- Connected in Cairo: Growing up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East by Mark Allen Peterson
Connected in Cairo is an ethnography primarily focused upon the socio-economic elites of Egypt, specifically those whom Mark Allen Peterson identifies as investing in a prestigious form of cosmopolitanism as part of their attempt to justify, bolster, and defend their privileges in Egyptian society. Peterson cites a classroom interaction with his students at the American University in Cairo (AUC), which itself is one of the markers of elite prestige par excellence in Egypt, as a starting point for his thinking. The AUC students vehemently rejected the idea that rural villagers could be modern, arguing instead for a Jamesonian concept of modernity founded upon a combination of educational access and conspicuous consumption of various forms—what Peterson glosses as style (5–6). Peterson does not accept this claim of modernity at face value, but carefully and thoroughly deconstructs the blunt class difference marked by the students’ understanding of their own modernity. Indeed, later in the book, he concludes that much of the elite modernity of which the students are so proud is less a matter of educational achievement and judicious acquisition than a birthright, reinforced and recapitulated, rather than created anew by their designer clothing, facility in several languages, and knowledge of foreign films.
The introductory chapter is largely an unspooling of Peterson’s analytical framework and methodology that flows from the anecdote mentioned above. In large measure, Peterson concentrates his ethnographic efforts on the children and adolescents of these upper classes in order to illuminate how these attitudes toward modernity develop and embed themselves in people’s identity constructions. He balances this ethnographic [End Page 313] trend by interviewing a number of these children’s parents and teachers, who must contend with youthful fashions and desires that may not only conflict with a family’s means to afford such things, but may also threaten the larger worldview of modernity, authenticity, and local identity in which the adults are deeply invested.
The second and third chapters of Peterson’s ethnography focus on children—that is, upon pre-teenaged children who represent the target market for a variety of toys and snack foods. Adult ethnographic interviewees appear in these chapters as well, but as counterpoints to their children or students. The second chapter deals primarily with children’s magazines, including, but not limited to what English speakers might call comic books. Peterson examines the consumption patterns of these magazines, which may be composed in Arabic and conceived for an Arabophone—and implicitly Muslim—readership, translated from other languages into Arabic, and thereby repurposed for an Egyptian readership, or purchased in their original foreign language, particularly English. In his analysis, Peterson argues that the locally created magazines, which often carry religious or secular moral lessons that reflect a sense of Arab-Islamic identity, are of so little interest to the children of upper-class families that one can distinguish the class backgrounds of Cairene children simply by marking which comic books and magazines they choose to buy. The corollary to this observation, which also supports Peterson’s assertion, is that the more prestigious “foreign” comic books are generally far too expensive for the household budgets of the Egyptian middle classes. Beyond these material facts, Peterson observes that the kinds of narratives that tend to draw the attention of children in each class category also tend to reinforce a differential sense of global citizenship: while the middle classes consume children’s magazines that emphasize Egyptianness, Arabness, and, to a lesser degree, Muslimness, the upper classes consume magazines that emphasize a broader (and elite) cosmopolitan identity, one that begins to cultivate the reader’s sense of connection to a complex of consumer desires tied to the West.
The third chapter examines the generation gap that emerged in response to the fashion for the heavily commodified game Pokémon. While class differences articulated themselves in this phenomenon—most noticeably in the difference between children whose parents could afford to buy them tazu (the plastic...