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36 Shopping-Bags and No Ideas Inside 

Buying consumer culture from the West changes modern Islamic societies 

Who is interested in culture from and in the Arabic countries? Oil is the only issue of the region, its only concern and fascination. Oil and money. Culture degrades to a blinking collection of imported goods. Western style is most wanted style. We take a look into the shopping-bags.
by Irmgard Berner 
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Berlin, Jan. 2008  The phenomenon of urging to get and achieve cultural products from outside your own cultural circle is not new. History of arts has been affected by the exchange of knowledge and handcrafts, by trading them without borders since ever, not to mention industrial products and merchandising tools. Though there is a development going on in the Middle East countries that poses lots of questions. Why is there so little interest in an own, original cultural production, and why does it not at all irradiate beyond its borders?

Western style is most wanted style

Shopping-malls are the epitome or superficial reification of Western world culture. More than twenty years of importing consumer temples and entertainment centres simulate and suggest the access to Western culture and life-style achievements. This is very short-sighted. It kills all new ideas and originates a still-stand in any own growth of cultural production. In other words one could call it the “political economy of envy”, as Fawwaz Traboulsi, author and political scientist from Beirut, put it: We want to have what the west has.

So importing overtakes own thinking. Copying and gathering glittery gemmy goods from outside withdraw and pull back originality in ideas and cultural advance. Shopping-malls are the brick-and-glass-signs of a kind of cultural conscience that is over flown by cheap and fast satisfaction or by luxurious accessories from western production.

Mona Abaza, sociologist from American University of Cairo, also calls this an effect of “Saudiarabization” that started in the 1990s when a huge wave of emigration to the petrol-producing countries commenced. Especially from Egypt. When the emigrants came back after  years of earning money in the black-gold-industries of the Gulf, they brought along a very Western behaviour of consummation. Since then the import of hard-currency-financed life- and dressing-styles increasingly shape life conditions of Islamized middle-class society.

Shopping bags as status symbols

But who can afford all the products, the food, garments and life-style-issues offered in shopping-malls, and obviously carried home in fancy shopping-bags? Even though things are little less expensive than in the West, for an average Egyptian  inhabitant they are luxurious categories. Most important, however, seems the feeling to owe something without really owing it, without really buying it. 

And there has developed a method to this: people fill up their shopping-carts with all the wonderfully glittering stuff, push them through the wide, clean and shiny malls, sometimes a whole day long. As soon as they get close to the cashiers', they take one or two, maybe three items out - and leave the rest just there in the cart. In effect they pay the chosen objects, get big fancy bags, and carry home the stuff.  Which does not mean they really keep. Next time they take an day's trip to one of the shopping malls they would just return the item and repeat the illusive shopping tour. 

Nobody can be blamed for this kind of behaviour, it is just another sign of false labelling and it is an exemplary showcase of how to handle with envy and greed - in a rather harmful way. Participating in an  economy flourishing merely on the surface has thus changed cultural life and will end up in neglecting own cultural production. 

 

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