QA with Shereen El Feki A glimpse of Arab society in a globalizing world


The TEDBlog recently followed up with TED Fellow Shereen El Feki about her experience attending TEDGlobal and some of the ideas that underlie her talk on pop culture in the Arab world. Shereen elaborates on what’s driving the “mesh of civilizations,” differences between Western and Arab cultures and how the Internet and economics contribute to the mesh.

How are you developing your work since TEDGlobal? Did you experience anything at TED that moved your work in a new direction, or perhaps reconfirmed your ideas?

TED was actually very interesting for me on a number of levels. Where do I begin? There was so much that spun out of TED for me. Certainly it was refreshing to meet people who were very interested and open-minded about the Arab region, and were very keen to interact. So, that’s hardly a surprise. The people at TED are very international and very outward looking. But certainly the level of enthusiasm was very welcome.

One of the most tangible outcomes to emerge from the meeting was the fact that I met a number of people from Saudi Arabia and we are now working together — Insha’Allah as we say, if God wills — put on a TEDx event in Saudi Arabia next year. So that was very exciting. These are some young, dynamic, enthusiastic, international Saudi men who were very keen to put on a really great TEDx event, so it’s a great pleasure to be able to work with them.

Another event which is, again, Insha’Allah, because it’s always difficult to organize a conference if you don’t have the sort of military precision of the TED operation (we have all these incredibly enthusiastic recruits.) The other thing we’re working on now is to put together a TEDx event in India next year, and that will actually focus on failure. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it? Because obviously the TED story is such a stellar success. But the failure conference, or Fruits of Failure as we’re calling it, really emerged from the idea that in a lot of other cultures there is a real stigma attached with failure. Once you sort of fall off the road of success, then it’s very hard to get back on track. It’s a problem, actually, if you want to foster an entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture, which a lot of countries do.

A lot of countries in parts further east than America will say that “yes, we want to have startups, we want to have a knowledge economy,” but there are cultural issues — they’re about being willing to take a risk and being willing to fail. And this conference is going to look at that. It’s going to look at failure from a personal level, from a philosophical level, what do religions say about failure, and really to look at it from a variety of dimensions. And it’s to the credit of TED and Lara Stein, who was very supportive of this. It’s still in the very early stages. We’re just sort of getting it off the ground now. But it’s a testimonial to TED. And also the success of TED is it’s willingness to take risks, and this is a good example of that.

So it was a really good event. I met Marc Koska, whose talk I see has been put up on the web now. He had the SafePoint syringe, and I’ve tried to put him in touch with some people in Egypt who might be able to help him manufacture and get it onto the market. Egypt has an interesting history. They have very high rates of Hepatitis C in Egypt, the direct result of really poor use of syringes in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. People were reusing syringes and they spread Hepatitis C through the population. Egypt is a great place which would really benefit from Marc’s technology, and so I put him in touch and I hope something will come from that.

I have a number of other interactions and stories and that sort of thing. So certainly in terms of tangible connections, TED did exactly what it says on the label, which is, you go out, people are very willing to talk to strangers, and get down to quite detailed discussions very quickly. So that was terrific.

On a separate note, you asked me has my work changed. Well, the other thing that was really inspirational about TED is just the range of creativity on display. And in particular, what most impressed me, both among the Fellows, but also the speakers and the other delegates, was people who came from very different disciplines, visually-oriented disciplines, and the way that they negotiate the world through sound or pictures, but not through words, which is the way I work my way through the world. It was really inspiring and while I can’t aspire to the heights of visual creativity that they’ve attained, it certainly got me thinking about how I present my work, and to try to think of more visual ways of getting ideas across. So that was immensely helpful as well.

The theme of your talk was cultural hybridization. While attending TEDGlobal did you discover any new examples of cultural hybridization?

Yes, it wasn’t so much geographic as it was cross-disciplinary. TED is all about cross-fertilization. For example there was a really great presentation [by Manuel Lima] which was looking at visual ways of presenting data. It was a really interesting example of hybridization, again, not across geographies, but across, almost, modalities of expression.

