Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011

Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011

by Samuli Schielke


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Against the backdrop of the revolutionary uprisings of 2011–2013, Samuli Schielke asks how ordinary Egyptians confront the great promises and grand schemes of religious commitment, middle class respectability, romantic love, and political ideologies in their daily lives, and how they make sense of the existential anxieties and stalled expectations that inevitably accompany such hopes. Drawing on many years of study in Egypt and the life stories of rural, lower-middle-class men before and after the revolution, Schielke views recent events in ways that are both historically deep and personal. Schielke challenges prevailing views of Muslim piety, showing that religious lives are part of a much more complex lived experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015877
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/05/2015
Series: Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Samuli Schielke is a research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) and an external lecturer at the Free University of Berlin. He is author of The Perils of Joy: Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt, and editor (with Knut Graw) of The Global Horizon: Expectations of Migration in Africa and the Middle East and (with Liza Debevec) of Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion.

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Egypt in the Future Tense

Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence Before and after 2011

By Samuli Schielke

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Joska Samuli Schielke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01589-1


Boredom and Despair in Rural Egypt

In spring 2008, a pop song by Aamer Saeed caught the mood of the time: "The world's wrecked, there's no point" (il-dinya kharbana mafish fayda). It expressed a sensibility that young people in particular articulate as one of boredom (malal) and frustration (ihbat): it is all the same, it is not getting better, one's plans get thwarted—so what's the point?

Beginning an ethnography about hope and ambivalence with this sense of emptiness, boredom, even despair, helps us think about boredom as a condition in the lives of people who aim for a better life, a consequence as well as a grounding of aspiration. Moments of hope can be better accounted for if we first turn our attention to their flip side—despair, frustration, endless waiting, a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose. These negative sentiments come partly from dissatisfaction with unkept promises of improvement and progress, but also from expectation, which gives credibility to promises of purpose and hope. Boredom must therefore be taken seriously as an experience in its own right, because it points to a complex human condition that cannot be accounted for merely by reference to ideals, aims, and higher purposes. Instead, ideals are often discredited, aims frustrated, and life can seem to have no purpose.

Although this chapter deals with the sharply felt discrepancy between what might be and what is, politics is almost entirely absent from the discussion. This absence reflects the mood of the time. As I started doing fieldwork in Nazlat al-Rayyis in 2006, people had a lot to say about boredom, as they did about religion, business, work, migration, marriage, love, and the difficulty of life. Politics, however, was tricky. People would speak about Iraq, the United States, and Israel. They would complain about the government and, in a less direct way, about the president. But even those who in the 1990s had been active in political movements of various kinds had abstained from political action for some time. There was little sense that collective action would be possible or meaningful. In the capital city, oppositional voices were growing louder already, and some years later, things looked very different in the village and the cities alike. In the final chapters of the book I turn to those later, highly politicized days of revolutionary hope and anxiety, but for now I focus on a different moment, one of dull emptiness, when hope, if it existed at all, was placed either in escape or in faith.

Entertainment with and without a Purpose

While not a time of politics, it was a time when the idea of purposeful entertainment made the rounds, and new television formats and musical genres that were explicitly identified as Islamic, morally committed, and purposeful gained increasing popularity (van Nieuwkerk 2012, 2013; Tartoussieh 2007). In the longstanding nationalist tradition of arts committed to the nation's development, various religious actors entered the field of commercial entertainment through media designed to serve a greater purpose by educating and guiding the masses (as well as to generate). An emerging feature of Arab satellite television in the first decade of the twenty-first century was the many religious video clips that (copying the successful style of the British singer Sami Yusuf) praised Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and a happy, pious life to the tune of soft pop melodies. Featuring beautiful young women wearing covering but elegant Islamic dress, and handsome and smiling young men with trendy looks and high morals, this genre of religious pop and video clips propagated a mixture of pious commitment and dreams of a life of wealth and excitement. The shift from the earlier general distrust of Islamist and piety activists toward arts and entertainment to the wave of religiously inspired pop music and TV series did not change this primacy of purpose.

Developmentalist nationalism, on the one hand, and the ideal of purified and virtuous religiosity, on the other hand, are both very important to young people in the village. This, however, is only part of the story. Purpose, be it nationalist or religious, is not the primary way that young men in the village conceive of the entertainment they consume and partake in. In fact, the very idea of entertainment serving a purpose other than that of having a good time turns out to be far from obvious.

In Anwar's café in the village of Nazlat al-Rayyis, the television is always on. In the past, the café had a satellite dish of its own, but by 2007 it was connected to the "central dish" (al-dish al-markazi) network, an illegal distributor of satellite television via cable. Run by two men with a rented room and a dozen satellite receivers, the central dish network of the village was part of a nationwide wave of countless small enterprises that brought satellite television into almost every home in Egypt in the early 2000s. The TV set in the café sometimes it shows music channels with video clips of different kinds, both Islamic ones and those featuring lots of naked skin and lyrics that tell about love, desire, trust, and betrayal. More often it shows movies, sometimes Egyptian ones but often also Hollywood films. Since 2011, it sometimes shows news. Before 2011 and again after 2013, by far the most popular thing on television has been soccer (the American name for the sport that Egyptians know as kurat al-qadam, or football, or simply il-kura, the ball). For major matches between favorite teams, the café filled up with men—women never go to cafés in the village—watching the game in an atmosphere of intense concentration. If religious video clips have been successful on satellite television in the past few years, their success is minor in comparison to how the Champions League has swept Egypt since the establishment of central dish networks. Young men often wear jerseys of European teams, and everyone with the slightest interest in soccer has his or her favorite teams in both Egypt and abroad.

Soccer is not only big on television. Amateur soccer is a central part of the daily life of boys and young men, many of whom meet to play every afternoon in the school yards after they have emptied of pupils. In the month of Ramadan, an amateur tournament is held with approximately twenty teams from Nazlat al-Rayyis and neighboring villages and hamlets. I asked young fans and amateurs in autumn 2007 about what makes soccer so attractive, and their answers show a strikingly similar tone:

• "It makes time pass."

• "It's a good way to kill time."

• "Afternoon is an empty time, and soccer makes those hours pass quickly."

• "When you're a soccer fan you live much better than when you smoke marijuana or hashish."

Hashish is, in fact, soccer's most serious competitor as a pastime among young men. Walking through the cafés late in the evening, when older customers start leaving, one quickly notes the groups of young men who begin to gather in an atmosphere of nervous expectation. Hoping to escape the observing eyes of patriarchal authority, they meet up and hang around in the café, waiting for friends to show up, and some pay a visit to one of the many small-time dealers who work in the village. Finally, they get up and move to find a protected place to smoke—sometimes in a café, sometimes out in the fields, sometimes on the rooftop of a house. Beer was a common drink in Egypt until the 1970s and 1980s, but most Egyptian Muslims have stopped drinking beer in the course of the Islamic revival. Since then, the popularity of marijuana and hashish—which, unlike alcohol, are not explicitly forbidden in Islamic scripture—has skyrocketed. (For indirect evidence of a growing group of young habitual consumers of cannabis, see Higazi 2005, 32–34.)

Soccer and hashish offer young men in the village a very different framework of entertainment from that of nationalist melodrama (see Abu-Lughod 2005) and religious video clips. Like other forms of entertainment, such as television, cafés, music, weddings, joking, taking walks, flirting, Internet chats, and pornography, they are essentially seen as ways to escape boredom, and they are not measured by their purposefulness.

Feeling Bored

Nazlat al-Rayyis is primarily a fishing village, and an important effect of fishing on the village is the large number of cafés. Fishermen meet at cafés to socialize, to hire labor, and to make contracts. Their irregular work hours mean that cafés are often open until late into the night. Even with the decline of fishing as a result of pollution and land reclamation projects, this aspect of fishery continues to mark male sociality. With its large size, its flourishing café culture, its amateur soccer tournaments, and its colorful festive culture that draws many visitors from nearby villages and hamlets, Nazlat al-Rayyis is a lively place by rural standards. And yet almost all young people whom I have asked find it dead boring.

Boredom, as was often pointed out to me, comes in different kinds. Young people suffer from it more than children and adults. It is different in the city and in the countryside, as well as in Egypt and in Europe. It comes in temporary and perpetual varieties. It is worst in the winter, when the nights are long, rain turns the alleys into mud, and power cut-offs are common. But even in the summer, even during holidays, even when one is having fun, boredom persists, as was argued by Faruq and Tawfiq, both in their early twenties at the time of this discussion and hanging out in the same clique (shilla) of friends:

FARUQ: Boredom's everywhere. It's based on routine and monotony: Every day is predictable; there is no change. Everyone suffers from it—there is no one here who is happy and satisfied. It is stronger at certain times—like in the hour before you sleep, when you lie in bed and start thinking.

TAWFIQ: That can also be positive, you can start thinking about ways to get out of the boredom.

F: Whatever you do, boredom's there with you. Boredom walks with us; it is part of us.

T: Boredom is like your shadow that never leaves you, day or night.

Young men from the village articulate an entire vernacular theory of boredom (malal). The theory describes boredom as a specific state of being, in many ways echoing the academic theories of boredom that have been developed in the fields of psychology, literature studies, philosophy, and more recently the social sciences (see, e.g., Revers 1949; Doehlemann 1991; Meyer Spacks 1995; Svendsen 2005; Matuschek 1999; Goodstein 2005; Mains 2007). The most explicit theorist of boredom I know is Tawfiq, a graduate with a two-year degree in public health. When I met him in 2007, he was in his early twenties. He argued to me that in the village, every day is a Saturday (since Friday is the main weekly day of rest in Egypt, Saturday is a very ordinary day, a day of no particular qualities):

Every day here is like the other: I wake up, go to work, play soccer, eat, sleep, wake up, go to work, play soccer, eat, sleep, and so on and on and on. There is nothing new; every day is like the other. Assume that today is Saturday. Well, yesterday was Saturday, and tomorrow is Saturday, and every single day is a Saturday like the other. I want to get out of here, out of this boredom and lack of prospects, to see things change, to see the unexpected, to travel.

Tawfiq has a government job, something many other young men only dream of. Even though it is very badly paid, a government job implies health insurance and social recognition, and it is a major asset on the marriage market. But Tawfiq's job as a health inspector is not only badly paid; it is also completely pointless. In 2007, his work consisted of going every day to the same state-subsidized bakery, where he, with two other inspectors, wrote "condition: normal" in the inspection book and signed, no matter what the real condition of the bakery might be. Of all the boring routines that make every day a Saturday, Tawfiq hated his job most:

Government employees must feel it stronger than all others: Every day you get up at the same hour in the same bed, take the same bus to the same work, do the same tasks at the same time, take the same bus back at the same time, sit at the same café with the same friends and talk about the same issues until you go back to the same home where you sleep in the same bed until you are woken up by the same alarm clock to a day that is just the same as the one before it. And you keep going on like that for sixty years. Imagine how many days exactly like the others that makes!

Tawfiq is not the only one describing the routine (a French and English loanword in colloquial Arabic) of every day being like the other—in fact, people brought up this topic over and again when I discussed the subject of boredom with them. They did bring in different nuances to the discussion, however. For Tawfiq, boredom is primarily characterized by the lack of new ideas and possibilities for expanding one's horizon. Nagib, like Tawfiq, an underpaid civil servant doing useless work in the public health administration, put more emphasis on economic frustration:

NAGIB: "Our life is all about repetition and routine, and that routine causes boredom: things are the same, nothing changes. Every day is like the other. And you have to work a lot for little money, you work and work, but you cannot get forward because it is not enough.... That's why everyone wants to emigrate. They know that if I work in your country and spend ten euros for food and save twenty, in the end that's good money when I come back to Egypt, and I can build up a good life with it. It's all about economy. If they could, everybody here would leave, everybody. Nobody would stay....

SAMULI: So it's about being frustrated for lack of prospects?

N: "Yes, it is frustration [ihbat] rather than boredom [malal]. Nothing changes. There is no improvement. You go to work in the morning, do the same stupid work, sit in the café every evening, and there is no change. Only on Friday it is a little different. Then I sleep long, go to the Friday prayer, and then hang around again.

These accounts highlight repetition and frustration as the key causes of boredom, and a perpetual sense of pointlessness and despair as its manifestation. The boredom people complain about is not the situational boredom that everyone experiences sometimes, such as when waiting for a bus, listening to an uninteresting lecture, or doing a repetitive and undemanding task at work. It is more an existential state of lacking of future and hope, which is intimately coupled with frustration and often close to despair. People often also see boredom and depression as related phenomena, and in one occasion people I talked with also associated boredom with the issue of suicide (see also Dabbagh 2005: 207–208, 218–220).

The young men do not attribute boredom to saturation by media, consumption, and a search for spectacular experiences, as some analyses of boredom in Euro-American societies do (e.g., Klapp 1986: 117–129). Their boredom (which they explicitly articulate as a rural one) is primarily framed as deprivation, not saturation. The only thing that is available in excess is time. Not only are the jobs young men have mostly either hard and unpleasant (e.g., fishing) or pointless and lacking challenge (e.g., government), they also spend relatively little time working. Men hardly ever participate in household work, which is done almost completely by women. So from early afternoon until late at night, young men mostly hang around, watch television, meet people, sit in cafés, or play soccer. Women, whose lives are much more confined to the realm of the house and whose options for leisure are much more limited (cafés are exclusively male, and so are sports and most cultural activities), nevertheless do not complain (at least not to me) about boredom the way young men do. Nazli, a mother of two in her mid-twenties (in 2007), attributed this primarily to the extensive workload women have to handle:

I think women have no time to get bored. They are busy all the time: make breakfast, dress the kids, school, private tutoring, clean, cook, wash, and at the end of the day you are so tired that you just fall in sleep. Their life may be boring and repetitive, with every day like the other, but they have no time to feel bored.


Excerpted from Egypt in the Future Tense by Samuli Schielke. Copyright © 2015 Joska Samuli Schielke. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A moment in history
1. Boredom and frustration
2. An hour for your heart and an hour for your Lord
3. Knowing Islam
4. Love troubles
5. Capitalist ethics?
6. I want to be committed
7. Engaging the world
8. Condition: normal
9. Those who said No
Conclusion: On freedom, destiny, and consequences

What People are Saying About This

author of Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt - Gregory Starrett

[A] well-written, deeply researched anthropological investigation of the ethos—the experiential tone or mood—of Egyptian life in the twenty-first century. . . . Schielke's residence in the country before, during, and after the political uprisings of 2011 lends authority to his writing about the broader significance of these events. . . . [A] major contribution.

author of Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt - Jessica Winegar

Egypt in the Future Tense is an incredibly exciting book. It provides an altogether innovative, compelling, and sensitive perspective on what is perhaps the most important question facing young people in the Middle East today: how to make a life in rapidly shifting, complex times whose future is uncertain.

University of Cambridge - James Laidlaw

This is a much anticipated and urgently important work, a landmark contribution alike to several fields of inquiry: to understanding the causes, course, and consequences of the 'Arab Spring,' to the description and interpretation of contemporary reformist and political Islam, and to the developing field of anthropological theory of everyday ethical life. A major, multifaceted, and sophisticated study.

University of Sussex - Magnus Marsden

Egypt in the Future Tense is a remarkable ethnography that is eloquently written and theoretically sophisticated. The book will make a long-lasting contribution to debates within and beyond anthropology concerning the understanding of the ethical and moral universes of Egyptian Muslims.

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