WEB DESK: Egyptian teenager Islam stood shirtless in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood wondering what to wear, a turquoise shirt or a black sweater, as he prepared for a photo shoot.
“Should I wear a tie as well?” asked Islam, 15, combing back his slick black hair. This is not a regular fashion shoot or a scene being filmed for an Egyptian film. Behind the camera is one of Islam’s friends, who plans to capture the teenager at his best. The idea is to upload Islam’s pictures on social media networks like Facebook and Instagram, and collect as many “likes” as possible.
Over the past four years, many Egyptian teenagers have become part of a growing circle of such “Famous People” groups on social media networks, some ultimately looking to become celebrities.
Hundreds of youngsters like Islam are a common sight in posh Cairo districts these days, carrying expensive cameras and trendy clothes in their backpacks — ready to pose for a photo shoot wherever possible.
Mostly hailing from Cairo’s impoverished neighbourhoods, they seek out expensive cars and luxury villas as props. Often dressed provocatively, these teenagers are challenging taboos in a conservative Muslim society.
In Egypt, where 30 per cent of the 90-million population is aged between 10 and 24, such teenagers can also be seen as challenging a repressive regime that has crushed all opposition and monopolised public space.
In the capital’s upscale Maadi district where many foreigners live, Islam and nearly a dozen other teenagers from an industrial suburb hunt for locations. Sporting skinny jeans and trendy haircuts, they photograph themselves in front of imposing wrought iron and wooden gates to villas, but often get ejected by guards.
“At home they don’t think much of my trousers,” said Islam. ”They say tight clothes are for girls, and my father hates my haircut,” said Islam, as two policemen approach to briefly question them.
“People shout at us or threaten to call the police. But we’re not doing anything wrong. We just take pictures. It’s our passion and we will continue,” said Ahmed Amin, 16, who has 1,300 followers on Facebook.
After several odd jobs, Amin purchased the SLR camera he now carries and he charges 35 Egyptian pounds ($4.5) for five photos.
Ziad Akl, an expert on political sociology at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, describes the trend as a “generational conflict”.
It is a clash between “youths whose morals and values are evolving and a society that denies change and diversity,” Akl said. These youngsters are setting a new trend, just as more and more women and college girls have turned to conservative attire in past decades.
“We are in the process of redrawing boundaries of personal freedom,” said Akl.
“These youngsters feel that anyone can dress the way he wants or have haircuts or tattoos he likes.” The trend is worrying the authorities, which like any other “repressive regime would like to control society”, Akl said.
“The police will continue to resist this phenomenon by using repressive and intimidating means.”
Some youngsters have ended up in police stations, but the success of Sonek Diab, 21, keeps them motivated. A trendsetter since high school days, Diab has turned into an idol for many Egyptian youngsters. He has already shot two commercials, including one for a fast food chain that contacted him directly on his Facebook page. With his trademark dreadlocks, Diab gained fame through his photographs taken on Cairo streets. He has more than 75,000 followers on Instagram.
“I used to be stopped in shopping malls by people keen on taking pictures with me,” said Diab, who now wants to make a full- time career in the fashion industry.
Diab’s success story serves as a motivator.”I want to become an actor or a model, or do commercials or become a television presenter,” said Ahmed Zein, 16, who attends a theatre workshop.
“I simply love the camera.”