« | Home | »

In Alexandria


In the streets of Alexandria, faces are disappearing: specifically, the hair, lips and eyes of mannequins. Stroll past the shop fronts and you will see the dividing lines. Observant shopkeepers display mannequins with no features at all. The faceless heads, emerging from the new season’s fashions, have no ears or noses, no hint of a cheek bone or eyebrow. Some are pristine, glossy white; others are silver or black. Shops selling religious goods, Wahhabi-style jalabiyas and Korans, use headless dummies – as do underwear shops, their windows crammed with plastic bosoms only partly covered by sheer negligees and lacy bras.

Half a street away, on Sharia el Nabi Daniel, four male mannequins have been placed on the pavement. The upper halves of their faces are concealed. Only their perpetual smiles are visible. The woollen cap on one has been pulled down; on another, a spooky piece of gauze has been taped across the eyes. The men in the shop explain to me that the showing of the face is haram, forbidden. They let me take photos. In two afternoons of photographing shop mannequins in Alexandria, only one person declined my request, and he was worried that I wanted to steal the designs of his conservative, full-length dresses.

There are still shops using mannequins of an earlier era, life-sized Barbie dolls with matted blonde or brunette wigs, bright blue eye shadow and parted red lips. Sometimes they’ll be crowded together, in groups of six or eight, their arms and legs positioned as if in mid-stride. On a Saturday afternoon in late December the streets were packed with shoppers. It felt like walking through a strange zoo: behind the glass, a cartoonish stereotype of western beauty and sexual availability; looking in, Egyptian women wearing the hijab or niqab and loose, ankle-length clothing.

Comments on “In Alexandria”

  1. George says:

    Surprising that the author does not know why (or at least does not tell us) this trend in mannequins is taking place (and the showing of the face as haram explanation told by some men is not correct, although interesting in and of itself). This reader would appreciate more than just what someone would see walking down the street. And to describe people shopping and the scene as a “strange zoo” is really not a very accurate or appropriate metaphor. It is important to be aware of the long history and politics of 1st worlders describing others in animal-like terms. With a little thought and effort, the author certainly could have come up with another way to describe the situation.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      You’ve misread the ‘strange zoo’ simile: the only others being described ‘in animal-like terms’ are the mannequins ‘behind the glass, a cartoonish stereotype of western beauty and sexual availability’.

      • alex says:

        Not so simple – I can’t see how you can say ‘strange zoo’ doesn’t refer alike to the experience of looking at the mannequins and the women. As in the syntax, so in the photograph, where the distinction is not that between the women and the mannequins (the glass is barely noticeable) but between those inside the image and those outside of it.

  2. husseinhusseinomar says:

    It is not just the zoo metaphor which I find problematic (I, like Alex and most people I know, seem to have ‘misread’ it). As an Egyptian, I have no idea what Carol Berger means by’wahhabi-style jalabiyas’ or what ‘western beauty’ really is and/or how it differs from our home-grown ‘native’ beauty. This seems rather lazy– it is particularly irksome given the LRB’s publication of Seidel’s ‘Egypt Angel’and Shatz’s strange claim that’a liberal Egypt was briefly alive among the people in Tahrir Square who desperately wanted to be a part of the modern world’ in his most recent article.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement