6 - 12 June 2002
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (445)
Moral cleansingThe late 1920s saw a marked decline in Egyptian moral standings. A weak economy had resulted in soaring unemployment which, in turn, bred confidence tricksters and coffeehouse habitués. Gambling casinos had spread beyond Cairo and Alexandria while press campaigns targeted drugs, alcohol and begging. From the pages of Al-Ahram, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* suggests that these social ills could not be treated by anything less than a grand process of purification from within
Many Al-Ahram readers in 1929 shared the concern for what some of their contemporaries termed the moral decline which had befallen Egyptian society. This ill, it was thought, could only be cured through a process of "moral purification".
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Before proceeding to the complaints concerning moral degeneracy, it is important to consider that they were aired against the backdrop of global economic crisis. In Egypt, as elsewhere, unemployment soared, many privately-owned firms were forced into bankruptcy and, in the public sector, one of the nation's largest employers, employees and civil servants faced sizeable salary cuts. It is virtually a cardinal rule that in times of economic straits social ills surface.
Abdallah Hussein, a regular contributor to Al-Ahram, offered what was perhaps the most succinct depiction of this relationship between economic and moral decline. Under the front-page headline, "In the capital's train station," he writes that in the course of seeing a friend off one day, "a tall, handsome, well-dressed young man smiled and greeted me. I looked at him blankly. I could not recall having met him or having known him on a casual basis. But I thought that perhaps I had met him and that it had slipped my mind, or perhaps his memory was better than mine, or perhaps someone I did know sent him to convey a message. So I asked, 'What can I do for you?'
"He said, 'Could I please speak to you in private for a moment?'
"I must admit I was curious. I thought he must have some horrible news to convey, for these days we have grown accustomed to hearing distressing reports about friends or circumstances in general. At any rate, I was keen to hear what he had to say.
"The young man proceeded to tell me a story, which I shall sum up. A person of considerable importance had advised him to seek this 'good sir' out, in view of my solid reputation, lofty position, wisdom and strong influence. As for him, he had just arrived from Alexandria in order to apply for a job with the Ministry of Justice. However, he said, the application alone would not suffice; he needed someone to put a good word in for him, which is why an individual of great stature had recommended me.
'But do you know me, sir?' I asked.
'How could I not know you?'
'Then what is my name?'
'Sir, your fame precedes you wherever you go.'
'What is my name?'
'Who could possibly not know your name? It would be unforgivable were I not to know your name. Of course I know your name.'
'Alright then, what can I do for you?'
"He said, 'At present I would like to return to Alexandria. I must confide in you that I have been without food or drink for the entire day. But most importantly, I must get back to Alexandria. Could you, good sir, possibly find it in yourself to advance me the fare to Alexandria in the manner of a loan, in exchange for which I will present you a written pledge to pay you back the said amount. If you have any doubt about my word, here is my watch as collateral.'"
The implications of the confidence game to which Hussein was victim would not have been lost on his contemporary readers. And if the elegant artfulness of the trickster's ruse brings a smile on our face today it, nevertheless, supports the belief that fraud and deceit increase in times of economic hardship.
A second phenomenon that some of Hussein's contemporaries took to be a sign of moral decline was the rise in the frequency of visits to coffeehouses. Concern for this phenomenon was such that it merited a lecture at the Civil Servants Syndicate in which the speaker condemned "this astounding novelty" that had many civil servants spending "their entire day and the better part of the night" as coffeehouse habitués. Indeed, so widespread had this phenomenon become, in the lecturer's opinion, that Egypt now "surpasses all other nations in the number of coffeehouses". He went on to reproach coffeehouse patrons for their wasteful extravagance for the sake of "shallow appearances and trifling vanities". On the other hand, perhaps the lecturer's condemnation was excessive, having failed to consider that as a major centre for meeting people and exchanging news and information, many felt that the time and money spent there was well invested in the prospects for employment or better financial solvency.
