The juice from Cairo
In Egypt, you no longer have a deep
sense of frustration but rather a form
September 14, 2004
Nema Milaninia recently returned from studying
political science in Cairo. I was curious to know the
mood in that part of the world, so I emailed him a few questions.
Nema is a law student in Southern California and has his own
-- Jahanshah Javid
How would you describe the general mood
in Cairo. Politically, culturally...?
It's important to first note that I have been in Cairo for
the past two years, which given political events in the Middle
East during that time, is a significant point. Politically, I think
the people are frustrated and exasperated.
There is a sense that
the decision to go to war basically humiliated the Arabs. People
felt the war was wrong. More importantly, they truly felt that
by protesting in the streets of Cairo, particularly in front of
Al-Azhar University, they could effectuate some change in the US's
decision to go to war.
As we know now, the Arab opinion did little
to nothing to change the US's course to war. In addition,
the Israeli/Palestinian problem literally serves as a daily reminder
that Arab political opinion is almost making no difference.
remember last year, that Egyptian analysts were fairly optimistic
about the "Roadmap to peace." Egyptian analysts genuinely
felt that it would work. The fact that the roadmap has degenerated,
that Israeli incursions in to the occupied territories continue
with literally no response from the US, that the US invaded and
is occupying Iraq, and that their own leaders essentially do nothing
to evoke influence has directly drained Egyptian (if not Arab)
As a result, you no longer have a deep
sense of frustration, though it still is there, but rather a form
of bitterness and apathy, which is reversed slightly only when
something of major significance takes place, like the assassination
of [Hamas leader] Sheikh Yassin [earlier this year].
Depending on what your notions of culture are,
the Egyptians are a very distinct people. First, Egyptian culture
is still divided
amongst territorial and tribal lines. You can't really compare
Egyptian culture with other Arabs. Even within the nation, culture
changes per locality. You will notice that Cairenes, Alexandrians,
those in Aswan, all generally maintain different cultural practices
and are not afraid to brag about it.
Generally, however, I would
say that there is a deep sense of society in Egyptian culture.
The actions of one person are never seen in isolation, but rather
as part of a whole. A friend mine most appropriately put it "marriage
in our culture, unlike the States, is not seen as the enjoining
of two people, rather as the blend of two families."
type of mentality is pervasive. It is rude to sit in a taxi and
not speak to the driver. It is inappropriate to see a person
who you recognize and not engage in a conversation with them.
is not to say that there is no concept of privacy in Egyptian
culture, but that privacy is shelved below social engagement
I'm amazed how Hosni Mubarak has stayed
in power for so long. Is there any hope for Egypt to move
a true democracy?
I think there is. I think the reason Mubarak
has stayed in power for so long is because, for the most part,
he has satisfied the
masses. It's interesting to note that literally every time
Egypt decides to forego bread subsidies, the people rise. In fact,
in order to decrease bread subsidies, the government covertly decreased
the size of bread.
Even then, however, the people found out and
protested. Thus, the stability of the regime has really been
based on being able to provide basic needs. However, since
its become more and more difficult in sustaining subsidies in
light of movements toward economic development. As such, the
for Mubarak's stability is increasingly becoming threatened.
That being said, there is a movement toward democratization,
an extremely slow one. Civil society has become much more dynamic,
human right treaties are being given extra consideration, and there
have been movements towards the eradication of security status
But the picture is pretty cloudy. I'm not sure
what will happen after Mubarak. There have been talks that
his son has
popular backing by the youth, but in the end I don't think
anyone wants to see another Mubarak ruling. Moreover, given the
relative power of the military in Egypt, I'm not sure a non-military
individual could effectively rule the country.
Who do young Egyptians look up to, or have
most respect for?
That's a tough question and I'm not sure if I can give
a just answer. Being at the American University in Cairo, I was
generally exposed to the opinion of the elitist youth and
opinion should be framed from that perspective.
