Tracing Change in Modern Egypt, Refrigerator by Refrigerator

Thomas Brown for the Chronicle

Laura E. Bier interviews the owner of a small grocery store in Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood. Ms. Bier has a Fulbright fellowship to study how changing trends among consumers reflect Egypt's political shifts.
October 28, 2012

Egypt has had a tumultuous modern history, marked by dramatic shifts—from colonialism to independence, monarchy to socialism, dictatorship to a new, chaotic but more democratic, system.

Laura E. Bier, an American scholar on a Fulbright fellowship to Egypt, wants to find out how changing patterns in consumer behavior—changes as prosaic as what snacks Egyptians buy at their corner shops—illuminate these historical shifts.

Ms. Bier, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of History, Technology, and Society, is one of six Fulbright scholars in Egypt for the 2012-13 academic year. Several of them plan to study topics related to the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, looking at subjects like political cartoons, the writing of Egypt's new constitution, and the role of women in politics.

Ms. Bier's research touches in part on the motivations that drove the hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets to fight for greater political rights and "a respectable, dignified life." They defined that life, she says, largely in economic terms, as their ability to provide certain basic consumer products for their homes and for their children.

Ms. Bier first visited Egypt in 1991 as a study-abroad student at the American University in Cairo. She fell in love with the Egyptian capital, which she describes as a "crazy, lively-until-all-hours place." Her dissertation research and her book—Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser's Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2011)—focused on the feminist movement in Egypt after the 1952 coup.

While that research examined power struggles within Egypt's political elite, Ms. Bier's current work looks at "changes on the everyday level," she says. Using advertisements, government archives and statistics, records of trade fairs, and oral interviews with factory and shop owners, she plans to track trends like the spread of particular brands of soda or of household appliances like refrigerators.

Shifts in people's material aspirations are part of historical change, Ms. Bier contends. Take the fortunes of Coca-Cola, for example. It was an imported luxury when it first appeared in Egypt after World War II; banned from 1966 to 1974 as part of a boycott of multinationals doing business in Israel; and then it cornered the market as Egypt moved away from socialism and discontinued subsidies to small domestic soda producers.

But Egyptian historians do not tend to focus on such mundane or contemporary topics, and they generally find her project "peculiar," says Ms. Bier. At her host institution, Ain Shams University, she was assigned to work with a sociologist rather than a historian.

Ms. Bier is in Cairo with her husband, an Egyptian visual artist, and her 2-year-old daughter. Her husband's family has proved a valuable source for her research, recounting the momentous acquisition of the family's first refrigerator, transported from Cairo to a small village in the south (upon the owner's death, the fridge caused a family feud). Another family member's engagement was broken off after he refused to provide a refrigerator as part of his bridal payment—a by-no-means unusual development in a society where engagements are accompanied by protracted negotiations over household appliances.

Ms. Bier lights up as she tells these anecdotes and teases out their larger socioeconomic significance. The historian hopes that her work might eventually lead to her promotion to full professor. But most importantly, she says, she is thankful for the opportunity to "fall in love with Egypt again."