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New Review of Connected in Cairo in Middle East Journal

September 25, 2012

One of the two books that inspired me to stop just drawing on observations of Cairo for class lecture examples and actually begin research and writing was Farha Ghannam’s Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo (2002, University of California Press) (the other was Walter Armbrust’s Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt).

So it is a huge pleasure to see my book reviewed by her in a recent issue of Middle East Journalparticularly as it is such a positive review.

She has a very nice summary of my argument that shows that she understood what I was trying to do (it probably helps that she draws quotations from several parts of the book and not only the introduction, as at least one other reviewer did).  And she writes:

Connected in Egypt provides scholars and students of globalization, class, and modernity with a timely and much needed glimpse of the struggles, negotiations, and challenges that face elite men and women in their attempts to materialize specific tastes, visions, and ways of being. The book’s focus on the economically privileged classes is a particularly welcomed contribution that bridges an important gap in the anthropology of the Middle East in general and the anthropology of urban Egypt in particular, which tends to focus largely on low-income groups. The array of different experiences, individuals, and products presented in the book gives the reader a sense of the complex desires, visions, and dispositions that structure and challenge key concepts like modernity, identity, and authenticity.

She has one significant criticism:

Yet, part of the power of Bourdieu’s model is its insistence on how variations in the volume and composition of capital constitute multiple fractions within each social class who struggle over distinction and legitimacy.  There are refreshing moments in the book when we get a glimpse of these differences, such as when the owner of a pizza parlor talks about targeting those who have the money (mainly from work in oil-producing countries) but not the cultural capital (for example, knowledge of English) or taste for Western products. However, these differences and the struggles they generate remain marginalized in the book. There is little conceptualization of how different segments within the cosmopolitan class (for example, the new vs. the old rich) struggle over the meanings of piety, modernity, citizenship, and national belonging.

This is, of course, one of Ghannam’s own strengths as an ethnographer, and while it is something I am trying to do (especially in Chapter Four), I’m not surprised she felt I could have gone further with it. Indeed, I’d have probably been even weaker in this area if not for prodding from Jessica Winegar on early versions of the manuscript.

There is another point where she calls me out for referring to flows from the US, Europe and Japan as “globalization” but those from the Gulf “regionalization,” particularly in Chapter Two. This was not my intent. What I was trying to argue was that while obviously flows from the gulf are also part of globalization, the producers of children’s magazines are engaged in practices of regionalization, trying to construct a generic, regional “modern Middle Eastern child” identity that positions them as particular kinds of moral consumers. Obviously I should have articulated this more clearly.

She concludes:

The book’s ability to connect different social agents, various spaces, multiple projects, diverse products, and contradictory desires thoughtfully reflects what is most valuable about an “anthropology of connections,” which is able to account for how multiple global flows interact with social inequalities, challenge specific identifications, and reshape classed and gendered subjectivities.

Reference

Ghannam, Farha. 2012. Connected in Cairo: Growing Up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East (review) Middle East Journal 66(3): 543-545

You can read an excerpt on Project Muse

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