Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (487)
In the land of the Greeks
A detailed description of Greece was published in several instalments in Al-Ahram in 1931. The newspaper's correspondent, writes Professor
Yunan Labib Rizk* , reviewed the country's business, agriculture and industry and how they compared with Egypt's
"Al-Ahram in Greece" introduces a new series by the newspaper's man of difficult missions, Mahmoud Abul-Fath. Beginning on 5 October 1931, it opened, "Greece has disappointed me! This is my first visit. I arrived with an image formed by pure conjecture and reality did not bear it out. Greece will disappoint every Egyptian who visits it for the first time."
Click to view caption
Greek students of Fouad I (now Cairo) University participating in national demonstrations
Undoubtedly it was not entirely "pure conjecture" at work here; Egyptians did have a collective preconception of the Greeks. In The Greeks in Egypt: A Historical Study of Their Political-Economic Role from 1805 to 1956, Sayed Ashmawi writes: "The Greek to the ordinary man in the street was that Dimitri or Apostoli who arrived in the village a poor man, opened a small grocery and within a few years became the owner of a large commercial enterprise and extensive properties."
Interestingly, Egyptians referred to the Greek as a "Roumi", a name derived from Greece's membership in the Byzantine -- or Eastern Roman -- Empire. A document dating from 1837 refers to the Greek representative in Alexandria as the consul of "Roum". In Al-Khitat Al-Tawfiqiya (New Plans for Egypt Under Tawfiq, 1886-89), Ali Mubarak wrote that in 1840 there were 5,000 "Roumis" in Egypt, of whom 3,000 were born in the country and 2,000 newly arrived for the pursuit of commerce. The famous 19th century government official adds that the area of Cairo in which many of them lived was known as Roum Alley. There is evidence that this quarter had been predominantly Greek since at least the Fatimid era. In his description of this quarter, the mediaeval historian, Al-Maqrizi, documents the existence of a convent "that still exists and is frequently visited by Muslim women because it is said to contain a well whose waters are believed to cure illness". Finally, for a 20th century source, we turn to the memoirs of Prince Omar Touson, who remembers his grandfather, Mohamed Ali, referring to the Ottoman defeat by Greek forces at the battle of Al-Mura. "I warned them [the Ottoman authorities] that this would be the outcome, because I know better than anyone the character of the Roumi," Prince Omar recalled.
Returning to Ashmawi, we find in his work a delightful account by a foreign writer of the step-by-step climb of the Greek grocer: "At night, he sleeps behind the counter. He wears a grimy apron. He uses his meagre profits to buy other goods. He lives on virtually nothing. He lends money to peasants at exorbitant interest. He buys land and trades in cotton. He amasses an astounding fortune when only yesterday, when he first came to Egypt, he could barely afford his daily bread."
According to Ashmawi, many Greeks invested the savings they accumulated through commerce in the reclamation of lands they were able to obtain under a system, introduced under Mohamed Ali, of grants of uncultivated land. Onto these lands they introduced many new crops or strains of crops, of which was that highly prized long-staple cotton known by its Greek name: sklaridis.
The other face of this entrepreneurial spirit, however, was the notoriety the "Roumi" acquired in the countryside for his money lending practices. The account cited in Ashmawi continues: "He begins to accumulate money through usury. When his business is on a solid footing he borrows money from the merchants of Alexandria. Suddenly, from one day to the next he becomes a banker playing in gold. Then, the man who came to the village barefoot with only the clothes on his back, builds a palace, which serves as his headquarters for running his business and where the peasants come to grovel to him, the khawaga [master]. Merely the sight of most of those usurers makes one's skin crawl. Totally unlettered, their souls are obsessed with voracious greed, their hearts know no mercy and their blood contains not a drop of compassion."
The urban version of the "Roumi" fared somewhat better in the Egyptian mind. While still a grocer, his was the more respectable shop to be found in the more respectable urban neighbourhoods. Far cleaner and much better stocked than that of his rural counterpart, one could frequently find goods unavailable elsewhere, not least of which was that special cheese that acquired the name "gibna roumi".
