as a ridiculous-looking people that stand out in global relief juxtaposed with local peoples and spaces, we are also a privileged class. Some practices utilizing photography and ethnographic film, for example, have politicized the irony of these visual and economic incongruencies.[22] Meanwhile, much of western literature and cinema rework the trope of the civilized traveler/exotic other encounter. The western traveler (cum colonizer), despite moments of vulnerability, always inhabits the center of the narrative, positioned as the protagonist through an imperial imaginary. In order to go beyond a mere replication of a colonial epistemology, it is precisely this dominant presence that needs to be decentered. Strategies include critiques of kinds of "information" and "evidence." Analyses of hegemonic productions of empirical truths and their necessary "gaps" may contribute to understandings of the investments in a particular "version." The numerous endnotes here might suggest the range of connections and competing knowledges that are both absent and in excess of this text. Counter- hegemonic efforts must not only produce alternative representations and critical ideas but instigate tactical reversals and juxtapositions. In linking copresences at the market, I don't intend to smooth away the confrontations or complexities.[23] Rather, my intention is to demystify the imagined "inscrutabilities" that mask larger systems of cultural/economic production, further imploding the paradigmatic binaries of inside/outside and other discursively situated relations of power.

Our tourist presence at the Imbaba market is only a component in a transcultural space that is part of a larger economic system made up many "outsides." Of course, it is also connected to a massive tourist industry abetted and regenerated by multinational capitalism, Oriental lore, and the western media. This is a relationship which transmits a cultural/ imperial imaginary with very material effects. While tourist-third world relations are not simply replications of past colonial relations, they can be examined as not totalizing but complicated replacements functioning in global circulations of power/ capital and in western configurations of racial/sexual difference.[24]

In the camel market, having paid for access to the local scenery, we eventually reach the largest section where a hundred male camels are "on exhibit." At the rear is a "scene" which immediately draws our attention. Several camels are struggling with their male tenders on the top of a large mound as they are being forcibly pushed onto pick-up trucks. An "extra"-animated spectacle is perceived through the muscular and vocal conflict between the two groups. We find one version of Thousand And One Nights in the late 20th century precisely when gazing in awe at camels being packed up for the slaughter-house, not the caravan. The meat will be marked for consumption by the rural proletariat displaced from the countryside due to, among other factors, western agro-business and world-bank policies. In other words, this sight/site exemplifies the collision between the tourist imaginary and the materialization of conditions created by multinational capitalism: a highly "postmodern" scene.

The tourist/traveler comes in search of a pre-visualized imagery. After the Egyptian Museum (viewed as an authentic but lifeless collection of objects), the medieval Khan al-Khalili (the bazaar that most tourists recognize as a bona-fide tourist trap but where they giddily indulge in the ritual of bargaining for souvenirs nonetheless), and the Nile Hilton (provides "safe" but "exotically" produced multinational hotel food) we find the camel market and confirm our Arabian fantasies. There are certain allowances for modernity here, as the camels are being hauled away in the back of Japanese pick-up trucks, tennis shoes and mirrored sunglasses accompany traditional dress, and lengthy outdoor electrical cords connect portable television sets atop bamboo crates. But what is not acknowledged by the tourist is that the very site deemed comparatively "authentic," after traversing a very old city like Cairo, is a microcosm of third world debt and a postmodern economy that includes tourists with imperial imaginaries equipped to tame the visual incongruences. This is a circuit which discourages thinking about transcultural encounters as a system of uncomplicated reciprocity.

Breaking Terms
Imagination goes with us on our journey, a thrilling and beautiful companion. Modern purposefulness gives place to plurality of sensation; explanation is shamed - if not always silenced-- by mystery. (Hazzard xviii) [Emphasis added]
In this paper I have hinted at the political economy of a complex site. Cairo's camel market is perceived very differently through the contradictable lens of a tourist imaginary that deems it both chaotic and quaint, exhilaratingly new and exotically familiar. The traveler, fashioned as explorer and witness, seeks to discover "authentic" images through a conflation of past and present inspired by colonial cultural production. What is recovered instead, unwittingly in varying degrees, are conditions of late twentieth century capitalism. Yet, the traveler's imagination manages to shroud explanation in mystery . A poetic plurality of sensation, drawn from an limited and recombinative stock, displaces a consciousness of imperial purposefulness .

