Letter from Cairo: Consumerism for Dummies


A couple of years ago, I went to a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts that brought together the Mexican artist’s most characteristic paintings, especially the ones that reflected the emotional and psychological pangs she had suffered throughout a life replete with disruptions, obsessions, and agonies.

The exhibition featured several of Kahlo’s haunting self-portraits and I remember the choking sensation that had overcome me when I saw the one in which she depicted herself wearing a thorn necklace and strongly felt the bodily torture she was going through when I stood for a few minutes gazing at the one in which she wore a steel corset and where her broken spinal column showed from beneath her skin. It was inevitable to identify with her pain in the Henry Ford Hospital, where she depicts the life-threatening miscarriage she went through, and to reflect on the turbulent childhood she must have had in Girl with a Death Mask, in which a four-year-old girl is wearing a skull for a face. Even in paintings that did not depict her own personal pain—The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, where she depicts a woman jumping to her death in a manner that makes you feel you are actually seeing it happening, and A Few Small Nips, where an unfaithful woman lies in a pool of blood after her jealous lover stabs her to death, being the most memorable ones—it is very hard not to see the connection she makes between her own misery and that of others who go through similar physical or emotional ordeals.

I left the exhibition hall gasping for breath. It took me a few minutes to extract myself from this enchantingly macabre world which I thought could have held me hostage for eternity and a little longer to gradually dissipate those inexplicable feelings of guilt that assault my conscience whenever I witness any type of suffering regardless of whether the object of this suffering is alive or dead at the moment. In a desperate attempt to seek some distraction and to recover from such an emotionally draining experience, I went to the museum’s gift shop and up till this moment I regret having done so for I realized I had better stayed entrapped in Kahlo’s thorns and steel corsets. Nothing whatsoever—not even going for a greasy double cheese burger at some junk food diner or shopping for a bathing suit a one of those one-dollar shops—could have been that anticlimactic.

It might sound normal to find a variety of postcards with Frida Kahlo’s paintings, biographies and illustrated books on her work, may be a collection of letters, diaries, or similar things in her own handwriting, and this indeed I found. However, to find Frida Kahlo’s photos and self-portraits on mugs, coasters, kitchen aprons, and even socks, that was quite shocking. That’s not all I’m afraid… there was, in fact, a book of Frida paper dolls with Spanish and English notes on the artist’s life at the back of each of the costumes! I was forcefully and ruthlessly snatched from the captivating world of La Casa Azul to a booth of I Love New York paraphernalia in JFK Airport or a stuffed animals store in the San Diego Zoo.

This is not, as many who are reading this now might think, turning into a Letter from Mexico City for in post-January 25—February 11 to be more accurate—Egypt, Cairo has in record time turned into one huge gift store that sells the most “in” commodity in town, the one and only that guarantees the widest customer base and the most instant profit, one the competes with the most stylish fashion brands, the most delicious foodstuffs, and the most elegant real estate properties—the revolution.

The revolution and everything associated it with have become part and parcel of every billboard, every marketing campaign, and every TV commercial regardless of the product promoted or the service advertised. Suddenly all companies, state-owned or private, have realized that whatever they’re offering to the people has played an important role in the revolution or will at least be of indispensible benefit in building the new Egypt as envisioned by the revolutionaries. This, of course, required an out-and-out change of slogans that basically made all advertised items look like they offer the same thing and you had to make such a great effort to distinguish one from another.

It does look a bit strange when instead of telling customers how fast the connection is, the Internet service provider makes its slogan, “Let us build Egypt.” This patriotic phrase is usually written in such a huge font that it takes a while to know which company is that and for a few seconds you think it might be in the construction industry. Instead of telling you how many calls you get for how many pounds or things of that sort, the mobile service provider seems to have launched a literacy campaign that aims at enabling all Egyptians to read in a couple of year, again for the purpose of building Egypt. There was even an underwear company, known for its cotton products, that replaced its slogan about how comfortable or something along that lines their stuff is with one that reads, “Cotton speaks Egyptian.” I almost got into an accident when I first saw this billboard in Downtown Cairo. A whole range of other companies stuck to slogans like “I am Egyptian”—quite a surprising revelation, isn’t it? —and “because I am Egyptian,” I pledge to do one thing or another—mostly around “will not harass girls,” “will not throw trash in the street,” and “will not run a red light.” These are some behavioral patterns that do require a revolution, don’t they?

If the product is too small for such elaborate slogans, you will now find the Egyptian flag and maybe the word Egypt next to it on almost everything you buy—water bottles, soda cans, potato chips packs… you name it! Only toilet paper seems to have not caught up yet with the trend as far as I can notice… that would be really something, wouldn’t it?

The “a la revolution” craze made a glorious appearance in the media with all those new talk shows named after either the R-word itself or something related like “midan,” Arabic for “square” and used to refer to Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, or “Tahrir,” referring of course to the very same square. The same was seen in newspapers and, ridiculously enough, official ones in specific: one of those even issued a new supplement under the title “The youths of Tahrir,” assuming that people were too excited about the revolution to remember that the February 10 issue made of the president a demi-god and of the protestors a gang of reckless saboteurs.

It was the déjà-vu I got when I walked or drove around Cairo a few days after the toppling of the regime that allowed me to make this connection between the “revolutionary products” and the Frida Kahlo gift shop. I couldn’t help thinking how countries, no matter how advanced or underdeveloped they are and no matter how many thousands of miles separate them, think exactly alike when it comes to making money. Typical of any capitalist society, profit becomes the first and foremost priority and all facilities available are channeled towards that end. I personally have no problem with that when it comes to items that you can actually call a “commodity,” a product made for market consumption and which can be sold in return for a price that is determined based on the “value” of this product.

But what happens when it is “invaluable” and when dealing with it in terms of supply and demand constitutes a direct affront to its worth and a demeaning of the impact it had or will have on the human race. Like Frida Kahlo, the revolution is a symbol that does not take material evaluation and that is not by any means subject to commercial rules or market economies. Trying to get profit out of any of the two is not only a vulgar way of exploiting a noble cause, but is also detrimental to the history and documentation of this cause as well as inconsiderate to all the people involved. Imagine what families of martyrs would feel when they see the revolution their loved ones gave their lives for turn into a consumable good, be that food or drink or clothes or some service or another.

I have always wondered how Che Guevara would have felt about having his picture on zillions of T-shirts, key chains, and bumper stickers across the globe. I bet he would have been extremely mortified by the way he was demoted from a freedom fighter to a pop star. This is of course regardless of the fact that if we’re talking about Egypt in particular, where El Che is also all over the place, half the population does not know who he is and the other half confuses him with Bob Marley

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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