Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Of technology and superstition

Modern technology is spreading like wildfire in the Third World - but it's not always having the desired effect.

Some scientists suspect that the radiation in mobile phones may be having all kinds of detrimental long-term health effects. But it seems that mobile phones may be deadlier than any of us ever suspected. They may, in fact, cause instantaneous death.

However, it's not microwaves that are to blame but text messages. At least that's the theory according to a rumour that has been circulating in Egypt.

The word is that SMSs from "unknown foreign quarters" – although rumour has it that they originated in Saudi Arabia – are killing their recipients. But who could be sending them out?

. . .

Despite the sheer farfetchedness of death by text, apparently enough people believed the rumour to prompt the Egyptian health ministry to take the extraordinary measure of issuing a statement in which it assured the public that "these rumours contradict all scientific facts".

Despite the comical element of this episode, it does reflect a worrying trend. Undereducated, sceptical of the lies they are fed by their government, feeling disempowered and disenfranchised, certain segments of Egyptian society treat the rumour mill as a reliable source of information.

Of course, there are some rumours which are harmless urban myth. For instance, one old legend has it that some Cairo kebab joints, in order to save money, cooked up feral dogs for their customers. This could have something to do with all the food scandals that have shocked Egypt and the kelabgi pun, which combines "kebabgi" (kebab maker) with "kelab" (dogs).

However, there is a more serious side. The knowledge that the government routinely lies to the people means that some Egyptians will believe pretty much any dastardly motives and conspiracies attributed to it, including the death of the president and his replacement by a body double.

Sometimes this can have deadly consequences. During the bird flu epidemic, when the government banned the raising of poultry on city roofs and balconies, many people moved their birds inside, despite government warnings that it could kill them. "The problem is people think we fabricated the whole bird flu thing to cover up the ferry disaster [which killed over a thousand people]," admitted the head of the health ministry's bird flu committee back in 2007.

Egyptians are just as distrusting of the designs of foreign powers as they are of their own government. For instance, there is a belief, like in may parts of Africa, in some Egyptian quarters that Aids is a western conspiracy to destroy Egypt's moral and social fabric.

Also related to sex, some years ago, there were rumours that Israel, in order to corrupt Egypt's youth, was secretly distributing chewing gum that made them horny. In fact, there is an entire sideline in Israel-related conspiracy theories, including radioactive seatbelt buckles, shampoo that makes your hair fall out and creams that gnarl the skin.

The media has also remarked a worrying growth in superstition in recent years. In fact, it has become a booming industry. One study estimates that it is worth about 10bn Egyptian pounds annually and employs some 300,000 people. And aimless and silly superstition is creeping even into the media.

For example, rather than call for scientific funding into serious and useful issues, Zaghloul El-Naggar, a religious affairs columnist at the semi-official al-Ahram, last year called upon the Saudi authorities to analyse parts of the black stone in Mecca to prove that it originated in paradise and not on earth.

Sahar El-Gaar, a columnist at the independent al-Fagr, hit back at what she saw as superstitious and unscientific nonsense. "I support El-Naggar's call to analyse part of the Black Stone. However, he must bring us a sample of the soil of Paradise to draw a proper comparison with the Black Stone"

"Superstitions spread in societies in times of difficulty and distress, when problems afflict them and life becomes unbearable. Superstitions also spread when there is political and social oppression," Nabil Sharefeddin opined in the independent weekly al-Dustour.

Truly, the mind boggles. It's worth remembering that a veneer of civilization or technological sophistication, in any society (including our own), doesn't necessarily indicate an advanced society!


1 comment:

Wayne said...

Most of these stories from Egypt were around when i moved there in the early 1990's.

Ex Maadi