Society / Egypte
Malls, the latest fad in Cairo
Daikha Dridi - 24/06/2008
He finds himself trapped, for no apparent reason, he can’t escape anymore, imprisoned with other hostages, strange beings: an Islamist and his veiled wife, a police officer or trying to appear as such, an American Orientalist, probably an impostor, and an antiques smuggler…
This happy crowd finally manages to escape owing to a fire which destroys everything. This is the plot of Musiqa al Mall (The Mall Music), a novel written by Egyptian author Mahmud al Wardani, who asserts that shopping centres are unbearably oppressive places where, he tells critics, “young adolescents resemble each other so much that they look like industrial products”. Whereas Al Wardani, born in 1950, who passed by prison in the 70’s for leftist student activism, openly rejects the flourishing of shopping centres in Egypt, other novelists in their thirties, such as Ahmad Alaidy, author of “Takouna Abbas El Abd” (Being Abbas El Abd), moves within the mall’s world without judging the worth of what would seem to be his “natural environment” and which is above all a place for flirting and dates. Though these authors write in a different literary language, with different generation voices, both novels bear witness to the (very recent) omnipresence of malls as an incontrovertible urban site of Cairo.
These literary examples are reported, among others, by Egyptian sociologist Mona Abaza in her book The Changing Consumer Cultures of Modern Egypt. Cairo's Urban Reshaping , which describes in detail the innumerable changes in habits that Egyptian consumers have undergone since the total liberalisation of the country’s economy.
By giving an insightful description of the boom of malls in Egypt, Mona Abaza tries to tackle the question, among others, on how the most affluent Egyptian social classes have passed from the so-called “cosmopolitan” culture to “an era of global consumerism”.
The author takes the malls in Cairo as the starting point. He then analyses the sites’ topographies, the identities of owners and customers, as well as the particular sociology that develops within some of these complexes, which have become the favourite destination of youngsters coming from the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
In the wake of the malls, other consumer habits are also tackled: the new fashion that the author calls “ethnic chic” and “Islamic chic”, but also the re-composing of Cairo’s urban landscape and the new faces that old neighbourhoods flaunt today, transformed by the economic neo-liberalism, whether posh like the famous island of Zamalek or popular like the no lesser famous district of Bulaq.
This mall frenzy appeared, according to Mona Abaza, thanks to South East Asia and to the desire of the bigger cities of the Middle East like Beirut, Dubai and Cairo to emulate Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, aiming at becoming poles of attraction of “international shopping”.
Thus, City Stars, the newest mall in Cairo advertises itself as “the greatest shopping mall in the Middle East and Europe” and was built, they tell us, in order to keep shoppers from taking an airplane to go shopping in Dubai…
The author, begins by recalling that in 1998, 43% of the built surfaces of Great Cairo where informal habitats where 57% of the city’s population lived, and that experts forecasted 66% of informal habitats by 2020, asks herself if “the whole Middle East is bound to end up in a landscape torn between antagonistic areas: on one side slums and on the other the immense and utopian commercial-suburban complexes”.
Although this may not affect the increase of areas of poverty in the city, some of the shopping centres and of Cairo’s business wheels were built, underlines Mona Abaza, on the ruins of popular neighbourhoods like Bulaq, where the destitute dwellers were forced to leave further away from the city.
In Brazil, reports our sociologist, the success of shopping centres, which amounted to only one in 1980 to become 19 in 1995, was due to the fact that with the rise of urban violence, these areas offered “non-violent and guarded spaces”. But in Cairo, suggests the author, the success of the mall probably owes to the lack of public gardens or recreation areas as well as to the city’s heat and pollution.
“Even before the official opening of the City Stars Mall, writes Mona Abaza , thousands of people started gathering there in the evening, just for an aimless walk and to admire this grandiose empire of consumerism. Cafeterias and fast foods were packed. The huge playground for children was already in full operation and frightfully thriving. Another enormous section of the centre was conceived as a replica of souk Khan al Khalili, exposing the same jewellery and handicrafts that are sold n the old popular market. However, it looks cleaner here, newer and fresher than in the more than centenary dusty bazaar”. The entrance of the complex is decorated with a “kitsch façade guarded by enormous statues of Pharaos, to give the impression of entering an ancient Egyptian temple”.
The most curious aspect of these shopping empires is that their life expectancy is very short: several “malls-cemeteries” only 10 years old are already testimonies of this phenomenon. No customers or sellers, closed shops, motionless escalators, Cairo’s ghost malls recall their twins which have become shopping cemeteries in the US.
Land of malls “par excellence”, with its 40.000 complexes, the US is witnessing a decline of the shopping centre and it is estimated that since the start of the II° Millenium, one out of five complexes goes bankrupt.
However, in Cairo, and before their complete abandonment, malls first go through a phase where they are invaded by the youngsters that live in the poorer districts and who make it their flirting and meeting place, a place where to show off on holidays and week ends and see how others are dressed. This would seem a natural redistribution of spaces, if we consider that Cairo already counts for 30 malls which could not reasonably be used by less than 20% of the city’s population.
Mona Abaza, The Changing Consumer of Modern Egypt. Cairo's Urban Reshaping , AUC Press, Cairo, 2006.