Greeks in the city also branched into other activities, particularly the hotel business and coffeehouses. The European style cafés they opened became hugely popular and many of their other businesses were equally successful. Many still carry the names of their original owners: the Avirino clothes store, Antoniades Hotel and Zizinya Theatre, to name a few.
One gathers from Ashmawi that the Greeks in Egypt did little to improve their image during the British invasion of Alexandria in 1882. Many contemporaries, he writes, had spoken of "the readiness of the Greek rabble and the frenzy of the Italians to buy guns and rifles". Another source blamed foreigners for the events of 11 June, "especially the Greeks known for their proclivity for causing trouble and their rowdiness".
Such is the image that Mahmoud Abul-Fath bore with him on his excursion to the "Land of Al-Arwam" (the plural of Roumi) in the autumn of 1931. No wonder there was a world of difference between what he expected and what he saw. Indeed, he says as much in the opening article in his series. This country "differs radically from the image I had in my mind", he said. "Yes, Greece was backwards until a few years ago and the Greeks were fast asleep. Like us, they toyed around with political party squabbles. They lived on politics, for politics and by politics. But they have learned something we as yet have failed to grasp, which is that the nation supersedes all other considerations and that personal and party interests, no matter how great, come second to the welfare of the nation."
He then remarks on the manifestations of progress in the "Land of Al-Arwam." Cities had been revived and rejuvenated with new and broader roads and large spaces accorded to public parks and gardens. There were new hospitals constructed and equipped to the latest designs and new schools of every sort -- academic, technical, agricultural and commercial -- had cropped up everywhere and featured the latest curricula. Huge investments had been made in the hotel and spa industries in seaside, coastal and mountain areas in the interests of attracting various types of tourists. He was also impressed by the booming industrial and agricultural sectors and by the "commercial ships that traverse the high seas from the ports of the Mediterranean across the Atlantic to the shores of America. All this implies expansion in the movement of trade".
In a second article, Abul-Fath compares the Greek and Egyptian upper classes, faulting the latter for their failure to contribute to the progress of the nation. "There is not a wealthy Greek in Greece or abroad who has not shared his wealth with his nation and has not bequeathed his nation one or more institutions that will commemorate his name for all eternity for the powerful support he has given in building the Greek revival."
Among these magnanimous benefactors was the financier Singros who "several years ago dedicated 60 million gold drachmas, or approximately 2.5 million pounds, to bring fresh water to Athens" and who "gave to the state a garden of riches and a vast farm near the capital for the purposes of agricultural experiments and practical training". Another, Avirov, donated an armoured cruiser to the Greek navy and constructed an enormous stadium that seats 40,000 spectators. Then there was Voltos, the cotton merchant from Alexandria who bequeathed LE100,000 to the University of Athens and Pasikha, a cotton merchant from Kafr Al-Zayyat who bequeathed LE150,000 towards the revival of music in Greece. A fifth, Dimitrio, who had lived in Alexandria for a considerable portion of his life, donated his collection of highly valuable Egyptian antiquities to the Athens Museum. Finally, there were the Valino brothers, Arwam residing in London, who built the National Library in Athens, and the Satanato family, Arwam from Romania, who constructed Greece's National Naval Academy.
Abul-Fath continues: "How many Egyptian names can we list alongside these Greek names? Sadly, it appears that we are very poor in benefactors. Very few of our wealthy have parted with even a small portion of their wealth to donate to the nation. Most others feel not the slightest bond to the welfare of the nation and any concern they have for the public welfare stems from how it might serve their personal advantage. Thus, if they participate in the national movement, their participation is restricted to words and, then, only for display and cheap fame. There are names that reverberate in the press from time to time. Property records reveal that they own thousands of feddans and dozens of buildings, and have hundreds of thousands of pounds as bank deposits. Yet, in the public charity register it is rare to find a single piastre listed next to their names." Abul-Fath concludes his rebuke with an appeal to the Egyptian wealthy to loosen their purse strings and to awaken their sense of patriotism.
