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The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt / Edition 1

The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt / Edition 1

by Omnia El Shakry


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The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt / Edition 1

The Great Social Laboratory charts the development of the human sciences—anthropology, human geography, and demography—in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt. Tracing both intellectual and institutional genealogies of knowledge production, this book examines social science through a broad range of texts and cultural artifacts, ranging from the ethnographic museum to architectural designs to that pinnacle of social scientific research—"the article."

Omnia El Shakry explores the interface between European and Egyptian social scientific discourses and interrogates the boundaries of knowledge production in a colonial and post-colonial setting. She examines the complex imperatives of race, class, and gender in the Egyptian colonial context, uncovering the new modes of governance, expertise, and social knowledge that defined a distinctive era of nationalist politics in the inter- and post-war periods. Finally, she examines the discursive field mapped out by colonial and nationalist discourses on the racial identity of the modern Egyptians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804755672
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/29/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Omnia El Shakry is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.

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Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt
By Omnia El Shakry


Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5567-2

Chapter One

The ethnographic Moment

In an 1869 letter to Khedive Isma'il (r. 1863–79), renowned for his desire to recreate Cairo as a "Paris of the East," archaeologist, savant, and medical doctor Gaillardot Bey put forward a proposition: the creation of a scientific institution for geographical explorations, along with an attendant framework of museums, libraries, and educational programs. The importance of this project, stressed Gaillardot, was in its reformist and civilizing spirit, a continuation of the reforms initiated by the modernizing Ottoman viceroy Mehmed 'Ali himself. Gaillardot pointed out that the establishment of such an institution would be the first of its kind in the Orient (and would rectify the relative absence of scholarly societies in Egypt), thereby placing Isma'il at the head of scientific innovations as well as moral and intellectual progress. Nor did he hesitate to remind Isma'il of the excitement created by his personal appearance at and Egypt's participation in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which inspired the admiration not only of savants, but of the "ignorant" public as well. Attached to Gaillardot's letter was a report detailing the process of establishing the proposed scientific institution and emphasizing the need to conduct studies that would expound the country's natural resources, in view of profit, as well as its moral order, in the view of progress.

A mere six years later, in 1875, the Royal Geographic Society of Egypt was founded, part of a larger cultural revival sponsored by the Egyptian court. As Gaillardot Bey's letter intimated, Khedive Isma'il was actively involved in the representation of Egypt to the Western world, or what Timothy Mitchell has referred to as the "exhibitionary order" of nineteenth-century Europe. It was not only Europeans, therefore, who desired to represent Egypt on a Western stage to a Western audience. For example, Egypt's pavilions at the 1867 Exposition Universelle were designed by French Egyptologist August Mariette; Isma'il's extravagant celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in November of 1869 replicated key elements of the world's fairs; and Isma'il himself commissioned Verdi's masterpiece Orientalist opera, Aïda. This complicity of colonial forms of knowledge production (world's fairs and Orientalist art) and Egyptian state institutions complicates our understanding of the production of knowledge in colonial contexts. Individuals who were involved in state-sponsored knowledge production—for example, those working in the Royal Geographic Society of Egypt—participated in a wider shared culture of scientific expeditions (often with their own imperial aspirations in sub-Saharan Africa), museums, and ethnographies, all of which contributed to the formulation of a colonial modernity in late nineteenth century Egypt. As Mauricio Tenorio Trillo has observed with respect to Mexico, "Mexico joined the world's fair circuit in order to learn, imitate, and publicize its own possession of the universal truths of progress, science, and industry." Yet, these universal truths were invariably inflected with the specificity of locale, "Mexican sciences, Mexican art, Mexican nationhood." Or as Zeynep Çelik has noted in comparing the Egyptian khedive Isma'il with the Ottoman sultan Abdülaziz, who also attended the 1867 Paris Exposition amid much fanfare, "[w]orld's fairs were idealized platforms where cultures could be encapsulated visually—through artifacts and arts but also, more prominently, through architecture."

