A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt

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Though now remembered as an act of anti-colonial protest leading to the Egyptian military coup of 1952, the Cairo Fire that burned through downtown stores and businesses appeared to many at the time as an act of urban self-destruction and national suicide. The logic behind this latter view has now been largely lost. Offering a revised history, Nancy Reynolds looks to the decades leading up to the fire to show that the lines between foreign and native in city space and commercial merchandise were never so starkly drawn.

Consumer goods occupied an uneasy place on anti-colonial agendas for decades in Egypt before the great Cairo Fire. Nationalist leaders frequently railed against commerce as a form of colonial captivity, yet simultaneously expanded local production and consumption to anchor a newly independent economy. Close examination of struggles over dress and shopping reveals that nationhood coalesced informally from the conflicts and collaboration of consumers "from below" as well as more institutional and prescriptive mandates.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A City Consumed is a valuable addition to the scholarship on twentieth-century Egypt, and consumption, urban, and colonialism studies more broadly . . . Analytically sophisticated and a true pleasure to read, A City Consumed offers a masterful account of Egyptian society's everyday struggle with colonialism in the first half of the twentieth century."—Sarah El-Kazaz, Arab Studies Journal

"Nancy Reynolds wrote an ultimate account on how new consumer culture in Egypt was intertwined with emerging Egyptian nationalsm and narrated itself against the background of gradual decolonization from Britain.This meticulously researched book builds up a story of commerce and consumption in Egypt from the late nineteenth century and into the middle of the twentieth century. . .A City Consumed is an important contribution to business historians and graduate student readership."—Relli Schecter, Entreprise and Society

"Sixty years before Egypt's Tahrir Square exploded in protest against Hosni Mubarak, Cairo burst into revolution with the great fire of 1952. This book gives a vivid new explanation for how ordinary Egyptians turned shopping and commerce into politics. More broadly, its story opens a fresh perspective on the economic and cultural changes that so profoundly reshaped the Middle East in the mid-20th century."—Elizabeth F. Thompson, University of Virginia

"This pathbreaking study, theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich, explores the ways in which twentieth-century Egyptians' consumption practices helped shape their identities and their politics. Its treatment of consumption as a spatial practice opens new intellectual vistas, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in modern Egypt or in the politics of consumption and urban space."—Zachary Lockman, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804781268
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2012
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Y. Reynolds is Assistant Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Read an Excerpt

A City Consumed

By Nancy Y. Reynolds

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8126-8

Chapter One


IN EARLY OCTOBER 1922, a man calling himself "a Tramways Victim" complained in the local press about the poor quality of public transportation in Cairo. The author described himself as "from the class of workers obligated to use public transportation," because he was "not rich" and had lived for the past fourteen years in a neighborhood ('Abbasiyya) far from downtown Cairo where he worked for a utilities company and socialized in the evenings. He claimed to ride the tram four times every day. In addition to commuting to work, he was also, "like not a few of the young people in my quarter, a lover of the theatre, concerts, cinema, etc.," as well as a member of many societies and associations that required his attendance downtown several evenings a week. Since the trams closed long before the cinema and theater showings were finished, he was frequently obliged to take a taxi home at a much higher cost. "What advantage do I have," he asked, "of living far from the city center and in a second-rate building except for the benefit of lower rent?" He declared that nighttime car and taxi fares cost him 50 percent more than his rent.

