March 9 marked exactly one hundred years since the outbreak of Egypt’s 1919 revolution, a complex political event about which much has been written and views differ immensely. What I want to do here is consider the process by which our visual imagination — as Egyptians separated from those events by a full century — have been shaped, and to compare these visuals with a few facts and events which are to be found in sources from the period.
In particular, I want to question the approach that treats the 1919 revolution as a single narrative, condensing it into the events that took place in Cairo on the 8th, 9th and 10th of March, the Wafd’s attempts to gain international recognition for the Egyptian cause, the theme of religious unity, and the Constitution of 1923. TV shows and films which deal with 1919 generally reproduce this highly abridged narrative — a vicious cycle which has created a potent visual memory. Although the revolution lasted two violent months and had consequences stretching years into the future, it is generally depicted in a handful of scenes of Cairo during its early days. It is these scenes, immortalized in film and television, which are the first to spring to mind when one thinks of the 1919 revolution.
An incomplete image
There are a number of primary sources for the events, among them the memoirs of ʿAbd al-Rahman Fahmi; ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Rafiʿi’s Thawrat 1919: Tareekh Misr al-Qawmi, 1914–21 (The Revolution of 1919: Egypt’s National History, 1914–21, published in 1946); Hawliyyat Misr al-Siyasiyya (Political Chronicles of Egypt) by Ahmad Shafiq Pasha; newspapers and magazines from the period, which are available in the periodicals section of the Egyptian National Library and Archives on the Bulaq Corniche, Cairo; and the various documents held in the British Foreign Office archives in London (a public archive which anybody may consult and copy documents from). Many of these sources remain untapped in artistic and literary attempts to broach the subject of 1919 — no wonder, since getting hold of them, studying them, and extracting information from them isn’t always a straightforward task.
However, the most influential source is probably Sheikh ʿAbd al-Wahhab al-Naggar’s testimony of the first days of the revolution as they played out in Old Cairo, where he lived. It was edited by Ahmad Zakariyya al-Shalaq and published under the title Red Days by Dar al-Kutub in 2010. Naggar offers a faithful and detailed eyewitness account of the early days of the revolution, specifically in Cairo, but that’s not to say it’s free of perspective or opinion. In the end, it is a personal memoir.
The following entries from Naggar’s work are typical:
March 8: “His Grace Muhammad Sidqi Pasha, justice of the Native Court of Appeal, and another gentleman whose name I cannot recall, were in attendance at Cairo railway station before the departure of the train carrying the four leaders. When Sa’d Zaghlul Pasha saw them, he cried out to them in French, three times, the word “Courage!’”
March 9: “At that point, students at the law school learned that the British had exiled Sa’d Pasha and his colleagues to Malta. They erupted in fury and elected one Muslim and one Christian from among their number who approached the dean of the school, Mr. Walton, who occupied the position from September 1915 to January 1923, and demanded on behalf of their colleagues that lectures be suspended so they too could hold a peaceful protest to express their views regarding the parlous manner in which the British were treating their country, forestalling independence and ensuring it remained prostrate under enslavement and bondage.”
March 10: “When the demonstrators passed through Shari’ al-Dawawin, British soldiers were in attendance to guard the ministries, and they fired live rounds, injuring a number of protesters. That was the day the first people were killed.”
Naggar seems to have inspired numerous writers and directors, for the various dramatic and cinematic retellings of the revolution rarely diverge from his version. Prime among these is of course Hasan al-Imam’s Bayn al-Qasrayn (1964) — an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s 1957 novel of the same name (published in English as Palace Walk), the first in his Cairo trilogy — which has exercised enormous influence over visual portrayals of the 1919 revolution.
To test my suspicions about the visual nature of memories of 1919, I conducted an informal opinion poll of my friends, asking the question posed by this article’s title: what’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of the 1919 revolution? The answers I got ranged from gallabeyyas, tarboushes, and the white yashmak worn by upper-class women at the time, to the scene of Fahmi’s death in Bayn al-Qasrayn, Mahmoud Morsi as Si al-Sayid and the plays of Laila Soliman, to demonstrations in narrow city streets, priests and sheikhs, and the flag of the Kingdom of Egypt.
These answers confirmed to me that our visual memory of 1919 is deeply influenced by TV and cinema, and above all by the film Bayn al-Qasrayn. Every person I spoke to described scenes from the film, particularly the scenes of protests in Cairo, which in turn echo Naggar’s eyewitness account. This isn’t a problem in itself; the problem is that this partial picture is our only image of the revolution.
Bayn al-Qasrayn ends with the death of Fahmi (Salah Qabil), son of the main character Sayyid ʿAbd al-Gawad, at the hands of British soldiers during a protest on March 10. Most other TV series and films end on a similar note, and so we are left with a narrative that both begins and ends in Cairo. It’s tempting to blame the makers of Bayn al-Qasrayn for this defective picture, but attempts to create a visual representation of 1919 predate the film. The question is what the government, the film industry, and the Egyptian nationalist movement hoped to achieve through such representations.