Finally, it bears repeating that my attempt to textually foreground the tensions and inequities between kinds of travel and its "third worlding" of peoples can too easily reproduce a kind of imperializing gaze, not a multiplicity of voices.[25] While I work to demystify the centrality and authority of the tourist/traveler as imperial construct, there is a risk of restoration in the very attempt to visualize these "scenes," things seen. My narrative employment of "we" walking through the site, as acknowledgment of writer and reader presence, cannot avoid authorial circumscription. The many "outsides" of the market can effectively be turned "outside-in."

The "information" presented here (reconfigured from what I've gathered as history, literature, rumor, conversation, and "fieldwork") might at least suggest the circuits and encounters of subversive knowledges. What are the objects/images produced from these "postmodern" juxtapositions? What kinds of reading of their transcultural functions, including the ways they cross over some, but not all, boundaries, could be useful in the rupturing of late 20th-century "imperial meaning making?" (Pratt, 4)

In part, this essay developed from the dual need to articulate my "experiences" in Egypt from 1988 to 1990 and to re-imagine my impending return. I would like to warmly thank the following respondents to earlier drafts of this paper as well as those who persisted: Claudia Castaneda, Jim Clifford, Virginia Dominguez, Stephen Heath, L. Hyun-Yi Kang, Martina Rieker, and Roz Spafford.


1. See Edward Said's section on categories of authorship and writing "consciousness" in Orientalism (157-158). Back to main text

2. See also the curiously titled Veiled Half-Truths (Mabro, ed.), a compilation of various 19th and early 20th century accounts of travelers often conveying their disappointment, and sometimes their disgust, in what they discovered not to be "up to par" with their imaginations. Back to main text

3. I am indebted to Mary Pratt's valuable recent work, Imperial Eyes. Tracking various "continuities and mutations in the imperial imaginary" through travel writing genres from the 17th through the late 20th century, Pratt highlights the discursive productions of different "contact zones" and its effects on both euro-western and colonized cultures. See also ch. 1 in Mitchell for a discussion of "Egypt" as represented in the 1889 world's fair in Paris. Back to main text

4. For an expansion on the "splitting" of colonial discourse, "identity effects," and the colonial subject see Homi Bhabha (125-133). Back to main text

5. See Cultural Survival Quarterly's special issue, "The Tourist Trap: Who's Getting Caught?," featuring several case studies on the impact of tourism on "third world" cultures. Also, while tourism must be understood as only one form of travel, many kinds of travel benefit from the industry of mass tourism (e.g., competitive airfare, and kinds of accessibility such as hotel accommodations and specialty guidebooks). Back to main text

6. Sample the "trope-o-graphic" range of travel advertisements that employ primitivist discourses, e.g., in the New York Times' "The Sophisticated Traveler" or the Conde Nast Traveler magazine. (Note such reoccurring themes, the leisure/labor couplet, "Aruba: your pleasure is our only business" or the search for the primordial self, "Mexico: cheaper than your analyst...") Back to main text

7. Consider the juxtaposition of Scheherazade's production of a 1001 stories, the amusement of the powerful crucial to her very survival, and the "Oriental" images generated by a (post)colonial fancy/economy, crucial to hegemonic power. (Poe's "The Thousand-and- Second-Tale of Scheherazade" offers a curiously macabre version where the storyteller is finally "throttled" by the king. Her only consoling thought is the king's deprivation of "many inconceivable adventures" in the event of her death. See Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.) Back to main text

8. However, a visit to the hyper-mythologized Giza pyramids, a site invested with intrigue and relentless tourist promotion, is the ultimate goal for many New Age pilgrims. A visiting friend's encounter, one of many examples of tourists regarding the behavior of other tourists, took place in a humid, oxygen-deprived ancient death chamber overcrowded by chanters (with crystals) as one lay in the sarcophagus. The necropolis of a (extinct) sophisticated civilization becomes an exoticized site, evoking the mysteries and knowledges of the Past and the Future for the alienated in late capitalism. Back to main text

9. The historical detail is not unlike a pottery shard utilized to corroborate or refute dominant versions of the past. Yet, as a "trace" or archaeological "remain," it is not necessarily linked to an understanding of the present in the Foucauldian sense. Consider, for example, the impact of the collection and dissemination of the multi-volume Description de L'Egypte. A taxonomy of sorts commissioned by Napoleon, it remains an important archive for both Egyptian and western constructions of the Egyptian past. Photographic-like documents also strongly serve this purpose as "evidence," but may also be more authoritatively invested with the "reality effect." Considering the primacy of the sight of frozen moments, which are nonetheless animated by popular narratives, photographic archives are given a greater status for reinventing/ replacing "reality" as far as it is constituted by an imaginary. Back to main text

