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!