The Royal Geographic Society in Egypt (which exemplified the porous boundaries between anthropology and geography) provides an excellent case study of this culture shared by Europeans and non-Europeans who engaged anthropological and geographical ideas, practices, and debates surrounding the modern Egyptians. The foundation of the society was a crucial moment in the authorization, and transformation, of European social-scientific knowledge in Egypt. Scholars have begun to explore the ways in which authoritative disciplinized knowledge, such as nineteenth-century European geography, was formed through the "effacement of alternative subject-positions and the appropriation of other ways of knowing," for example the knowledge of central Africans. By paying attention to "the historical processes that condemned certain knowledges, meanings and subjects to a place outside the field of what was considered, intelligible, rational, and disciplined scientific discourse," these studies contribute much to our understanding of the constitution of scientific knowledge in its colonial manifestation. Nevertheless, although indigenous actors (in their role as "informants") appear in these accounts as coauthors of geographical knowledge, these studies do not directly address the scientific production of local geographical or anthropological knowledge by indigenous authors themselves. Curiously, very few histories of non-European attempts to produce and disseminate geographical and anthropological knowledge exist.

We can address this gap by foregrounding the site of knowledge production in Egypt, and its co-production by Europeans and non-Europeans. This is not to be understood in the postmodern sense of a critique of ethnographic authority—such critiques emerge from within the disciplinary boundaries and epistemological commitments of anthropology itself. Thus, rather than emphasizing the importance of these anthropological ideas for European anthropology (the formation of British social anthropology) or European classicism (the question of the origins of the Ancient Egyptians), or even the history of colonialism (how debates on the ethnic and racial classification of the modern Egyptians fed into the larger political and social context of the "long" nineteenth-century European colonization of Egypt), I instead view anthropological ideas and practices as crucial to the development of a social-scientific mode of thought in Egypt. In this mode of thought, Egyptians were to become authors as well as subjects of knowledge. In contrasting the development of a colonial and an incipient local, or Egyptian, mode of knowledge production in the anthropology of the modern Egyptians, I argue that although a shared culture of anthropology and geography existed, subtle differences began to emerge, particularly in the heated anticolonial climate of the interwar period as political conditions transformed intellectual production.

Institutional Foundations: The Royal Geographic Society of Egypt

The Royal Geographic Society of Egypt (RGS) was founded on May 19, 1875, under the auspices of Khedive Isma'il. Its aim was to place Egypt—already at the crossroads of voyages of exploration—at the center of geographical travel to and from Africa, and to encourage the development of geography as a science, thereby stimulating industrial and commercial interests in the country. Cairo, "la plus grande porte de l'Afrique," was ideally situated as the meeting place for explorers to banish "blank spots" from the map of Africa. European explorers, travelers, and scholars would often pass through Cairo; among the more prestigious who spoke at the society were Georg August Schweinfurth, Henry Morton Stanley, Richard Francis Burton, Ferdinand de Lesseps, August Mariette Pasha, and Francis Galton.

Khedive Isma'il's imperial ambitions in the interior of Africa and the Sudan (especially from 1863 to 1885), although ultimately unsuccessful, provided much of the impetus for the African focus of the RGS's early years. Perhaps nothing speaks more poignantly of Egypt's African colonial ambitions than a memorandum written by the quartermaster-general of the Egyptian army in November of 1876. Noting the September 1876 Geographical Congress held at the Royal Palace in Brussels, under the tutelage of King Leopold II, and the intensification of European interest in the fertile lands of central Africa, the quartermaster-general encouraged the Khedive to emphasize not only the exploration, but also the exploitation of equatorial Africa.

The society was founded at a time when Khedive Isma'il was building upon the institutional innovations of Ottoman viceroy Mehmed 'Ali (the proverbial "founder of modern Egypt"), and establishing many of Egypt's major cultural and literary institutions, such as the National Library, Dar al-'Ulum Teachers College, and the national opera; Egypt's journalistic culture was also blossoming. As an institution, the RGS endeavored to explore all the various branches of geography (physical, human, economic, historical, biological), as well as to encourage the development of geographical and ethnographic studies in Egypt. Among its members were literati, amateur scholars of geography, geology, archaeology, anthropology, antiquity, museum curators, and "gentleman" explorers. Far from being concerned solely with the exploration of Africa, the Society had as its goal nothing short of contributing to Egypt's modernization, through the production and dissemination of geographical knowledge. The khedive not only donated the building premises, a palace located on Qasr al-'Ayni Street, as well as 2,500 volumes to begin the library's collection, but he also underwrote an annual government subsidy to the society.

