Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
Issue No.539
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (395)

Egypt's almanac

Need to know something about the Egyptian king's daily routine in the 1920's? Interested in seeing Arabic become the official government language? Checking out which Cairo streets were to be paved, an increase in flat rents, traffic or up-to-date weather reports? More than likely, a quick read of Al-Ahram's "News and Events" page of that era could provide the answers. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* turns to page four of the paper for a record of the most important daily occurrences in Egypt
The roznamga, a Persian word signifying a register of daily events, was a bureaucratic device in use in Egypt throughout the period of Ottoman rule (1517-1798). (In English the term is generally translated as "almanac" -- a word of Arabic origin indicating a chronicle of the movement of heavenly bodies). It seems the perfect designation for the fourth page of Al- Ahram in the 1920s. The "News and Events" page, as Al- Ahram's managing editors called it, was indeed a record of the most important daily occurrences in Egypt. Though the items that appeared on the page might have lacked cohesion they, nevertheless, shared the qualities of being fresh, up-to- date and of immediate concern to the newspaper's readership of the time.

At first glance, historians would find it difficult to delve into a page whose contents were so diverse and, generally, of only passing interest to its contemporary readers. At closer inspection, however, it held some attractive prospects for research. Above all, the "News and Events" page offered a comprehensive panorama of life in Egypt, casting into relief everything one imagines might have affected the Egyptian people of those days. A historian would also find it highly enlightening to make an in-depth study of Al-Ahram's roznamga within a specific time frame, from which he would sift and classify its contents to emerge with those concerns that were of the greatest relevance to the average Egyptian, concerns that were frequently overshadowed by the major political, social and intellectual issues that dominated the newspaper's other pages. In such a study, the statistical work in which researchers must engage to uncover those areas that drew the attention of contemporary readers needs to be complemented by a thorough knowledge of the period. Thus armed, they will be able to sort out the chaff from the wheat.

Taking a quick leap from the second quarter of the 20th century to the last, we note that the "News and Events" page is the same "Domestic News" page of the latter period -- a different name perhaps, but one in which "news of the state" predominates. In the roznamga of the 1920s, the pages generally began with a bulletin about royal receptions and visits issued by the Bureau of the Chief Master of Ceremonies. It covered the king's meetings with everyone from homage-paying government officials to cabinet ministers and foreign dignitaries, as well as the calls of royal delegates to inquire after the health of prominent citizens or to pay condolences after their passing. Not infrequently these bulletins would appear in the form of communiqués intended to impart instructions on matters of protocol in royal receptions. In today's more informal age such matters tend to evoke a smile. But then, they were scrutinised closely by anyone working their way up the ladder of officialdom. A prime example of such instructions comes from the News and Events page of Al-Ahram's 19 June 1925 edition. Under the headline, "Suit Buttons for Government Officials for Formal Evening Wear" we read that these buttons were to be "manufactured of metal, plated in gold, constructed all in the same shape which is round and concave and of two different sizes, 21.5 and 16.5 millimetres in diametre." In addition, "every button must be embossed with the name of His Majesty King Fouad I, set in relief in Al-Rihani calligraphy style beneath the royal crown."

Royal awards also had a place on this page. On 24 November 1925, for example, readers learned that "the king has bestowed the highest order of the medal of the Khedive Ismail upon Ahmed Zulfiqar Pasha, minister of justice, and the second order of this medal upon Allam Mohamed Bek, secretary- general of the Council of Ministers. In addition, the king has bestowed the second order of the Nile Medal on Sheikh Mohamed Mustafa El-Maraghi, chief magistrate of the Supreme Religious Court."

