Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Chinese Syndrome

Along with the straitened heat and humidity of the month of August, watching the Olympic Games added a sense of disgrace and bitterness to summer in Egypt, for the disparity between Egypt and the advanced world was all too vivid in Beijing.

Egyptians apprehended how weak their nation was compared to other nations two centuries ago. The French invasion in 1798 was Egypt’s first encounter with modern civilization after centuries of isolation that threw the country into a black hole of feebleness and backwardness. The French fleet, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, included a large number of scientists whose mission was to survey Egypt’s geography, culture, anthropology, and history in a way that has never been done before, a huge effort that culminated in the 24-volume “Description de l’Egypte.”

Exposed to modern weaponry and scientific inventions that they never saw or dealt with, Egyptians were forced into comparing themselves with “the other,” their ignorance and littleness with the knowledge and strength of Westerners. They realized that something serious had gone wrong with their country. Two visions vowed to repair it: the first maintained that Islam had to be reformed (the solution promulgated by Al-Afghany, Mohamed Abdou, and Mohamed Rashid Reda); the second affirmed that the return to the Meccan brand of Islam is the only panacea to the triumph of the West.

The telecommunication revolution of the 21st century, however, guaranteed Egyptians’ continuous exposure to the superiority of “others.” The 24-hour coverage of the Olympic Games in Beijing, for example, was a painful reminder that in sports they favored the cozy seats of spectators to fierce competition in sports pitches.

The “Chinese Syndrome” started with the impressive opening ceremony, which was depicted by The Guardian as the ceremony that “outdid all of its predecessors in numbers, color, noise and expense.” The Daily Mail predicted that Hollywood will “study the DVD (of the ceremony) for years to come and plunder Beijing’s visual tricks.” The Daily Telegraph summed it up with the front page headline: “Beijing wows the world.” Unfortunately, what impresses the First World sometimes overwhelms the Third World with a feeling of lowliness and sourness; just like the encounter with the French invasion, seeing the signs of others’ advance imposes the discomforting, 200-year-old comparison between “us” and “them.”

Then came the ever-fresh disappointment of the routine breakdown of the Egyptian squad, the laments of which recur after every sports breakdown. Egypt’s ranking in the all-time Olympics record sheet is equivalent to its pitiful position in the global hierarchy of power and advancement. The United States, today’s sole superpower, won more than 2,000 Olympic medals since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Egypt won two dozen in the same period. What kind of feelings are Egyptians left with upon knowing that another nation earned more medals in one week than they did in over a century?

Part of the popular blame for the drastic failure in Beijing was laid upon the “irresponsibility” of Egyptian athletes and the “incompetence” of their federations. That is unfair and not particularly accurate too. Winning athletes are not made in a vacuum; they blossom alongside science, technology and material power, and wither in their absence.

Suffice it to know that the swimwear of legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps (who won eight gold medals this year and six in Athens four years ago) and the American swimming team was developed with the aid of US space agency NASA. Made from water-repellant material, the seamless suit helps swimmers keep the best body position in water and lessen drag. Swimmers wearing this new invention set 33 new world records since its introduction last February.

Beijing’s debacle should not have been a surprise, for how could one expect roses to grow in a field of mines? The real grief is, thus, not about the loss of Karam Gaber’s much anticipated wrestling medal, but instead is generated by the glaring evidence of the defeat of the whole nation, its littleness and weakness vis-à-vis advanced nations, and, more importantly, the self-pity that follows from the almost fatalistic belief that one’s nation is destined to remain forever in the backseat of civilization and progress.

The allegation that Egypt was last defeated in 1967 is a big lie. The truth is: it has been defeated ever since. After all, defeats in battlefields, markets and sports arenas are just the tip of the floating iceberg; beneath lies longstanding defeats in laboratories, universities and factories.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 28, 2008.

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