From the ARCADE Issue 32.1 feature, “After Growth: Rethinking the Narrative of Modernization.”
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Photography by Ted Swendenburg


Nihilism strikes me as an outcome of chaos, the inability to find reasons for suffering. Hope is socially constructed, and hopelessness is the natural state of things. Or so it feels that way in Cairo now.

The story of the city of Cairo is ripe with fundamental life questions. Maria Golia, a columnist for the Lebanon Daily Star and author of Cairo: City of Sand and Photography and Egypt, has written very elegantly about many topics, including why Cairenes have resorted to conspiracy theories (in Cairo, this is mainly due to people’s inability to find agency; they feel as though they are personally governed by those above them or by global powers). The second crucial thing Golia has written about is the conversion of Cairo from a recycling heaven (a new ideal in the West—recycling is green) into an environmental nightmare. In the ’60s and ’70s, Cairo’s streets were full of revamped cars; cars that would only be found in museums in the US were functioning beasts in Cairo. Why? Because Cairo mechanics were miracle makers, and their miracles were a result of necessity due to a lack of resources.

Cairo car

Globalization—which brought with it a barrage of images of consumption—reconstructed Cairo. Globalization meant drinking Coca-Cola from tin cans and then throwing them away. In the Cairo we left behind, we drank Coke from bottles that we had to return to the factory for rebottling. Now, Cairenes want to consume like the worst of Westerners, consume as if there actually is a thing as nothingness, a void into which waste vanishes forever.

Cairo KFC

But do not get me wrong. I’m not interested in the classic narrative that says the world was good and now is bad, a trick that chronicles nostalgia or declares defeat. Yet as far as Cairo goes, such a narrative captures a form of truth in terms of the dynamics of consumption. With the influx of American soap operas, movies and capital came the explosive growth of the Egyptian nouveau riche, a group that has nothing to do with supporting the arts, sciences or the environment. They have one vocation: to consume. And the middle class, a growing conservative body, aims to join the nouveau riche in their consumption. Indeed, it is not the Western rules of urban planning that fucked things up for Cairo, it is late capitalism—Egyptian and global capital— that turned the city into a chaotic nightmare, which the upper middle-class has begun escaping by moving to an American-style suburbanization.

To understand the brutal absurdity the city of Cairo has become, go to a Foul and Falafel shop and order a few sandwiches. Each costs about a quarter and will be individually wrapped in a plastic bag; all of your wrapped sandwiches will then be placed in a larger plastic bag. In the past, the same shop would have wrapped the sandwiches together in an old newspaper and sold you a plastic bag only if you absolutely wanted it.


Over the years, I have learned that moral arguments are problematic, maybe because we are all at fault of violating them. Aesthetic judgments seem to be equally problematic, but at least engaging in them is more interesting. My problem with the Egyptian middle-class and how they distorted Cairo is that their form of life—which is a bad simulacrum of American middle-class life—can’t produce anything but ugliness. The old city of Cairo was a difficult place to live in; the new city of Cairo is an impossible place to live in.


The 2011 Egyptian revolution came as a statement not so much against a dictator but against the nouveau riche and the authorities that protect and serve their ugly and wasteful way of life. The revolution was a statement against what the city of Cairo had become, which left its inhabitants devoid of agency and miracles—attributes of the older city. The revolution came to reclaim a space and a history, but as I write, this same revolution that hosted the largest number of self-organizing demonstrations in history is taking a downturn. The ugly city is winning. Yes, one more victory for nihilism.