A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Amidst Blood and Revolution: Foreign Policy: The Swimsuit Edition

Syria is bleeding; Libya is bleeding; Bahrain is shut down tight. There is real hope in Egypt and Tunisia, light at the end of the tunnel (maybe) in Yemen. Israel and Palestine are frozen in their negotiations. Iran is divided; Iraq still insecure; Afghanistan at war. What to say? We could use a little light relief from the heavy stuff.

Well, I can follow the lead of the august wonks over at Foreign Policy and note their Swimsuit Edition. If it works for Sports Illustrated, why not for Foreign Policy? That's probably not entirely fair. They're trying to make a political point. (Let me note that I deeply respect the rich Foreign Policy website; there is nothing to match their Middle East Channel, and Marc Lynch, of course, is an Ascended Master among those of us who first read him as Abu Aardvark. I'm just deconstructing one post.)

Foreign Policy has posted a "photo essay" called "Once Upon a Time in Egypt." You need to click through nine pages of photos. There's nothing scandalous about the photos. Just folks on a beach in bathing suits in 1959. Bathing suits that, having been around in 1959, would have been considered modest in Joplin, Missouri, where I was at the time. My Mom wore bathing suits like these. But for some reason Foreign Policy has subtitled this thing "Beaches and Bikinis from when Alexandria was Club Med."

I'm shocked, shocked! But only if you're in the Taliban.
"Beaches and bikinis?" I see only one two-piece bathing suit in the collection of pictures, and it's not that revealing. I guess we should be grateful they didn't label it "Burkas and Bikinis," since nobody in Egypt uses the word burka, or wears one. I've never been to a Club Med, but if it doesn't get any more risqué than this, I'll stick to the neighborhood pool.

 Steve Negus at The Arabist has already posted on this. I'll quote his critique shortly. But let's start with the narrative background:
The late 1950s marked the end of an era in Alexandria that had begun in the late 19th century, when the port -- then the largest on the eastern Mediterranean -- emerged as one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities. Europeans -- Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and Germans -- had gravitated to Alexandria in the mid-19th century during the boom years of the Suez Canal's construction, staying through the British invasion of the port in 1882 and the permissive rule of King Farouk in the 1930s and 1940s. Foreign visitors and Egyptians alike flocked to the city's beaches in the summers, where revealing bathing suits were as ordinary as they would be extraordinary today.
But by midcentury, King Farouk -- a lackadaisical ruler in the best of times -- had grown deeply unpopular among Egyptians and was deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1952. Cosmopolitan Alexandria's polyglot identity -- half a dozen languages were spoken on the city's streets -- and indelible links to Egypt's colonial past were an uncomfortable fit with the pan-Arab nationalism that took root under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s and 1960s. "[W]hat is this city of ours?" British novelist Lawrence Durrell, who served as a press attaché in the British Embassy in Alexandria during World War II, wrote despairingly in 1957 in the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, his tetralogy set in the city during its heyday as an expatriate haven. "In a flash my mind's eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today -- and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either." By the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam.

Well, they had to get Durrell in here somewhere, since the image of the Levantine, "polyglot" to use their word, and rather decadent and lascivious Alexandria of the Quartet is a seductive image, but even by 1959 that world, so far as it ever really existed, was already long gone. There was still a real cosmopolitan city, but Durrell's world was always limited to a largely non-Arab upper class.

Let's also note that the folks in this photo belong to a class of their own. The American visitor is a Sephardic Jew of Egyptian background; his apparent significant other is named Odette Tawil and, while the name Tawil tells us little, the name Odette suggests a minority orientation (Copt, Jewish, Maronite).

But then I trip over the statement that King Farouq "was deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1952." I know the CIA tried to cuddle up to the Free Officers after the coup, but who believes the coup was "CIA-backed?"

Then there's this:
By the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam.
Whoa, Nellie. We're blaming this on Mubarak? Oh, sure, he's responsible for 30 years of stasis, nepotism, and oppressive rule; for corruption, killing of demonstrators, and  complete obtuseness to the aspirations of his people. But you're going to blame him for the disappearance of bikinis, too?