It’s highly likely that the nationalist movement hoped to preserve the image of peaceful protests that erupted spontaneously at the news of the exile of the Wafd leadership, with violence confined to some rioting and looting by the riff-raff, and later the occupying army who turned their guns on demonstrators. In particular, we can detect a conscious desire to eliminate certain tactics from the narrative of the revolution, above all the tactics of industrial action — railway workers went on strike on March 15, and electricity company workers joined them the next day — and violence against the British occupation, which occurred on a large scale across the countryside.
Common themes of representation
Perhaps the first visual representation of 1919 was Muhammad Bayyumi’s Barsum Looks For A Job (1923). Made just four years after the revolution, it was also the first Egyptian silent film. A comic portrayal of Muslim-Christian relations, it revolves around the trials of Barsum (Adel Hamid) and his great friend Sheikh Mitwalli (Bishara Wakim), who are unemployed, poor and hungry, and end up competing for a job at a bank. The bank manager makes the mistake of inviting them to lunch at his house, thinking they’re businessmen, but kicks them out when he finds out the truth, leaving them to continue their ill-fated search for employment.
I will focus here on three basic images which give us some idea of what the makers wanted to say about the nature of the revolution. But first, it’s only fair to note that the film also tackles the social crises that accompanied the revolution: poverty, hunger, unemployment, the aspirations of the poor to a better life, poor-on-poor theft and the generally low living standards at the time. These social issues are elided in most later narratives and works of art, and replaced by the official line that the revolution was driven by the political demand for national liberation.
As is common in silent films, the film features several explanatory title cards. The first image is the first title, which reads ‘Al-jawʿ kafir’ / ‘La Faim Tue’ (‘hunger kills’). It is followed by a scene in which Sheikh Mitwalli is perusing the newspaper al-Balagh, then we see a woman throwing heaps of newspapers out of the window of his house. Mitwalli runs outside and carefully retrieves the newspapers.
The second image is the first appearance of the Christian character Barsum, waking up from sleep. It is clear he’s wretchedly poor — he sleeps in a heap of straw and trash — but on the wall of his house he has hung a sign saying ‘Long live coexistence,’ a picture of Christ, and above them the crescent and three stars, the symbol of the Kingdom of Egypt.
The third image is of the home of Sheikh Mitwalli, where a picture of Sa’d Zaghlul hangs on the wall, directly above the Egyptian flag bearing the same crescent and three stars.
What was Bayyumi trying to say with these images? Was he trying to use the comic genre to carve out a genuine space for debate around these issues, or was it a comic denunciation of the situation as he saw it? The film’s two heroes may be poor, and they may come from different religious backgrounds, but they are fiercely committed to their patriotism, even in the most trying of times. It is as if poverty threatens to eat away at their patriotism, and must be guarded against with signs proclaiming ‘Long live coexistence’ and pictures of Sa’d Zaghlul.
Bayyumi doesn’t offer a clear or unambiguous message, but what is clear is that he wanted his film to incorporate the political and social context of the time, and more importantly, that the best way to do this was by trading on the images of Sa’d Zaghlul and Muslim-Christian harmony.
This shows that from very early on, there was a clear desire to highlight these twin themes in depictions of the revolution. I was particularly struck by Bayyumi’s emphasis that Egypt showed its real strength during 1919 in the alliance between Muslims and Christians, which demonstrated that Egypt was a single, indivisible nation. Bayyumi clearly felt this was the most eloquent response to British attempts to cause sectarian strife.
Certainly this might all have been true to reality. But it’s nevertheless important to ask if Christians and Muslims enjoyed constant harmonious relations at that point in time, and if all tensions that did exist between the two groups were caused by the colonizers. Why has there been such emphasis from 1923 onwards — that is, starting with Bayyumi’s film, continuing with Bayn al-Qasrayn in 1964, and in practically all depictions of 1919, including official state discourse — on the idea that Muslims and Christians are a single indivisible nation? Why such insistence on a thing that, if it is true, should be obvious and unremarkable?
Another common theme highlighted in representations of the 1919 revolution is the participation of women, which is depicted via images of the demonstrations of March 16, when upper-class women joined in the street protests in Cairo. Nowhere in these images are the peasant women from Giza who were raped by British soldiers in reprisal for their villages’ resistance to the occupation. In 2016, theater director Laila Soliman challenged this state of affairs by taking the events of the villages in Giza as the starting point of her play Zig Zig (to which I contributed as researcher), and producing an online timeline of the revolution, which makes a number of historical documents available to visitors. The project is a substantial achievement, in my view, given the near-total absence of historical documentation in most creative depictions of 1919.