The Tramways Victim was not alone. In fact, his complaints centered precisely on the overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions of the tramways caused by the enormous demand constantly placed on them by the legions of mobile urban residents. Massive population growth in outer areas of the city, such as 'Abbasiyya, Heliopolis, Shubra, Sakakini, Bulaq, and Sabtiyya, had recently expanded ridership exponentially. "Building had not stopped" for the past three years in 'Abbasiyya, the Tramways Victim contended, and "the population had surely grown by 50 percent" The Cairo Tramways Company, owned by Belgians, had not maintained its existing cars or replaced those damaged in the recent war and the nationalist and labor demonstrations that followed it. "I dare you," he challenged the editor, "to arrive to take the tram from [Zahir to the city center] between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning. It is a crowd, a crush, an unimaginable struggle" Trams arrived at their first stop full from the terminus and did not bother to stop again until reaching the train station plaza in downtown Cairo. Tram ridership in 1914 reached fifty-three million passengers a year; by 1917 ridership had grown to seventy-five million. Since Cairo's population in 1917 stood at roughly eight hundred thousand people, many of these tram fares were likely purchased by the same people, who used the system several times a day as the Tramways Victim himself did.

This testament to the daily crisscrossing of the city by hordes of residents evokes an urban mobility that differs completely from common images of interwar Cairo as a city radically divided and compartmentalized by its experience under colonialism. The idea that the force of colonialism most powerfully expressed itself spatially in the creation of a dual city comes from the experience of French settler colonialism, especially in North Africa. There, French colonial planners deliberately sought to control local populations by containing and paternalistically preserving elements of indigenous culture through sharp demarcations in the built environment. Physical markers separated the old city from the new administrative and industrial city designed to lead the colony in modernization and development. "The dual structure of the colonial city," Zeynep Qelik contends, "is a fragment of the broad discourse of colonialism which accommodates the exercise of colonial power by an 'articulation of forms of difference.' Separation plays an important part in defining otherness and allows for a critical distance needed for surveillance" It was Frantz Fanon, spokesman for mid-twentieth-century decolonization, who did the most to popularize the notion that the "colonial world is a world cut in two" The bifurcation between the contiguous towns of the settlers and of the colonized in what he called "the generic colonial city" revealed the disparities of power and of standards of living that sustained European colonialism:

The settlers' town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about. The settler's feet ... are protected by strong shoes although the streets of his town are clean and even, with no holes or stones. The settler's town is a well-fed town, an easygoing town; its belly is always full of good things. The settler's town is a town of white people, of foreigners.

The town belonging to the colonized people ... is a world without spaciousness; ... their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light.

Fanon forged his view of colonial urbanism primarily in French colonies such as Martinique and Algeria. Although Egypt shared with Algeria many experiences of colonial rule, urban development in Egypt resulted less from deliberate planning enacted by colonial state policies than from the actions of complex and shifting coalitions. Khaled Fahmy argues that the growth of Cairo into what appeared to be a bifurcated city "happened by default rather than by design," if indeed it happened at all.

Following Fahmy, this chapter also moves beyond the analysis of static built forms, cartographical representations, and assumptions of division to understand the colonial city instead as a built environment defined by movement and mutability, a space of complex navigations and rapid changes, one experienced as interconnected despite its differences of architecture. Magdi Wahba remembered interwar Cairo in just this way for its "infinite complexity ... crowded with people of vastly differing backgrounds, rapidly changing class structures, and heterogeneous cultural values. The experience of living in Cairo was ... one of constantly coming to terms with change.... Cairo, the physical place, the changing metropolis, with its protean forms of vanishing communities and social strata, is ever melting, ever taking on new shapes." Wahba's experience of the "melting" of "physical place" signals a violence and erasure enacted by colonial urbanism, albeit with more causal opacity than Fanon's "lines of force" drawn by "the policeman and the soldier" This chapter likewise embraces a less tidy focus on the dynamic use of space—the crowding and jostling of a tram terminus, a dense commercial artery, or a square flanked promiscuously by baladi and ifrangi shops—to reveal a microphysics of power more specific to the complexity of British occupation and continued control during the inter-war period. The elasticity and indeterminacy of space and style visible in the lived experiences of many local residents ultimately worked to defy a colonial politics premised on the notion of civilizational divide that was coded by the dual city.