On the "News and Events" page we also unearth information on certain controversial issues that rarely made their way to the front page. Perhaps the most important of these was the battle that took place in 1924 over instituting Arabic as the official language of government correspondence. With the exception of the religious courts, Turkish was the language of government administration throughout the Ottoman period. With the emergence of the modern state in the first half of the 19th century, the lingua franca of government was not about to change overnight. Apart from the fact that such transformations are a matter of time and expense, most senior officials of the government were still Turks, even if Arabic began to infiltrate into some government administrations, as did French to a considerable extent, particularly in the ministries of foreign affairs and justice. Following the British occupation in 1882, English began to be used extensively within those administrations headed by British officials, notably the ministries of war and interior, and the Railway Authority. To make matters worse, British occupation authorities made English the primary language of education, a policy that eventually compelled Saad Zaghlul, when he served as minister of education from 1906-1908, to lock horns with Douglas Dunlop, the British adviser to the ministry, in order to Arabicise the language of instruction. Zaghlul scored a number of major victories in the initial rounds of this battle. But the growing tide of the Egyptian nationalist movement would make even greater inroads, particularly in the wake of the 1919 Revolution, which led to the Declaration of 28 February 1922 recognising Egyptian independence, and to the election of the "People's Government" in 1924. Headed by none other than Zaghlul himself, this government resumed the fight to reinstitute Arabic, this time as the language of government administration. Thus, in 1924 Al-Ahram readers opened the "News and Events" page to read a terse communiqué from the minister of finance stating, "We have observed that many reports and communiqués issued by the government have not been published in Arabic. Now that circumstances have changed, it is our belief that it is in the greater common good that the people of the nation and their representatives shall be apprised of the course of affairs through the publication in Arabic (in addition to a foreign language if necessary) of all reports, periodic statements and all other publications of an administrative nature."

The following commentary by the editor of the "News and Events" page illustrates the importance the question of promoting Arabic as the language of government had acquired at the time. Some of the offices of the Telegraph Authority were snubbing the country's official language in inter-office correspondence, the page editor charged. "It is as though the Arabic language has been sentenced to exile in one of our government's agencies in this age of freedom." He was also angered by the fact that this failure appeared to infect the Railway Authority, citing as evidence a letter from a reader who complained that he had received from that agency a bank draft and an accompanying letter both of which were written in a foreign language. The page editor went on to charge, "Arabic is not only ignored within that agency, but beyond that, in the agency's dealings with the public!"

In view of the fact that Al-Ahram's roznamga relayed the news of government administrations, especially those that directly affected day-to-day life, it comes as no surprise that it followed every development, large or small, regarding public utilities. Naturally, as is the case today, the capital received the lion's share of attention. Indeed, to read the news of the maintenance of streets and traffic in Cairo, today's readers might imagine that Egypt's history of urban development came to a halt at this city's boundaries. Among the many items that give this impression was the story that appeared under the headline, "Streets widened around Abdin Palace." "After the Roadworks Authority completed the new street from Bab Al-Khalq to the National Library at the intersection of Mohamed Ali Street, it decided to widen Al-Sanafiri Street behind Al-Tawfiqi barracks and to seek an ordinance stipulating that the street located behind Abdin Palace in front of Al-Fath Mosque and the Paris Gate be 37 metres wide. In this way, all the streets surrounding Abdin Palace will be widened and transformed into squares that will allow the splendour of the palace to stand out." The story brings to mind that popular saying: "Living next to a lucky man brings luck."

King Fouad Saad Zaghlul Munira Thabet Moustafa El-Maraghy

Contemporary readers of the "News and Events" page could not help but observe that this saying applied to other plans the Roadworks Authority had for the central area of the capital. These included paving a number of streets "using modern methods."

Another news item, appearing in Al-Ahram of 24 June 1926, gives us an idea of how much these beautification projects cost at the time. The "News and Events" page published a statement issued by the Ministries of Finance and Public Works saying, "We have earmarked slightly over LE130,000 this year for the implementation of roadworks in Cairo and its suburbs." The amount included "LE9,000 to pave the streets of popular neighbourhoods; LE880 to expand small green areas; LE500 to purchase and plant trees; LE10,000 for the expropriation of a portion of Emadeddin Street, LE5,500 for the purchase of gravel-breaking machines, LE1,250 for a battery-operated vehicle, LE4,000 for a concrete mixer and LE1,100 for a steamroller." With all these outlays on modern machinery, what became of the Roadworks Authority's more traditional equipment? The "News and Events" page provides the answer. The authority, it announced, would use "mechanised vehicles and machinery" for the maintenance of the modern European quarters of the capital and suburbs while its "water tank carts and mules will be reassigned to work exclusively in the popular quarters where they will undertake all the necessary operations of street sweeping and spraying."

