21 November 2015

The New Yorker: “Learning to Speak Lingerie”

The sheikh and Kiki were still separated by ten pounds when the second call to prayer sounded. “I have to go,” he said, and handed Kiki his money. “I’m a sheikh! I have to pray.” But Kiki slapped him lightly on the arm with the cash. “Ten more!” she said sternly. The sheikh’s eyes widened in mock surprise, and then, with a flourish, he turned to face Mecca, closed his eyes, and held out his hands in the posture of prayer. Standing in the middle of the lingerie shop, he began to recite, “Subhan’allah wal’hamdulillah…

“Fine, fine!” Kiki said, and rushed off to deal with other customers. The sheikh smiled as he left, the women trailing behind him. Later in the evening, Kiki told me that she thought one of the women was the sheikh’s mother. From my perspective, this changed the narrative significantly but didn’t make it any less interesting. Kiki, though, had nothing more to say about it: as far as she was concerned, the story had ended the moment the sale was made.

Peter Hessler

Fascinating insight into an unlikely aspect of economy in Egypt, where Chinese entrepreneurs are expanding their influence each year, not only in the lingerie business, but in recycling and manufacturing as well. It goes to show how little we know the world outside of the news the mainstream media chooses to present. Among their strengths: total focus on business while ignoring religious differences, allowing them passage into communities where Westerners would not be trusted. And the biggest weakness of Muslim economies: the religious restrictions on women, preventing them from working at full potential.

Chinese lingerie store in Asyut
Chen Yaying and Liu Jun, who go by the names Kiki and John, in their lingerie store in Asyut, with their Egyptian assistant Rahma Medhat.
Photograph by Rena Effendi / Institute

But on the whole this subject doesn’t interest Chinese dealers. Few of them are well educated, and they don’t perceive themselves as being engaged in a cultural exchange. On issues of religion, they are truly agnostic: they seem to have no preconceptions or received ideas, and they evaluate any faith strictly on the basis of direct personal experience. “The ones with the crosses—are they Muslim?” one Chinese dealer asked me. He had been living for four years in Minya, a town with sectarian strife so serious that several Coptic Christian churches had been damaged by mobs armed with Molotov cocktails. During one of our conversations, I realized that he was under the impression that women who wear head scarves are adherents of a different religion from that of those who wear the niqab. It was logical: he noticed contrasts in dress and behavior, and so he assumed that they believe in different things; a monolithic label like “Islam” meant nothing to him. In general, Chinese dealers prefer Egyptian Muslims to Christians. This is partly because Muslims are more faithful consumers of lingerie, but it’s also because they’re easier to negotiate with. The Copts are a financially successful minority, and they have a reputation for bargaining aggressively. This is what matters most to Chinese dealers—for them, religion is essentially another business proposition.

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