Chinese Muslim traders in Cairo

January 21, 2013

A short article by Su Junxia and Daniel Krahl recently drew an interesting sketch of Chinese Muslim traders in Egypt. As elsewhere in Africa, Eastern Europe and other low-income countries, there is a fairly large number of Chinese traders in Egypt who sell low-price consumer goods, mostly fashion. According to an earlier report by Heriberto Araujo and Juan Pablo Cardenal, some of them run garment workshops and many sell clothes door-to-door.

But Su and Krahl highlight a population of Chinese businessmen and -women who are Muslim, and many of whom came to Cairo to study Arabic or religion. Yet for most of them, these are not ends but instruments to build business networks and eventually head home: “their first chance to really take part in the Chinese economic miracle.” In other words, their motivations seem no different from their non-Muslim peers. They, too, often find Egyptians “uncivilised”.

This is clearly not an in-depth study, but to the extent that it is correct it is a reminder of the limited ability of transnational networks to erode the power of the national imaginary, in China perhaps more than elsewhere. What I read reminded me of Antonella Diana’s study of the Dai in Sipsongpanna, Yunnan, whose reconnecting with ethnic kin across the border in Laos resulted not in weaker but in stronger identification with the Chinese nation, which seemed by comparison strong, prosperous and modern. Chris Vasantkumar’s work indicates that such reactions are not entirely absent even among Tibetans who move between Tibet and India.