There is no one
person Egyptian youth look to. Their opinion is pretty much shaped
by their political, social, religious backgrounds. For example,
amongst the more "Islamist" students, Amr
generally become a source of inspiration for them, whereas, the
more politically savvy students look up to [former Foreign Minister] Amr
if Moussa were to announce himself for elections Mubarak would
for once receive some serious competition.
popular culture, Moussa is considered a more dignified, intelligent,
and independent individual towards the United States in representing
Egypt via-a-via the world community. In fact, one of the more infamous
songs by Shabaan Abdel-Rahim, a singer more known for his lyrics
and popular appeal then actual music abilities, stated I hate "Israel
and I love Amr Moussa."
What do they think of the Iran under the
A friend of mine shared a joke about this with me (who's
name I'll withhold out of confidentiality). It's ironic
that the government which so many Iranians despise, is generally
looked up to by the majority of Egyptians that I've come
across; although, for superficial and ignorant reasons.
to understand that when Egyptians see Iran, they see a government
which is a) Islamic; b) stands up against Israel; c) doesn't
visibly back down to the US; and d) is potentially the most democratic
state in the Middle East. On almost every occasion where I've
talked to an Egyptian and been asked about my ethnicity, whenever
my answer has been "Iranian" they have replied helwa! (great!)
and proceeded to express their praise for us. So I guess to that
extent, I owe the Iranian government a bit of gratitude
for making it easier for me during taxi cab negotiations.
Where's your favorite hang-out place? What's
special about it?
I'm extremely preferential with Cafés that have political
and social history, like Café Riche (downtown) and Coffee
In general, however, I have to admit that I'm
an extreme fan of Khan-a Khalili, the Egyptian bazaar. First, the
bazaar is located in the dead center of Islamic Cairo who's
architecture alone emanates history and culture. Second, the noise,
smell, saturation of merchandise for sale, and constant rattling
of shopkeepers bargaining is enough to keep one second occupied
with a multitude of sensations.
In reality, you can stand still
at any point in the bazaar and spend a day absorbing the details
of your surrounding. I'm afraid that it's a very Orientalist
point of view, but then again what type of Iranian would I be without
love for the market.
Have you been to the movie theaters? Personally,
I like Arabic cinema. They remind me of Iranian movies from
the 1950s and 60s.
I think Arabic cinema has become too much like the Iranian movies
from the 1950s and 60s. Let it be known that the most positive
contributions from our "revolution" has been the rise
of education amongst women and the evolution of Iranian cinema
In particular, Egyptian movies have become a
competition between directors to see who can push the threshold
more. Who can show the most skin, film the intimacies of men
and women, and push the themes of sex, money and drugs. It's
a step backwards for Egyptian cinema seeing how traditionally
directors were known for their story-telling abilities, rather
then their voyeurism.
Have you interacted with other Iranians in
Absolutely, particularly with the Iranian students who are
studying abroad in Egypt. It's actually always interesting
to gauge Iranian
perception of Cairo, particularly the older generation who
experienced the revolution in 1979.
I remember when my mother
year, she couldn't help but expressing how similar Egypt
is to pre-Revolutionary Iran. An identical comment was made
by a friend of mine who visited only last week. In fact,
if I remember
correctly, a writer for Iranian.com made the same point upon
their visit as well.
What will you miss most about Egypt?
Fresh juice. It's ironic that organic, fresh juice in the
States costs double or more the cost of synthetic, genetically
modified products. Egypt, on the other hand, has juice
bars speckled across literally every street where any of
(i.e. orange, pomegranate, mango, and guava) cost roughly
20 cents versus
packaged drinks that begin at least five times that price.
The juice man has truly become my one true Egyptian
hero. Where else
can in the world can I place a torn-up, muddied, Egyptian
pound (which in the States wouldn't afford a gumball)
a large glass of fresh orange juice. Given the convenience
and benefits of this commodity, it is not surprising
that I have
become an addict.