A discourse about the dual city of colonialism developed through discrepancies in the material nature of building Egypt's main cities. The rapid development of Europeanized neighborhoods and the relative inattention to older urban cores created the impression of a new modern city grafted alongside, rather than integrated into, the older city. Rapid demographic changes in immigration and urbanization seemed to reinforce this pattern. Many elite observers and later scholars disparaged the transitional spaces and neighborhoods between the two cities because their inability to fit into either side of a double-city binarism rendered the overall urban fabric illegible. For many less elite Egyptians, however, inhabiting and patronizing transitional city spaces helped them negotiate the asymmetries of a semicolonial society. A variety of contiguous commercial and consumption practices barnacled urban landscapes. Although such practices could compete with each other, local residents did not clearly or simply order them hierarchically. This chapter explores several prominent urban sites, such as transitional commercial districts, informal and itinerant commerce, and the hublike construction of city squares (maydans), to demonstrate the linkages among space, style, and politics. The material fluidity of Egyptian urban space and style underlay the specific contours of interwar colonial politics, particularly the absence of a monolithic Egyptian identity.


By the time the Tramways Victim complained about the overcrowding of public transportation in 1922, Egyptians were beginning to emerge from a British colonial occupation that had restructured society in dramatic and significant ways since the nineteenth century. British rule formally began in 1882, although European economic, legal, and cultural encroachment had started much earlier. The export nature of the economy, first oriented toward Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and emphasizing the cultivation of cash crops, most notably long-staple cotton, intensified after international cotton shortages caused by the U.S. Civil War pulled Egypt firmly into the world economy. The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the conversion of much of Egypt's prime and reclaimed agricultural land to cotton, sometimes replacing food crops but more often resulting from intensified use of the land through multiple cropping. European imports of cheap manufactured goods flooded into Egypt in exchange for its raw exports, although population growth, local preferences, and lower prices allowed many indigenous artisans to maintain and at times expand their output of commodities such as shoes, textiles, clothing, furniture, brasswares, pottery, and matting. The French development of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869 and came under British control in 1875, made Egypt a strategic crossroads in global transportation, and particularly a crucial passageway to India in the British Empire. It also led to the expansion and redesign of Egyptian urban space, as Khedive Isma'il initiated a massive facelift for Cairo for the canal's opening festivities, and Alexandria grew exponentially from its expanded cotton business and increasing seaborne trade and tourist traffic throughout the nineteenth century. These complex trends consolidated into a formal colonial presence once Egypt defaulted on repayment of several European loans in the late 1870s, and by 1882 Britain occupied the country and began to administer it as a veiled protectorate. Although Britain would formally sever Egypt's connection to the Ottoman Empire and rule it directly only during the First World War, the long implementation of informal occupation generated a complex colonial situation.

Since the British administration prioritized the repayment of European debt during its occupation, its effects on Egyptian society were contradictory. The state allocated massive funds toward the improvement of agricultural systems, including irrigation works and transportation networks, and of standards of living in the countryside, especially with the abolition of forced labor. Many large landowners benefited from this attention to agricultural development. The British attenuated other state development projects, including educational opportunities for Egyptians, urban infrastructural projects, and judicial reform. The first quarter century of colonial rule occurred under Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring; ruled 1883-1907), who was from a prominent European banking family involved in financing Egypt's debt. It was Cromer's administration that firmly entrenched the policies of colonial governmentality in Egypt. "Most of Cromer's previous experience had been in the administration of financial affairs, first in the Dual [Anglo-French financial] Control of Egypt and later, as virtual finance minister in the government of India. Austere, though undoubting and self-assured, he approached matters of government and administration from a neat bookkeeping point of view. Such an approach tended to depoliticize politics and reduce all human affairs to questions of proper administration." An Egyptian bureaucratic class developed to execute policies through government departments and ministries, although ultimately political control remained with British officials, backed by military sanction. Cairo itself housed a British garrison in the Qasr al-Nil barracks, located between the embassy neighborhood of Garden City and the edge of the commercial downtown.