In view of the public's interest in such matters, the government's attention to urban upkeep was one of the few topics not only to merit considerable space on the "News and Events" page, but editorial comment as well. One edition featured a lengthy account of the history of street cleaning and spraying in Cairo. It opened with the claim that the authority in charge of this task was "the most incompetent government service" and that "those in charge of it are the most indifferent government functionaries to the well-being of the public and the cleanliness of their city." It continues, "Pedestrians in the capital are grievously pained by the contempt street cleaners have for them and rush to their homes for refuge from the clouds of dust raised by the sweepers or the showers emitted by the spraying vehicles." Nevertheless, the writer went on to praise the Zaghlul government which had put the service under the administration of the Roadworks Authority, headed at the time by Ali Ahmed Omar Bek, well-known for his dedication. "Within days people noticed a considerable difference, for the Authority increased the amount of water used for spraying the streets and alleys of the capital by 10,000 cubic metres." If the residents of Cairo were somewhat placated by this improvement, they still complained of the insufficient number of mules and water tank carts needed to clean the streets in a city as big as Cairo. However, Omar Bek was quick to act on this as well, submitting a request for "new street-cleaning vehicles of the latest models from France, Britain and the US." "These vehicles are due to arrive soon and will be put into operation in the main streets of the capital, while the old vehicles will be reassigned to the narrow roads and alleyways that have, until now, not been tended by the Authority," Omar Bek said.

"News and Events" commended Omar Bek for yet another success. "Until recently, street cleaners had given only asphalted streets a very light, cursory spray. Now, Omar Bek arranged with the Fire Department and the Water Company to permit water tank operators to fill their vehicles directly from fire hydrants instead of ordinary taps as had been the case which, needless to say, will spare considerable time and effort."

Whereas the 1890s for Cairo was the age of the spread of tramway lines, the first quarter of the 20th century brought motor vehicles. As access to the new mode of transport extended beyond the limited scope of the opulent few, denizens of Cairo suddenly found themselves faced with a new and unanticipated problem: traffic. Not surprisingly, this bane of urban existence increasingly became the focus of the roznamga. "Transport between the Railway Station and Shobra" read the headline of an early "News and Events" story on this subject. Appearing in November 1925, the article commended the efforts being devoted by the Ministry of Public Works towards improving the efficiency and safety of transportation links between the crowded neighbourhood and the rest of the capital. Of particular concern to the ministry was that the old bridge over the Cairo-Upper Egypt railroad was no longer capable of coping with the steadily growing traffic in spite of periodic attempts to increase its size. The solution being considered by the ministry was an underground passageway. The "News and Events" article describes the project, which would later become known as the Shobra Tunnel. A committee of engineers and specialists in tunnel construction has been formed to draw up plans for the project. Evidently, the committee was given a very flexible deadline for the Shobra Tunnel, opened some 20 years later, in the mid-1940s.

Another item discusses the new road ordinance issued at the time to regulate parking. In spite of the relative novelty of this ordinance, the Roadworks Authority was already dismayed by numerous violations and notified the Cairo police commissioner that "merchants and store owners are leaving cars, crates and many other things standing in the streets and alleys in front of their stores, thereby obstructing traffic." But parking was not the only problem; car owners also encountered the problem of taxes. In Mallawi, lorry owners went on strike because the municipal council of that southern Egypt town had imposed a tax of LE10 on owners of large vehicles as opposed to LE6 for small vehicles. The article appealed for a reduction in this tax "out of mercy for this section of the populace and the people of that district whose businesses are being harmed."