Although the RGS had a brief hiatus shortly after its inception in which meetings and publications ceased (during Egypt's severe financial and economic crises in the late 1870s), the society quickly regained its momentum by regularizing its finances, and by 1881 it was able to send Egyptian delegates to the Third International Geographical Congress and Exhibition at Venice—the only African country represented at the congress. In fact, by 1890 the president of the RGS, Abbate Pasha, could assert that the society had taken an active part in the reconnaissance of the geographical world, established congenial relations with savants and explorers, and demonstrated Egypt's continued contribution to geography.

As Egypt's independence was bending under the weight of British financial and military hegemony, its former focus during the reign of Khedive Isma'il, that of grand discoveries, was quickly shifting. Khedive Isma'il's attempts to extend his dominion into the hinterlands of southern Sudan, Equatoria, and Abyssinia between 1869–79 ended in unqualified failure. By the time of the outbreak of the Mahdist revolt in 1881 Egyptian administration in its African principalities was severely weakened. For instance, the Egyptian administration of Dar Fur, which had been formally annexed in 1874, collapsed in 1883. By that time, Khedive Isma'il had been deposed (in 1879) and his son, Tawfiq Pasha, (r. 1879–92) instated. With the 1882 invasion of Egypt by the British, Egypt's rule in the Sudan was wholly circumscribed by British policy. By the time of General Charles Gordon's beheading in 1885, Egypt's involvement in Sudan was attenuated, although Egyptian teachers, soldiers, and administrators continued a strong involvement in Sudan well into the twentieth century.

As Egypt's African colonial ambitions waned, the Royal Geographic Society reoriented itself geographically closer to home—toward Egypt and Sudan—and thematically toward ethnography and folklore, beginning an ethnographic collection for Sudan by 1898. A critical moment in this process was the establishment of a small ethnographic museum, which was basically a more permanent version of Egypt's pavilion at the Venice Exposition of 1881. In December of 1898, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II (r. 1892–1914) inaugurated the geographical and ethnographic museum (Le Musée de Géographie et d'Ethnographie) of the Royal Geographic Society. Although the RGS initially encountered difficulties in obtaining funding to secure objects, Frédéric Bonola Bey (with the aid of Onofrio Abbate Pasha) persisted in soliciting voyagers and friends of the society to donate some of the objects collected on their journeys; his efforts were successful, and it was primarily his vision that made possible the realization of the ethnographic museum. In 1891 Bonola Bey secured a promissory loan from the government to build a museum building adjacent to the society itself, but it was not until January 1898 that construction was completed.

Bonola Bey and Abbate Pasha, both Italians, were prominent figures in the Royal Geographic Society from 1885 until World War I, so much so that Donald Reid categorizes their tenure (1885–1915) as the "Italian phase" of the society. Bonola Bey served as the society's general secretary, and Abbate Pasha, an ophthalmologist who was court physician to Sa'id, Isma'il, Tawfiq, and 'Abbas II, as its president. In his speech at the museum's inauguration, Abbate Pasha emphasized the importance of having created an Ethnographic Museum, one that could preserve the material culture of interior Africa prior to its prolonged contact with European civilization, as well as represent the "tableau vivant" of Egypt and its neighboring regions, its geological constitution, its flora and fauna, and the ethnography of its diverse races. The museum was to be a tribute to the moral and material progress of Egypt, and was to maintain a collection of rare and historic maps and a display of portraits of "the great voyagers and savants who will make up, with time, the Pantheon of Modern Egypt," thus contributing to the natural laws of progress and civilization.