Let me start with two isolated memories. Personal anecdotes are hardly historical research, and these are isolated experiences. In the Summer of 1972, my first year in Egypt, I had a three-month temporary membership to the Gezira Club in Cairo, the old Sporting Club of the British era. It's now the hangout of the Cairo elite. At the pool there, one saw plenty of young, elite, Egyptian women in bikinis. Yet on my first trip to Alexandria, which the above post seems to say was much more open till Mubarak, I saw for the first time women in abayas, the traditional black women's dress, bathing in the sea fully clothed. Alexandria even then seemed more conservative than Cairo, but I may have been using a skewed sample.
The Only Two-Piece in the lot seems to be Ms. Fourth from Left. Does this justify the "Beaches and Bikinis" subtitle?

But have things changed that much, or really gone so retrograde? I mentioned Steve Negus' post at The Arabist, called "The Alex Fallacy: Blaming Islamists for Demography,"  and he says:
Foreign Policy runs a series of photos of Alexandrian beaches in 1959, "when Alexandria was once Club Med." But, "by the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam." Except in fact, Alexandria today is probably Club Meddier than it ever was. The only difference between then and now is that while in the 1950s, the party scene was east of the inner harbor (and was then mostly restricted to non-Muslim minority communities), the last time I went out carousing in Alex the party scene was west of the inner harbor, in Agami, and Muslims were fully represented among the scantily-clad, Heineken-drinking gilded shabab.
It's true that the Ikhwan are strong in Alexandria. But -- and someone more familiar with Alexandrian history may correct me -- I doubt that the changes in eastern Alexandria's beach scene had much to do with an Islamic or any other reaction against Hosni Mubarak's "secularism." Rather, they had to do with demography: Nasser squeezed out the minority communities and people from Delta villages moved in, as part of the general trend of rural migration to the cities. A significant proportion of the beach front was taken and given to professional syndicates, which tended to attract a more family-oriented crowd. The party scene then picked up and moved moved 20 kilometers to the west. Or, given that more people have cars now than they used to, beach-crazy shabab simply go to the Sinai or Hurghada. I don't want to give Nasser a pass on his appalling xenophobic policies, but I suspect that the decline of beer and bikinis in eastern Alexandria would have happened anyway.

There's a general and I think erroneous trend to use pictures from the past to suggest that Egypt has become a lot more conservative. It's a bit like watching high society movies from the Depression, and concluding that Americans are a lot poorer today than they were in the 1930s. Yes, young Egyptian women from the 1950s were occasionally photographed wearing miniskirts, whereas today you see a lot of the women downtown wearing hegabs. But those young miniskirt-wearing women from the 1950s represent probably the very top of the social pyramid, whose equivalents today are traveling or working abroad on their own before marriage or otherwise acting in a way that would give a 1950s patriarch an aneurism. I'd even be willing to bet that most of the 1950s elite had less autonomy than all today's middle classes -- who, whether or not they choose to wear a hegab, are out working jobs, choosing their own boyfriends/marriage partners, and creating revolutions.
 I think he nails it here. And, while I haven 't been to Egypt for some years, I have to note that if Alexandria is no longer Club Med, there are actually three real Club Meds in Egypt, in Sinai, Luxor, and on the Red Sea.

The pictures from 1959 no more show everyday Egyptians than do those of the modern Club Meds. The elites, especially the old Levantine elites, always were a separate force. Bikinis may not be as common in Alexandria today, but on the Sinai and Red Sea Rivieras, they are universals. When Israel was about to return Taba in Sinai to Israel, an Egyptian official said something along the lines of, this will make no change, Israelis will still be welcome, the only change is that the girls will have to keep their tops on.

Anecdotally, I hear that in Red Sea resorts like Safaga and Hurghada, far from the Nile Valley and ordinary Egyptians, even that stipulation is often ignored. (I have no direct knowledge, and the whole issue of toplessness on Middle Eastern beaches is a subject for another post, or maybe another blogger.)

So we are left with a bunch of photos of people on a beach in 1959, and a whole lot of heavy duty over-interpretation.

No comments: