A shop window on Egyptian history

 
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By Khaled Diab

The buyers of Harrods are reportedly planning to take over Egypt’s oldest department store, Omar Effendi, whose story mirrors Egypt’s modern history.

10 September 2010

Harrods is a quintessentially English institution. But ever since the flamboyant and controversial  Mohamed al-Fayed, whom the British establishment love to hate though he effectively became one of them, took control of it in the 1980s, it has also become an Egyptian icon of sorts.

But now that Egyptian connection has been severed following the takeover of the landmark department store by a Qatari group. My wife even wonders whether the new owners will keep the incredibly kitsch and narcissistic ‘Egyptian Hall’ which el-Fayed created as an ode to his native Egypt, but also to himself, decorated as it is with Ancient Egyptian busts that bear a striking resemblance to the Egyptian billionaire. Since it is apparently a registered monument, they will have to.

Now that same Qatari group has its sights set on a similarly iconic establishment in Egypt: Omar Effendi which, at 156 years old, is Egypt’s oldest and best-known chain of department stores.

But whereas Harrods is a byword in exclusivity and operates under the motto, “All things for all people, everywhere”, Omar Effendi – despite its new slogan, “We have what you desire” – is akin to some Kafkaesque bureaucracy with window dressing where service with a grimace or an indifferent sigh remains the norm.

Earlier this year, drawn by the local Omar Effendi’s gleaming new facade, my wife, baby son and I ventured in for a look around. But it soon transpired that the changes brought about by privatisation in 2006 were only skin deep, at least at this branch.

The merchandise looked dated and overpriced, a thin film of dust covered many of the products and employees seemed to outnumber shoppers. The staff carried themselves with that classic muwazaf (employee) demeanour: bored indifference and a body language that said: “I’m not paid enough to do customer care.”

Nevertheless, Omar Effendi, probably Egypt’s most famous Omar after Omar Sharif, deserves its iconic status more than Harrods does. Like a contemporary Sphinx, it has borne witness to and been shaped by the major social and political currents in modern Egypt. As my brother put it: “No one can tell Egypt’s story over the past 150 years better than Omar Effendi.”

Originally named Orosdi-Back (after its Austro-Hungarian Jewish creators, Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back), the first Egyptian branch opened in 1856, when Egypt was under British and French control. It was located in Cairo’s spanking new European quarter, which the Khedive Ismail would later try to transform into a “Paris on the Nile”, nearly bankrupting the treasury in the process.

The once-chic department store, which still stands in downtown Cairo like a fallen diva, started off as Cairo’s answer to Harrods, and was frequented by the city’s large European population and the moneyed Egyptian elite, including the semi-feudal land-owning pasha class. It fed the modernising city’s voracious appetite for all things European and western. When it was taken over in 1920, the new owners changed its name to Omar Effendi (who I’ve finally discovered was apparently a member of the Ottoman sultan’s family).

Omar Effendi continued to expand its operation as an exclusive chain of department stores for the next few decades. Following the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the company was nationalised in 1957. In keeping with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s egalitarian ethos, Omar Effendi was ‘rebranded’ as the department store for the masses.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Egypt’s new burgeoning middle classes flocked there. Under the socialist theories popular at the time in newly independent countries, Egypt sought to industrialise rapidly through a central command economy and achieve self-sufficiency by producing everything from “the needle to the rocket”. This led to a thriving black market in western products and any family or friends travelling abroad were expected to return laden with exotic gifts.

However, this experiment became bogged down by inefficiency, corruption and an increasingly bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracy. At Omar Effendi, this was reflected in the poor quality and narrow range of domestically produced products on show, the neglect of the chain’s infrastructure, and the muwazaf mentality of its staff.

Since Egypt’s neoliberal economic experiment took off in earnest in the 1990s, Omar Effendi has increasingly grown to resemble a dinosaur, where the new moneyed classes wouldn’t be seen dead shopping. Instead, they flock to the new luxury malls which have multiplied like rabbits – even since I moved away from Egypt less than a decade ago. It will be interesting to see whether the new management will be able to reverse the chain’s fortunes.

My parents’ generation had no option but to shop at Omar Effendi and the other nationalised department stores. My own generation witnessed the early advent of globalisation in Egypt. The current generation can buy pretty much everything you can find in the west. However, in the process, Egypt has exchanged one dystopia for another. It has gone from being a society that aspired to produce everything (albeit badly) to become one that produces just about nothing, with the painful socio-economic and employment consequences of privatisation and liberalisation.

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 September 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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