In Which A Small Comment Is Blown Out Of Proportion To Illuminate A Larger Cultural Truth

As I mentioned before, by the time we finally made it to our Cairo hotel on that first day in Egypt we had been traveling for 24 hours door to door. Which is to say, we weren't exactly in the mood to listen to the tour organizer's welcoming briefing. But one thing he said during it stuck out for all of us: "Remember, you are in a third world country."

It was interesting because I don't think any of us ever thought of Egypt as part of the "third world." At the very least, the notion of first, second and third worlds seemed outdated, a cold war relic, and "third world" was a term that I thought was losing favor to the less-hierarchical and more neutral concept of "developed" and "developing" nations.

I think the tour organizer meant something along the lines of "don't expect a luxury experience, especially given how much you paid us." But after a couple of days in Egypt we started to wonder about the psychology behind his disclosure. Plus, it's much more interesting to speculate about the wider implications of seemingly innocuous statements based on limited empirical data, which itself is a time-honored tradition in travel.

Going back to the narrow focus in which the tour organizer said this, his warning was unnecessary — the accommodations were all fine, and the sphere in which tourists circulate throughout the country did not seem "third world" in the least. None of us expected Palm Springs.

That said, the overnight sitting train to Aswan was kind of gnarly, and the 12-plus hour journey was about as third world as I want to get for the foreseeable future. For me, using the busted toilet fulfilled a perverse sense of street cred (and of course elicited a healthy dose of revulsion):

Bathroom, Egyptian National Railways Train No. 996 From Cairo To Aswan, December 30, 2010

The best conclusion to draw is that the tour organizer's third world comment was an indication of Egypt's massive tourist infrastructure — in other words, the warning is there because so many people travel to Egypt. Egypt is full of coach tours and cruise ships. "Holidaymakers" travel there. Your grandparents visit Egypt. It's the concept of sexuality in Victorian England — "repressive sexuality" presupposes sexuality, and you have to look at the discourse itself to discern the way things are. That would at least partially explain why no one in India felt the need to remind us that we were visiting a "third world" country — all that was completely clear from the cows meandering along the expressways and the encampments under the overpasses — no one had to disclose that India was "developing".

That said, the tour organizer's tone had, in my mind, a bit of resignation to it. (At least that's what I'm taking away from it, given that it's much more interesting to speculate about the wider implications of seemingly innocuous statements based on limited empirical data.)

This all happened a few weeks before the apparent revolution in Tunisia, and the reaction around North Africa made me think again about the third world statement. In particular, this:

From the crowded, run-down streets of Cairo to the oil-financed halls of power in Kuwait, Arab leaders appear increasingly rattled by the unfolding events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, where men continued to set themselves on fire — two more in Egypt on Tuesday, and a third who was stopped.

Though the streets of Cairo, Algiers and other Arab cities around the region were calm, the acts of self-immolation served as a reminder that the core complaints of economic hardship and political repression that led to the Tunisian uprising resonated strongly across the Middle East.

Full disclosure — we never talked about Egypt's political life with any of the guides, nor did we ask — it never came up, and as I said before, the sense you get traveling through Egypt is that you are inhabiting an entirely separate sphere dominated by overpriced tea, metal detectors at tourist hotels, police convoys and military checkpoints. So the closest thing I can point to about all this is an offhand comment by a tour organizer about the level of cleanliness in a hotel room. But while we were there we kept thinking about what he said, and it wasn't until the news about Tunisia came out that I had a convenient narrative in which to place it.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: January 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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