WWI and Revolution in the Countryside
Another major issue in representations of 1919 is the near-total absence of portrayals of the countryside during the revolution. The sole exception to this rule is the TV series Gumhuriyyat Zifta (The Republic of Zifta, 1998), written by Yusri al-Gindi, directed by Isma’il ‘Abd al-Hafiz and produced by Sawt al-Qahira (Sono Cairo). It is one of the rare works — if not the only one — to offer an alternative narrative of 1919.
The series is set in the governorate of Gharbiya, which is suffering under the British occupation as well as the greed of its feudal landowners. Prime among them is Hishmat Basha (Hasan Husni), who buys his tenants’ crops at rock-bottom prices and treats the tenants with brutal violence, with the full support of the police. One of the peasants, Ibrahim (Mamduh ‘Abd al-’Alim), is soon driven to rebellion against this injustice, becoming a popular hero and an outlaw. Ibrahim fights for the peasants’ rights, but he is betrayed by one of his men, and killed, which sparks widespread rage among the villagers. Local intellectual Yusif al-Gindi (Kamal Abu Rayya) begins inciting the people to revolt. When the 1919 revolution breaks out, they are driven to action, and form alliances with the chief of police, local notables and city intellectuals. Together, they announce the independence of the Republic of Zifta, and elect Yusif al-Gindi its president.
Yusri al-Gindi’s achievement with The Republic of Zifta was not only to offer a narrative different to that of most other works, but to imaginatively trace some of the reasons for the ferocious uprising of the people of Zifta which led to its dramatic secession. And indeed he came much closer to the truth than many others did in identifying the reasons behind the 1919 revolution — or, rather, the reasons why it took such a radical and organized form in rural areas. By exploring the disparity between the urban and rural contexts, al-Gindi was able to suggest the consequences for the ways in which 1919, as a political event, has been understood.
The series was based, of course, on real-life events. And, in fact, it was in rural areas that by far the most important events of the revolution took place, rather than in Cairo or Alexandria — though the latter did itself see protests against foreigners which were quickly hushed up. This included both the Delta and Upper Egypt, where, for example, the British bombed the village of Dayr Mawas in Assiut, having failed to quash the fierce armed resistance to the occupation which was underway there.
Other events predate the revolution itself by a number of years. From early in the First World War, the British commandeered Egyptian resources for the war effort, and the peasantry were paying a high price for a cause in which they had no stake: not only were Egyptians forcibly conscripted, but their crops and livestock were also sequestered, as al-Rafi’i documents in detail in his The Revolution of 1919: Egypt’s National History, 1914-21.
According to Lord Kitchener’s annual report for the year 1910, which Rif’at al-Sa’id draws upon in his book Thawrat 1919: Al-quwa al-ijtima’iyya wa-dawruha (The 1919 Revolution: The Role of Social Forces, published by the General Egyptian Book Authority in 2009), “in the years immediately prior to the First World War, the situation worsened immensely: in January 1910, the peasants’ late payments to the Agricultural Bank alone totaled 416,887 Egyptian pounds, according to Herbert Kitchener’s annual report for the year 1910, and between 1907 and 1917, rinderpest affected vast numbers of livestock, estimated at 100 head per week, with losses over the ten-year period amounting to approximately 400,000 head and costing 1,600,000 Egyptian pounds.”
Statistics such as these attest to the crisis the peasantry were undergoing in the decade or so prior to the revolution; it is no wonder, then, that rural mobilization during the revolution was so violent. So it would be more accurate, in my opinion, to think of the 1919 revolution as a peasant uprising. The factors which brought about the revolution, in some cases preceding it by many years, largely affected the countryside, and it was the countryside which bore the brunt of colonial violence and plunder. This state of affairs then converged with demands by the pashas of the nationalist movement that Egypt be granted independence, and the right to govern be transferred to its sons — by which they meant, naturally, themselves.
By a peasant revolution, I mean that the sector of the population which showed the greatest levels of violent mobilization and steadfast resistance, and which suffered the greatest repression — in the form of burning, rape, murder, burying alive, and more — was the peasantry of Upper Egypt and the Delta. They destroyed railway lines to prevent supplies reaching the British army, and held up trains carrying reinforcements, killing the soldiers on board and dispatching the trains carrying their dead bodies to Cairo as a chilling message to the military command. They also confronted the occupation and landowners by establishing new and alternative forms of authority in their towns and villages which spread throughout the countryside; it was not only in Zifta that villagers chose their own representatives and formed structures of popular governance to manage their own affairs.
There are numerous events and scenes such as these which we could mention, and much more research and analysis is needed for us to fully appreciate the complexity of the events of 1919. We must bear in mind that there is an entire chapter of the history of the revolution that has not yet been told. It is not that the cinematic and dramatic representations of the revolution, which occupy such a significant place in Egyptians’ collective visual memory, are false — indeed, some are highly accurate — but that they are incomplete.