What would local news be without a weather report? In Al- Ahram's almanac the weather bulletin appeared very erratically and, when it did, would vary considerably in length. On 19 November 1925, for example, it took up an entire column. The reason: the previous day what had begun as a mild drizzle turned into a downpour, causing "a torrential flood to gush from Al-Gabal Al-Ahmar in Abassiyya and to continue its surge until it overflowed the pavements of Abassiyya Street and those adjacent to it." The report added that day's inundation was not restricted to the capital. In the Red Sea port of Safaga, we read, flash floods swept away houses and livestock; in Benha the heavy rains destroyed many homes and flooded all the streets; and in Damietta, dark clouds gathered "until, at 10.00am, a horrifying clap of thunder and lightning flashed as though light switches had been snapped on in the heart of the heavens."

"News and Events" also revealed many other concerns that rarely found their way to the newspaper's front pages. Among these was the war-time housing law that fixed rents on residential and commercial premises. In June 1925, the Ziwar government rescinded the law, triggering an outcry among tenants whose greedy landlords suddenly demanded enormous increases in rent against the threat of eviction. "This is especially onerous in certain cases, such as medical clinics, warehouses and workshops, the tenants of which had been using these premises for years and would find it extremely difficult to relocate."

With regard to women's issues, in the "News and Events" page we learn for the first time that an association called Mothers of the Future had been formed in Alexandria. On 25 March 1924, the association submitted a petition to the Chamber of Deputies and Senate demanding "a place for Egyptian women in parliament to permit them to hear the speeches and deliberations in these houses that are of crucial importance to the future of the nation and its full independence." In addition, the page editor focused on the famous author Munira Thabet whose name was already familiar to Al-Ahram readers from her passionate campaign, on the pages of the newspaper, on behalf of women's right to run for parliament. On this occasion, however, "News and Events" heralded the recent appearance of the first edition of Thabet's Garidat Al-Amal, which it described as a newspaper "dedicated to social and political reform." The article continues, "It is prefaced by a splendid editorial by Thabet, its owner, entitled 'My Hope in Life,' followed by a plan of action and two stimulating articles by Makram Ebeid and Abdel-Qader Hamza, as well as articles about articles Prime Minister Ziwar Pasha and Helmi Eissa Pasha. In addition to its many political and social pages, it carries a short story entitled 'The Awakening Women.'" The writer urges readers to rush out and buy the new newspaper "in which they will find an exciting literary showcase which we welcome."

Munira Thabet's newspaper continued to receive free advertisement on the pages of "News and Events" with every new edition.

In the roznamga we discover a little-known aspect of Egypt's early relations with the US. On 13 May 1925, it published a statement issued by the American commercial attaché in Egypt to the effect that Egypt's exports to the US were nine to 10 times greater than US exports to Egypt. "The reason for this is the increase in the demand for high-quality Egyptian cotton," the newspaper explains.

On the other side of the coin, "News and Events" also apprises us of some distressing manifestations of destitution. Among these was the growing phenomenon of squatting in Cairo's "cities of the dead," a phenomenon which forced the governor of Cairo to issue a decree in the summer of 1926 stating, "It is absolutely prohibited to remain in the cemeteries beyond sunset, whether inside the enclosures or next to individual graves, except for the special guards whose authority to do so is recognised by the police."

There remain those items in the almanac that today we would classify under the sobriquet "environmental protection." It was on the "News and Events" page, for example, that the battle over the white egret, famed from Pharaonic wall reliefs, took place. The Ministry of Agriculture had issued orders to hunt down these birds because of the damage they caused to the trees and shrubs in the ministry's gardens and the vegetation planted by the Roadworks Authority and the zoo. The measure produced an outcry among conservationists and farmers, forcing the authorities to rescind their orders and put in place other measures, such as preventing the birds from building their nests in government-owned trees, pruning trees to render them unsuitable for nesting and using water hoses to force the egrets to fly away. The new steps had the result of allowing the birds, dubbed "the farmers' friends," to continue to thrive.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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