The first time I traveled to Egypt I was shocked at how Islamicized the place is compared with other Arab countries I’ve visited. It’s liberal compared with Saudi Arabia, but that’s not saying much and, besides, I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia. Egypt is still the most conservative Muslim country I’ve ever seen.
It’s hardly less Islamicized now than it was in the middle of the last decade, but modern liberal “Western” culture is nevertheless a little more visible now than it was. And that’s something. It’s not yet enough to bring Egypt fully into the 21st century, but it’s something.
This summer in Egypt my colleague Armin Rosen showed me a copy of magazine called Awesome that he found in a coffeeshop. We were both surprised to see anything like it in Cairo at all. A magazine like that in the United States would be described, if you’ll allow me to use an outdated term, as part of the counterculture. Awesome is in some ways like an Egyptian version of Vice, which makes it defiantly anti-Islamist and anti-traditional even though little of the content is actually about politics.
Egypt’s 21st century underground, which seemed to scarcely even exist in 2005, has begun to emerge in public. If I lived in Cairo, the people I’d want to hang out with in my spare time are those who write for and enjoy reading this magazine.
You can now read all the digital copies yourself online.
Founder and publisher Asem Tageldin lived in the United States for a few years when he was a kid, so you could say he was partly Westernized by immersion at an impressionable age. He has been living in Cairo since he was ten, though, so he’s really more Egyptian than he is American. Since he never did get American citizenship, he’s technically strictly Egyptian.
Interviewing Asem was Armin’s idea, not mine, but it was a good idea because Asem is more interesting and engaging than most of the other young liberals we spoke to. The three of us met in a little cubby hole of a bar in the basement of my hotel. We drank beer and discussed Asem’s magazine, the “Westernized” portion of Egypt’s youth culture, the revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt’s powerful Islamist movement.
Armin Rosen: This magazine seems to defy all Egyptian social conventions. It’s really out there in a way that nothing else here really is, which is what I like about it. How do you pull that off in a society like this?
Asem Tageldin: There are a lot of people out there with fresh ideas. The problem is that the people who control the money want to play it safe. They want to please their advertisers. But this is my personal project. I don’t have anyone telling me what to do.
MJT: Are you trying to make money with it?
Asem Tageldin: Of course. We want to make a living off it, and that’s starting to happen, but the advertising industry is in a slump after the revolution. We distribute 5,000 copies. Our Web site is still under construction, but we’re on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.
Armin Rosen: I imagine it’s not easy starting a hip English-language magazine in a place like Egypt. Who would you say your readership is? Who reads this?
Asem Tageldin: Dynamic young people who have absorbed some Western influence in their lives.
MJT: How many people here appreciate that?
Asem Tageldin: We get a lot of positive feedback. People come up to us and say the magazine is great, that they’ve been waiting to see something like this for a long time.
MJT: Legally the editor-in-chief of any magazine has to be a member of the journalist syndicate, right?
Asem Tageldin: They have to have an ID card from the syndicate, yes.
MJT: And how does a person become a member of the syndicate? What’s required?
Asem Tageldin: I have no clue. Maybe you have to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, but I really don’t know. I don’t care about the law. And I think that’s going to change soon. Everything is being restructured right now.
MJT: What’s the theory behind that requirement, anyway? That the government wants to regulate all the content, or is it because Egyptians love their bureaucracy?
Asem Tageldin: It’s a bit of both.
MJT: There’s a lot of bureaucracy here even for little things. Armin and I have had to go through complicated procedures for all kinds of stupid crap.
Asem Tageldin: If you lose your national ID card and are trying to get a new one, you’re going to go through hell.
MJT: I’ll bet.
Asem Tageldin: It happened to me. They ask for stupid random shit that makes no sense at all.
Armin Rosen: Egypt is so bureaucratic. There are so many petty demonstrations of authority. Do you think the country will ever break out of it and become a nation of people like you?
Asem Tageldin: I’ll never see it. Maybe my grandchildren will see it.
Armin Rosen: Your magazine looks, in some ways, like a protest against that. It’s dynamic.
MJT: You aren’t following the rules. What would happen if the government regulators saw this and decided to investigate to see if everything is being done correctly? Are you risking jail? A fine?