Colonial political disenfranchisement overlapped with broader economic and social disparities created by European imperialism. A system of legal asymmetries, in the form of state and consular protections, supported the colonial and semicolonial states in Egypt and benefited locally resident foreign subjects in intricate ways. Originally implemented as part of the Ottoman Capitulations, and still known as the Capitulations, the privileges allowed foreign residents exemption from Egyptian law and taxation, although universal tax reductions under British rule muted this latter benefit. Foreign consular officials could interpret national laws and apply them to their subjects in Egypt, since consular courts retained criminal jurisdiction in cases involving foreigners. To consolidate their sovereignty, the British tried to rein in the capitulatory prerogatives of non-British subjects by curbing some inequalities in taxation, juridical status, and other extraterritorial privileges and founding the Mixed Courts to handle commercial and civil litigation between residents of different nationalities. Considerable fluidity in claiming nationality existed among some segments of Egyptian society as a result of the workings of the juridical landscape and nationality status not being so firmly linked to national identity; before the 1920s no clear legal definition of nationality existed in Egypt. The majority of Egyptians, exempt from its benefits, viewed the Capitulation regime as unfair. It supported a more general colonial perception that foreign labor, products, and cultures were superior to their Egyptian counterparts.

In addition to legal asymmetries, British occupation introduced important political economic arrangements that began to change the commercial and social landscape of Egypt's cities. These mechanisms solidified the varied legal practices around private property, particularly in agricultural land, and encouraged increasingly complex commercial relations, especially through the growing prevalence of joint-stock companies, property companies, commercial houses, stock exchanges, local and foreign banks, a uniform national currency, and paper money. As a result, statistics and economic calculation became the lens through which the state and businessmen made sense of commerce and consumption. These novel economic and social forms tended to separate an ifrangi sector from more baladi practices around the turn of the century, although the wide circuits of people and money facilitated by European colonialism "made the very economic facts the statistics wished to fix far more elusive and difficult to define" Through such mechanisms, a local bourgeoisie emerged out of Egypt's landed aristocracy and used foreign capital to grow alongside locally resident foreign subjects. Although landowners and the new bourgeois elements benefited from British colonialism, they became increasingly cognizant of their vulnerability in the international market after the financial crash of 1907 and renewed the demands for political and economic representation that had been prominent in the 1880s.

By no means did colonialism dominate every aspect of Egyptian existence during the British occupation. Deep linkages existed in all spheres to social, legal, religious, and economic practices; bodies of knowledge; and institutions that predated the coming of European imperialism. Moreover, as British policies helped over time to generate new social forms and social classes, the agents of change—as colonial or indigenous—became increasingly difficult to differentiate. In this context, an organized nationalist movement began to articulate its ideological opposition to colonial politics in 1906-1907. Spurred by the spectacular British repression of Egyptian peasants after a shooting incident in Dinshawai in 1906, moderate political reform and popular protest to colonialism led in 1907 to the establishment of several nationalist parties, each with its own newspaper. Recruitment among urban laborers through night schools and other organized nationalist activities began to funnel Egyptian anger at the asymmetries of Egyptian society into formal channels until their suspension at the outbreak of the First World War. The war itself was a period of intense deprivation for most Egyptian subjects, as the British requisitioned commodities, animals, and transportation (including tramways) in the service of supplying Allied forces stationed in the Middle East. This activism culminated in a nationalist uprising for Egyptian independence in 1919, although it resulted only in increased executive powers rather than full sovereignty for the nation.


Excerpted from A City Consumed by Nancy Y. Reynolds Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

List of Abbreviations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Note on Transliteration xvii

Introduction 1

1 The "Ever-Melting" City 17

2 Department Stores and Downtown Shopping 47

3 Anticolonial Boycotts and National Trade 78

4 Socks, Shoes, and Marketing Mass Consumption 114

5 Postwar Commodity Parables and the Cracking of Late Colonialism 145

6 The Cairo Fire and Postcolonial Consumption 181

Conclusion 220

Epilogue 228

Notes 233

Bibliography 317

Index 345

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