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New Review of Connected In Cairo

June 19, 2013

Heba Elsayed ReviewI’ll confess that I had never heard of the journal Anthropological Notebooks until I saw a quote credited to them from a review of my book in Amazon.

It turns out they are a well-produced annual series published by the Slovene Anthropological Society with some interesting articles and–if I may say so myself (ahem)–great book reviews.

The review is by Heba ElSayed, and it is almost uniformly in favor of the book.

Just check out this first paragraph:

Mark Allen Peterson offers a deeply engaging and timely analysis of the complex sociocultural, religious and economic trajectories that have shaped young upper-class Egyptians in the decade prior to the 2011 uprising. Through a series of detailed ethnographic portraits of educational spaces, children’s magazines, coffee shops and fast-food outlets, Peterson’s book furthers our understanding of the many ways in which class identities –and the particular lifestyles and social expectations they harvest –are imprinted upon young people from a tender age. In particular, Peterson brings to light how education, in the Egyptian national context, is a powerful cog in a broader rigid social class system that works to crystallise and consolidate class identities. Interestingly, by maintaining a sensitive distinction of the how social practices that create class identities change between level of education (primary/higher), but also type of education (private/public/private-national/private-international), Peterson makes a unique and insightful contribution to Arab cultural studies and anthropology.

Heck, I’d read that book.

My wife accuses me of poring over good reviews in search of the one minor nitpick a reviewer will focus on. I confess there is some truth to this. Here’s ElSayed’s criticism:

Although the main argumentative thread of this book in no way glosses over the complexity of young Egyptian identities, but successfully portrays how they are framed within systems of class, gender, religious and urban organisation and control, the author’s use of the term “authentic identity” may be questionable. The claim that young elite Egyptians are searching for “authentic” identities almost implies that the “modern” forces of globalisation threaten these rooted authenticities. Furthermore, the concept of “authentic” identity fails to denote that identities can never be pure as by virtue of an ubiquitous cross-cultural exchange through globalisation, migration, imperialism and media communication, they are naturally comprised of a range of different cultural and temporal influences. Whether or not one agrees with Peterson’s choice of terminology, however, the crux of his argument neatly captures common struggles endured by young people in the developing south as they negotiate the contour and limits of their globalisation. Indeed, in the face of a bombardment of cultural stimuli from the West, while having a reflexive awareness of their position within global hierarchies, young Egyptians are ever in search of a unique yet rooted sense of self that allows them to locate themselves in a world both immediate and faraway.

I was disappointed to read this because it means I did not make myself clear in the text. I certainly do not mean to imply that there is some essential Egyptian identity that can be called “authentic” and which is under attack by modernity, only that many of the young people with whom I was engaged in fieldwork found it difficult to reconcile their “Egyptianness” with their (class-inflected) “modernity” and so went on a quest for authenticity.

It is the quest I’m trying to describe, not the authenticity itself, which is a symbolic construction, and not fixed but continually shifting in meaning. And whether or not they ever find authentic identities is an intersubjective issue, since part of the problem is how they are treated by others.

At any rate, the overall review is uniformly positive, and I continue to be gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response the book is getting from all quarters.

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