The other thing I tried to do, I was there to also catalyze some of these connections. So, for example, one of the Fellows [Gabriella Gómez-Mont] runs an arts cultural center in Mexico City, and I have a friend who does something very similar in Cairo. And again, a lot of what they’re trying to achieve, both in Mexico City and Cairo, are actually quite similar in terms of both fostering young artists, but also creating a sense of community around the arts in a place which has a lot of urban stresses and a lot of the pressures of an urban space in the developing world. So I’ve put them in contact as well. I see myself more as a catalyst for hybridization, trying to get some of these reactions going.

The wonderful presentation [by Manuel Lima] about 3D visualization was how to take complex data and put in visual form. And really what he was doing, it was a form of hybridization. It was working from the world of numbers and facts and figures and statistics, and finding a creative way to present that visually, which also not only makes it more accessible, but actually draws out more information because when you present that sort of dense data in a new way, you also start to see new connections between pieces of data that you might not have seen if you just saw them as numbers on a page. And I thought that was a very interesting example of what I would consider to be hybridization.

So TED was a really wonderful experience. I’m sure it’s great going as a delegate, but certainly going as a Fellow was also very, very interesting because you had more time to interact with this incredibly interesting group of people. That was a bonus as well.

Moving on to your talk, do you think globalization is driving the mesh of civilizations or is the mesh driving globalization?

That’s an interesting question. It’s a bit of both, isn’t it? I have to point out it’s not a new phenomenon. Every generation thinks that what they’re going through is some how new, unprecedented, paradigm-breaking. Certainly what is happening is that the exchange of information and the awareness is amplified, it’s speeding up, and it’s on a larger scale. During the colonial period, if you look at the Arab world, since 1798 there’s been a very strong European presence, Western presence, in the Arab world, but Arabs who had contact with that were still a reasonably limited number. I mean by contact that there was an intellectual exchange.

So what’s happening now, of course, is that that’s almost being democratized in a way. That’s now spreading out to a very large group of people across the world, but I’m talking specifically in the Arab region. Young Arabs in particular are inveterate users of the Internet. The statistics which show number of Internet connections are actually not an accurate reflection of what happens in a place like the Arab world because whether you have a computer at home is neither here nor there. You’re nipping down the Internet café. And then, of course, they have access via mobile phone and through satellite TV.

So in a sense it’s almost like old wine in new bottles, in that a process that has gone on for centuries is certainly speeded up and spread out. And I think it has interesting implications because historically there has been an idea or notion in the West that if only these people — meaning everyone who’s not in the West — knew the way that we live. If only they really understood our way of life, our society, then surely they would want to be like us. And in a sense it is just a question of revealing this to them, and they will come.

And the challenge now, which is what I tried to drive at in the handsome three minutes I was given to expound on what is a very complex cultural phenomenon — I was grateful for any time, frankly. It was great to be up on that stage. But, what’s interesting now is the fact that people in other cultures, and again I’m speaking specifically of the Arab world, are aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world, particularly the young generation which speaks some English or at least can read English, is on the net, knows what is going on in the outside world. And the real challenge now, in my view, is in a sense for the West also because why is it that people continue to do things differently? Before we could say, “ah, well they don’t know how we live, and when we show them that’s how they’ll live.” But the reality now is that young people know the score in the West. They know what happens, but they make different choices, and those choices are not based on ignorance. Those choices are based on information. And that’s, I think, a real challenge for people in the West to really accustom themselves to — that not everyone wants to live the way that Westerners do.

What are some barriers to the mesh of civilizations?

It’s a very interesting question. It cuts both ways. So let’s look at the Western side of things for a moment. There is a sense here, because I grew up in Canada and I worked in the UK, that the West has sort of blazed a trail for the world to follow. It’s almost like a Francis Fukuyama idea of the end of history — that there is this model, we’re all going to converge on it, and that will be that. In particular this model that exists in the West places religion in a certain place. And it by and large relegates religion to something which is almost like the muzak of society — it’s there, occasionally you may tune in when you have nothing better to do, but it’s certainly sort of background noise to life in the West.

