Sunday, July 25, 2010

Playing Cards in Cairo

Posted by Chris at 9/4/2008 4:28 PM ...

A few weeks back, Gradmasta over at Arab Media Shack recommended Playing Cards in Cairo as a good read for Westerners wanting some insight into the culture of the city.  He had a few small quibbles with Hugh Miles for not revealing that names had been changed, or discussing whether people gave him permission to write about them, etc...  he also raised a point about the whether the building Miles lived in was really used by De Gaulle and others to organize Free French forces during World War II.  Still, aside from these issues, he declared it worth reading.

I picked it up through last week as an imported item since it isn't otherwise available in the United States.  I found it an interesting and quick read, but do think that Miles needs a few disclaimers about how the information was gathered and which names were changed.  Not having been to Egypt (or any other Middle Eastern country), I can't really discuss issues of accuracy in terms of social mores or habits.

One thing that really stood out for me was his comment on pg. 81 that there is almost no literature beyond religious or technical manuals purchased, with almost no foreign books for sale in Arabic.  Miles argues that the best thing the West could do to spread liberal democratic ideas would be to publish classic texts in Arabic in Egypt.  If you accept the idea that Egypt is the cultural center of the Arab world, this would then do a lot to spread those works throughout the Middle East.

Along these lines, Miles reminds readers that educated Middle Eastern Muslims mostly go into technical and professional fields, and these people are vastly under employed and frustrated by corrupt and inefficient governments end up in extremist movements.  Since the liberal arts are largely viewed as a waste of time in developing economies, these folks have no counter-understanding to use as tools to withstand the assault of extreme theologies.  Since this as a book aimed at a popular audience, no citations are provided, so we have to accept these claims as they are, along with the argument that Palestinians who complete 12 years of education are more likely to become suicide bombers.  This offers a clear contrast to the conceptions most Americans have about Muslim extremists - poor, uneducated, unable to deal with complex problems, etc...

All in all, Playing Cards in Cairo seems an insightful read for getting a more nuanced glimpse into the culture of Cairo's middle classes, and given the importance of Egypt in setting the cultural tone for "the Muslim world", a must read for those of us who don't speak Arabic, and can't get to the region to do our own research.

No comments:

Post a Comment