Travel as Cross-Cultural Communication: Paradigms of Travel to Egypt

By Abdel-Hakim, Sahar Sobhi | Studies in the Humanities, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Travel as Cross-Cultural Communication: Paradigms of Travel to Egypt


Abdel-Hakim, Sahar Sobhi, Studies in the Humanities


Much has been said of travelers to Egypt: of Herodotus and Strabo, of explorers and leisurely tourists, of intrepid women who crossed desert and valley, of scholars and soldiers, of waves following waves of visitors. And much has also been said of the Egypt of these travelers: of a profound civilization that is dead, of political dictators and oppressed peoples, of august celebrations and beggarly districts, of talking stones and silent sufferers, of a fertile valley and a drab desert, of plains and lofty eastern elevations, of noble fellaheen working for the corvee, of mosques and of monasteries. Such are the impressions imprinted on us about Egypt and the travelers to this land. This is the legacy that centuries of travel writing and studies have left us.

Travel is an activity connected to both transportation and communication technologies. Desert "ships" and their organization into caravans brought to Egypt visitors from neighboring lands. Sea navigation widened the plane of mobility, bringing fair and dusky face to face. Railroads speeded up land navigation in the nineteenth century, aviation in the twentieth. The telegram, telephone, and television, making possible the travel of words and images including news and intelligence, have facilitated travel and sometimes have taken the place of the traveler. And most recently, cyber communications may be supplanting earlier forms of travel. All of these advances have created inviting opportunities for real and now for virtual travel. In comparison, however, travel writing and travel studies, the critical and theoretical scholarship based on travel writing, seem to have turned sedate, weary of their old age, heavy with their historic baggage, ailing and scarred by their earlier aggression.

Today we have new advances in the technology of communication and a promising body of theorization for mobility, as in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, of Edward Said, Mary Louise Pratt, James Clifford, Caren Kaplan to name only a few of the better known interventions. Yet, we have witnessed a remarkable decline in the production of travel writing and near debility in travel studies, in the case of Egypt and the region, along with a reterritorialization of travel studies in fiction, as in the work of Amin Malouf and Ahdaf Soueif. The irony of this situation finds a rationale in the recent history of the discipline of travel studies. In western academia, travel to Egypt and the near east was mainly studied in departments of Oriental studies which were the butt of Edward Said's harsh critique in Orientalism. A second disciplinary problem is related to the corpus of the field. What is referred to as "travel to Egypt" is a huge body of writing that has been created for over two and a half millennia, dating back at least to Herodotus who traveled in the region around the year 450 BC. The sheer bulk of this production, the numbers of contributors to it, and the controversies about it have put off many scholars.

Rather than feel disempowered by the long history and massive accumulation of the two and a half millennia of accounts of travelers in Egypt, I wish to look at this legacy as a reservoir of experiences and wisdom that can offer alternative paradigms of relations between traveler and travelee that might help us out of the doldrums Rather than feel disempowered by the long history and massive accumulation of the two and a half millennia of accounts of travelers in Egypt, I wish to look at this legacy as a reservoir of experiences and wisdom that can offer alternative paradigms of relations between traveler and travelee that might help us out of the doldrums in which travel studies is now stuck. (1) I will analyze four new paradigms for discussing travel: Reciprocity, Centralization, Competition, and Dialogic. Within each of these paradigms I will focus on three factors that have been crucial in the shaping of the traveler/travelee relation: the available technology of transportation at a particular point in time and the mode of travel and life it generated; the conceptual instigator, by which I mean the set of ideas that motivate the traveler to undertake a journey, including issues of connection and mobility; and the institutional affiliation of the traveler. …

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