At the entrance to the museum stood two statues, representing Africa and Asia. The first hall contained a rather heterogeneous collection: botanical collections of Kurdufan and Dar Fur collected between 1874–77 by one Dr. Pfund, while he was attached to a reconnaissance mission of the Egyptian government; rock specimens from the western desert, Somalia, Kurdufan, and Dar Fur; petrified trees collected by Abbate Pasha from the Libyan desert; colored earth from the Dakhleh oasis; glass specimens, plates and pottery, and salts and natrons from Egypt; fishing and hunting instruments collected from among the Dinka and Niam-Niam; photographs of Mecca, Medina, and their saints taken by Muhammad Sadiq Pasha; a granite grinder taken by Richard Francis Burton from Medina; a bird's-eye view of Cairo; a stamp from 1671; and portraits of Mehmed 'Ali Pasha and Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Upon entering the second hall one encountered a 1867 panoramic relief map of the Valley of Egypt. The principal collection of this hall, more thematically unified than the first, was a series of twenty-five historic maps, beginning with a reproduction of the celebrated Papyrus of Turin, and ending with a 1897 administrative map of domains from Upper Egypt. The hall also contained a series of portraits of Egyptian sovereigns, savants of Egypt, and eminent voyagers who had explored the Nile Valley region and neighboring nations (Isma'il Pasha, Sa'id Pasha, Mahmud Pasha al-Falaki, Richard Burton, Georg Schweinfurth, General Gordon, and others), autographs, and historical souvenirs brought by delegates who had attended the opening of the Suez Canal.

Rare ethnographic objects could also be found in the second hall—some taken during military expeditions, such as the Abyssinian war, others collected by Romolo Gessi; and another set collected by Schweinfurth among the Niam-Niam and in Uganda, Kurdufan, and Dar Fur. The hall also also contained a collection of rare photographs—already considered historical documents—taken by Buchta when he accompanied General Gessi to Sudan; these included images of Khartoum, the governor's palace, the spot where General Gordon was assassinated, Egyptian stations along the Nile, and a series of "scenes and types" of diverse tribes, indigenous groups, and villages of ethnographic interest.

This hall also housed collections related to Egypt itself: natural specimens—such as sycamore, ebony, gums, henna, ostrich feathers, and varieties of cotton—as well as ethnographic objects such as metal items, jewelry, pottery, and furniture. Bonola Bey was particularly insistent on the importance of maintaining ethnographic collections from Egypt. The ethnographic study of the Egyptian nation, including its material culture and all aspects of ordinary quotidian life, would be collected in order to preserve the manifestations of the "race," thus helping to define its national character. Photographic reproduction of the popular life of the "race"—picturesque scenes of Egyptian life and the tribes of Nubia and the Sudan—was to be encouraged for the same reason. Bonola advocated the recording and conservation of traditional customs and objects before their eradication by modern civilization. It was hoped that in the future the society would be able to present a complete tableau of the native inhabitants of Egypt, in all the manifestations of individual and social life—a complete expression of the ethnic character of the people united by the khediviate.

The Ethnographic Museum of the Royal Geographic Society encapsulated several aspects of colonial anthropology. The collection—an array of seemingly innocuous ethnographic and geographic artifacts, along with a hagiographical panorama of portraits—concealed the colonial pedigree of the objects themselves, the individuals who procured them, and the conditions under which they were obtained. For example, the specimens from Kurdufan, Dar Fur, and Abyssinia had been obtained as a direct result of violent attempts at the colonization and annexation of those territories by Anglo-Egyptian forces. Indeed, until the later part of the twentieth century, Egyptian geographers often looked upon Egypt's colonial aspirations in Africa quite favorably, asserting that Egyptian exploration of the Horn of Africa in the 1870s and 1880s had done much to further science and civilization. In the words of one of Egypt's first professional geographers, Mustafa 'Amir, "In all these expeditions scientific investigations went hand in hand with military operations and with peaceful penetration; and the geographical section of the Egyptian army was untiring in its efforts to make a name for Egypt in the world of science and to help civilization to find new fields for expansion."


Excerpted from THE GREAT SOCIAL LABORATORY by Omnia El Shakry Copyright © 2007 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.
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Table of Contents


Note on Transliteration and Translation....................xiii
Introduction: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Knowledge Production....................1
1 The Ethnographic Moment....................23
2 Anthropology's Indigenous Interlocutors: Race and Egyptian Nationalism....................55
3 The Painting of Rural Life....................89
4 Rural Reconstruction: The "Road to a New Sanitary Life"....................113
5 Barren Land and Fecund Bodies: The Emergence of Population Discourse in Interwar Egypt....................145
6 Body Politics: Gender, Reproduction, and Modernity....................165
7 Etatism: Theorizing Egypt's 1952 Revolution....................197

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