Asem Tageldin: Nah, not jail. Just massive irritation and a fine for violating a law that was put in place in 1938. If we submitted our magazine to the censors, they’d give us a hard time, but I think censorship will be almost completely removed after the new government is in place. The exception will be about anything to do with religion. There’s a lot of sensitivity around religion here.
Remember when that Danish guy drew cartoons of Mohammad? People went crazy. I asked people why they were acting so crazy. Muslims believe in Jesus as well as Mohammad, and people have been making fun of Jesus for centuries. There are comics everywhere, so I asked why they never get angry about that.
The idea of freedom of expression here is constrained by our culture. People think freedom of expression is okay if it’s about anything earthly, but when it comes to the divine, even if I think it’s silly, I can’t make fun of it. I’ll either go to jail or get killed. It’s going to take a long time for people here to realize it’s okay to joke about religion.
Armin Rosen: When Michael and I saw this magazine, we assumed that the people who made it must feel so isolated and lonely, that you guys must be the most liberated and forward-thinking people in the entire country.
MJT: You certainly aren’t a typical Egyptian.
Asem Tageldin: I take that as a great compliment, actually.
MJT: Do you feel isolated, or are there enough people in this society like you that you can still feel at home here?
Asem Tageldin: There aren’t. I was in a band with our editor, and it was called Foreigners. We both absorbed so many conflicting ideas from the West and from our lives here in Egypt that we don’t feel at home in either the West or in Egypt. We’re in the middle. I feel like we are in transit. I would love to have an American passport.
Armin Rosen: Do you feel like you can be comfortable in that in-between ground, or do you foresee a long difficult road for yourself?
Asem Tageldin: This place is constantly evolving culturally. Cairo today is not the same place it was five years ago, and five years ago it wasn’t the same place it was ten years ago. Fifteen years ago, you could not talk about sex in a magazine. It was unheard of. Now we can.
MJT: I was here six years ago, and it does feel a lot more open now.
Asem Tageldin: It is.
MJT: The average person may not be any different, but there seem to be more people like you. Back then it was hard to find anybody like you to talk to, but now it’s easy.
Asem Tageldin: That’s true.
MJT: So it’s not just me. You feel this difference also.
Asem Tageldin: We’re getting more and more exposed to Western culture. We’ve got Showtime and all these other foreign networks now. We have more foreign media now. Egypt has always absorbed foreign culture. We have a lot of Turkish and French words in our Arabic vocabulary. This place is evolving, but it’s going to take a while before people are accepting of everything.
MJT: Egypt will never be accepting of everything. The U.S. is one of the most open places in the world, and it’s not accepting of everything.
Asem Tageldin: That’s true.
Armin Rosen: What would you say is specifically Egyptian about this magazine? I can see what’s American and Western in it, but I don’t know Egypt well enough to identify its Egyptian-ness.
Asem Tageldin: Well, it’s written by and about Egyptians. We have some foreign writers working for us, but they live here and they’re writing about what’s happening in Egypt. The content is Egyptian even if the style is Western. Our music reviews are always about foreign bands because the local music scene is terrible, but the content is mostly Egyptian.
Armin Rosen: It looks like it’s targeted at hipsters. Are there very many hipsters around here?
Asem Tageldin: I don’t really like the term hipster. There are all these articles on the Internet about how hipsters are destroying civilization.
MJT: I live in a hipster neighborhood. They aren’t destroying civilization. [Laughs.]
Asem Tageldin: Hipster just means someone who’s hip, someone who follows fashion, music blogs, whatever. Some of them take it to an extreme and will only drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Armin Rosen: Are a lot of those people here?
Asem Tageldin: There are some.
MJT: Is there a scene?
Armin Rosen: Yeah, is there like a Cairo scene?
Asem Tageldin: The hipster scene in Cairo, or the scene that would be called hipster, mostly exists at house parties in and around Zamalek. I’ve been to some of those parties. They’re not that fun. You know how you can tell when people aren’t having fun? They’re just there because they want to associate with that scene. Most scenes are exclusive champagne-sipping oh-I’m-at-the-club-look-at me types of scenes. The bohemian life is underground.
MJT: Is that because society would reject it, or because there just aren’t enough people for it to be above ground?
Asem Tageldin: There aren’t enough people. With A and B class Egyptian youth, they want to have exclusivity. They want to be seen draped in Armani. That’s why you don’t see much indie rock or anything like that, but underground Arabic hip hop is starting to flourish here.
MJT: Do you foresee a cultural clash—and I mean a bad one—with Westernized youth on one side and with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists on the other?
Asem Tageldin: Only if they take over a large segment of the government and try to transform this place into an Islamic state. Then we’ll have a big problem. But even the most right-wing religious groups are minding their own business to an extent when it comes to things that are outside the political sphere. They might call me an infidel because I go out and drink, but for the most part they don’t really give a fuck about us. We’re not hurting them.
MJT: But what if there were ten times as many of you as there are now? Do you think they’d accept that? Let me put it to you this way. In Iran the state wages war against people like you. In Lebanon, Hezbollah coexists side-by-side with people like you. There are violent political and sectarian clashes in Lebanon, but few if any violent clashes over social issues.
Asem Tageldin: I hope that Egyptian society becomes more like Lebanon, without the political violence, of course. Every kind of person exists in Lebanon. You can drink, you can do whatever the fuck you want, and no one cares. They fight over politics, not over lifestyle.
Right now there are no swear words in Egyptian films.
MJT: Every Egyptian film has to be submitted to the government for approval, right?
Asem Tageldin: Yeah. Remember the second Matrix movie, Matrix Revolutions? There was this part where Trinity died and Neo put his hand inside her and brought her back to life. That movie was banned because in that specific moment Neo did something that was God-like. Only God can bring people back to life, so they couldn’t show the movie, which is ridiculous.
Armin Rosen: That’s what you guys are up against. You’re the opposite of that, and you’re the opposite of that in a non-bullshit way. It seems like that’s kind of difficult around here.
Asem Tageldin: It is, but there are more people than we expected who appreciate what we’re doing. I expected when we started this that there would be a battle, that people would say, ‘what the fuck are you guys doing?’ But people are constantly telling me that they love the magazine and that they appreciate that we’re up against all these ideas that they don’t like.
MJT: And you guys don’t seem to be fighting those ideas necessarily, you’re just defiantly doing something radically different.
Asem Tageldin: We don’t have a mission statement. We aren’t trying to fight anything, we’re just showing people a part of our culture that has been here for a while but hasn’t been seen.
MJT: What’s the mainstream youth culture here?
Armin Rosen: Is there one? What do the kids do?
Asem Tageldin: I could direct you to the places where they hang out and you can see for yourself. We don’t have that many clubs. We’ll have a club that opens every couple of years, and then that’s the place to be. People will fight to be able to go there on the weekend, even though it’s bad. It will have overpriced drinks, bad music, and a shitload of pretentious people, but people want to be seen there.
And there are, of course, no parties during Ramadan. People will suddenly become very religious. The girlfriend you’ve been hanging out and having sex with will suddenly start fasting and praying and saying ‘you’re not allowed to touch me’ for a month.
Armin Rosen: A lot of people here seem to lead double lives. How conservative is Egypt really? Is it as conservative as it looks with almost every woman wearing a headscarf and men all over the place with bruises on their foreheads?
MJT: Is there a space for liberalism in people’s lives, or is it as Islamicized as it appears on the surface?
Asem Tageldin: Under the surface there’s a lot of thought and activity that isn’t religious, but it’s still not socially acceptable to criticize religion in public. It’s the most taboo issue we have here, especially since we have so many Christians. We don’t want to politicize religion and turn into Lebanon, so people are extremely cautious about it.
When it comes to the headscarf, lots of people I know who are believing Muslims don’t think the headscarf is necessary, but if you bring it up in public, there won’t be a debate. People will attack you.
The way the average Egyptian’s mind is structured is very complex.
Armin Rosen: How is the average Egyptian’s mind structured?
MJT: We have no idea.
Asem Tageldin: I can tell you.
MJT: Excellent. Someone can finally tell us!