10. See Janet Abu-Lughod. Back to main text

11. Decisions on rural-urban migration in Egypt are made according to kin and village ties in the city. Thus, it is not uncommon to find the entire service industry (doormen, porters, car attendants, etc.) of a street in wealthier neighborhoods dominated by people from a certain village. For rural migrants coming to Cairo in the last twenty years who can no longer be absorbed in the urban economy, village and kin ties in the city are not only important for survival, but contact with the village remains structurally important (i.e., farming out of children, prolonged periods of "visits" in the village, particularly by the women, etc.). Back to main text

12. Recognizing the economic and political importance of this source of employment for the urban poor, the Egyptian government not only has enacted, but actually enforces legislation which prohibits foreigners from importing their "own" maids. Utilizing an array of racist metaphors, people engaged in multinational corporate development or the diplomatic circuit continually try to circumvent this prohibition. Obviously, it is a lot easier to control an illegal Filipina maid than members of the rural and urban proletariat who have networks of kin to fall back upon should the need arise. Back to main text

13. On the relationship between plastic and clay see Koptiuch, Poetics of Petty Commodity Production. Back to main text

14. At the more established tourist sites in Egypt, extra fees are charged for cameras and videos. For example, at the Coptic Museum, the entrance fee is five Egyptian pounds (the cost of fifty local bus rides), while the use of a still camera is an additional five pounds and fifteen for a video camera! This rating implies a savvy logic of the value and hierarchy of the gaze. Back to main text

15. There are many impressive inquiries into western women's complicity in the construction of the third world "other." One recent piece that interrogates this "relationship" within left academic discourse is Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes." For a psychoanalytic reading of the "unconscious site" of Orientalism, see Meyda Yegenoglu's article "Veiled Fantasies." Back to main text

16. Because uniforms and supplies largely have to be bought by the conscript, military goods actively circulate through the rural-urban proletarian economy. Military conscription plays a major role in the life of the urban and rural poor, generally involving a 6-year service for unskilled labor (1-2 years for university educated men, and very negotiable for the elite). Along with labor migration (temporary or permanent), it remains the fundamental experience outside the village community for young rural men. As a rule military service is done as far away from one's place of origin as possible (young southern peasants directing traffic in urban Cairo is one of many interesting outcomes of this policy). Back to main text

17. Louis Werner made an ethnographic film of this journey in March 1988, entitled Voice of the Whip. Studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo, the elite colonial institution of higher learning in Egypt, he met a northern Sudanese student whose father was one of the few merchants left engaged in the camel trade. This transcultural connection afforded Werner the opportunity to produce the film, which was broadcast in England and the USA in those popular series that both universalize and peculiarize: BBC's "Under the Sun" and A&E's "Footsteps of Man." Back to main text

18. For a history of the caravan trade see Walz. While camels are rarely used in Egyptian agriculture in the Delta, they are still common in the economically depressed agricultural regions in Upper Egypt, particularly in the harvest of sugar cane. Outside the Egyptian Oases, the only other remaining weekly camel market in Egypt is in a small village in Upper Egypt between Luxor and Aswan. Back to main text

19. For a discussion of the role of "the Bedouin" in the discursive formation of the Egyptian citizen in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the construction of the "peasant" in modern Bedouin identity, see Lila Abu-Lughod. Within the Sudan, considering Egypt's various historical attempts to colonize the northern Sudan, there is a profound sense of Egypt as western- tainted. The northern Sudanese author Tayeb Salih, in his novel Seasons of Migration to the North, has illustrated some of these notions in an entertaining dialogue between elderly Sudanese villagers about the loose women of Egypt. Back to main text

20. The number of stranded southern Sudanese (as well as Ethiopian and Eretrian) refugees in Cairo (and to a lesser extent in Aswan in Upper Egypt) has led to the inauguration of numerous, primarily western church sponsored, aid programs. One of the largest programs, which includes a basket weaving and shirt-printing workshop (geared towards the tourist market) is situated within the main Anglican church in Cairo, which was an important architectural and cultural symbol in the heyday of colonialism. Back to main text

