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New Review of Connected in Cairo by Joel Gordon

December 11, 2012

It's a very teachable book, writes Joel Gordon, but he'd like to see more of the middle classes who challenge elite assumptions.

It’s a very teachable book, writes Joel Gordon, but he’d like to see more of the middle classes who challenge elite assumptions.

There’s a new review of Connected in Cairo written by Joel Gordon in the International Journal of African Historical Studies.

Gordon is a political and cultural historian of modern Egypt and the Middle East at the University of Arkansas, where he is director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies.

It’s a great review. Gordon does a very good job of briefly summarizing the thrust of the book, and does so in an interesting and readable way.

His overall assessment is uniformly positive, but at the same time he is reading the book against the grain, focusing on secondary voices–those of the aspirational, upwardly-mobile  middle-class Egyptians who pepper the book as contrasts to the elite cosmopolitans who comprise the majority of the people on whom the story focuses.

Gordon writes:

There is much to this study that is enlightening. Peterson relates his points at the pace of an experienced lecturer cognizant of the degree to which his readers, especially undergraduates, require a steady dose of repetition. This would be an enjoyable book to teach, theoretically sophisticated, albeit a bit jargon-laden, but accessible. The narrative sections are engaging, whether discourses on the business of fostering and capturing cosmopolitan taste buds or descriptions of social encounters in new and traditional public spaces.

What Gordon wants more of in the book are the middle class “others” to the upper class Egyptians whose lives comprise the bulk of my stories. He emphasizes that what he finds most interesting is

the upwardly mobile middle class, those “who grow up with cosmopolitan tastes but more limited means” and “whose tastes recognize the cosmopolitanism of [in this case] pizza although they haven’t internalized the distinctions of international brands” (p. 203). The condescending tone is perhaps reflective of Peterson’s primary subjects. More important are Peterson’s accounts of a middle class father who understands that if he wants his young son to read pricey comic books, the family will also have to afford the acquired taste of elite-priced snacks. Or of Peterson’s taxi driver, who I bet knows more about what is sold in Cairo’s elite malls than Peterson’s AUC students, who can afford to do more than window-shop, might imagine.

It is interesting (disturbing?) that Gordon finds my informants (and, to some extent, my tone) to be “snobbish” and “condescending.” I’ll have to think about that.

But he is certainly right that the alterity between the upper class cosmopolitans and the middle class “aspirationals” who send their kids to less expensive private schools, and strategize (and moralize) about how to provide the best for their kids so that they, too, can be “connected” is at the heart of the book.

And I have found this in class discussions when I am invited to classes where this book is being taught. Students find the two boys living in distinct class worlds right next to one another in Chapter Two eye-opening. They are drawn to the family differences between Yasseen and Ismail that will certainly pull the two friends apart as they grow up. They are engaged by the discourse of the two taxi drivers, the one plotting his son’s future entre into the world of privilege through education, the other reflecting on the economic and social (and political) gulfs that separates him from those who shop at the elite fashion malls.

References:

Gordon, Joel. 2012. Review of “Connected in Cairo: Growing Up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East.” International Journal Of African Historical Studies 45(1): 146-147.

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