Along with confidence tricksters and coffeehouse habitués Al- Ahram added another category of individuals whom it considered to manifest the prevalent moral decay: "charlatans". In this regard, the newspaper published the story of a self-professed conjurer who duped a woman into believing in his extraordinary powers. Aggrieved at the estrangement that had afflicted her marital relations, the woman engaged the conjurer to work a charm that would restore marital harmony. The man told her that in order to succeed in his task he needed an article of gold jewellery over which to cast the spell, pointing to the diamond ring the woman was wearing. The woman gave the conjurer her ring and he began to chant mysterious mutterings over it, after which he placed the ring in a copper dish and continued to mouth further incantations. Then he handed the woman a folded kerchief, telling her that the ring was inside it, that she should not open it for a week and that she should place it under her pillow. When the week was up, he continued, she should open the parcel, place the ring back on her finger and rejoice at her heart's expectation of marital bliss. Naturally, a week later, when the woman opened the kerchief she discovered that it only contained a spoonful of salt. The members of her family searched for the conjurer, but in vain. The charlatan had vanished as effectively as a pinch of salt in water.
The story of the charlatan was not unique. In a letter to the editor, a "teacher at the Al-Azhar Academy in Zaqaziq", as the writer signed himself, maintained that hundreds of similar incidents occurred every day. Moreover, they would continue to occur so long as there existed credulous minds that surrendered themselves to superstition and fantasy and were easy prey to deception and fancy words. He took the occasion to remind readers of the prophetic admonitions against believing in diviners and fortunetellers and concluded with an appeal to "all concerned for the good name of our nation" to "expose such charlatans wherever they are to be found and to assist the government in bringing to them their rightful punishment".
Evidently, Al-Ahram took up the appeal. On 10 July 1929 it asks, "Has the time not come to rescue the victims of usurers and swindlers?" Under this headline, George Tannous maintains that the majority of farmers were at the mercy of usurers and that to spare them from this inequity the government should create bodies that would lend farmers money at a fair interest that would not deprive them of the proceeds from their crops. Tannous further urged the government to take harsh measures against the "swindlers" farmers encountered when coming to the cities.
It was the general consensus that the "movement for moral purification" targeted another widespread pernicious custom, one that was largely operated by foreigners. By the late 1920s gambling casinos had spread beyond Cairo and Alexandria to infest many of the major cities of the Delta. From Tanta, for example, the Al- Ahram representative observed that three-quarters of such establishments were foreign-owned, which meant that the government could not close them down without a ruling from the Mixed Courts and that even if such rulings were passed the casino owners would simply move their equipment to another location and reopen under a different name.
The writer suggested that one measure to halt this "moral blight" was for the Public Security Authority to require casino operators to obtain a licence for their establishments from the Ministry of Interior. Procedures for obtaining such a licence would entail "an inspection of the premises and official inquiries into the character of the casino owners, management and members". In addition, the continued validity of the licence would be contingent upon "observing the directives and regulations set by the local authorities".
In the opinion of the Al-Ahram representative in Tanta, casino owners had been accustomed to more than the privileges accorded to them under the capitulations system. He, therefore, called attention to the fact that there was nothing in the existing regulations to prevent authorities from entering such establishments in order to ensure the "preservation of public order." That the Ministry of Interior, and particularly the European department of that ministry, should bring casinos under closer scrutiny was due to the fact that many of their owners took advantage of their privileges to engage in illicit activities, notably black-marketeering in alcohol and the white slave trade. He suggested that the authorities should station police outside these establishments in order to prevent native Egyptians from entering them. "With such stricter government control, the owners will be forced to close down on their own accord because they will no longer be able to afford the rent and other expenses."
One of Al-Ahram's contributions to the campaign against gambling was to publish a letter from a gambler. Whether the writer was fictional or not, the letter was worded in such a way as to have maximum impact on its readers. The letter, appearing under the heading, "A gambler describes his torment and seeks delivery from his ailment", opens: "I lost the bloom of my youth in the pursuit of pleasure, as a result that in the course of my more than 40 years I saved nothing, neither money nor my health. Moreover, I gave no thought to my children, of which I have four, a daughter and three sons in elementary school who now obtain what they need only with difficulty. I ask what would be their fate were I to be fired from my job or die tomorrow?"
