Colloquial Egyptian culture at the turn of the century

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In the wave of recent photography books from AUC press about the revolution, the automatic tendency is to celebrate the actions of Egyptians usually referred to as “everyday” or “ordinary” Egyptians, and, similarly, “the Egyptian street.”

Books of writing about the revolution will take longer, as January is not really history yet, and one can only guess if they will take the same direction.

In the meantime, AUC press has published a new book this month by Ziad Fahmy, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, which sheds light on how it came to be that Egyptians saw themselves as Egyptians in the first place.

In “Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture,” Fahmy has produced a detailed account of the formation of Egyptian nationalism around the turn of the last century through a focus on colloquial (ammiya) sources rather than the elite literature and newspapers usually written about by historians.

From the 1870s to the 1919 revolution, he writes, “hundreds of periodicals and books were published; new theatrical plays and thousands of new songs were performed to increasingly larger and more politically discerning audiences.”

“Instead of just focusing on the fusha texts of novels, newspapers and other print media,” he argues, “we must also examine the non-print, mostly colloquial Egyptian domain of audio, audiovisual and performance media.”

These colloquial productions, from theater troupes to satirical newspapers to popular songs, led lower and middle class Egyptians to discuss their frustrations with the ruling elite and British colonial exploitation. In all the different forms of media, writers highlighted the differences between Egyptians and foreigners, celebrating the former while making fun of the latter. The result was a subtle but constant reinforcement of national identity.

Fahmy explains how his work contributes to the academic literature on nationalism, which may keep it from some general readers, but the power of his work comes from nuggets of storytelling that show his argument rather than explain it.

In 1879, for example, he describes how “at a concert of the famous Cairene singer Ahmad Salim, a newspaperman was able to sell 300 copies of the recently outlawed Abu Naddara Zarqa [a colloquial newspaper] to the audience, who completely ignored the singer and proceeded to discuss the newspaper in small groups.”

Then, he continues, members of the audience convinced the singer to perform a protest song against the Egyptian leaders. The singer and his whole band were imprisoned for 10 days.

These are the kinds of stories that drive Fahmy’s prose. The predominant accounts of nationalism by historians, in Europe and hence the rest of the world, have focused mainly on newspapers and elite culture, telling the story of nationalism as one in which the elite influence the popular classes.

Fahmy, however, makes a compelling case that nationalism, especially in places with mass illiteracy like Egypt, was also the product of everyday interactions and the consumption of a culture many saw at the time as mundane, or vulgar.

The author provides an account of how just as Britain was colonizing Egypt economically and politically, Cairo was colonizing the rest of Egypt culturally. As theater troupes, newspapers, songs and poems spread from the urban hub of the capital to the more remote villages of Egypt, Cairo continued to reinforce its role as the cultural center of the nation.

Fahmy’s book sets the tone, the focus on the everyday and the popular that will likely aid historians of later events in Egypt’s history. Reading sentences like this one: “For a few weeks in the spring of 1919, through the use of songs, chants, circulars, speeches and violence, a counter-discourse and, for a brief time, alternative centers of power were created,” one cannot help but think of early 2011 and how the diverse events that made up the Jan. 25 Revolution will be remembered as they become history.

“Ordinary Egyptians,” now available from Stanford University Press, is being published by AUC Press this month.

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