In photos: Spongebob mania sweeps Egypt

Photo courtesy of Andrew Leber. 
 
 
His goofy grin is everywhere. From storefronts to perfume bottles, T-shirts to hijabs: in Egypt there is just no escaping Spongebob Square Pants.
 
Originally dreamed up by a marine biologist, inspired by the films of Jacques Cousteau, Spongebob Square Pants recounts the adventures of a kind-hearted sea-dwelling sponge. The always-optimistic US cartoon character has become so popular in conflict-stricken Egypt that a blog now documents Spongebob mania throughout the country. “Spongebob on the Nile,” created by American students Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette, records the real-life travails of his Egyptian reincarnations. The pair collect photographs of everything Spongebob, which has turned out to be a Herculean mission.
 
During Eid celebrations in Cairo. Photo courtesy of Maggie Fick.
 
It is perhaps a strange fate for Barack Obama’s favourite cartoon to be so popular in many Arab countries, who are sometimes hostile to Western cultural imports. In 2001, for example, Pokemon was denounced in Egypt for allegedly promoting gambling and Zionism. Other foreign cartoon characters, however, have been welcomed in the region. Mickey Mouse has been embraced, and is portrayed speaking classical Arabic, wearing traditional Egyptian clothing, celebrating national holidays, and eating typical Arab food.
 
While Spongebob has been sighted on Egyptian protesters’ T-shirts - and even made an appearance onstage at a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in, before it was brutally quashed - he is no revolutionary figure, according to prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, but rather a symbol of the hardworking common man. Whatever the reasons for this yellow phenomenon, the collection gathered by “Spongebob on the Nile” attest to the idea that, as Syracuse university professor Robert Thompson posited, “Spongebob is not just a programme - it has become a lifestyle.”
Contributors

“There are ‘Spongebob’ schools offering Koranic recital classes”

Andrew Leber is the founder of the blog “Spongebob on the Nile.” He studied in Cairo.
 
I have seen Spongebob everywhere, from Aswan right in the south to the northern coastal city of Alexandria, even the canal city of Ismailia. We saw nurseries just called “Spongebob” or “Spongebob” schools offering Koranic recital classes. What surprised me most was a sticker on the desert road, part way between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa – a nine-hour drive. On the side of this coffee rest stop there was a Spongebob sticker. There was nothing but flat desert all around as far as the eye could see!
 
Photo courtesy of Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette.
 
“The man pointing his gun at me realised I was just trying to take a photo of Spongebob, and broke into a smile”
 
The phenomenon seems to be everywhere, and among all social classes. I was surprised at how, once they understood what I was trying to do, people were happy to pose for my pictures with Spongebob. There was only one close shave: I took this picture (below) after asking permission from the teenager minding the shop. But an older gentleman who had been leaning against the wall took exception, asking me what I was doing. I tried to explain that I was working on a blog that featured pictures of Spongebob all over Egypt. However, the guy didn’t understand and pulled out a gun. The kid minding the store finally helped explain what I was doing, and the guy with the gun broke into a smile, laughed, and more or less demanded that I take another picture, a request I was only too happy to comply with.
 
Photo courtesy of Andrew Leber.
 
“You can’t tie Spongebob to one culture – it’s a yellow sponge with trousers, eyes, and a nose!”
 
The Spongebob phenomenon is a good example of globalisation: people take a symbol originally created in America and appropriate it and make it their own. This has made me notice how much exchange of symbols there is in the world. In the US, we have Camel cigarettes, and we even have the pyramid symbol on our banknotes.
 
I think that because Spongebob is a kind of animal, it makes him more universal. His world resembles Aesop’s fables or Kalīla wa Dimna – both give advice on how you should act using parables with animals. And if you have a story with people in it, it’s tied to one culture [and may be rejected on that basis]. But Spongebob is a whole universe in and of itself. You can’t tie it to one culture – it’s a yellow sponge with trousers, eyes, and a nose!
 
Photo published on Twitter by MVickers.
 
The sign, in Arabic, reads "chick magnet." Photo taken in Shabeena Al-Kom by Elisabeth Jaquette.
 
"Read the Adventures of Spongebob!" This volume is called "Spongebob in the Great Desert." Photo courtesy of Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette. 
 
Photo courtesy of Mohamed Al Dahshan.
 
"Spongebob drinks" in Cairo. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Guyer. 
 
Photo courtesy of Maggie Fick. 
 
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Jaquette. 
 
A spongebob T-shirt in Minya. Photos courtesy of Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette. 
 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lucy Provan.
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