Composing Egypt: Reading, Writing, and the Emergence of a Modern Nation, 1870-1930

Composing Egypt: Reading, Writing, and the Emergence of a Modern Nation, 1870-1930

by Hoda A. Yousef


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In this innovative history of reading and writing, Hoda Yousef explores how the idea of literacy and its practices fundamentally altered the social fabric of Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. She traces how nationalists, Islamic modernists, bureaucrats, journalists, and early feminists sought to reform reading habits, writing styles, and the Arabic language itself in their hopes that the right kind of literacy practices would create the right kind of Egyptians.

The impact of new reading and writing practices went well beyond the elites and the newly literate of Egyptian society, and this book reveals the increasingly ubiquitous reading and writing practices of literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Egyptians alike. Students who wrote petitions, women who frequented scribes, and communities who gathered to hear a newspaper read aloud all used various literacies to participate in social exchanges and civic negotiations regarding the most important issues of their day. Composing Egypt illustrates how reading and writing practices became not only an object of social reform, but also a central medium for public exchange. Wide segments of society could engage with new ideas about nationalism, education, gender, and, ultimately, what it meant to be part of "modern Egypt."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804797115
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/22/2016
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Hoda A. Yousef is Assistant Professor of History at Denison University.

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Composing Egypt

Reading, Writing, and the Emergence of a Modern Nation, 1870â"1930

By Hoda A. Yousef


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9921-8



MUHAMMAD AL-MUWAYLIHI'S A Period of Time (Fatra min al-Zaman), which first appeared in serialized form starting in 1898, was an early experiment in fictionalized social commentary for the budding Egyptian press. Egyptians had already seen several trailblazers in the art of satire, most notably 'Abdallah Nadim (1845–1896) and Ya'qub Sanu' (1839–1912). However, al-Muwaylihi's work is unique in its complexity and narrative vehicle. Time itself is a central character in the arc of the story. A narrator named 'Isa ibn Hisham stumbles upon the Pasha, a resurrected noble from the early 1800s who desperately needs to be introduced to the modernizing Egypt of the late nineteenth century. The temporal dislocation of the "period of time" that separated the old from the new suffuses the entire text as 'Isa ibn Hisham struggles to articulate for the Pasha, and by extension for the audience, all of the changes that made this "different" Egypt entirely alien to its past. Among the novelties of the late nineteenth century, changes in literacy receive particular attention in the Pasha's rediscovery of Egypt. As our narrator and guide, 'Isa is less than sanguine about what this modern world has to offer lovers of language and learning. He gives a bleak assessment of the literacy landscape of his time: even though books have become abundant, people do not purchase them; more people may go to school but whatever is learned is promptly forgotten; and no one appreciates literature or bothers to read.

Over the course of several vignettes, 'Isa and the Pasha attend a series of social gatherings with the express purpose of learning about the literary pursuits of the thinking classes of the era. In the process of critiquing the "learned circles" of Egyptian society, al-Muwaylihi provides a dismal but illuminating view of the myriad ways in which Arabic literacy permeated the social life of the time: each of the caricatured groups embodies a particular type of literacy with its own distinct relationship to the Arabic language. For an assembly of religious scholars ('ulama'), the language of literacy was the formal Arabic of Cairo's al-Azhar teaching mosque, one of the Muslim world's oldest centers of learning. However, al-Muwaylihi implies that these religious scholars were no longer living up to their scholarly duties in that they had "abandoned their chairs, they were all reclining on cushions; in front of them were snuffboxes and braziers instead of penholders and inkwells." Furthermore, as 'Isa and the Pasha listen to these 'ulama' debate, it becomes clear that the dense scholarship, commentaries, and expositions of the Azhari literary style are largely incompatible with contemporary debates and the "new" literacy of newspapers and journals. When one of the scholars attempts to write an article for a newspaper, it is so effusive and convoluted that it hardly deserves the praise it garners from his friends. One scholar finally asserts that although they could "write such things [newspaper articles] if we really wanted to ... there's no point in wasting such jewels on people who don't realize their value or appreciate their true worth." In terms of their willingness and ability to engage with the larger society, these scholars seem woefully out of touch with the literary life of Egyptian society.

