Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (498)
The first Sa'idi club was founded in Alexandria in 1932 because of the migration of Upper Egyptians to major cities in the country. The club was meant as an experiment to get migrant communities more established in and acclimatised to the northern urban environment, even though to this day Sa'idis continue to retain much of the traditions of their forefathers. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* sees what the club achieved and how it handled the clash of customs
The migration of Upper Egyptians, especially from the governorates south of Assiut, northwards to the major cities of the Delta and the Suez Canal, forms a continuous thread in modern Egyptian history. Beginning as a trickle in the first half of the 19th century with the collapse of the feudal system, migration picked up pace in tandem with the spread of capitalism and its consequent effects on the urban map and way of life. As cities began to spread beyond the walls and gates of the old quarters and new modes of production supplanted the traditional crafts and their guilds, more and more opportunities opened themselves to rural inhabitants aspiring to a better life.
Click to view caption
In keeping with tradition, an elder Sa'idi writes a letter of reconciliation following a feud between two families
However, rural-urban migration in general did not result in assimilation into the cosmopolitan lifestyle. Upper Egyptian newcomers clung tenaciously to the ways of their native homes. The waves of cultural and social change that had washed across the Delta during the 19th and early 20th centuries had broken well before they ever reached the heart of Upper Egypt, leaving very much intact an age-long, deeply entrenched rural-tribal value system. The customs and traditions emanating from this value system were transported northwards which, combined with the general disdain in which city dwellers held their poorer country cousins, reinforced their exclusion.
As a result, whole districts arose on the outskirts of city boundaries that were so rural in feel they could have been transplanted patches of an Upper Egyptian village. Not surprisingly, such areas acquired such names Izbat Al-Sa'ayda -- "izba" meaning estate and "Sa'ayda" being the plural form of "Sa'idi", a native of the Sa'id or Upper Egypt. Yet however romantic sounding their names, because of their poverty and hardship, they were far removed from the bucolic idyll.
On the other hand, strong kinship bonds and codes of mutual support helped migrant communities cope with the demands of city life. In addition, in the absence of mechanisms for assimilating them into their newly-adopted societies, they imported from the south -- or developed -- some of their own. One was the village coffeehouse, often named after a hometown in the Sa'id and generally doubling as informal community centres. A subsequent development was the "Sa'idi Club" which began to appear in many urban centres of the north, a phenomenon that Al-Ahram recounts in detail.
The newspaper opens the tale with a grizzly story, appearing on 4 January 1932 under the headline, "Sa'idi crimes: a gruesome felony". Khilla Hanna hailed from a village in the Assiut governorate. He worked in Alexandria as a porter in an apartment block on Sesostris Street and lived with his two sons, 12 and 15, in Ghait Al-Inab in the Kormoz precinct. A frequent visitor to the household was his cousin, Ibrahim Salib, 45, a butcher by trade but currently unemployed due to the economic crisis.
It was the Upper Egyptian custom to support one's kin in times of need and Hanna did precisely that, but only for a while. When he stopped, "friendship turned to hostility and Ibrahim began to plot his revenge. Such was the evil in his soul that it inspired him to murder Hanna's two sons, a crime which he executed in the most appalling manner." After relating the details of this crime, the newspaper remarks: "No one in Alexandria recalls having seen a crime more atrocious, more brutal, more indicative of the blend of hatred, malice and ignorance in the mind of the fiendish killer."
Several days later, the Al-Ahram correspondent in Alexandria filed a special report on "The situation of Upper Egyptians in Alexandria: Sa'ayda are subject of plan to safeguard public security". According to available statistics, he informs readers, 80 per cent of the crimes committed in Alexandria were perpetrated by Upper Egyptians residing in this city and a high ratio of these crimes were murder and other acts of violence for revenge. "There are between 60,000 and 80,000 Sa'ayda living in Alexandria, concentrated in the districts of Kom Al-Shaqafa, Mina Al-Basal, Al-Labban, Al-Attarin and Al-Raml. However, their presence in the city is generally useful, as it provides employers engaged in public works and construction projects with the necessary labour at reasonable rates. Thus, the city complains not of their presence here but of their faults."
