by Rabia Barkatulla 

Earlier this month, a flashy marketing video from Telford Homes popped up and caught the attention of social media. Set to upbeat music, the video follows a young, white woman as she plunges into London’s trendy Dalston area. Spoilt by the choice of vintage clothing shops, hairdressers and hipster cafes, the woman and everyone else featured appear all over the moon. So far, so commercial. What is worrying, however, is what we aren’t seeing. The still of the street sign ‘Brick Lane’ doesn’t even hint at a wisp of the borough’s ethnically mixed residents, as some have pointed out. The truth is, East London has attracted more immigrants than any other part of central London. So why are they edited out?

The aesthetics of the video resonated with me, reminding me of my brief role as a copywriter in the capital of Egypt, Cairo. Situated on Cairo’s Corniche, overlooking the river Nile, the advertising company I worked for has a host of international property-developers. In my work, I was required to generously work the words ‘jacuzzi’, ‘boulevard’ and ‘American-style villas’ into the brochure copy. In the meantime, the streets of Cairo were gripped by political uncertainty following the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. Spike Lee’s film Inside Man wasn’t wrong when it encapsulated the mantra of savvy investment: “When there’s blood on the streets, go buy property.”

The availability of investments like luxury property, the kind now marketed in Dalston and only affordable to a select few, breed in places where there is abject fear of an average existence, because ‘average’ is synonymous with struggle. The UK’s unequal distribution of wealth, the rise in food banks and lack of social housing all contribute to a perfect storm that whips up tokens of luxury to separate those that can cocoon themselves with what is marketed as a dignified life. Any Copywriter and salesman will testify that they make products more appealing in their line of work, which is a positive spin on saying they exploit the consumers’ deep seated insecurities.

The same is true of the project I worked on in Cairo. It was for a new gated community, the physical manifestation of a cocoon around wealth, marketed both in Arabic to affluent Arabs and in English, to global investors more generally. Each new development had poached part of its name from somewhere around the world, though mostly Europe and the U.S.: ‘Mountain View Hyde Park’ was my favourite of all the names coined, particularly as Hyde Park in London is about as far from any mountain as it is possible to be in England. To yoke together ‘mountain view’ with a flat park in London was therefore absurd.  Mountain View Hyde Park boasted bizarre pastiche references to a medley of European and North American cultures. There was a ‘Celtic Garden’ as well as a ‘Royal Garden’ that was being built. Egypt hasn’t seen a Royal family since 1953; which Royal did it hope to evoke? And what cultural reference is there for Celtic heritage in an ancient city in North Africa?

Here is an example of a text I was not allowed to alter:

“Be part of a new development in Cairo that boasts an exclusive range of American architecture nestled in acres of garden parks…little details such as a traditional American mail box, are a few of the features of Hyde Park’s architectural style…Attain a life to look up to with American style villas, iVillas and Town Houses.”

I still haven’t got the slightest clue what an iVilla refers to. Is it packaged and produced in China like Apple’s merchandise? And ‘a life to look up to’ is so barefaced classist, I had to edit it out every time I saw it.

Global luxury property carries with it a universal marketing package that is eerily white, illiberal and is sprinkled with imperial, colonial language. It’s baffling that this language remains decades after Egypt’s struggle for independence. Euroamerican-style lifestyles are packaged and sold to wealthy Cairenes by using awkward patchwork references to Western cultures. Likewise, the models used to depict residents in new properties are not North African and Middle Eastern-looking, but white, often Spanish with Mediterranean looks, though European blondes are regularly visible, too.

Exploiting western ideals of the domestic Egyptian consumer both qualify as some kind of strategy that keeps construction going and luxury-housing profitable, while harnessing investment from abroad.

However, in the years since the Arab Spring, little has changed to improve the availability of housing in Cairo, as an article in The Economist highlights:

“Egypt needs cheap housing, but building it is often unprofitable. The capital-city project is meant to provide 1m new homes, but it is not clear how much they will cost or who will pay to build them…The “capital Cairo” plan is one of several mega-projects that Mr Sisi hopes will attract foreign investment, stimulate an economic recovery and re-establish pride in his country after years of upheaval that destroyed the economy…There are signs that Mr Sisi is not learning from the mistakes of past leaders, who also relied on big projects to solve the country’s demographic and economic problems, with disastrous results.”

International property investment is a million-dollar industry. It is attractive because, amongst other things, it diversifies the portfolio of developers, it is a hard asset retaining value independent of paper currency, plus, it can double as a part-time residency.

But what’s really sold are packaged boxes of a white lifestyle arriving in different geographical locations around the world: The marketing video for properties in Dalston displays the same recipe of marketing strategy seen in Cairo, and the world over. Pristine and vacuum-packed homes with no localised influence to spoil global elites that are already familiar with white aspirations. Whitewashing the global property market isn’t just bad taste, it’s colonising taste.

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Rabia Barkatulla is a freelance writer and an Arabic Language Specialist Data Executive at Cengage Gale Digital Referencing. Originally a Londoner of Indian descent, she studied and lived in Syria and Egypt and returned to the UK to read Arabic Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She lives in Farnborough with her husband and tweets as @RabiaIndian

This article was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org.

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One thought on “From Cairo to London: White aspirations packaged in global property

  1. I watched Al-Hafla on a long-haul flight – a murder mystery set in one such affluent Cairo suburb. It was my first Egyptian film and I was enthralled – the designer clothes, the total western lifestyle and the sheer scale of wealth in what we know is a troubled, deprived country. In particular, the scene where the husband visits his (sacked) maid – she lived not far from the pyramids in Giza. But the camera swerved past the iconic structure and kept the focus on the money problems of the rich stockbroker who’d stoop to anything.

    Like

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