Culture Clash

Julius Caesar may have accidentally burned down Alexandria’s famous library some 2,000 years ago, but some might argue that the two millenia or so that it took to build a new one were worth the wait. Admittedly, the new library complex, opened in 2003, is quite nice, both architecturally and culturally.

What I didn’t expect was the odd juxtaposition of cultures that was about to take place there.

On the cultural program one evening while I was there was a screening of the nine 2008 Cannes Film Festival short film nominees. These are films from various countries under 15 minutes long (and, thankfully, some are considerably shorter).

I had no idea what to expect, and I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptians who filed in to see these, a number of the women fully veiled, were in the same boat.

First up was a French film about a woman in a psychiatrist’s office who’s losing her memory, her mind, or both. Totally meaningless and incomprehensible, it felt far longer than its seven minutes, and at its close I looked around to see if anyone was as bewildered as I was. Indeed. Lots of puzzled looks and scratching of heads.

After this inauspicious beginning came a Portuguese film about a woman manning a mostly deserted toll booth, a Hungarian film about a river ship that runs over some kayakers, a Romanian film (the Cannes winner) about a birthday boy heading into town with his mom to get a toy from McDonald’s, and an Australian film about five rural pre-teens who decide to blow something up.

The Mexican film, about a middle-aged woman reclaiming her sex life after a divorce, made my left eyebrow twitch up in surprise. We’re in Egypt, an Islamic and for the most part a socially conservative country, with fully veiled women in the audience, and here on screen is a fairly lusty Mexican woman making a foray into a sex shop before picking up a total stranger in a bar to get down and dirty in the back alley.

Frankly, I was more fascinated by the audience reaction than by the film itself. Sure enough, I noticed a few people shuffling out, no doubt muttering about the immorality of Western culture.

My favorite film of the evening was next: a 3-minute Australian mockumentary about a boy feeding his pet rabbit, who hilariously turns into the Godzilla of the rabbit world. I think this one should have won, but clearly no one asked my opinion.

Well, if the Mexicans pushed the envelope a bit, the final two films took said envelope and catapulted it into the upper stratosphere.

Iceland’s “coming of age” film featured a pair of teens who get in a little over their heads with alcohol and drugs at a party, and through the boy’s drug-induced stupor we’re treated to the girl getting gang-raped by a bunch of hairy and overweight men while she’s out cold. This was actually a brilliantly well made (and ultimately, a poignant and sweet) film, but it wouldn’t pass the censors on American network television, let alone Egypt. Some of the Egyptians shot out of the theater so fast I suspect that their seats had ejection handles.

You would think that would have been it, but no. Cannes had a nice coup de grace ready and waiting to pounce on our innocent Egyptian crowd. Leave it to the Brits to usher in this one.

The story: two British private school teens in 1978 London meet in a record store, both wanting the only edition of the newly released Buzzcocks single. They agree to listen to it together, and between the magic of Buzzcocks, beer, a bed and a hearty dose of British libido they also discover the joys of sex.

Call it cinema if you will, but if you didn’t know this was a Cannes film selection just about anyone would have labeled this as 15 minutes of soft porn, albeit innocently sweet and artistically talented. The film probably won the Playboy channel’s top award before heading out to Cannes.

Talk about entertainment. The boy pours beer all over the schoolgirl’s white shirt and rips it off, and out pops the patron from seat 12 to make a mad a rush to the exit. The moans, gasps and sighs reach their first crescendo amidst visuals of intertwined flesh and an entire row of beards and veils shuffles out. The boy’s head is eagerly pushed down between the girl’s bare thighs and my young veiled neighbor, who’d been paralyzed into absolute stillness for the last 20 minutes or so, finally unfreezes and flutters out wide-eyed (did her husband pull her out or did she request it? Oh, the curiosity.)

The end. Lights on. The theater has half of its starting audience, and I’m grinning like crazy. Some of the films were bad, some just strange, and others had a touch of brilliance, but it’s the cultural questions that are most entertaining.

