The colours of the world

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 26 Oct 2022

They say that every era has its own state and its own discourse. The former has to do with the movement of the universe and human affairs, violent and happy, tangible and intangible. The latter has to do with how people describe the times and the interplay of words and deeds, which often includes the use of arms.


The state of things may sometimes become an all-consuming obsession, as with the war in Ukraine. It is interesting how we see everything to do with it - the twists and turns of events, the bloodshed and turmoil, the far-reaching repercussions - as an expression of the prevailing “uncertainty”, a word that now runs through most Western headlines. 

But the discourse is also filled with descriptors that, if taken too far, have the power to divide and set us against each other, even though their insufficiency or deficiency may be just as wrong. Today I will try my best to strike a fair balance. In any case, the subject is in a field about which I know little, and the little I do know I acquired half a century ago at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, and then from conversations with economist friends of mine or individuals who, at one time or another, helped manage the country’s economy. In brief, I am going to discuss economic descriptors.

Some decades ago, sources of revenues began to take on shades of gold no less. For some time cotton gained such a value in our imagination that we called it “white gold.” In like manner, oil became “black gold.” For a while it seemed the palette would stop there, with that duality connoting two types of magic, nightfall and sunrise, sleeplessness and hope. Recently, however, the colours have diversified even as the world economy became one, unified by the forces of supply and demand. No longer is the colour of an economy determined by the scarcity or abundance of a particular commodity, but rather by a network of relations, activities, and types of energy. Take for example the “green” economy and its synonyms, “clean” and “environment friendly.” In fact, this economic colour has its roots in a shade of gold called “solar,” because it emanates from the rays of the sun.    

In 2010, I visited Japan, where I had the opportunity to marvel at the latest inventions by Panasonic. One was a television display that had merged with the wall of a house. When you turned it on, you could use hand gestures to adjust the size of the screen remotely while the definition of the image remained the same no matter how large you chose to make it. When I asked for an explanation of this wonder, I was told that “we [meaning scientists] have become simpler.” The idea behind this high tech house, if I may oversimplify it, was that it was self-nourishing in energy. While it used a small amount of solar energy from some panels, it also constantly recycled it by reconverting the light or heat from lamp bulbs, TV and computer displays, refrigerators or heaters back into energy. As we know, the “green economy” does not only come from the sun. In fact, it may have a peer in hydrogen, which can power ships and perhaps light entire cities.

Another economic colour is found at sea where cargo ships roam like floating cities. This “blue economy” is a relatively new phenomenon. Its emergence coincides with the spread of globalisation, when the seas began to reveal more horizons for oil and gas, tourism and transportation. This environment has given rise, for example, to Maersk, which accounts for a large portion of the Danish GDP. It almost takes us back centuries to the time when major empires such as Portugal and Spain divided the world on the basis of the economic zones from which their traders transported grains, spices and even opium. 

Today, on this side of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Italy have forged the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Although the extraction, processing, liquefaction and transport of gas is the currency of this forum, it was the Eastern Mediterranean that made it possible. Maritime proximity in this navy blue field created possibilities for interactions that affected not only the economies of the countries in question but other countries as well. For example, the maritime border agreement between Isreal and Lebanon may help rescue a country on the brink of collapse, just as tapping Gaza’s offshore gas may generate new “Abrahamic” opportunities conducive to regional stability. The “blue economy” is a framework for cooperation at sea. The northern Red Sea offers the potential for another multinational forum, in this case with tourism and urban development as its economic engines. 

The colours of an economy generate opportunities by dint of the relations on which they are founded. Geographic location within the same region may not be necessary. Opec+ includes countries located in opposite hemispheres nonetheless bound by their production of black gold. Theirs is an economic relationship, which did not keep the US from lashing out against it recently for their decision to reduce production. It failed to appreciate that this economic step was essential in order to restore equilibrium to a market shaken by a war that no one wanted or at least no one was given a chance to vote for or against before it started. Food was also affected by this war, which generated another “golden” economy, the colour of wheat, which has become a scarce commodity. 

From the moment the guns opened fire, the war in Ukraine stopped being just a geopolitical war in which Russia tried to ward off NATO’s expansion and it stopped being just a geo-economic war shaped by sanctions, boycotts and severing oil, gas, and energy links. It became a war over food and life itself. It quickly emerged that Ukraine was a major source of that golden commodity on which the welfare of numerous countries in the Middle East depend. The situation has become so complex that not only do various interests either harmonise or clash; the colours do as well. 

It has recently come to light that life and death fused in an economy of another hue: brown. But this particular brown happened to be derived from pulverised mummies before making its way into precious works of art. The last edition of Ancient Origins (15 October) showcases this wealth that hails from the realm of death. It turns out that mummies are more than preserved human bodies in displays that attract tourists from around the world to Museum of Civilisations in Fustat, and that they are more than the heroes of horror films inspired by the myth of the “curse of the Pharaohs.” When Western research teams arrived in Egypt in the 19th century they were not entirely driven by an interest in discovering ancient civilisations or plundering obelisks and mummies. 

The teams included artists and they discovered that grinding down mummies produced a unique shade of brown that they could use in their portraits of famous figures. Those paintings, in turn, fetched the highest prices. As a result, Egypt’s mummies formed the resource for another type of economy that was neither touristic, historical or even medicinal.  That resource was a rare brown pigment one gram of which was worth its weight in gold. The discovery of the mummies was an industry that for the most part had remained hidden until its secrets were revealed in major museums and artistic periodicals. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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