A very good likeness

How does one “tarnish Egypt’s image abroad”? The curiosity of the statement is belied by its preponderance in our political and intellectual life (there are even laws punishing would-be tarnishers). But even the most national-image-abroad-conscious among us must admit that it is very curious indeed. For the statement to make any kind of sense we need to assume that “Egypt” is some sort of giant secret society, which communicates in a secret and impenetrable language of its own. Presumably — since we boast day and night of the unprecedented nature of the freedom of expression we’ve come to enjoy in past decades — we can complain of poverty, corruption, authoritarianism, whatever; but only so long as we keep it entre nous, in the family. How do we do this? In sign language? By whispering, so that those “abroad” won’t hear? Only in Arabic? The language can be translated, after all, and not solely by errant Egyptians.

The sheer irrationality of the Egypt’s- image-abroad example serves here merely to illustrate a number of interesting aspects of our relationship with the “West.” Bureaucratic minds work in mysterious and often unfathomable ways, but the fact that the state bureaucracy habitually resorts to such a clearly bizarre notion is surely an indication that the notion enjoys “hegemonic value.” It must strike some responsive chord among the intellectual elite, and — through it — the people, domestically if not “abroad.”

It does. In many ways, the prevalent sense of our relationship with the “West” remains as naéve and unrefined as that revealed by El- Gabarti as he tried to take in (with an often wicked sense of irony that we’ve meanwhile managed to lose) the “shock” of the Napoleonic conquest over 200 years ago: the profound sense of inadequacy; awe mixed with envy, fear and antagonism; the pathetic comfort derived from the notion that while “they” can defeat and subjugate us, over and over again, we possess superior “values,” which, jealously and most hypocritically guarded, make us winners all the same. It is thus that the Iraqi regime can celebrate the anniversary of its victory in the Gulf War (vicious dictatorships are, for some reason, among the supreme expressions of the superiority of our values).

And then we have Mohamed Ali and Ismail, missions and modernisation, the drive to catch up, to face up to the challenge of the West, Al-Afghani and Mohamed Abduh.

I don’t know exactly when the contemporary usage of hadara (civilisation, and especially urban civilisation) evolved. It shouldn’t be difficult to find out. But we’ve become obsessed with it, employing it in an ever more innovative and peculiar syntax. The traffic police exhort us to “civilised (i.e., European) behaviour” on the streets. Echoing the official line, your taxi driver, even as he rushes madly through a traffic light, will tell you in no uncertain terms that our traffic problems are caused by the uncivilised behaviour of everybody else. Suluk hadari and sura hadariya (civilised behaviour and presenting a civilised image) are especially important at tourist sites (at some resorts the police ensures such a “civilised image” by regularly rounding up “uncivilised” — read poor-looking — sorts, which in terms of protecting our “image abroad” is as self- defeating as arresting Saadeddin Ibrahim). Anything from a USAID-funded new sewage system to a behind-the-scenes-Saddam- Hussein-sponsored attempt to wed revived Islamism to declining pan-Arab nationalism may be described as a mashrou’ hadari (translated inevitably, if clumsily, as “a civilisational project”).

Our image abroad is one side of the picture, the dangers of abroad coming in and wreaking havoc the other. In both cases we’re supposed to be a monolithic, undifferentiated mass. Indeed, it is by presenting a single visage, however hypocritical, to an equally undifferentiated West that we guard against that West coming between us, subverting our cherished values — our last line of defence, since in everything else that counts we’ve conceded defeat and submission.

We’re all kings of our castles, even if, when we go out to work, we grovel at the boss’s boots.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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