10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Two Moroccan writers set out from Fez and arrived in Paris. But they took two different paths, and speak two different languages
Le Maroc explained
L'Auberge des pauvres, (The Inn of the Poor), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Auberge des pauvres, 1999. pp294
A summer to be reckoned with
Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada, Casablanca: Dar Al-Fenac, 1999. pp235
Better than more
Al-Tanwir Al-Za'if (False Enlightenment), Galal Amin, Cairo: Iqraa' series, Dar Al-Maaref, February 1999. pp151
The canary sings to himself
Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar (That Other Side), Hassan Soliman, Cairo: General Organisation for Culture Palaces, Aswat Adabiya Series, May 1999. pp195
How very high society
The Egyptian Upper Class Between Revolutions: 1919-1952, Magda Baraka, St Antony's Middle East Monographs Series, Ithaca Press, 1998. pp328
A movable feast
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 Vols.), Vol.1 , edited by Carl F. Petry, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp645
Terms of conversion
Islam in Britain: 1558-1685, Nabil Matar, Cambridge University Press. 1998. pp297
The movement of the waters
As he approaches his eighth decade, José Sarney can look back on a varied and distinguished career. He is best known outside his native Brazil as the first president to lead the country following the overthrow of the military junta in 1985. A lawyer by training, his true vocation however is literature. Unlike those politicians who turn to writing late in life as a distraction or a recreation, Sarney has been making stories since his earliest years. With his novel, O Dono do Mar (The Master of the Sea), his fame as an artist seems set to spread beyond Latin America. A best-seller in the original Portuguese, the work has now been translated into Arabic. Injy El-Kashef spoke to the author while he was in Cairo to launch the book, which she reviews here
God is here, and the devil with him
Sayed Al-Bihar (O Dono do Mar, The Master of the Sea), José Sarney, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999, pp323
At a glance:
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
How very high societyReviewed by Pascale Ghazaleh
Why the upper class? Until very recently, the very idea would have been almost amusing. The rich had everything, after all; was it really necessary to give them the credit of studying them too? Development and the poor, however, seem to be falling out of favour in Western academia, as the general climate grows more conservative. Turqueries, revisited in a rough-and-ready way, are also enjoying a revival in interior decoration. While bash-muhandis, ustaz and duktur have taken their place within the pantheon of titles by which respect (or subservience) is expressed, pasha, bey and hanim never really went away. The time when the rich were reluctant to flaunt their riches is emphatically past: these days, the more conspicuous the consumption, the better. The nouveaux riches are too new at the game to bother with complexes and discretion, while the nouveaux pauvres seem to feel that, in a gold rush that has left them behind, they can at least flaunt breeding and distinction. And in one way, at least (the reference to an "upper", as opposed to a "ruling" class), Magda Baraka's study can be inscribed within this efflorescence, this willingness to shake off mock meekness and let it all hang out at last.
But of course, to reduce this large, imposing and very interesting academic study to a desire for rehabilitation -- let alone vindication -- would be facetious to the point of bad faith. Baraka does not seem overly enamoured of the upper class, nor concerned with defending its record. She has produced a thorough and informative analysis, complete with 20 tables offering statistical support to her concise conclusions. While this method of presenting her data, and Baraka's sophisticated use of politological and sociological literature, may appear somewhat daunting to the general reader, especially in the first chapter, efforts to forge ahead will be rewarded.
Farghali Pasha and his daughter Pakinam, 1940s
Especially gratifying is the fact that, in seeking to define the upper class, Baraka is willing to guide readers step by step through her research process. The boundaries of the upper class appear to shift under her able analysis, so that it comes to constitute an entity that is not easily pinned down and dissected. This could be her reaction to the demonisation of the "half per cent society" -- a collection of families whose well-known names, land-holdings and exploitative ways were dismantled by Nasser's regime, at least in theory. But it is also an indication of her attempts to elaborate and refine definitions and concepts, step by step.
It is in attempting to link these concepts to statements made by individual members of the upper class that Baraka moves on to trickier terrain: one encounters ghosts from the past, and names from the present, but they are somehow one-dimensional at times. It is perhaps a certain reticence that restricts the author to generalities, but the effect is curiously flat: the names are there, and so are the numbers; we are told that the upper classes tended to follow European fashion and vacation in Istanbul, Alexandria, Lebanon or Rhodes; the criteria applied in choosing a husband are listed quite earnestly; there are pictures of all the usual suspects; but this information is imparted to the reader as if the author was encountering her subjects from the outside and for the first time -- which is quite patently not the case. There is a certain sense of intimate knowledge, perhaps, that no amount of erudition can serve to convey.
This is, at least in part, because of the prism of righteous condemnation (one of the many filters that have intervened between the pre-1952 period and the present) through which Baraka is forced to approach her subject; but she had access to interviews as well as "a variety of primary sources covering population and agricultural census data, various editions of Who's Who in Egypt, social columns in the local press, records of Parliamentary debates, and memoirs of leading upper-class figures," as the book's blurb proclaims. Much of this material, however, serves to document the gap between the upper class and the rest of society during the period under discussion, and it was not immediately clear why this gap grew untenably large at a certain historical conjuncture. Of course upper-class society was (and is) fundamentally different from the rest of society: its members spend their time reaffirming that difference, in material and cultural terms, making sure that it is enforced, and reassuring each other that the boundaries are strictly patrolled. What matters, in this context, is the manner in which this apartheid is imagined and implemented -- and it is here that Baraka's efforts could have been directed with more force, since her appreciation of a fundamental dynamic -- the upper class's willingness to integrate members not born and bred within its ranks -- constitutes one of the book's greatest potential strengths.
