How ordinary Egyptians embodied nationalism around the 1919 revolution
An interview with Ziad Fahmy
Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture,

Pardon us, Wingate! But our country has had enough!

You took our camels, donkeys, barley and wheat aplenty.

Now leave us alone!

Laborers and soldiers were forced to travel, leaving their land.

They headed to Mount Lebanon and to the battlefields and the trenches!

And now they blame us?

Behold all the calamities you caused! Had it not been for our laborers, you

(and your rifles) would have been helpless in the desert sand!

This is an excerpt from a popular anti-occupation song sung by Egyptians in the streets of Cairo in colloquial Arabic 100 years ago, during the 1919 revolution. The song, which addresses the British High Commissioner of Egypt, was not recorded and its lyrics were not published, but dug out of a British intelligence report by Ziad Fahmy, a historian and associate professor at Cornell University. Fahmy was searching for songs like this and other vernacular cultural artefacts as part of his new research into the formation of Egyptian nationalism.

In his 2011 book Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture, in which the song “Pardon, Wingate” is quoted, Fahmy uses popular culture as a lens through which to view the emergence of a distinctly Egyptian identity at the turn of the 20th century. The novelty here is in veering away from traditional intellectual historiography, which examines the birth of Egyptian nationalism through the influence of nationalist figures such as Abdallah al-Nadim, Mostafa Kamel and Saad Zaghloul, and intellectuals like Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayed and Taha Hussein.

Fahmy was curious, however, as to how the intellectual activity of these figures, which produced the concepts and ideas that could bind disparate Egyptians together in one nation, and which were expressed in writing using modern standard Arabic or classical fusha Arabic, could have spread when the vast majority of Egyptians were illiterate. And so he employed historical research to unearth what types of cultural expression existed and how they helped make the concept of a nation relevant to the ordinary Egyptian citizen.

Mada Masr interviewed Fahmy about the sources he used in his research, the centrality of vernacular language in this process of forming an imagined community and about the spatial manifestations of the vernacular.

Mada Masr: As you set out to do your research, what were the dominant historiographical themes you found when dealing with nationalism and the 1919 revolution?

Ziad Fahmy: For me, the most important work then was by Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski. They had written a couple of books on early Egyptian nationalism — looking at the role of intellectuals in the formation of Egyptian nationalism in the first half of the 20th century — at least as far as some of the Western historiographical examination of Egyptian history at the time was concerned. And when I started really working on this project, I realized that no one has really used the vernacular and really looked at ammiyya — colloquial non-standard Arabic — culture in general. Anthropologists were beginning to do that for contemporary Egypt, so an influential work for me was a book by Walter Armbrust on mass culture in Egypt from the 1970s until the end of the 20th century. He covered Madraset al-Moshaghebeen [a popular Arabic play produced in 1973]. That’s what inspired me to look back at things from a popular culture perspective.

But there were also some linguists who dealt with the whole concept of diglossia. There are debates on diglossia now among linguists, looking at the difference between modern standard Arabic, or fusha, and ‘ammiyya. When I started looking into the past, I discovered that there were some early newspapers and magazines that used the vernacular. I started reading and finding more and more of those — mainly at the National Library — and then I started thinking about how everyday people got access to information, and realizing that literacy rates were quite low. Most of the sources indicate that people read passages [from newspapers and fliers] in coffee shops and so forth, and so I started looking at other media, like early phonographs.

In future projects I will work on radio. In my third book, I’ll be looking at the history of radio from the mid-1920s onwards. I’m trying to cover the pre-history of radio, because most people examine Egyptian radio from when the government had their own station in 1934 and shut down a lot of private stations that existed — it became sort of an early media monopoly of the airwaves.


Ziad Fahmy


MM: How did you find these radio recordings? It’s usually more difficult to access the archives of private institutions.

ZF: Yes, especially in Egypt. I still haven’t fully finished the research for that third book project, but in Egypt’s National Archives I was able to find petitions by some of the older radio stations that shut down, addressed to the government: “We need to keep these stations open. Why are you closing us down?” and so forth. So there are some traces. In addition, the British archives have plenty of information on Egyptian radio because there was a joint venture with Marconi, which was a British company at the time.