Meanwhile, in another setting, a group of merchants — themselves uneducated — debate the disadvantages and merits of educating their sons in the new government schools as a means of social and economic advancement. As if to demonstrate the intrinsic value of reading as a business practice, the merchants have one of their sons fetch a newspaper to read aloud to the gathering as they debate how potential commercial interests intersect with politics. In a parallel scene, a civil servant is reading a newspaper to his fellow workers. In this setting, every headline and news item generates reproaches and critiques, and the meeting eventually devolves into a political dispute. Here Arabic literacy is not merely a tool for social advancement but also a means to engage in the minutia of political debate. In al-Muwaylihi's final portrayal, 'Isa and the Pasha visit an upper-class social club where books serve as mere accessories to thumb through aimlessly while the members of the ruling class "focused on the mirror so that they could enjoy the reflected view." Furthermore, "they were talking in a foreign language, not Arabic, all as a way of showing off and looking superior." The literacy of the mosques, the literacy of the market, the literacy of the government, and the literacy of the palaces each represented a particular set of practices dictated by the locale, class, and social expectation of those gathered. These diverse modes of literacy — these literacies — underscore the changing landscape of the Arabic language at the dawn of the twentieth century.

By focusing on these particular groups and their interactions with the written word, al-Muwaylihi himself is engaging in two processes central to this chapter and our understanding of the public literacies of modern Egypt. First, the content and form of his critique together serve as an example of the larger discourses that were emerging at the turn of the century on the idea of literacy, its importance, and its social uses. Writers were particularly skilled at this new form of public literacy promotion; they engaged in discussions about the purposes of reading and writing and, ultimately, imposed particular definitions of beneficial literacies. A work like A Period of Time initially appeared in serialized form in a newspaper, not unlike many of the publications depicted in the story itself. This self-referential depiction of reading and writing practices within written works became a hallmark of this era as journalists, reformers, religious scholars, women activists, and government officials all sought to influence the literacy practices of their time. Not unlike al-Muwaylihi, these groups found it hard to look at Egyptian society and not see the potential dangers and opportunities that Arabic literacy posed for the future they envisioned. Literacy was becoming a public concern.

Second, the practices that al-Muwaylihi depicts are part of a larger shift in how people were using language in their everyday lives. These literacy practices, or what people do with literacy, provide "the link between the activities of reading and writing and the social structures in which they are embedded and which they help shape." From descriptions given by al-Muwaylihi and others, it is clear that a broad range of Egyptians were interested in reading and writing and were actively engaged in wider debates about literacy in society. Reading newspapers communally, writing articles for newspapers, buying books, and contemplating the benefits of education were all part of the practices prevalent among a subset of the Egyptian population. But these settings were not the only ones affecting and being affected by literacy practices. Beyond the minority of already literate Egyptians, structural changes in Egyptian society were expanding access to written communication and changing the way most Egyptians were using the written word, irrespective of their education, ability to read or write, and social standing. New forms of written materials (newspapers, journals, circulars, petitions, etc.), advanced modes of distribution (the printing press, the postal system, etc.), and various publics' growing engagement with these new kinds of literacy production created an opening for more Egyptians to interact with written communication regardless of their own reading or writing abilities.

The confluence of new discourses on reading and writing with new literacy practices ultimately made literacy a visible, public concern for those invested in the idea of a modern Egypt. This is what al-Muwaylihi's "time" had wrought: a new Egypt where everyday literacies could be both the subject of and the means by which the nation was satirized, re-created, and imagined. We start where al-Muwaylihi left off by charting the kaleidoscope of spaces within which Arabic literacies were becoming more visible and, in some ways, more intrinsic to Egyptian life.

The New Spaces of Everyday Literacies

The new literacy landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was built on a rich tradition of communal and individual literacy practices, some of which never stopped evolving. In its broadest sense, Arabic literacy has undoubtedly been a part of Egyptian social life dating back to well before the modern era. Since the emergence of Arabic as the language of life, commerce, and government more than a thousand years ago, the use of written language has remained one of the enduring facets of civic life in Egypt. By the Middle Ages, Egyptians had to engage the written word, either mediated by a scribe or with other assistance, on a regular basis for correspondence, basic religious education, the recital of religious litanies, court or administrative needs, social engagements, and business dealings. Over the course of the eighteenth century, literacies resurged, with an increase in book culture and more non-elites writing for audiences beyond traditional religious circles. During this period, as many as a third of Cairo's adult male population received some education and, by extension, were to some degree literate. However, starting in the late nineteenth century, populations across the Middle East witnessed a qualitative and quantitative shift in the visibility of literacy in daily life. Some older gathering spots, such as coffeehouses and private venues, took on new import as they became more political, and new milieus — such as theaters and salons — became increasingly prominent features of urban life. The handbills, plays, and reading materials that often drove discussions and debates in and around these new locales were a product of one of the most distinctive changes of the modern era: the emergence of an Arabic language press.