With great remorse, the writer observes that had he saved just half of what he squandered in gambling -- "that mirage of gold which is in fact ultimate self-destruction and wretched poverty" -- he could have "filled my home with blessings and good fortune, ensured the prospect of an excellent life for my wife and children and instilled in them the confidence that they were the children of a capable and caring father".
The temperance campaign also focused on drug addicts, or people termed "victims of white toxins". The substances in question were cocaine, which Egyptians were familiar with, and heroin, which became known in the late 1920s. Addiction to the latter was already recognised as particularly pernicious because, as Al- Ahram observed, "it dissolves into the blood of the addict, rendering it virtually impossible for the addict to rid himself of the addiction". The newspaper had issued an appeal to experts in this field to explore possible remedies for this form of addiction. One to respond was Dr Iskander Salem from Mansoura who, in a letter to the newspaper, announced that he and a colleague had succeeded in formulating a remedy to heroin addiction. The cure, he maintained, took only five days, during which the patient felt absolutely no ill-effects and after which he would be able to resume an ordinary life entirely free of the desire to take drugs again. In a follow-up commentary, Al-Ahram lauded the efforts of the "eminent and dedicated" scientist and urged him to submit his findings, to the Ministry of Health for testing. After all, that was the authority responsible for public health and "if it corroborates your findings it will issue the necessary instructions to have your remedy put to use".
Simultaneously, the newspaper welcomed the news of a new law prohibiting the traffic in illicit drugs. Appearing in a bold font in Al-Ahram of 28 January 1929, the law consisted of four articles. The first listed the prohibited substances as cocaine, novocaine, opium, morphine, heroin, coca and hashish. Its second article stated, "No one may import, export, sell, deliver or render into other hands any prohibited substance or mediate in the sale of such substances." Thirdly, it provided that "farmers who still possess opium as the result of cultivating cotton must notify the Department of Health within 30 days after this law goes into effect of the quantity in their possession. They are prohibited from transporting this substance by any means other than rail or post and only after having obtained a permit for that purpose from the Department of Health." Finally, those convicted of possession of prohibited substances would be sentenced to one to five years of hard labour and fined from LE200 to LE1,000. Not only were the penalties stiff, the law also provided that the sentences would be executed immediately and remain in effect even if the court granted permission for appeal.
The law did not have to combat moral degeneracy in the form of various types of addiction single-handedly. In addition to the efforts of individuals such as the aforementioned physician from Mansoura, associations were also formed to spearhead the campaign. One such association was the Society for the Prevention of Intoxicants. Founded by Ahmed Ghaloush, this society participated in the ninth international prohibitionist conference which was addressed by Prince Omar Tousoun who spoke of the promulgation of an ordinance governing public establishments that sell alcohol, an ordinance that "lessens the detriments of intoxicants in this country by setting fixed opening and closing hours for these establishments".
The national press, too, contributed in many ways to the moral purification movement. For its part, Al-Ahram featured such editorials as that of 2 July 1929, calling for a "beggars colony" to "relieve society" and to "take advantage of otherwise harmful hands".
In the newspaper's opinion there were two categories of beggars. The first, the physically sturdy, constituted "wasted capital because they could work and generate earnings, but instead, their sloth and indolence have led them to profess beggary and to become a burden on humanity". The second category consisted of the infirm, who were incapable of productive work and whom society therefore should "seek to cure them of their ills and ailments and prevent the communication of their diseases".
Advanced nations, the newspaper continues, have created colonies for lepers, consumptives and others ailing from incurable diseases. The inhabitants of these colonies do what work they can while they are administered whatever treatment is possible. As a result, "their lives are no longer a burden to themselves or upon society". What has prevented Egypt from founding similar colonies, the writer asked. He then argues: "Writers have often discussed the need to remedy the problem of mendicancy and they have described the many ways in which the inhabitants of our major cities are assailed by these armies from all directions. For many years, people have sought a remedy for this plague, which is no less pernicious than cholera and other diseases. Indeed, it surpasses them, in that those blights come and go, whereas mendicancy appears immortal."
