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In Alexandria

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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.

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