Asem Tageldin: There is a constant clash between Western lifestyle and traditional ideas. I know lots of various specimens of Egyptian. Some of them go out, they drink, they have sex, they have fun, but when it comes to religion, they’re religious. If you tell them you don’t believe in God or criticize something in their religion, they go mad. They say, ‘what the fuck are you saying?!’
MJT: But they don’t act like practicing Muslims themselves.
Asem Tageldin: Exactly.
MJT: Do they see the inconsistency, or is there room and flexibility here for inconsistency?
Asem Tageldin: They think what they’re doing is something they can repent for in the future.
MJT: They feel bad when they’re doing it?
Asem Tageldin: Not really. If you’ve been drinking for ten years, it’s hard to feel bad about it. Once you’ve psychologically evolved into it, you’re done. There’s an alcohol shop called Sheikh-something. The guy who owns it is a sheikh. He has a beard. And he sells alcohol. He probably shuts down to go pray, which makes no fucking sense, but that’s Egypt.
MJT: How much sex goes on here before marriage?
Asem Tageldin: It’s becoming normal. Girls will have sex, but they don’t want anyone to know about it. That’s not their problem, it’s a problem with the society. Their parents would not be okay with it.
MJT: Is it dangerous?
Asem Tageldin: I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous.
MJT: I’m sorry for bringing this up, but how often do so-called honor killings happen here? Is it a problem?
Asem Tageldin: It’s a problem in Upper Egypt and in rural areas, but not in cities. I’ve never heard of it happening here. You might get punched or beat up by a girl’s brother, but he wouldn’t kill you. People aren’t shocked so much by pre-marital sex anymore. Even if they don’t do it, they know it exists.
Armin Rosen: What’s your magazine’s attitude toward culture in the United States? I ask because we met Esem El-Erian from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Asem Tageldin: Ah yes. My grandfather is a Muslim Brother, so I know a lot about them.
Armin Rosen: When we asked El-Erian what we thought were normal questions, he went ballistic about American foreign policy and how we supposedly support Bashar al-Assad and Moammar Qaddafi. It seemed like he was just waiting for two Americans to walk into his office so he could yell at them. But you guys seem to have a positive view of American culture.
Asem Tageldin: Yes, we do.
Armin Rosen: I don’t sense a visceral dislike of America in your magazine.
Asem Tageldin: Not at all. Poorly educated people here turn “America” into this uniform blob and assume that every American must support Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The same goes with Israel and Jews among C and D class people. They think every Jew is their enemy, but that doesn’t make any sense.
MJT: How many Egyptians make distinctions between Jews and Israelis, and between American citizens and American foreign policy? I haven’t felt any hostility toward me here whatsoever except when we walked into the Muslim Brotherhood’s office. I haven’t had anything like that experience anywhere else with anyone else, not once, not ever. But I imagine that would change if I were Israeli instead of American.
Asem Tageldin: You would get yelled at a lot more often. You would actually have a hard time staying in Cairo.
MJT: Lots of Israelis visit the Sinai.
Asem Tageldin: Yeah. I’ve met a lot of Israelis. We’ve sat down and had a few beers and talked about whatever. Israeli citizens aren’t necessarily members of the Knesset. There’s no reason for me to hate them or for them to hate me.
MJT: You get that, but most people here don’t. And that leads me to something I’ve never understood about the Arab world. Why is it that there’s so much anti-Americanism here, yet almost everyone is incredibly nice to me personally, but with Israelis it’s different? Israelis can’t visit most Arab countries and expect to be treated politely the way Americans can even though anti-Americanism is as common as anti-Zionism.
Asem Tageldin: Because religion, nationalism, and pan-Arabism all get poured into a single cup that turns into raging hatred.
MJT: Is it the same phenomenon as anti-Americanism, but at a greater intensity, or is it categorically different?
Asem Tageldin: The fact that Palestine is the holy land makes it a different phenomenon. America is all the way over there, but Israel is right here. Israel turns people into fanatics.
Armin Rosen: Where do you think Egypt is going?
Asem Tageldin: I studied political science, but that’s a big question for everyone.
Armin Rosen: That you started this kind of magazine seems to suggest that you’re optimistic.