That is a fundamental difference to what is happening in the Arab world. And that young people, all people, but young people in particular have this intense, intense sense of faith and they cling to it and they believe it is a source of strength, not a barrier, is I think possibly an obstacle for Westerners to really understanding how society is developing. It’s often presented when Westerners talk about Islam or the Arab world; they somehow see Islam as a step backward. So when they see women who are covered, for example, they think it’s somehow a step backward. To Arabs and many of my friends and my family members, it’s a logical step forward.

So religion is one issue — the role of religion in society. The other huge — I don’t want to characterize these as barriers; they’re really just very big differences — is the role of the individual. Largely, the model in the West in society is the autonomous individual. The individual is almost like the atom of society. It’s the unit of society. And that’s how Western society has developed over the past few centuries. It’s very different in the Arab region. People don’t necessarily conceive of themselves as individuals. They really don’t see their place in society in that way. They see themselves as part of a collective. And that has really interesting implications on a number of levels, but it is also one of these really big differences between the West and the Arab world.

It cut’s both ways. There are lots of things that Arabs don’t understand about the West, although they have access to this information. We all filter information through our own prism. And Arabs have a prism of their own, so I’m not putting this all on Westerners who don’t understand and they should just do more. It cuts both ways. There are some things that Arabs don’t get about the West. So these barriers or these gaps are not just the doing of the West. I want to just stress that point — it cuts on both sides.

Certainly things have changed since September 11. My sense is that we are, I’d like to think anyway, that we’re entering a new phase of engagement between the Arab world and the rest of the world. And it’s not also just the West anymore because you have to bear in mind that, looking east from the Arab world as well, the rising economic and political centers in Asia are also of interest to the Arab world. So this is looking outside of the Arab world.

But I think that certainly in the West, there is a realization, and particularly after the difficulties that have been encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think there is now a new sense that these people are different, that they don’t necessarily want what we want. And why is it they don’t want what we want? I’d like to think that there is a slightly more open-minded approach in certain courts to really try to understand what makes this part of the world — What are the motives? What are the factors? What drives people in the Arab world? — in a much more sophisticated and nuanced way.

I’m associated with the American University in Cairo and it’s good to see Westerners, particularly young Americans, coming to Cairo and other centers in the Arab region to learn Arabic. Because understanding the language does give you new insight into how people think and how people behave. A language is very much a representation and reflection of culture. And so I see that certainly there is a new curiosity and a new willingness to try to understand really what’s going on in the Arab region, not assume that it’s backward or it’s wrong. That’s been really encouraging. So at the end of the day, this great tragedy of September 11 may well have opened new doors for communication between the Arab world and the rest of the world.

Read the rest of this Q&A with Shereen El Feki >>In your talk, you cite examples of the mesh of civilizations geared toward the young Arab community. Are there examples in the adult Arab community as well?

Yes, although, the thing about popular culture is it’s very much a fast-moving, young person’s game. And you have to remember as well, the Arab world has a demographic which is very different from the West. So, if we’re looking at Western societies, the majority of the population is over 40, heading in extreme cases — Japan, Italy — over 65. It’s completely different in the Arab region. In most countries of the Arab world, 60% of the population is under the age of 30, and in some cases under the age of 20. So when you’re talking about popular culture and you’re talking about the majority of the population, it really is young people. And so that’s really where I in particular have most interest, and that’s why I focus on that.

What role does the Internet play in the mesh of civilizations? Is it a positive or negative force?

It cuts both ways, doesn’t it? Because of course it gives access to everyone, and that’s access to people who want to have a positive engagement and positive dialogue, and people who just want to rant. In something as complex as the Internet, it’s very hard to generalize, and I wouldn’t wish to. Certainly it has opened up new avenues for young Arabs to express themselves. Facebook is an extraordinarily popular medium in the Arab world. It’s interesting about Facebook because it’s not just a means of personal communication; it’s also a means of social mobilization.