21. In what can be termed a transcultural/postmodern experience, in my first few months in Cairo, I watched a "rerun" of the U.S. TV series The Loveboat on one of Egyptian national television's three channels. A "situation comedy" employing a hedonistic fantasy formula that combines tourism and romantic interaction, this episode added "exotic" intrigue as the cruise ship traveled up the Nile. The Loveboat crew and passengers encounter anthropologists, thieves and mummies while stumbling over Arabic pronunciations and local customs. The humor, designated for a western television audience, was clearly rooted in the manipulation of Orientalist tropes. For the multitude of Egyptians who spend years paying off their television-sets, the humor is produced through watching amazingly wealthy white people behave like fools due to their lack of a Gramscian common sense. Back to main text

22. I refer to those interventions resisting the role of a cinematic apparatus that reproduces dominant, all-seeing positions. As a dominant technology and system of signs, a western cinematic apparatus is a constitutive part of a 20th-century tourist imaginary. Compare the cinematic sensibility of an imperial imaginary to Benedict Anderson's descriptions of "national imagination" in Imagined Communities. Perhaps the most recent successful ethnographic film on tourism is Dennis O'Rourke's Cannibal Tours, an interesting "cannibalization" (i.e., the making of a spectacle) of wealthy European tourists in Papua New Guinea. Back to main text

23. In many instances this copresence is "uncomfortably" confrontational. For example, how to represent the situation at the Sinai beaches, where the Egyptian police (traffic police and other low- ranking positions are usually held by military conscripts) patrol the waterfronts to ensure that western women keep their tops on? A moral/cultural clash ensues; sexual politics (i.e., the entangled differences of gender, race, class, nation) between an over-zealous sun worshiper arrogantly disregarding local customs and a young peasant conscript bestowed with some, albeit limited, temporary authority (perhaps the only time in his life). Back to main text

24. An interesting study of the inventions/replacements of colonial and post- colonial relations would be a comparison of 19th-century colonial postcards such as discussed in Alloula's The Colonial Harem with current touristic images. See, for example, Cynthia Enloes' Bananas, Beaches, and Bases (19) depicting "your" late 20th-century dilemma (e.g., in the position of a British woman traveling in Portugal) attempting to choose a pastoral postcard that wasn't "fraught with ideological risks." Back to main text

25. I intend the term "third-worlding" as a reference to active processes of economic and representational imposition by dominant groups over other groups. For an account of these processes within the U.S. geopolitical borders, see Koptiuch's article "Third- Worlding at Home." For an elaboration on debates concerned with polyphonic strategies and representing the subaltern see, among others, Marnia Lazreg (81-107); and Gayatri Spivak (271-313). Back to main text

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Janet. Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." October 28 (1984): 125-133.

Cultural Survival Quarterly: special issue, "The Tourist Trap: Who's Getting Caught?" 6.3 (1982).

Edwards, Amelia. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1878.

Enloes, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hazzard, Shirley. "Points of Departure." The Sophisticated Traveler. Ed. A. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Judy Mabro, ed.Veiled Half-Truths. London/New York: Tauris, 1991.

Koptiuch, Kristin. The Poetics of Petty Commodity Production: Traditional Egyptian Craftsmen in the Postmodern Market. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Texas/Austin, 1989.

---. "Third-Worlding at Home." Social Text 28 (1991).

Lazreg, Marnia. "Feminism and Difference: The Perils of Writing as a Woman on Women in Algeria." Feminist Studies 14.1 (1988): 81-107.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonizing Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Ed. C. Mohanty, C. T., A. Russo, and L. Torres. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

O'Rourke, Dennis. Cannibal Tours. [Film]

Poe, Edgar Allen. Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1944.

Pratt, Mary. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Salih, Tayeb. Seasons of Migration to the North. London: Quartet Books, 1980.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Marxism and Interpretation of Culture. Ed. C. Nelson and L. Gorssberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Walz, Terence. Trade Between Egypt and Bilad as-Sudan. Cairo: Institut Francais d' Archeologie, 1978.

Werner, Louis. Voice of the Whip. [Film] March 1988.

Overview - Programs - Sites of Interest - Events - CS Archives - Home

Last modified: Dec 7, 1998 by Megan O'Patry.
Please send your comments to the Center for Cultural Studies,