By the turn of the century, the vibrancy of the Egyptian newspaper and book presses had already been nearly a century in the making. The first government press was started in 1822 primarily to provide translated works and began publishing the official government gazette in 1828. Around 1832, private printing enterprises began appearing, and by the end of the century there were dozens of presses turning out books, newspapers, and journals. The combined output of the public and private sectors was prolific and grew dramatically in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, with more than six thousand unique titles printed. Between 1900 and 1925, the number rose to 9,782 separate works. Furthermore, although printing was initiated as a governmental expediency to serve a growing bureaucracy, by 1900 only 12 percent of the books published were related to government administration or the military. Rather, the array of publications reflected new private and public priorities. School textbooks for both governmental and private schools consistently represented around 56 percent of all books published throughout the nineteenth century, while fiction and nonfiction books geared to adult audiences made up much of the remaining titles in print. In essence, the new publishing world focused on serving the needs of a literate public and creating new "readers" for the future.

Meanwhile, newspapers grew in influence as an influx of Syrian intellectuals, the political contestations of the 'Urabi Revolt led by Egyptian military officers in 1881, and the subsequent arrival of British forces in 1882 galvanized a new class of journalists and writers representing a wide range of political and social causes. An admittedly incomplete compilation from 1898 listed 168 different periodicals that had appeared in Egypt. Although this is an impressive number given the relative novelty of the medium, the quantity somewhat belies the actual influence of many of these journals, some of which published only a few issues. It was not uncommon for one newspaperman (and they were mostly men) to start several publications at once or in serial. Some of the proprietors of these presses and publications were colorful characters who occasionally made the headlines themselves, switched business and political alliances as needed, and when faced with failure simply started publishing anew under different titles. It was not uncommon to read denunciations of the entire journalistic profession as purveyors of lies, rumor, moral corruption, and tasteless humor. The fact that these censures were often published in the very media they criticized only serves to highlight the fact that the largest megaphone for public debate and criticism, even of the press, was still the press itself.

Although by 1900 there was certainly a booming supply of journalistic and literary publications, maintaining a dedicated and (more important) paying readership remained a fickle business. The economics of keeping a newspaper or journal afloat seemed to beleaguer even the most ultimately successful papers. In 1902, just four years after beginning the Islamic journal al-Manar, Rashid Rida published an impassioned plea to "the subscribers of newspapers, who are the elite of the Islamic community [umma]." Rida enumerated the various excuses given by people who could afford almost everything but could not spare one Egyptian pound for a year's subscription. In particular, "friends" of his who believed themselves to be above paying their dues received the most condemnation, because they "deny [the owner of the paper] much benefit and harm him in order to save a little money." A year later, Rida resorted to collective shaming in hopes of encouraging recalcitrant readers to send in their dues. Because "the owners of famous newspapers know the state of people and their dealings," Rida had no reservations in proclaiming Russians and subscribers from the Arabian Peninsula "the best of God's creation in terms of trustworthiness." Indian, Algerian, and Moroccan readers ranked at the bottom of the list, although individuals from Fez redeemed their city by promptly sending in payments. When Rida's al-Manar joined the major newspapers al-Muqattam and al-Muqtatif in a review of subscriber behavior based on profession, the results were disappointing. On average, 25 percent of lawyers and 30 percent of judges were behind in their payments, which paled only in comparison to the 40 percent of civil servants who defaulted on their subscriptions. We do not know how these shaming tactics worked in the short term. However, al-Manar did continue to be published until Rida's death in 1935, so one can assume that Rida was able to secure enough subscribers from among the "few good and chivalrous who give their due and work for the benefit of the nation."

The danger of not having enough readers made many journalists nervous and some sought more public, systematic solutions. For example, activist and journalist Labiba Hashim wrote frequently and passionately about reading and writing practices. In an article published in 1900 entitled "Newspapers and Writers," Hashim articulated her fears regarding the future of the Egyptian press. After making the case that there were too few good journalists, she turned to the second half of the equation necessary to create a vibrant press: a sustained and wide base of readers. Although the aforementioned poor quality of journalism turned away some readers, Hashim saw the problem as more widespread. Too few potential readers had spent the requisite money on education to become literate, and those who may have been inclined to read were often too poor to support fledgling journalistic enterprises. In her view, the only way for newspapers to succeed was for "education to become common, the domain of knowledge to be spread, and the number of readers to be increased." In her concern about the low numbers of literate Egyptians, Hashim was certainly not alone. As we shall see, the public visibility of the "illiterate masses" as a social problem would become a staple subject for journalists who wrote regular articles appealing for more general education, more literate Egyptians, and ultimately more readers.