In attempting to circumscribe the boundaries of the upper class, Baraka seeks to avoid the "mechanical, narrowly Marxist or materialistic" definitions of her predecessors, and integrates extra-economic variables such as "the roles of culture, discourse, kinship or inter-class differences". She begins by rejecting the use of concepts -- bourgeoisie and aristocracy -- imported from a specific (European) context, and settles instead for upper class "to denote the dhawat of Turco-Circassian stock, the more indigenous a'yan (rural notables), as well as the newly rising business elite and prominent liberal professionals". The first two categories, while differentiated both within and between themselves, had in common the ownership of agricultural land, "the prime, and the most important, privately held resource, control of which conferred not only material wealth but also social status and prestige on its holders". After a lengthy discussion of the relations between these different groups, the author suggests a broad definition based on "pure economic criteria", and a restrictive definition "which involves composite criteria". She concludes that "three basic eligibility criteria were at work in admitting members to the core of the upper class during the period under study: i. wealth; ii. descent and kinship; iii. education and behaviour". Such criteria, of course, remain in force today.
Baraka then analyses the 1917 population census to arrive at a group numbering approximately 25,000 families (according to the broad definition) or 15,000 families (according to the restrictive definition) in 1919. A comparison of the data thus obtained with those of the 1947 reveals an increase of 72 per cent, to 43,000 families (broad definition) or 25,000 families (restrictive definition). Having chosen to exclude foreigners residing in Egypt from her definition -- a reminder that even statistics, a field close enough to pure mathematics as to be apparently free of ideological bias, can be impregnated by a deeply ingrained "nationalist" perspective -- Baraka does not dwell on the multiple links between wealthy Levantine or European and Egyptian families. Nor, oddly, does she devote any of her discussion to whether or not any role was played by religion.
In this definition of the upper class, as in some other sections of the book, the reader can sense a certain dislocation or confusion, due in part to the fact that Baraka does not always make clear the difference between her own opinions, the upper class's perception of itself, the results of other scholarly works, and the information revealed by her primary sources -- themselves, of course, imbued with various class biases of their own. In a world where rigorous self-consciousness often serves to pre-empt criticism, however, Baraka's juxtaposition of voices can offer a refreshingly first-hand impression of the research process itself.
So there we have that elusive animal: a tiny percentage of society, monopolising most of its wealth, and adopting "certain social properties and cultural practices" to strengthen the superiority it had assumed. In the second chapter ("Setting the scene: Society, class and culture"), the author argues that the "upper-class understanding of nationalism was made to prevail over more concrete understandings held by other popular forces during the 1919 Revolution." Her brief discussion of the emergence of a public sphere (the term is Habermas's) deals mainly with generalities; the portrait she draws of the "new intellectual", notably, is little more than a caricature ("intellectuals also wore a beret as a badge of membership of a cosmopolitan group"). Again, Baraka sometimes inserts vague generalities into otherwise fairly solid research with the intention of conveying a sense of "atmosphere", which, unfortunately, remains superficial. The second chapter concludes on an ominous note: with independence and the drafting of the 1923 Constitution, which enshrined class as a criterion of full, participatory citizenship, the upper class sowed the seeds of its own destruction: economic depression, the growing middle class and World War II "led to the crystallisation of a new political culture and new forums of expression". The middle class was on the war-path.
The following chapter is devoted to space and class -- specifically, the ways in which the upper class sought to impose physical and symbolic boundaries between itself and the rest of society. Here again, however, Baraka shares with many historians the idea that the nineteenth century heralded a fundamental break with the past in terms of the adoption of a European model for the ordering of space. Much has been made of the dichotomy -- for which historians studying the nineteenth century are largely responsible -- between the self-enclosed hara of pre-modern times and the Haussmanian boulevards of Ismail's era, and Baraka does not question the idea of a sudden transition from an organic mode of social organisation to a series of sharply segregated spatial entities.
The remaining chapters seek to flesh out further the skeleton Baraka has sketched: upper-class lifestyle; private voices and perceptions of the upper class; upper-class public voices. These suffer, in many respects, from the same fundamental problems hinted at above. The first is the author's attempt to define a highly heterogeneous class (which presented itself as a cohesive group only when it perceived itself as the victim of an external threat) as a club with a fairly clear-cut set of rules and a coterie of self-aware members, to which one could be admitted or not. Second, the difficulty of explaining why the gap between the upper class and the rest of society grew so wide as to bring about the 1952 Revolution (the author's principal thesis). Third, the difference between the tactics adopted by the group during the period under study and the methods used by the upper class in former times to differentiate itself from the "populace". For instance, is it realistic to assert, as Baraka does, that before the penetration of Western influence (which she ascribes, again, to the 19th century -- a highly debatable point) the classes mingled at the mosque and in religious festivals as an undifferentiated mass? Finally, there is a curious lack of the kind of detail that would have made for a really good read: the mean-spirited would call it gossip, but it makes for good social history to know how family alliances were consolidated, what concessions were made to established criteria of "good taste", what people wore, how they entertained... This kind of gossip ultimately gives historiography its texture; for the Arab world, however, it is in the novels of Ihsan Abdel-Quddous and the scandal-mongering indictments of royal lasciviousness, for instance, that it is most fruitfully sought. Baraka's work, ultimately, should not be tossed into a beach bag along with those other staples of summer, the bottle of sunblock and the large straw hat. It is, however, a valuable addition to any researcher's library of works in class analysis and political economy.