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Captive Consumers? Shopping, Urban Space, and the Colonial Politics of Middle East Consumption

A lecture by Nancy Reynolds, Washington University in St. Louis

Consumer goods occupied an uneasy place on anti-colonial agendas in Egypt for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Nationalist leaders derided commerce as a form of captivity. Merchants, many leaders claimed, siphoned local capital from industry to consumption, thus slowing national economic development and transforming colonial subjects into passive vectors for the appropriation of wealth by metropolitan states and merchants. At the same time, nationalists advocated the consumption of locally produced goods in an effort to secure popular allegiance and to remake Egypt into what they considered a modern, rational society that could command legitimacy in the eyes of Europe. Close examination of struggles over consumption and commerce demonstrate, however, a much more informal process through which the material vocabulary of nationhood formed, one that grew from the conflicts and collaboration of consumers “from below” as well as more institutional and prescriptive mandates.

Nancy Y. Reynolds is associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research interests concentrate on the cultural and social history of twentieth-century Egypt. Her first book, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt, was published in June 2012 by Stanford University Press. Her work on Egyptian department stores has appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of Women’s History, the European Review of History, and Arab Studies Journal. In 2011, she received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for her project, “The Politics of Environment, Culture, and National Development in the Building of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, 1956-1971.”

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