Evgeny Morozov, one of the Fellows, is obviously an expert on this. For example, they tried to organize a national strike in Egypt via Facebook. So it opens tremendous possibilities. An example which is not from the Arab world, but Evgeny actually mentioned it: the janus face of the Internet is the fact that in Iran, for example, during the uprising around the election results, the young activists reached out on the Internet, and they were getting lots of traffic from the West, but that of course allowed the government to identify them and then clamp down. So it is a great tool and one of these catalysts of hybridization, but it’s not without risks.

What role does economics play in the mesh? Does economic demand pull cultural change, or does cultural change influence economic demand?

In Egypt for example, there have been enormous economic transformations. Egypt went from, before the 1970s, a very status, closed economy to, throughout the 1970s there was something called the infitah, the opening of the economy. And now Egypt has a really burgeoning capitalist economy. There is a lot of consumption in the region, in Egypt and else where. The Gulf region in particular has been buoyed up by revenues from oil and gas. When you have a consumer culture, people want things and one of those things is information. And they also have the means to access the information. They actually have the tools. They have the computers. They have the mobile phones. So yes, I would say that certainly economic prosperity, and they also have the time.

I’d say in places like the Gulf which are highly prosperous parts of the region, that certainly economics has given people leisure. It’s given people time. It gives young people the tools and the opportunity to go on the net and to speak to a wider world. Other parts of the Arab region, it’s a very different story. In Egypt, one could argue — there’s very high unemployment now — so some people are very rich, a lot of people are struggling. And so in those sorts of conditions, what sort of access do young people have? You could argue that because a lot of young people can’t find a job, maybe they’re spending their time in Internet cafés. We don’t really know but I’d say that the rise of the consumer culture has really pushed people into looking beyond their own borders if they can afford the time.

Let me just point out here that I’m generalizing about 350 million people and obviously there are huge variations in the Arab region. And this is something which often gets lost on outsiders — that what happens in Morocco or Tunisia is different than what happens in Egypt, which is different than what happens in the Gulf. So I just want to add that caveat, and I haven’t even talked about Palestine — the West Bank and Gaza — which are completely different. Quite a different dynamic going on and how people access the Internet there and go about their lives is, again, different. So I just want to be clear that I’m doing a bit of generalizing and my apologies for that.

Do you think that national borders are still relevant to defining culture, or are they fading into the background?

This is sort of picking up on Parag Khanna’s talk, which he talks about the shifting nature of borders. I haven’t really thought about it, actually. This comes to the question of how do you identify yourself? In the Arab world, do you identify yourself as a Muslim? Do you identify yourself as an Arab? Do you identify yourself as an Egyptian or as a Jordanian? I’ve never really asked young Egyptians that question. Certainly if the night of the big football match of Egypt vs. United States, for example, is anything to go by, then definitely Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians first and foremost. I think it depends on the context. Yes, I think national borders do matter and certainly one still sees cross-border conflicts in the Arab region and cross-border tensions.

So yes, I still think national borders do matter. I think also, though, that people are capable of multiple identities. So while I might see myself as an Egyptian, I would also see myself as part of a wider Muslim community. That has been a big shift and there are people who have written extensively about this, like Olivier Roy, for example, Globalized Islam. There is the concept in Islam of something called the ummah, which is the community of believers — and this is something where the Internet has played a role in terms of really connecting Muslims across borders. I think national borders do matter, but I think that people can identify to multiple groups at once. So we’re all carrying different passports at one time, whether literal or figurative.

Can policymakers leverage the positive aspects of this mesh of civilizations?

I would like to think so. This is something where society leads and politicians follow. It’s interesting if you look at the Arab region, the majority of the population is young, as I mentioned, but most of the people who actually call the shots are much older and so they’re actually not part of an Internet generation. So for them, often when they react to the Internet or there are forms of censorship, it’s often because you’re talking about a generation that doesn’t get the net, that doesn’t adapt easily. So yes, I would love to see that, and there are some cases of leaders in the Arab region. Jordan is an interesting example where the King and Queen, they have a Facebook site; I think the Queen Twitters. You’ll have to check this one. [She does! @QueenRania] So there are efforts, definitely, but I think that this push of hybridization is going to come from the grassroots. It’s not going to come from the top.