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February 21, 2007

From China to Cairo


by Sascha Matuszak

There were few constants during my stay in Egypt. One was the wiggling of the eyebrows and winks of passersby, an abbreviated version of an Egyptian's first words to most any visitor: "Welcome." Another was the gently put yet insistent question of religion. Are you Muslim, Christian, or Other? There are the People of the Book, and there are the nonbelievers – I found it is better to quibble about Jesus' divinity than worship a cow, according to many an Egyptian. The offspring of an Egyptian's effusive welcoming and stolid religiosity are the long, chanted greetings of one Muslim to another. "Peace be with you, and the mercy and compassion of Allah go with you, may you find Him, praise be to Allah…" the street-side accompaniment to the muezzin, the call to prayer, that vibrates from crackling megaphones attached to the thousand-and-one minarets of al-Qahira, Cairo, The Victorious!

Another topic of conversation that crops up often is China. Chinese goods are flooding Cairo's famous, ancient bazaar, the Khan al-Khalili, built in the 14th century, razed then rebuilt twice over. Obelisks, glassware, alabaster, silver, even a man's trusty water-pipe – all studied, meticulously reproduced, and diligently exported back to the country of origin. Chinese carpetbaggers, slipping through the cracks, are mostly responsible. The idea of more Chinese than local goods in the Khan produces a chuckle of amazement and a sigh.

The appearance of middle-aged Chinese women at an Egyptian's doorstep, panting and puffing, is a startling phenomenon. The women are hauling bags of cheap clothes and random knickknacks through the streets of Cairo, door to door – bags that were secreted out the back door of coastal factories in China and smuggled through customs in Dubai and Port Said. The humility of the Chinese, oblivious to the judgments of others, dedicated to hard work, saving money and providing for those that come after – these qualities have the Egyptians standing awestruck and bewitched. The men also whisper of the cleverness of the Chinese: they have realized that not only would an Egyptian woman never be caught dead practicing such a trade, but they also have an inordinate love for spending a man's money. Such business sense!

How can we compete with these people, they ask. They buy up the plastic uncrushed at a higher price than we sell crushed, destroying the market for plastic-recyclers on the fringes of Cairene society. They copy our goods and sell them back to us, at a lower price than our longtime neighbor and supplier. Their cars are so cheap anyone can afford them – like that snazzy new Speranza. How do they do it? Their women, against all concepts of decorum, trudge through the city like garbage collectors hawking cheap goods! Thoughts such as these leave an Egyptian staring into his mint tea and contemplating work in a Chinese factory.

According to Egypt's minister of trade and industry, China will surpass the U.S. as Egypt's largest trading partner in just a few short years. Every sector is affected by China's growing interest in the region: manufacturing, retail, real estate, and, of course, tourism. Cairo University already has a Chinese program and is cranking out Chinese-speaking tour guides as fast as it once cranked out Japanese-speakers. Their skill level is high, and tour companies need a couple on hand to accommodate the growing number of affluent Chinese taking a break from making money to check out the pyramids.

It is amusing to see Chinese visitors view the garbage on the streets with distaste, the dawdling pipe-puffer with disdain, and the cramped, rickety public transportation system with an air of superiority. China itself is divided into zones along First, Second, and Third World lines – but running on only one time zone, Beijing Time. China's Second and Third worlds closely resemble sprawling, dusty, antiquated Cairo. In Egypt as in some parts of China, buildings stand half-finished for years, products of privatization in a country controlled by informal networks. Here, unlike most parts of China, these buildings still have a couple decades to go before somebody finally finishes them. If we were to work out a developmental theory based on corrupt construction, Egypt could be 15 years or so behind China.

China's interest in Africa is viewed with skepticism in the West, for which a relationship based on mutual benefit in Africa has proven to be impossible. The debate rages. China is a mercantilist nation hell-bent on acquiring the natural resources and markets it needs to maintain a growth rate of 9+ percent. Africa is resource rich and a perfect testing ground for Chinese companies unable to battle Western companies on their home turf, but more than able to crush an African company still wallowing in the throes of imposed privatization and mind-boggling corruption in the government. Will China turn imperial like everyone else, or is it ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity in Africa? I choose to dream of the latter, while anticipating the former.

Egyptians don't seem very worried. Those that innovate will rise to the top and take their places alongside the "foreign concessions" given to American oil firms, European steel plants, and Chinese factories, while the rest of the population will proceed as they have for thousands of years, adapting to the most recent invading force to commandeer the Nile Valley and leave its imprint.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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