Sandwiched between Kim and Fifi, we live in a parallel universe erected to bring 'modernity' to the upper class children of developing countries so they can understand concepts such as gluten-free, homeopathy and Shia Lebeouf. Mouwafak Chourbagui muses on Egypt's 'third culture kids'...
I’m standing in the middle of the Metro, stern faces left and right gazing at me suspiciously. Suddenly, the space opens up like an accordion, unveiling a middle aged man sitting at the back of the wagon, looking at me straight in the eyes with a smile as big as my anxiety issues. He proudly shouts, “Welcome to Egypt”.
Granted I do look a bit foreign; my features are shami due to my grandparents’ Levantine roots and I’d feel orientalist If I wore a galabeya. But my identity crisis does not solely stem from my physical features: my mother tongue is practically my second language, I would not eat kebda if it were fed to me by the hands of Angelina Jolie and I consider most mahraganat music to be a sonic manifestation of a panic attack.
I often wonder during midnight soliloquies, "who am I and where do I belong?" Noam Chomsky would probably refer to me as “an Arab light, a product of economic imperialism here to serve the interests of Western Hegemony”, Thomas Friedman would tap me on the shoulder with his moustache and claim that I am “a modern Arab equipped for the virtues of globalization” and Abdel Nasser would possibly deport me to an unknown location and only take me back once I learn to recite Gaddafi’s Green book by heart. But I feel that a friend’s description of me is the most fitting: “Mouf, you look like a little bear floating with existential angst, looking for honey.”
Perhaps the best person to have expressed this feeling of identity-based limbo is Waguih Ghali in his brilliant book, Beer in the Snooker Club, but he was looking for honey in the turbulent times of post-colonial Arab nationalism. I, on the other hand, am trying to figure out where I fit within the spectrum of the modern era: The Kim Kardashian to Fifi Abdo scale. Here at Cairo Scene, our morning debates over riveting topics like which Power Ranger is your spirit animal are sometimes interrupted by ventures into more self-aware and substantial themes. After all, here we are – a group of seven overworked Egyptians – debating and writing in English for the Westernized crème de la crème (a term I hate, it sounds like the title of an aristocratic porno).
Just behind us, on another table, the team of Cairo Scene’s Arabic sister El Fasla, are pondering their own stories of the day. Only a few centimetres separate our tables, but skimming through both facebook pages, you would be forgiven for thinking that we are thousands of miles apart. And in a way, we probably are. The cultural references, the memes used etc. make me feel like a native foreigner. Clearly, I am much less engrained in my culture than I should be.
In the 1950’s, the sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term Third Culture kid to refer to “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.” Since the term originated in the West, it unsurprisingly comes with undertones of white privilege and eurocentrism: children of diplomats and expats are often designated as TCKs whereas immigrants are rarely assigned that designation despite also grinding out a hybrid "third culture" between their country of origin and their current one. As a result, the term has its own blind spot.
Many people in Cairo like to refer to themselves using that term, but is it an accurate description? Like many TCKs, Egyptians who suffer from Welcome to Egypt syndrome come from a point of privilege, namely class privilege. However, unlike many TCKs, we are not citizens of the world. It’s a beautiful thought though, to be able to self-identify as someone whose selfhood transcends borders and social constructs; but, in reality, the possibility of defining oneself as such is only possible due to a privilege people of the South do not enjoy - namely freedom of mobility and easy access to the world. An upper class Egyptian (with no Western passport) could regard himself as a citizen of the world, but the world would not heed his call. If we are TCKs, we are the Boreo of TCKs.
But most importantly, although we did spend a significant part of our development years outside our parents’ culture, the boundary was not geographical, it was environmental. Most of us did not move to the US at four with our Egyptian parents to make "America Great Again." Instead, it was the US and other Western powers that came here through the TV screen, the school curriculum and almond croissants. I did not grow up outside, but outside definitely grew up in me.
So Perhaps a better term to describe us would be WEOPC (Westernized Elite of Poor Countries). While TCKs often say “I belong neither here nor there,” as they roam the world visa-free like an American drone, WEOPECs do belong somewhere. Right here at home, sandwiched between Kim and Fifi, a parallel universe has been erected to bring 'modernity' to the upper class children of developing countries so that we can understand concepts such as gluten-free, homeopathy and Shia Lebeouf. This parallel world is a confined bubble with lost children searching for identity beyond their purchasing power.
But there is not much on offer in that space other than mini cheap replicas of developed nation states in the peripheries of the city, sold to you through advertising billboards that would look more at home in Helsinki than on the 6th of October Bridge. Away from city chaos, in those little boxes that all look the same, loneliness prevails as disconnect settles in. And as soon as we leave our borders, the privilege vanishes at the feet of the custom's officer.
So we’d rather stay here and have Nacelle as our Berlin, Sahel as our Santorini and whole grain Koshari as our champagne socialism. That is the space between Kim and Fifi, and it is filled with glitter of solitude and alkaline water of emptiness.
So next time I’m greeted with a “Welcome to Egypt”, I won't feel offended, dwell on the degree of my Egyptianess or tell him, "Hello, My name is Nigel Cumsalot" like I often do. Instead, I’ll respond with the same phrase. Because I don’t know his Egypt and he doesn’t know mine; but since we often share the same space, the least we could do is welcome each other.