April 29, 2004

Reading Friedman at the Ramses Hilton Centre

The movie didn't start for another thirty minutes, so there was a lot of canned Egyptian techno-pop to look forward to. Instead of merely waiting for the lights to dim, I read from Thomas Friedman's book 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization'. It had not occupied first place on my list of things to read, but while I was in Tel Aviv I discovered that Israel is not the best place to find Noam Chomsky's book about the Israeli-Palestinian disaster. Reading the book has been an exercise in patience. Journalists like Friedman have not been trained to evaluate, but rather to describe things as they are--at least, that is what Friedman claims to do, although I bet old Chomsky would have a thing or two to say about such pretensions.

My bookmark was wedged snug at the start of a new chapter entitled 'The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention'. This theory states that once a country gets a McDonald's, it never again goes to war with any other country that also has a McDonald's. It seems that this has actually proved to be the case, the one exception perhaps being 1999's pseudo-war between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo, although Friedman takes great pains to use that example as simply an exception that proves the rule.

He writes, 'Once NATO turned out the lights in Belgrade, and shut down the power grids and the economy, Belgrade's citizens almost immediately demanded that President Slobodan Milosevic bring an end to the war... Because the air war forced a choice on them: Do you want to be part of Europe and the broad economic trends and opportunities in the world today or do you want to keep Kosovo and become an isolated, backward tribal enclave: It's McDonald's or Kosovo--you can't have both. And the Serbian people chose McDonald's.' A bit further on he makes his point clear: 'When governments do things that make economic integration and a better lifestyle--symbolized by the presence of a McDonald's--less possible, people in developed countries simply will not tolerate it for as long as they did in the past.'

Symbolized by the presence of a McDonald's. The New York Times's signature columnist uses McDonald's as the criterion for a 'better lifestyle'.

The funny thing is that only ten minutes before opening Friedman's book I had actually visited a McDonald's in order to eat a strawberry ice cream sundae. It was another result of my having shown up early for the movie. The Ramses Hilton Centre is the closest thing Cairo has to a genuine American shopping mall, and side-by-side on its topmost floor reside middle-class Egypt's pride and joy: a McDonald's and a multi-plex cinema. The Cairene version of Ray Kroc's tract-home was just like every other one, complete with plastic balls, and except for the fashionable women in head-scarves and the addition of a pita-wrapped McArabia to the menu, I could have been on Contra Costa Blvd. The place was insanely clean for Egypt, and the counter staff insanely smiley; not that Egyptians don't smile, only that their smiles are usually genuine, free of the eerie plasticity which employee training videos inculcate in American retail slaves.

In a city like this one the distinctions between classes are very sharp, and very apparent. One need only pass from the medieval quarter to the downtown area to witness a profound shift, not only from lower- to middle-class, but more importantly from Muslim to Globalizing Cairo. The entire city throbs with desperation, manifested differently by both sides of the divide: in the medieval quarter, impoverishment reigns, and people are desperate to hold on to their traditional Islamic ways in a globalized world where Islam's foundations are constantly being undermined; globalizing Cairo, on the other hand, is desperate for 'integration' with the 'broad economic trends and opportunities in the world today', and for the self-respect they feel they will earn once they have thrown off all but the barest minimum of their traditional inheritance.

This is an intensely religious culture. I am a bearded man, and as I walk the streets of Cairo it is not at all uncommon for a stranger to walk up to me and pointedly ask, 'What is your religion?' or perhaps even, 'Are you a Muslim?' That can be unnerving to someone from a culture where religion is little more than a political category. Westerners have been taught to treat personal religious belief as something very private, and questions of spirituality are usually raised only when one is sure one's questioner more or less shares one's beliefs. Bring up dogmatic issues at a cocktail party and the social frisson is positively palpable. In fact, for powerful intellectuals like Friedman, who now try to view the world 'six-dimensionally', to use his expression, religion qua religion has no place at all in their mental worldview. The decision-makers of today's world see man as a political, cultural, environmental, economic, technological and biological animal. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman will dissect the Arab side of the argument from those six dimensions: he will take into account the Palestinians' desire for self-rule, their history and geopolitical situation, the level of their economic 'development', the amount of bandwidth ripping through their telephone lines, and even their genetic make-up. But their religion? Does someone like Friedman have the slightest clue what is happening inside that Arab Muslim when he bows his head in prayer? To Friedman, is that even worth considering?

When religion becomes only a cultural sub-category, without any prerogatives of its own, then culture is emptied of all qualitative content. On the level of culture, then, the kimono has no more intrinsic value than the boxer-brief. For Friedman, the goal to work toward is not the pulling up of McDonald's from the garden of genuine culture in which it has sprung up like a weed (so to speak). Rather, what is important is that the Japanese child, for whom McDonald's has become indistinguishable from something traditionally Japanese, learn to love McDonald's as an aspect of a different culture, just as you and I love to eat sushi. But if traditional religion were to be accorded a civilizational dimension with prerogatives as absolute as economics, politics and the rest, then it would be clear that anything worthy of the name culture would never produce something so inhuman and unnatural as McDonald's.

It isn't about McDonald's. I ate there today and liked it.

The lights in the theater dimmed, I put the book away, and watched 'The Passion of the Christ'. Being a Christian, I wept and wept. Afterward, as I left the comfortable globalized world of the cinema and found myself once more on the teeming, steaming streets of Cairo, a young boy with only one arm and one leg, wearing rags and covered in dirt, scuttled over to me like a human crab. He was truly pathetic, clutching a cracked plastic bowl, and was only able to growl and moan. He couldn't even beg properly.

I passed him by, and crucified Christ all over again.

It isn't about McDonald's at all.

Posted by djsmall at April 29, 2004 12:36 AM