7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (354)
In the early years of its existence, Al-Ahram, like other newspapers, concentrated on developments in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria as well as international events. However, the 1919 nationalist revolution against British occupation and its spillover from cities into rural areas caused Al-Ahram to devote more and more space to provincial news. Thus was born the "News of the Provinces" column which appeared regularly. The column covered a wide range of topics topped by developments related to anti-British sentiment in the provinces. Other topics included issues of security such as drug trafficking, theft, arson, family feuds and road accidents as well as health. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* traces the way provincial news coverage developed in the early part of the 20th century
Going beyond the urban
Over-centralisation has been one of Egypt's most serious maladies. Perhaps the overcrowding of Cairo and, to a lesser extent, Alexandria is one of the most severe symptoms of this plight. The Egyptian press, since its inception, has suffered from this malady. The reality of centralisation has contributed to shaping the outlook of the press and its editorial priorities. This is why news of the capital has always occupied a prominent position on the pages of any newspaper, including Al-Ahram, while news from the provinces has always been confined to a small corner on one of the inside pages.
When, in 1922, the size of Al-Ahramdoubled from four to eight pages it was expected that its coverage of the provinces would expand accordingly. This did not occur. Rather, this column was simply moved from page three to page six if the newspaper featured it at all. Sometimes two or three days would pass without a word on news from the provinces.
It is interesting to compare Al-Ahram's coverage of news from the provinces in the early 1920s to its policy on this question when it first appeared some 50 years earlier in 1876. Initially, Al-Ahramwas a small weekly newspaper. Nevertheless, its founders contracted nine individuals -- Syrian expatriates living in various Egyptian provincial capitals -- to furnish the newspaper with news of the areas in which they resided. These correspondents' reports appeared regularly on the second page under the heading "Domestic News." Moreover, when Al-Ahrambecame a daily on 3 January 1881, this column expanded, sometimes occupying over half the page. Also by this time, not only did the newspaper have correspondents in most provincial and district capitals, but it also allocated considerable space to their commentaries and analyses.
There were some very practical reasons why the newspaper accorded closer attention to news from the provinces during its first quarter of a century of existence than later. Above all, the coverage of political developments in the capital was often too risky. Indeed, it had nearly spelled the death of the newspaper on several occasions. A second reason was that advertising was not yet of the intensity and diversity it would acquire following the turn of the century.
The political and economic developments of the early 20th century brought an increasing dynamism and diversity to Al-Ahram. World War I, of course, naturally focused attention on events abroad. However, the 1919 revolution that riveted attention to the capital and the progress of the nationalist movement also marked a watershed for the press. Not only had Al-Ahramby this time become more audacious in its coverage of national political events, but it also featured such outspoken opinion pundits as Lutfi El-Sayyid, Mansour Fahmi, Tawfiq Diab, Fikri Abaza and Ahmed Zaki. It is difficult to imagine, particularly in view of the nationalist fervour that swept the country at the time, that Al-Ahramreaders then would be inclined to skip these commentators' articles in favour of news from the countryside.
In spite of the relatively small space Al-Ahramallocated to news from the provinces, the column nevertheless provides useful insight into the political and social developments taking place in rural Egypt.
As we glean from "News of the Provinces," it was very much a part of the nationalist movement, as is illustrated by the mass uprising that swept both urban and rural Egypt during the 1919 revolution. In fact, in 1924, at the time British colonial authorities attempted to suppress the movement calling for the unity of the Nile Valley, we find that Al-Ahramsometimes allocated more space to the role of the provinces in this movement than to that of the capital.
For example, in its coverage of "peaceful pro-Sudanese demonstrations in Egypt" on 29 June 1924 only a few lines were devoted to a statement released by the Syndicate of Clerks and Employees of the Public Utilities while devoting three columns to the demonstrations that took place in Gharbiya, Sharqiya, Daqahliya, Beheira, Qalyubiya, Minia and Qena. Evidently the people of Zaqaziq were more ardent supporters of the cause, for the following day's issue featured a column reporting exclusively on "the massive demonstration that swept through the streets of the city, during which protesters cheered for the long life of the King of Egypt and Sudan and the unity of the Nile Valley as students distributed and affixed to the walls fliers calling for a boycott of British products."
"News of the Provinces" also informs us that the nationalist protest movement was not confined to provincial capitals, but also extended to outlying areas: to Desouq and Shabas outside Tanta; Zankaloun, Abu Hammad and Bilbeis in Sharqiya; El-Wasta and Beba in Beni Suef; and even to such small hamlets as Izbat Saft El-Arafa in Minia.