Asem Tageldin: The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology has been evolving. They’ve been under a lot of fire here and they’ve had to change. Twenty years ago their goal was to create an Islamic state, but they know now that’s not a viable option.
MJT: Do they really know that? Is that really even true? You hear them talking privately. I don’t believe them when they’re talking to Western media because of course they want to look moderate around American journalists. But if members of your own family belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, you should have a better idea of what they expect and want. You know what they talk about when we are not listening.
Asem Tageldin: I’ve seen their attitude change over the years. They’ve become more practical and more realistic. An Islamic state in Egypt isn’t going to work. Almost twenty percent of our population is Christian, and none of the rich and powerful people are ultra-religious. They will not tolerate the banning of drinking and clubbing or forcing their women to veil. It’s not going to happen.
MJT: The Muslim Brotherhood would like it make it happen if they could, though.
Asem Tageldin: Yeah, I think so. But they can’t. And compared to some Islamist groups they are moderate.
MJT: They aren’t the Taliban.
Asem Tageldin: They don’t have a military unit. They don’t execute people. They don’t have any guns.
There was a huge deal about Article 2 in the Constitution, about how the primary reference for Egyptian law must be Islamic sharia.
MJT: What does sharia mean to people here, exactly? It deals with everything from divorce settlements to cutting off the hands of thieves.
Asem Tageldin: That’s not exactly sharia, those are penalties. Islamic penalties in a modern state are absurd. Cutting off someone’s hand in the 21st century is idiotic. What Egyptians have in mind is that laws should be loosely based on sharia when it comes to matters of marriage, inheritance, and disputes between people. If you go out and stone every adulterer, you’re going to stone half the country.
MJT: I’m not picking up on a Taliban vibe here in Cairo.
Asem Tageldin: No, not at all. This isn’t Afghanistan. And when you actually study Islamic sharia, you’ll see that the veil isn’t required. When it comes to headscarves, it’s disputed, but when it comes to the veil, it’s definitely not required. These people are just making shit up.
I’ve been to Saudi Arabia because my dad lives there. And I wondered how the fuck anyone can manage to live there. I was walking into a mall because I needed to buy some socks, and this guy with a stick stopped me. He said, ‘where are you going?’ I told him I was going into the mall. He said, ‘where is your family?’ I told him my family wasn’t with me, so he said I couldn’t go into the mall. I had to be with my wife or my parents because they’re afraid single men might harass single women.
Why would I harass a woman in a moving tent? I can’t even see her. There’s nothing to sexually arouse me. I just wanted to buy some socks. I’ve been to dinner parties where women can take that stuff off, and they have some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life, but you can’t see them when you’re walking around.
Armin Rosen: What a horrible sounding place.
Asem Tageldin: I wouldn’t live there if they gave me all the money in the world. That place is ridiculous.
Armin Rosen: Were you involved with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square?
Asem Tageldin: I spent the whole eighteen days there. I got shot at. And I actually carried some dead people. It was crazy.
I first went down there out of curiosity. I wasn’t politically inflamed. So I went down there. I saw hordes of people protesting peacefully. Then the police starting shooting gas canisters and it turned into a mini war.
And then I got psyched. I realized these people were really trying to change something and that this time it might actually happen. So I went to down there again on the 28th and it was the same drill. They fired gas canisters at us, we retreated for a while, then we came back. And then suddenly I heard gunshots. I thought they were just trying to scare people, but the guy next to me dropped. He was bleeding all over. I said, ‘what the fuck is this?’ And we started carrying people to the hospital.
It was brutal. The police were actually murdering people. One of our sources at the magazine said the police had orders to aim at the eyes. A lot of people were hit in the neck. If you get hit in the neck with even a rubber bullet it could kill you.
Armin Rosen: I imagine that after that, after watching someone die right next to you, that all bets are off, that you’d be there to the end.
Asem Tageldin: That’s exactly what happened. No one imagined that we could participate in a revolution that would bring down the government, but we did. The atmosphere in Tahrir was amazing.
MJT: Are you putting your own money into this magazine?
Asem Tageldin: My own money, some borrowed money, and some money from my family.
MJT: From your Muslim Brotherhood family?