Excerpted from Composing Egypt by Hoda A. Yousef. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

Introduction: Literacies, Publics, and Gender
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the idea of gendered public literacies; that is, broad-based literacies that changed the contours of public spaces and had lasting implications for gendered uses of literacy. These three lenses are central to the process of unpacking the influence of Arabic language reforms, women's roles in public life, protests and activism, and education among a broader segment of Egyptians—not just among the educated elite. The introduction also details the sources and methodology of this study and provides some historical background on Egypt during this period.

1The Discourse and Practice of Everyday Literacies
chapter abstract

This chapter surveys how literacies were talked about and used between 1860 and 1930. Over this period, the idea of literacy was becoming more reified as a social ideal that represented progress, advancement, and optimism, particularly for those invested in the idea of a modern Egypt: nationalists, women activists, and bureaucrats, as well as Coptic and Muslim reformers. Those already educated were encouraged to participate in ever more beneficial forms of literacy, and the visibility of literacies—in life, print, and politics—made it central to what it meant to be engaged in the social issues of the day. Meanwhile, practices of literacies were diversifying and reaching more people across the educational spectrum, particularly through the press and the postal system. Egyptians who were not "officially" literate were able to engage in communal practices of reading aloud, letter writing, and the like, to a quantitatively and qualitatively new extent.

2Literacies of Exclusion: Mistresses of the Pen
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the exclusions created by gendered literacies that mediated both participation in and visibility to various publics, often along class lines. Despite the noble rhetoric of literacy promotion, reading and writing were each associated with different kinds of public interactions and, ultimately, societal hazards. To consume potentially dangerous texts or become "visible" through the written word was associated with disruptive social and economic consequences for historically unlettered segments of Egyptian society. Nevertheless, several female writers active in the early Egyptian feminist movement sought to access these visible publics through writing and, in the process, renegotiated and redefined this transgression as a complement to their domestic roles. Just as they could be modern, respectable, and productive "mistresses of the home," they would now become "mistresses of the pen."

3Writing for the Public: Schooled Literacies
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the shift that was occurring in and beyond schools regarding the nature of Arabic literacy and the profession, and skills associated with "writers" in the era of the Arab naha, or renaissance. By looking at not only education itself, but also how the very fabric of instruction was designed, executed, and ultimately deployed, this chapter shows that both "modern" and the more ubiquitous "traditional" schools were introducing fundamental changes to how they taught Arabic language. Various schools were emphasizing "practical" instruction, structuring lessons and exams around the skill of composition, and training students how to think, read, and write about their society. The humble school composition (inshā) became a practical exercise in the art of social commentary, reinforcing certain types of interactions through the written word in communal life.

4Writing to Be Seen and Heard: Petitions and Protests
chapter abstract

This chapter examines how new literacies impacted the protest and petitioning movements of the early twentieth century. Older forms of communication and writing were adapted to the changing discourses and technologies of the era as individuals and groups sought to channel discussions on nationalism, education, and Egyptian-ness to press their cases and attempt to influence the official course of Egyptian politics. The chapter culminates in the events and aftermath of the 1919 revolution in Egypt, when many of the new technologies of public literacies were deployed by various segments of the Egyptian populace in their attempt to throw off the yoke of the British Protectorate. Ultimately, though many people engaged with these literacies, written forums also imposed their own unevenness, as access to printers and more expensive "modern" forms of literacy determined who could be "seen" in the public spaces of literary production.

5Literacy for All: Ummiyya, Arabic, and the Public Good
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the impact and implications of public literacies, particularly as the concept of illiteracyevolved from a term with positive connotations to one associated with social backwardness and underdevelopment. Specifically, apprehension about illiteracy as an important measure of social progress found expression and visibility in publicized census literacy rates that depreciated "alternative" literacies in favor of a defined and measurable skill. This change was strikingly manifested in the growing concerns of the 1920s about the social danger of illiteracy and in the first real government attempt to eradicate illiteracy from the population. By 1924, basic education was enshrined as an aspiration of the first Egyptian Constitution and the groundwork for a true mass educational system was laid. However, this narrow, utilitarian, and measurable definition of literacy also created exclusions for blind students, those who used the Egyptian colloquial, and other Egyptians who were not conventionally "literate."

Conclusion: Literacy and Literacies
chapter abstract

The conclusion recaps the major argument of this work: that literacies, as a broad set of practices, were in wide use over this period even as the idea of a narrow concept of literacy became central to the idea of modern Egypt. It also provides some examples of how literacy campaigns and literacy rates continue to be an important source of public concern. With the emergence of electronic media, digital forms of reading and writing have taken on new import, particularly in light of the recent events of the Arab Uprising/Arab Spring.

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