Steadier and more traditional fodder for the News of the Provinces column was news of the "devoted provincial director" and other rural administrative officials. Perhaps the most important aspect of this focus lay in the desire to instil respect for the central authorities throughout the country. The following example from Assiut epitomises this type of reportage: "His Excellency the Deputy Director of Assiut is working assiduously day and night in his pursuit to advance the activities of his extensive directorate. Towards this end he has undertaken a tour of the various district and precinct headquarters in order to consult with the various local officials over ways to bring to fruition many public works, a task to which he brings to bear his considerable expertise and meticulous attention to detail." The Al-Ahramcorrespondent goes on to report that when Abdel-Qader Bek Mukhtar discovered that certain village mayors were obstructing government work, "he struck with an iron fist, dismissing many of them from their positions, decisions that were upheld by the Ministry of Interior. His actions had a profound effect on village mayors who are the key to progress in their areas and one hopes that others elsewhere take heed of these examples."
While the allusion to the sword of power was a frequent theme in these reports, so too were references to the benevolence and munificence of the authorities. From Damietta Al-Ahram's correspondent reports on the "grand public works" undertaken by the governor, Mohamed Dia Bek, whose persistent dedication "will bring great benefit to the city." Among his praiseworthy projects were to rid the area of a large plot of land that had "brought only harm and pestilence" because it had served as a dump for dung and other substances. The governor also initiated a feasibility study for constructing a bridge that would link the coast of Damietta to the Nile.
On 19 August 1924, Al-Ahramadmitted that it aimed to "uphold the prestige of the government in the eyes of the people." It is, therefore, little wonder that it sought to play down such incidents as a quarrel that had occurred at the time between the Suez police inspector and several police officers in that city while playing up the successes of the police forces in the countryside. It was rare for a News from the Provinces column to appear without some mention of the achievements of government security agencies. This, in turn, sheds considerable light on the nature of crime in rural Egypt at the time.
It may come as a surprise to readers today that drug trafficking and drug addiction were quite widespread in early 20th century Egypt. In fact, this phenomenon, exacerbated by the deteriorating economic and social circumstances created by World War I, was so commonplace as to find its way into popular song, as is illustrated by the refrain: "Smoking coke has left me broke."
Al-Ahramreports that a foreigner was able to trade in hashish and cocaine with impunity because, even though he was under constant police surveillance, the premises where he was dealing came under the protection of his foreign consul in accordance with the capitulations system that granted certain immunities to expatriates. This meant that the consul would have to be invited to accompany the police in any raid, which, in turn, raised the risk that the drug dealer would be tipped off beforehand. The police were thus forced to set up a trap to catch him red-handed while outside his premises, a task they pulled off successfully, seizing on his person "a package filled with hashish and 400 grams of cocaine." The correspondent adds, "The action of the police was greeted with great praise by the people."
In Tanta, police raided three coffeehouses in which they found considerable quantities of heroin, hashish and cocaine. The arrests they made in the course of this operation enabled them to apprehend a drug dealer on his way to Tanta from Mahallet Ruh, carrying half a kilogram of hashish.
Drug consumption in Damietta took a new and innovative form. The police suspected that a certain confectionery was encasing narcotic substances in a particular type of sweet for which the city was famous. The precinct chief had some of the sweets analysed by a chemist, who corroborated his suspicions, causing the Al-Ahramcorrespondent in the famous port city to express his shock at the discovery because the people of Damietta were reputed above all to be so peaceful and law-abiding.
Kinship and regionally based vendettas accounted for a prevalent form of violence in rural Egypt at the time, and it also extended into the cities. It is thus not surprising that incidents of this nature made frequent appearances in the News from the Provinces column.
From Birkat El-Saba' Al-Ahramreports that "a huge brawl broke out between inhabitants of Abu Hassan and El-Manshi because of the long-held grudges between the two villages. The fighting resulted in the death of one man. In addition, two men suffered severe injuries and 10 others were wounded."
A similar altercation erupted in Shebin Al-Kom, where "villagers from Umm Saleh attacked villagers from Shantana Al-Hagar with heavy sticks, and it is also reported that there was an exchange of gunfire. Four men from Shantana Al-Hagar were severely injured." Evidently, it required the intervention of the local police to end the fighting.
It is interesting to note that the 1923 parliamentary elections occasioned family-based feuds. In Fayoum, the newspaper reports, a violent quarrel erupted between the family of the mayor of Kerdasa and another family over the two electoral delegates who were to cast that village's votes in the elections held in September that year. The fighting led to "the death of the chief sentinel who belonged to the mayor's party, the death of a partisan of the opposing party and to numerous injured and wounded."
Less violent, but equally prevalent were crimes of theft and arson. The News from the Provinces columns make frequent reference to the theft of livestock and the deliberate incineration of fields. In addition, because of the rudimentary construction of many rural homes it was not difficult for thieves to bore holes into the mud brick walls and help themselves to the entire contents of a family's home.
Anti-British demonstrators at Kafr El-Zayat in the Nile Delta cheer the wafd which led the 1919 Revolution
Fires, whether caused deliberately or through negligence, were frequent and, of course, catastrophic in terms of loss of life and property. Al-Ahram's edition of 9 May 1924, alone, reports on several incidents of "fire in the provinces." In Darin in Daqhaliya a fire raged for several hours "killing five and wounding 15 and destroying approximately 800 homes." Another fire that broke out in an alleyway in Tala in Gharbiya, "raged for four hours before it was extinguished and only after it destroyed 40 homes." Finally, in Toukh, a fire erupted due to negligence and "consumed a woman called Bakhita Abdel-Gawad and destroyed 24 homes."