In his third instalment, the Al-Ahram correspondent discusses political and trade relations between Egypt and Greece. The history of the two countries dates back thousands of years. "The histories of the two nations are greatly intertwined," he writes. "For generations and centuries, whenever a storm struck, their friendship would resume on a closer and more solid basis than before." The best testimony to this relationship, in his opinion, was the large Greek community in Egypt. "The loyalty of this community to their second homeland has been so great that many of them have totally assimilated into Egyptian life. In the Egyptian countryside, hundreds, indeed thousands, of Arwam have never seen their country of origin and they will most likely live out the remainder of their days here in Egypt. Others have brought Egypt with them back to Greece. Outside Athens stands a mansion of astounding beauty. It belongs to a wealthy Roumi who had taken Egyptian nationality and has kept it even after returning to his native land. You can see his car racing through the streets of Athens with the Egyptian flag fluttering over it."
Egypt has always had strong trade relations with Greece, Abul-Fath continues. Before the current economic crisis the volume of bilateral trade exceeded LE1.5 million. "We exported to Greece large quantities of rice, vegetables, untanned leather and asphalt. Greece was the eighth largest importer of Egyptian rice and the third largest importer of Egyptian leather, with total purchases of this product exceeding LE550,000." In addition to cheeses and alcoholic beverages, Egypt's imports from Greece included tobacco, grapes, raisins, figs, almonds, soap and gold bullion. Its annual imports totaled over a million pounds.
Abul-Fath makes an interesting observation. Although the global depression brought a drastic reduction in Greece's imports from Egypt the reverse did not apply. While the volume of Egyptian exports to Greece plummeted to LE265,000 its import bill only fell to LE912,000. "If Greece has cut its purchases from us by over a half while our purchases from Greece remain virtually at the same level, this is because the Greeks are wiser and more resolute. When the crisis intensified they tightened their belts. They reduced their needs from abroad, making do with what their own country produces, thereby reaching a balance of trade that ensures their money does seep out from their coffers to foreign countries." A lesson it appears that we still have to learn.
A darker side of Egyptian-Greek relations appears in a fourth article dedicated to drug smuggling. Piraeus, writes Abul-Fath, had become a transit point for the transport of illicit drugs to Egypt. A Greek official involved in combating drug trafficking told him of the following conversation he had with a notorious drug baron in Piraeus. The official said, "You are a rich man. Why must you work in smuggling, which you know is both a dishonorable and a perilous trade?" The drug merchant answered, "I find in it a stimulation I cannot find in any other line of work."
Fortunately, the Greek government was doing its utmost to protect Egyptians from harmful drugs. "It has outlawed the cultivation of hashish in accordance with an agreement it signed with Egypt. But more, it has tightened up surveillance and whenever it discovers an illicit plot of hashish it destroys it immediately." However, further antidotes were needed and Abul-Fath recommended two. First, the Egyptian government should establish surveillance posts in the major Greek ports. "We know that the Egyptian authorities are currently doing little to control this fiendish trade. In addition, the Egyptian consulates do not have sufficient means at their disposal but must rely on the reports that come to them from individuals who are either lusting after a reward of thirsting for revenge against their colleagues in the smuggling business." Secondly, he urges the Egyptian coast guard to intensify its patrols and extend them beyond the ports which smugglers tend to avoid anyway.
Abul-Fath devoted his last three instalments to the great strides Greece had made in economic development. That he felt Egypt lagged considerably behind was evident from his frequent appeals to his countrymen to emulate the example of the "Arwam".
Turning first to agriculture, he opens with a brief description of Greece's geographical and demographic layout. Greece, he writes, is a large peninsula cleft by the waters of the Mediterranean into three large sections. The first comprised Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly; the second extended from the southern borders of these provinces to the Gulf of Corinth and the third consisted of the Peloponnisos. In addition, Greece possessed many islands. Its total land area was 127 square kilometres, as opposed to Egypt's approximately one million square kilometres.
Following the Great War, Greece's population stood at five million although it rose by a million and a quarter following the expulsion of the Greeks from Turkey. The Greeks themselves were "a homogeneous people, unlike the peoples of the Balkans. The country has no religious, linguistic or ethnic minority of note, for such that exist account for less than five or six per cent of the populace. These minorities, moreover, are gradually dwindling by virtue of the law of population replacement or by virtue of assimilation."