Think of it from an Egyptian’s point of view. If they don’t travel to Western countries, their exposure to Western culture is almost entirely through media and foreign visitors. What do they learn about us? Through movies and TV, that we’re a violent, dysfunctional, sex-crazed culture? Is that accurate, or fair? Is it reinforced by the sight of Western tourists wearing far less than is culturally appropriate streaming into their country, by unmarried couples traveling together, or by public displays of affection out of the norms of public Egyptian behavior?

Seeing the impact of media through short films really highlights the questions this raises. All of the shorts provided snapshots of events that do occur in Western countries. But devoid of time, they’re also entirely devoid of context, and therein lies the issue. When we see a movie from our own country, we know how to place it within the proper context: what is normal, what isn’t, what is common, what is on the fringes. But when a foreigner sees a Western movie about a country they’ve never been to, who’s to tell them the difference?

This is not simply an interesting cultural question to ponder over tea and biscuits: it also drives to the heart of much of the current Islamic conflicts with the West. There is no question that our Western culture is having an impact: from music to dress to relationships. One of the juxtapositions that most tickles me, for example, is the sight of blue jeans peeking out from underneath a fully-veiled woman’s black robes, a perfect snapshot of east meets west.

But is the impact positive? One could argue yes, especially, for instance, from the Western perspectives of greater freedom and equality for women. But clearly it is also possible to make the opposite case, from the disintegration of traditional family values on down.

There’s really not much anyone can do about it either way. Cultures grow and evolve and influence each other organically, as they have for thousands of years. You can’t really control or stop it. But the globalisation of media is compressing cultural exposures that normally would take generations, if ever, into close to real-time, and it will only keep accelerating. It is not surprising that this is creating some friction, and from a detached anthropological perspective it will be fascinating to see how the next few decades unfold as each culture is forced to face each other’s differences.

Comments (6)

J. OkrayMarch 29th, 2009 at 9:07 am

Cultural integration is indeed inevitable, but it can be controlled. That woman could have chosen to refuse the jeans just as easily as purchase them. The power of influence often rises to change. Those changes are obviously what the majority (which is the strongest driving force to acclimatize) of the people want or they would not adapt them—they would leave the theatre.

Exploring new cultures and being one of the first Westerners to visit gives great authority and responsibility to a single person. They can demolish or confirm any perceptions of the entire Western world. You’ve been in this position as have I, and what I always find disheartening is that most of those cultures think they are being looked down upon (I’m sure the camera doesn’t help), and Americans are pushy, arrogant and of little moral fiber. I’ve visited with families who are apologizing for their house being ugly; it’s very sad. However, the exact moment when you’ve demolished that misperception is absolutely priceless. And you know when that happens—they ask to be educated on your culture.

So mess with their heads a bit and move on. 😉

Ms.IndiaMarch 29th, 2009 at 4:23 pm


NajahMarch 30th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

J. Okray, with all due respect, cultural integration on surface level factors, such as wearing blue Jeans is indeed inevitable. However, there are deeper, more profound issues, so deeply ingrained, they maintain cultural integrity, and shown to withstand the test of time, and indeed even religion, giving us all this beautiful diversity.

Gabe, another very perceptive and brilliantly written piece. :). I appreciate the way, you simply observe, rather than judge, very noble of you! :).

Now….I’d like to know, how many days, these movies have been running, and how long before a big wig waltzes in and shuts them down, not before a few heads roll (and rightfully so! lol).

Secondly, that grin of yours could have put you in a whole lot of trouble. I’m surprised a fight didn’t break out!

I can also tell you that I am most certain, that part of the audience that stayed on, were either young groups of men, who knew about these showings, and came along for the free porn ride; single men, who decided not to leave and instead pretend that they are so “western” and cool, that this type of thing doesn’t phase them (obviously from another town, and were sure no one they knew would bump into them! lol).

Then you have the young ladies, who probably sweat buckets debating whether it would be worse to walk out and certainly cross a few male eyes and faint a few times on the way out, or either wait till the end and hope they would be the only ones left the room, OR be labeled a whore for sitting through to the end! Either way, she’s screwed lol. But I doubt any of them stayed because they wanted CHANGE :)

The lot that left, probably consisted of families, who raced home and swore never to venture out again lol, or newely weds (there are no such thing as childless couples in the Arab world), where the husband, probably yanked his new bide out of her seat, simply to prove to HER that he’s not accustomed to this sort of thing and out of fear that she may get some bright ideas!