MM: So was this predominantly how you found the azjal [a form of colloquial defamatory poetry] and taqatiq [a form of popular song] through which Egyptians voiced nationalist sentiments, like “Pardon, Wingate”? Did you find transcripts or were there recordings?

ZF: For this one, I could find no recordings as far as what was sung in the street. “Pardon, Wingate” is actually a song that was created in the streets, and probably transcribed by someone working for the British, and they actually wrote it down both in Arabic and in their own translation, which was not entirely accurate but close enough. In the 1919 period and during World War I, the British had plenty of spies in the coffeeshops writing what about was going on, and a lot of that is available at the National Archives. There are also Egyptian spies, and you find some of that stuff in the National Archives as well. So a lot of the records are textual. A lot of these songs depended on what was happening in the street, so it was similar to what was going on in 2011 — you know, people start making up songs and changing, depending on what is happening on the political scene or around them.

MM: A lot of the names of relevant artists you mention in the book, like Mounira al-Mahdeya, Naguib al-Rihani, Badi’ Khayri and Bayram al-Tunisi, are still popular in Egyptian mass culture, especially among older people and people interested in history. Was there any trace of a connection between vernacular cultural production by these artists and the spread of nationalism?

ZF: Of course, broadly speaking. It’s almost common knowledge really, and if you look at even some of the biographies of many of those characters, including Rihani and Khayri, they talk about and celebrate the fact that they were in the streets during 1919. It’s fairly well known, but it hasn’t been theorized or written about as part of official Egyptian history. It’s been sidelined in a way, and people are more obsessed with Saad Zaghloul and the leadership, as opposed to how people interpreted these events in the streets, how they celebrated and mourned and so on.

MM: In your book you talk about the role of vaudeville theater in reinforcing a Western “other” and themes calling for national solidarity. What is vaudeville exactly?

ZF: It’s hard to define, but it was very similar to what theater was in Egypt at the time. It had everything in it — it wasn’t just plays. The plays of Naguib al-Rihani or Ali al-Kassar were actually quite short, and the show included a whole extravaganza of performances — you had entertainers and magicians and dancers, and then the play would come on. Especially in the early phases, during World War I. That whole show was called vaudeville in France, in the United States and elsewhere. That was certainly the case if you look at some of the early advertisements of that period in Egypt, all the way up to the 1930s. You had someone who did monologues, like Shukuku, and the play would come after that, and then you would have a dance routine. Some of those places early on, as early as the 1910s, would also have a silent film play initially.

MM: Can you explain why you think colloquial Egyptian is more potent for political expression and dissent and the imagining of a community than fusha?

ZF: I think both can be potent, but when illiteracy is high then the fusha expression is not going to resonate with the majority of people. Depending on which date we’re talking about, the range of literacy was from 6 to 12 percent around the period of the revolution. But if you wanted to know how people actually, broadly speaking, in the streets, felt about things or expressed themselves, then you have to look at ammiyya expression — the way people verbalize things. Even the intellectuals, if they wanted to really make their message resonate with everybody — the peasants, workers and everyone else — they had to change their message into ammiyya to really give it more of an emotional feel, a street feel. Even the father of Arab nationalism, [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, in most of his speeches — and you have to listen to them not read them, because if you read the way that those speeches were written in published government books, they have almost all been translated into fusha — but in reality he would code-switch depending on the audience, and predominantly he would use ammiyya. Sometimes he would revert to fusha, if it was something relevant to the Arab world or a little bit more official. But in a lot of his speeches to the workers he was very cognizant of the fact that he needed to translate his message in a way that catered to everyday people.

MM: Did famously good orators like Mostafa Kamel and Saad Zaghloul use ammiyya as well?

ZF: In speeches I’m not sure. I haven’t found any evidence of that, which doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. But I think, predominantly, if they were reading a speech it was most likely in fusha. If it was something that they put together as they were a part of a crowd or something, most likely they code-switched between both.

MM: You argue that by integrating and using the languages and discourses of the street and everyday life, the writers of new media tapped into a growing demand for comprehensible, realistic characters, songs and stories. This emergent capitalist media system — combining print, sound and performance — allowed for an increasing number of Egyptians to more fully participate in a variety of expanding public spheres. The market-driven forces fueling the commercial production of theatrical and recording hits had revolutionary social implications — not only because they increased the homogeneity of national taste, but also because they trumped the exclusivist fusha cultural models pushed by the cultural elite and the Egyptian state. Can you tell us about this process?