Agriculture was Greece's primary industry, with exports from this sector constituting three-fourths of its trade. "It was therefore only natural that the government focus particular attention on agricultural development through facilitating various channels for investment, promoting modern methods of cultivation and land reclamation."
In addition, in 1918, the government promulgated a new law on agrarian land ownership. As a member of the Egyptian middle class, rather than of the landed gentry, there were reasons why Abul-Fath would take an interest in this law. Under it, the government appropriated large tracks of land from large landholders, paying them for these lands a price based on their prewar value, and redistributing them among small farmers. It would then recover its initial outlay from the instalments paid by the new small landholders over a period of 30 years. Abul- Fath adds, "There remain now only a handful of the very large estates which have been kept intact for specific purposes such as experimental farming and mass production of certain crops."
The Al-Ahram correspondent was also intrigued by other agrarian reforms. Agricultural cooperatives had increased to over 5,000, six-fold the number that existed in 1915. "The purpose of these associations is to extend loans to farmers in order to spare them from the clutches of moneylenders. In addition, they purchase all the agricultural supplies a farmer needs and sell them to him at very reasonable prices. They help him dispose of his produce and perform other services all of which benefit the farmer."
In a further step in this direction, in 1928, the government initiated, through an agreement with the Greek National Bank, the establishment of an agrarian bank, the function of which was to extend loans to the agricultural cooperatives and assist migrants in settling down and taking up agriculture. Since then, the bank "increased its credit levels for agricultural investment, lowered interest rates and simplified terms of payment on loans to farmers, and restructured the tax system so that taxes would be gauged not by produce but by the productivity of land".
Finally, the government actively promoted agricultural education in the countryside. In addition to constructing schools, it founded experimental farms, established agricultural counseling centres and created special agencies to safeguard major cash crops such as tobacco, olives, olive oil and their associated processing industries.
Twenty years earlier the industrial sector in Greece had been negligible, Abul-Fath writes. However, following the wars in the Balkans, the Great War and subsequent events in Turkey, "the value of the Greek currency dropped so drastically as to render foreign goods unaffordable." This compelled the Greeks to turn their attention to industry and "develop national industries to meet their primary needs". He continues, "From 1920 onwards Greece can be said to posses an industrial sector worthy of the name. This sector, in turn, generated new industries such as the production of phonograph records, textiles, rubber, piping accessories, metallic paints, celluloid articles, electric bulbs and locks."
The reason the Greek industry was so late in developing, according to Abul-Fath, was the lack of primary materials and investment capital combined with poor transport facilities, the high costs of freight and the insufficient numbers of trained workers and technicians. These were precisely the problems the government sought to remedy "with the assistance of the major banks, which extended thousands of millions of drachmas to diverse industrial enterprises. In addition, the government improved the transportation infrastructure and increased the number of industrial training schools and workshops in order to spread industrial education and offer guidance to manufacturers".
In the interest of promoting industry the Ministry of Economy introduced legislation to protect nascent domestic production. The laws affected everything from property ownership in the industrial sector to taxation. With regard to the latter, it appears that the government promoted a tough customs policy, "raising import taxes on products that could compete with domestic industries and lowering them on machinery and equipment necessary for production and investment in new industries". In addition, the government offered many facilities to major firms, "among which is the permission to appropriate private or state property deemed essential for the construction of a factory". Abul-Fath divided Greece's industries into three categories: those that have progressed sufficiently to supplant the country's need for imports in their line of products, those that have not yet met that mark and those that still need to be developed in order to reduce Greece's dependency on imports. The production of industrial machinery, for example, fell into the latter category.
Abul-Fath did not feel the need to dwell at length on Greek commerce, undoubtedly because he knew his readers were aware of Greece's history and reputation as a mercantile nation. At the time he was writing, Greece had a mercantile fleet with a total capacity of a million and a half tonnes. Nevertheless, he took the opportunity to praise the efforts of the Greek government in promoting trade, remarking in particular on the part its chambers of commerce played in helping to open new markets for Greek goods and paving the way for bilateral most favoured nation trading status.
One imagines that Abul-Fath's series would have helped Al- Ahram readers understand why migration of the "Arwam" to Egypt had tapered off. Greece had become to exercise a centripetal, rather than a centrifugal, force on its people.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.