Living Off the Nile

The Signs are Everywhere

September 17th, 2010 by asmetana · 3 Comments

One of the first things that surprised me when I arrived to Egypt was the large amount of stores, advertisements, and labels that were in English, or even better, English words spelled in the Arabic script. For example there is a clothing store in Zamalek called “For You” with the name in both English and in the Arabic script. It looks like ” فور يو”, but is pronounced only slightly different than the English as “Foor You”. I prefer the shops that have both English and Arabic names that are slightly different since they are more intriguing. There is a store labled as”Electric Shop” in English but the Arabic is “بيت النور”. This literally translates into “House of the Light”.

Along the expressways and sidewalks, there are ads for razors, clothes, food, appliances, and more all  in English.

As I would read these English signs, I would always wonder why they would name and advertise themselves in English. Given the low literacy rate in Egypt and that only the wealthy know English well, the advertisers are obviously targeting a narrow and well-off demographic. This did not seem like such a good idea to me at first, because they are excluding a whole bunch of potential consumers. However, now that I think of it more, it makes sense. English gives the brand or company more prestige, which means that it would probably be more expensive to begin. Only people that are wealthy enough to know English would be able to afford the product. In addition, the people that cannot understand English can still recognize the product and  buy the product in the store if they so desire. They may not be able to understand the packaging, but if it is something simple, everyday object they do not really need read anything to begin with.

Yesterday in my Third World Development class, we discussed this issue for a few minutes. The professor confirmed by beliefs that the companies are trying to attract customers that know English. However, there is a slight contradiction to this. One of my Egyptian classmates told us that when she went to buy an album yesterday for a popular Egyptian singer, all of the album work was all in English and when it did use Arabic words, they were transliterated into the Roman script. She was very shocked at this since the people most likely to buy and listen to the album are Arabic and probably do not know English. This is really unfortunate because a large number of the singers fans will be unable to appreciate their favorite music. We also got around to talking about the significance of the use of English and how it reinforces a belief that the native Egyptian/Arabic culture is somehow inferior to American/English culture. However, one thing that Egyptians are proud of is that they have never adopted the language of any colonizers, like the Ottoman Turks, French, and British, but have stuck with Arabic. At one point in Tahrir Square there were many business that had French signs. There were a groups of conservative Egyptians that saw this language as a threat to their culture and oppressive so they burned numerous French-named shops, whether or not they were owned by French or other Arabs. I was shocked when I heard this, though I shouldn’t have been. Language is tightly intertwined with identity.It can be used as a tool of oppression or empowerment, manipulating people’s perceptions of their self-worth.

The Egyptians loyalty to their language differentiates them from places like Algeria and Morocco where French is very prevalent and some people only speak it to put on airs. I have noticed that when possible, Egyptians will speak Arabic. All the students that I have met here so far speak English wonderfully and many have an extensive and complex vocabulary. Even though they can easily hold conversations in English, they will speak in Arabic amongst themselves. I found this a bit surprising since I will often attempt to speak Spanish with my Spanish-speaking friends for fun or practice.

However, when Egyptians know English and are speaking to Americans they speak English. This is frustrating for me and others trying to develop Arabic language skills. One of my American friends here was complaining to her Egyptian cousin about this. She told him that whenever she tries to speak in Arabic to people here they respond to her in English even when she could understand the Arabic reply. He told her that even if people know you can understand Arabic, they will want to speak with you in English in order to show off their  knowledge and, more importantly, to boost their status in our eyes.

The use and perception of English is mixed. English is a symbol of prestige, to be desired, but at the same time this prestige results in the diminished worth of Arabic. While people use English to show-off, advertise prestigious goods, or seek better economic opportunities, when it comes to friends, family, and daily life Arabic is the language to use.

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