ZF: I think it was something that was very loose and just happened that way, depending on the demands of the market. The funny, sexualized and interesting taqatiq were the ones that were selling, and a lot of these corporations — many of them were multinationals — wanted to sell more records. It was always the taqatiq that really were popular, so more of them were made and more of them were sold. The same thing with the theater; if we look at some of the receipts of early theater, translations of Romeo and Juliet in fusha were not really selling. It was really Naguib al-Rihani and Ali al-Kassar and others that people were going to.

MM: You mentioned the concept of mundane nationalism, not just about declarations of belonging to one country. There is an underlying layer of a mundane nationalist discourse in some of the cultural artefacts you examined. Can you tell us about that?

ZF: I would expand it beyond just those plays. I think it’s something that is there, even if you just open a newspaper for example or go to school and salute the flag or listen to the national anthem — things that are just there in the background, everyday things people go through. When you read any sort of newspaper there are usually depictions which imply that you are part of “a nation” as opposed to those other nations beyond, and this played out on an everyday basis in a way that wasn’t there in the 1800s. The nation state also develops and has its own institutions and media and military. So it’s there in the subconscious, through everyday life, not just in those plays. It’s there in the way that foreigners were depicted in certain plays and movies — the use of accents to show inside and outside, or someone that really gets the jokes and gets the cultural dynamics and intricacies and those that don’t. It is not necessarily something that’s planned, it’s just happens because of these institutions.

MM: You talk about public space as central to the diffusion of these political ideas and aspirations and the imagining of a community — public avenues like coffee shops, theaters, markets, mosques and churches. Does this preclude the countryside from the process of imagining a nation?

ZF: No, absolutely not. I think the nature of the book and the sources I used were somewhat limited to urban areas, but for example I do mention — but I don’t emphasize it as much — that many of these theatrical troupes went to the countryside. I also think that when radio comes into the picture, it helps with the national diffusion of this type of culture. But the reality is that the nature of nationalism tends to be centralized, and most of the cultural production starts in the capital city, so what happens is that it superimposes itself, somewhat, on the rest of the nation. It’s always the dominant Cairene culture that’s normalized, and other cultures in the periphery are not.

MM: You talk about the utility of Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnival, in analyzing how marginalized groups like the urban poor, women and minorities expressed dissent or their Egyptianness. Can you explain how this occurs?

ZF: I view what happens, the things that Bakhtin describes in the carnival, as almost cathartic. It’s almost a way for people to express their frustrations in everyday life, and it comes out in jokes. I guess, in the Egyptian context, it used to come out a lot more in the moulid [popular celebrations of the birth of Prophet Mohamed and holy people]. There’s often this inversion that takes place when people are just out there and celebrating — and back in the day everybody went to the moulid. Moments like these are really a way for people to deal with their realities and express their frustrations, and that certainly happened during 1919, and also in 2011. So in a lot of these [moments], that moment [of inversion] is vital and important but at the same time when it goes too far, according to the elites, it becomes dangerous and needs to be controlled.

MM: In the book, you frame 1919 as a culmination, or significant expression, of the formation of an imagined Egyptian nation. Would you say that the protests and congregations and discourses present in the 1919 revolution reflected that?

ZF: Not to sound like an idealist, but I think it reflected for that moment — however you want to define it in time, a month, two months, three months in that spring of 1919 — a will or need for people to get their independence and reflect their national identities. Most of these ideas were really middle-class ideas, and mainly literate ideas, coming from people participating in the political parties going back to Mostafa Kamel onwards. But at that moment it spread for a variety of different reasons. I don’t want to make a claim that every single person who marched in 1919 was an ardent nationalist — people had their own grievances. Peasants in the countryside were upset, for example, because of shortages and taxation and other things. But I think in these moments, a lot of the ideas and grievances people had are solidified and then it goes away, and a lot of the fissures in society come to the fore thereafter, whether it’s class or race or religion or whatever else.

Osman El Sharnoubi