All would have loved to stay on, out of curiosity, all the whilst shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust :), but continuing to watch non the less.

And you’re absolutely right, most Egyptians, most Arabs (Lebanese and Morrocans aside), only do know the west through movies, not many get to interact with visitors, and if they do, they view them, as aliens (literally). But to give them credit, they also know that their own culture is just as violent, dysfunctional and sex crazed. The only difference is until recently, is that all this known craziness, has been kept under wraps, only whispered about. No one discussing sex in public, EVER! :). I’m approaching 40 and have till this day, no idea what the names are for female and make private parts!. We simply don’t discuss these things :)

Take for example belly dancers. Dime a dozen in Egypt right? probably sat over dinner, watching one, while the table next to you, was filled with veiled ladies and their husbands and children munching away, while some half naked lady giggled away! They may clap and cheer them, but privately ask any of these onlookers, what they think of the dancers. And the answer is most certainly, always “Prostitute”, we never discuss it, we just know :). On the other hand, however, to a foreigner, they would talk about the art of belly dancing, only because they think that is what you want to hear.

Egypt is the only place in the Arab world, other than Lebanon and Morocco, where it’s fairly normal to see dancers in restaurants over dinner. The colonial British and French liked the “art” of Belly dance, and the reason why it exists so openly now.

And although, very against the idea of belly dancing, most women know that they serve a purpose for their men, and can’t do anything about it anyway lol. But again, no one ever talks about what that purpose is.

Here is what really perplexes most Arabs about the west and it’s “open” antics, and, I get asked this all the time. ” Do these girls not have families?’ “Why would any man marry such a girl?”; “doesn’t she care what others will say??”. Not much is mentioned about a mans behavior. And this is because… wait for it… WE ARE A TRIBAL COMMUNITY. What does this mean?.

Only One thing matters in the Arab world. For men, it is HONOR, as status, precedence and reputation. Strength and power to enforce his will, and protect his family and possessions. For women, it is …HONOR again :) this honor stresses modesty, shame, and the avoidance of behaviors that might threaten the good name of the family (e.g., adultery or sexual immodesty. This is pretty much what gives her power (if she can maintain it). Everything, and I mean everything boils down to this.

Here’s where it gets a little complicated and confusing to the onlookers :). Even a hint of suspected adultery, can be extremely damaging to a MAN’S public reputation. Be it her father, brother or even cousin or uncle!!! Simply because, the simplest of social and economic interactions will depend on the good name of the family! :). So basically any man that allows a female from the family to “stray” is seen as less of a man. Basically weak and can be taken advantage of. It’s so funny. If I ever meet a Libya, the first question is not what MY name is, but what my fathers name is :), and then the judging begins lol, and this is why, most Arab ladies will run a mile as the mere whiff of another Arab :)

so female adultery basically represents an infringement of his rights, and shows that he has failed in his duties. He has thus betrayed the values of his family, dishonoring everyone involved, not only his family, but his community too. :)

I doubt any of this will disappear any time soon. And as difficult as it is for women, they still hold this concept to the highest value. If you want to “stray” as a woman, you better make sure no one ever finds out! :), or else no one will want to touch you with a barge pole, terrible, but this is reality.

And this is pretty much why the movies were so shocking,. The Arab tribal culture, knows these things exist, but when you bring them out in the open, they become the norm, and have the implications of thrashing a whole cultural and religious belief system, which could be really dangerous.

Gabe, since you’re in Cairo now, you might find it interesting to pick up a book or two by Sayyid Qutb. Who is known in the west as the major influence of Bid Laden and who fueled his hatred of the west. You’ll get a good taste of what most ARABS really think of the west :). Feel free to delete after you’re read all this mumbo Jumbo!

YM TingMarch 30th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Nice read! – including the comments. Thanks!

Gabriel OpenshawMarch 30th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Wow, thanks for the great, thoughtful comments.

Najah, that’s a very insightful take into Arab culture–thanks for taking the time to write. It’s wonderful to get an insider’s perspective. :-)

MarceloOctober 19th, 2015 at 7:30 pm

I ϲould not resist commenting. Exceptionallү well written!

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