Bungling in fire-fighting occurred then as it does today. Al-Ahram's correspondent in Qena filed a scathing report on one such incident: "A huge blaze broke out in a residential area causing great alarm and panic. The fire hydrant arrived only after a considerable time had lapsed and then without the soldiers charged with operating it, as a result of which the blaze only subsided after destroying many homes. It was reported that the people of the neighborhood had spotted a senior local official in the vicinity of the fire, but he refused to respond to their appeals for help. This official was in a position to bring in a large enough force to put out the fire and to prevent it from spreading to neighbouring houses. However, he failed to do so."
The stories of these catastrophes were not devoid of poignant human drama. Another appalling incident occurred in Sherbin, where a young maid who worked in the home of a local government employee caught fire while working in the kitchen. Al-Ahramrecounts, "She ran out of the kitchen, crying out for help to the mistress of the home. However, for fear that she, too, would catch fire the woman ran into another room and locked the door behind her, even as the house filled with the screams of the young girl as she was being consumed by fire. Eventually the neighbours burst into the home to try to save her but to no avail."
In the early days of automobiles in Egypt, automobile accidents were major news events. Beni Suef saw two horrendous accidents that year, one involving a collision between two taxis on the road between Boush and Beni Suef causing one of the taxis, with its passengers, to plunge into the Ibrahimiya Canal, and the second involving a collision between a taxi and a privately owned vehicle, leading to the death of one passenger and severe injuries to the others. Al-Ahramcommented, "We have frequently exhorted officials to take some action with regard to reckless driving, but our appeals have fallen on deaf ears."
The News from the Provinces column made considerable room for many other concerns of rural Egypt. The advancement of education was, perhaps, the foremost of such concerns and Al-Ahramcorrespondents in the countryside assiduously followed developments in this domain, particularly as regards the independent efforts to offset the consequences of the occupation authorities' educational policies. One of the most common manifestations of these efforts were the initiatives undertaken by private individuals to build schools, a movement that under the newly installed populist Wafd government created an unprecedented level of cooperation between citizens and the government.
A number of news items illustrate this phenomenon. From Kafr Saqr, Al-Ahram's correspondent reports that negotiations were under way between the district commissioner and local mayors, notables and merchants to construct a primary school in that village in Sharqiya. In another item, the News from the Provinces column praises the head of the Qena Directorate for his efforts in founding "many educational institutions in this directorate, including several primary schools for boys and girls and many modern workshops in occupational training schools, all of which have brought great benefit to the inhabitants of this region." A third report announces that the Ministry of Education established a primary school for boys in Damietta and a fourth that the Ministry of Education had instructed the municipalities in Fayoum to institute night courses in commerce for the local inhabitants.
Such was the importance Al-Ahramattached to provincial education that it was unstinting in its praise of all efforts to promote it. Thus, on 9 July 1924 it commended the municipality of Damanhur for its plans to save the School of Agriculture by housing it in rented premises so as to use the former premises for a secondary school being funded through LE30,000 raised from private donations.
Associated with the spread of education in that period was the emergence of a number of provincial newspapers founded by young intellectuals, a development that indicated the growing level of literacy as well as an increasing interest in local events that would not be covered by the major newspapers published in Cairo and Alexandria. The News from the Provinces made frequent references to these new newspapers, one example of which comes from Assiut:
"Two of our younger colleagues have founded two weekly newspapers in this city. The first is Al-Minbar owned and operated by Nashed Effendi Mina El-Masri, and the second is Al-Muntazir, owned and operated by Mohamed Effendi Fahmi Hassouna. The first editions of these newspapers have appeared and declare their editorial policies. We convey to them our best wishes for continued success."
Health concerns also featured prominently in the News from the Provinces column, whose correspondents frequently relayed the complaints of the people. A typical example of such complaints came from Kafr Saqr in Sharqiya where a citizen complained of "the refuse and waste that is thrown into the Sangaha Canal, which passes through this village and supplies it with water. This pernicious practice is detrimental to the general welfare and merits the attention of the Department of Health."
As some of Al-Ahram's rural correspondents were natives of the provinces they covered, it was not unusual to detect a certain regional chauvinism. In fact the correspondent from Damietta exhibited this trait quite blatantly in his attempts avail himself of the News from the Provinces column to promote summer tourism in what was then Egypt's most elegant resort town on the Mediterranean. On 20 August 1934, for example, he wrote, "However one might strive to describe Ras El-Barr in a manner that will do its beauty justice words will fail him. Suffice it to say that all are unanimous in the opinion that this unique Egyptian resort merits the highest praise."
But some 50 years later holiday-makers were drawn away from Ras El-Barr to the coast west of Alexandria, not to mention the shores of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.