Unfortunately, the writer continues, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between those who require charity and those who do not, especially in light of reports that many people whom one would think are indigent in fact own property and considerable wealth. The solution to this dilemma is to promulgate a law banning begging. He proposed a curious penalty for violators: those who were capable of work would be assigned an agricultural or industrial district where they would be given jobs commensurate with their abilities. Those incapable of work would be placed in asylums for the indigent.
The writer goes on to point out that several countries, such as the Philippines, had engaged in such experiments with excellent results. In those countries, police would round up beggars and bring them before a medical committee. Those that were found in good physical condition were sent to a government plantation or were placed in a school in which they were taught a useful craft such as hat or basket weaving. The inmates remained in those workplaces until the relevant authorities determined that there was no risk of them returning to mendicancy upon their release. The article concluded on a sarcastic note: "No one will regret the disappearance of beggars from Egyptian streets except perhaps American tourists who will miss hearing the cries for bakshish from those hordes of filthy beggars who trail behind them wherever they go."
At the other end of the penal system, Al-Ahram voiced its support for a law providing for the restitution of full rights to rehabilitated convicts. It pointed out that certain criminal convictions had the effect of permanently depriving individuals of human dignity and political rights, barring them, even after release, from appointment to government jobs or from the opportunity to obtain a rank or medal of distinction. "As the purpose of the penal system is to reform, not to torment, when a convict demonstrates through his continued good conduct that he has reformed, it is our duty to remove the taint of his past and re- assimilate him into the social body." Egyptian law was not commensurate with this principle. It failed to eliminate the stigma of a criminal sentence, unless that sentence provided for a stay of execution after five years of good conduct. The writer could not understand the distinction the law drew between those who could be deemed reformed after a stipulated stay of execution and those who reformed after serving their sentence in full. "Is not the purpose to reform the convict and is this purpose not fulfilled in equal measure in both cases? Why then the distinction?" he asked.
The article went on to suggest that Egyptian law should emulate French penal code in this regard. Under French law, convicts could be fully rehabilitated after having served three to five years of a sentence on a criminal or felonious offence. The decision, however, rested with the court of appeals, "for rehabilitation is not a right automatically acquired after serving sentence, but rather contingent upon the demonstration of good behaviour".
The fight against moral degeneracy naturally attracted the input of prominent intellectuals. Perhaps the most illustrious was the social commentator and poet Mae Ziyada whose contribution -- "On the moral purification movement: ethics from the sociological and technical perspective" -- appeared in Al-Ahram on 26 January 1929. The noted intellectual took exception to the prevalent view that moral degeneracy was a random manifestation of individual hypocrisy or malevolence, which she suggested focused on the symptoms rather than the causes. Ethics, she pointed out, was derived from the Greek, meaning custom, which implied inculcating habits in a manner that rendered them ingrained or instinctive. Thus, "the secret of education or the secret of ethics resides in the customs that are instilled in an individual in the family and in school and that individuals continue to exercise in society in adulthood."
Ziyada goes on to assert that societies cannot exist without rules and regulations. "Just as schools have been created to combat illiteracy, as criminals are pursued in the interest of preserving public safety, hospitals have been founded to treat the ill and restrict the scope of contagion. Municipalities came into being to maintain order and hygiene in our cities. In like manner we must combat the ethical infection or depravity spread by individuals of corrupt morals."
Ziyada's advice concerning the measures to be taken to this end suggest that the campaign for moral purification enjoyed full government support. The official agencies taking part in this campaign, she urged, should take definitive action towards "tightening censorship on theatrical productions, films and records". In this regard, she praised the Cairo police commissioner who had recently confiscated "the inappropriate pictures and placards that had been displayed in windows of some shops and establishments". She adds, "Nothing is more guaranteed to corrupt public taste than the crass images to which our young are exposed as they grow to adulthood." One imagines that Ziyada's more comprehensive approach was well-received by the more ardent proponents of the campaign for moral cleansing.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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