Asem Tageldin: Yeah. [Laughs.]
MJT: That’s surprising to hear.
Asem Tageldin: My father is a religious preacher. He knows the Koran by heart. He writes interpretations of the Koran.
Armin Rosen: How much of it do you know by heart?
Asem Tageldin: I used to know almost a third of it when I was a kid. I was taught that the Koran is so wonderful that if I memorized it I would be set for life, but that’s not true. It’s just a bunch of stories about Christians and Jews and early Muslims. I was told that the book was so wonderful that it could only have been written by God, but then I read it and thought it easily could be man-made. It’s just a bunch of stories. A lot of it rhymes, and if I was a rapper I’d say, yeah, this guy has flow, but still.
Armin Rosen: How did you reach these conclusions? You have an awfully lot of skepticism for someone who comes from a religious family.
Asem Tageldin: The skepticism only started for me a couple of years ago when I actually read it and started to develop my own identity. There’s no such thing as absolute truth and the Koran is full of contradictions. And I would never punish my own creations for all eternity for something they did. If a mother’s child behaves badly, she’s not going to kill it unless she’s crazy. So why would God say that if you don’t believe in me I’m going to punish you for all eternity?
MJT: I can leave this out of the interview if you want. I don’t want to get you in trouble.
Asem Tageldin: No, no, it’s fine. It’s totally fine. My father knows I don’t believe in religion.
Armin Rosen: How does he feel about that?
Asem Tageldin: He’s not too happy about it, but he accepts it. He just says he wants me to be open for discussion. We have these debates, and I’m fine with that. He gives me stuff to read and I give him stuff to read. He says he respects whatever I believe and that he wants to understand it more as long as I try to understand what he believes.
Armin Rosen: We talked to a guy who used to be the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web site, and he quit the Brotherhood a month ago partly because of their view of art. He said in Egyptian society in general there is no appreciation for art.
Asem Tageldin: That’s true.
Armin Rosen: But your magazine is full of awesome art.
[Just then his girlfriend showed up dressed like a “bad girl” by Egyptian standards with quite a lot of skin showing and no headscarf.)
Asem Tageldin: This is my girlfriend. I had to cancel a date to chill with you guys.
MJT: You cancelled a date? For us?
Asem Tageldin: Yeah, but it’s cool.
Armin Rosen: So you would agree that art isn’t appreciated here?
Asem Tageldin: People are starting to appreciate it a bit more.
MJT: How did Egypt get this way?
Asem Tageldin: I don’t know.
MJT: Egypt has such a rich cultural tradition.
Asem Tageldin: This transformation happened during the Sadat era. He empowered Islamists to fight communists. Egyptian society used to be much more liberal. It was very liberal, very Western. Girls wore short skirts and drinking was normal.
MJT: So it can theoretically be that way again.
Asem Tageldin: I hope so.
Girlfriend: I don’t think so. People here are extremely close-minded.
Asem Tageldin: I don’t agree. People here thought it was impossible to topple Mubarak, that he would use his son to turn Egypt into a monarchy. And if that changed, then anything can change. We just need time.
Armin Rosen: So who are you going to vote for?
Asem Tageldin: Somebody needs to come out and tell me what they’re going to do for this country. They can’t just come out and say, ‘ooh, look at me, I was in the Arab League.’ I don’t fucking care where you were. I want you to tell me what you’re going to do. No one’s doing that. Politicians are just out there slashing each other, saying ‘Amr Moussa drinks, he’s an infidel!’ What does that have to do with his function in government?
I’m trying to expand my magazine into Tunisia.
MJT: It might work there.
Armin Rosen: I can think of another place where the magazine might work, but I’m not going to say it out loud in public.
MJT: Yeah, don’t.
Asem Tageldin: Israel?
Armin Rosen: It’s the kind of thing they’d appreciate.
Asem Tageldin: I’d probably be flagged as a spy or something. Any individual who goes to Israel who isn’t a politician or a diplomat is flagged and put under surveillance. Everyone who goes to Israel is suspected of being a spy.
MJT: That’s really unfortunate. You can’t even go there as a tourist.
Asem Tageldin: But I don’t really care. I would go anyway.
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