Thursday, July 26, 2007


With a name straight from Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmares, the McArabia is available in McDonalds all over the Middle East. It is made with meat patties that taste suspiciously like the breakfast sausages one finds in North America (McDonalds doesn’t do breakfast in this part of the world). It’s also wrapped in ‘Arabic’ bread (since Arabic is a language and not an adjective it’s hard to know what to make of this). This attempt at local cuisine for a local market is amusing but not very authentic. But then, authenticity isn’t very easy to define. The idea of an ‘authentic’ Middle East conjures up visions of simple farmers living in mud brick houses, women in burkas and traditional wedding ceremonies. I’ve been staying in Zamalek, a relatively upscale neighborhood in Cairo, and had a conversation with someone who told me that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Cairo. This real Cairo involves noise, confusion, dirt and poverty. There is something to this point of view – there is an important difference between places with what we could call character and those that have a soulless antiseptic feel. But there’s no doubt that Zamalek has as much character as anywhere else in the country. Saying that this isn’t the real Egypt is like saying that Mobile Alabama is the real America but Manhattan isn’t. So what’s going on here? It seems to me that Westerners have a strange obsession with gawking at poor people in other countries (I’m also guilty of this – see my last post). Perhaps this is the result of a certain line of thought in Western philosophy from Rousseau to Heidegger that is critical of the modern world and which paints a romantic picture of peasant life and its close connection to the earth. Part of this picture is a reaction against progress and a yearning for a time when things didn’t change so much. If there is any truth to this then Osama, in his hatred of the West and praise of the Taliban, might be buying into its thought, or being defined by, it more than he knows. I’m not an expert in Islam but I would be surprised if the religion requires Muslims to be miserably impoverished as those under the Taliban’s regime were. Attempts to stop historical change will always be futile. This does not mean that the whole world must become like the United States though. Japan, which was once highly isolationist, has embraced the modern world, but is no less Japanese for that. The religious and intellectual elite of the Middle East should realize that modernization does not mean that the region will become McArabia.

Chris McClure

1 comment:

Wasaski said...

McArabia? Well I guess international chains have to have a little of their own identity too... I Just came across your Blog today and I find it interesting because I enjoy the idea of traveling and being able to see how globally how people live, without all the tourism fluff. I like your pictures
as well. Although you outlook is not necessarily an objective outlook. I enjoy being invited on this trip with you.