To address these "faults," the Alexandrian police commissioner, an Englishman by the name of Admiral Henn, devised a system whereby Upper Egyptian migrants were classified in accordance to their regions of origin and an individual from each was selected to serve as the link between the group and the government. The group chief, the article continues, was given certain specific powers enabling him to assist authorities and to serve his group. "The purpose of this system is to facilitate the preservation of order in the environment of workers. For example, the chief of Aswanis knows the men in his group. He knows who is of good behaviour and who is of bad, and who is a newcomer from his hometown and who is likely to return there. His supervision of his fellows is thus a form of indirect government supervision." Under this system, too, each group would create a reconciliation committee to settle disputes that arose among its members. "The committee will be drawn from within the group and from members of other groups."
Al-Ahram took the occasion to deny rumours that authorities were considering measures to restrict migration to the cities, for example by requiring a worker from Upper Egypt to obtain a permit from his village mayor or sheikh. "Such rumours are pure fabrication," the newspaper proclaimed. "Our laws prohibit the restriction of citizens' movement between the provinces and cities of the country. Judiciary authorities have been consulted on this matter and maintain that no measures may be taken to restrict the right to travel."
Sensing the fervour in Egypt's northern port city, some prominent Sa'idis decided to take matters into their own hands. One of these was Zakariya Abdel-Salam El-Muhami who launched his own drive to organise his fellow Upper Egyptians in Alexandria. In a letter to Al-Ahram, El-Muhami, a successful vegetable and egg merchant, described his approach.
In general, his fellow Sa'idis were strong, able-bodied men, with patience and perseverance. They were engaged in many different occupations, in which many had the fortune to be earning quite respectable incomes. Sa'idis tended to congregate in the cities to which they migrated, on the basis of association ranging from the clan, to their native village to their original directorate. In Alexandria, most Upper Egyptians worked in transport, construction or on the docks, while "their children sell lottery tickets and collect cigarette butts". Even though many Sa'idis in the same profession hailed from different directorates, "by virtue of their sheer numbers they have been able to exclude non-Sa'idis."
Nevertheless, El-Muhami confesses, Sa'idis in the cities faced many hardships. They were vulnerable to the influence of smugglers and criminals who lured them into wrongdoing with paltry sums of money. "Frequently, many fall prey to moneylenders, who encourage them to steal jewellery and other valuables which they buy off them for a trifle. They are also prone to venereal and skin diseases due to their poor standards of living and the chaos in which they live."
Over the foregoing year, El-Muhami worked to create an association he called the Sa'idi League. Its purpose was to improve the moral and material welfare of Upper Egyptian migrants in Alexandria, to assist them in the event of illness or unemployment, to offer loans in the event of need and to mediate in disputes. Unfortunately, government intervention threatened to ruin his project. The plan proposed by Admiral Henn would exacerbate the difficulties, not solve them. Dividing the migrants according to areas of origin would incite rivalries on the basis of sectarian and regional affiliations. "The Sa'ayda from Assiut will feud against the Sa'ayda from Girga, and so on, which no one would wish to happen." Secondly, the plan ignored the need to "hone the economic spirit of the worker". El-Muhami explains, "When his material circumstances improve, the Sa'idi will have a new sense of security and will avoid disputes in order to safeguard the status he had won with his sweat and good fortune." Thirdly, the police commissioner's plan opened the doors to intrigue and backstabbing. "The contact between the Sa'idi chiefs and the police will tempt the weak-minded to pass false information on their colleagues to their chief in the interests of revenge." Finally, the police commissioner's plan failed to comprehend the moral force enabled by the contact between the ordinary Sa'idi and the Sa'idi who had bettered his lot. "The presence of a doctor or successful merchant as an honourary member in the association of Upper Egyptian workers elevates morale and discipline. When workers sense they have the sympathy of a prominent person they will do their utmost to avoid disturbing the peace or breaking the law so as not to risk losing that sympathy."
Initially, Alexandrian authorities paid no heed to El- Muhami's project and his criticism of theirs, and proceeded to form four reconciliation committees for workers from the directorates of Assiut, Girga, Qena and Aswan. The Assiut committee consisted of nine members, the others of eight. Once these arrangements were in place, "a large assembly of Upper Egyptians was held in the Alexandrian governorate building upon the invitation of Major El-Sayed Abdel-Rahman who addressed his audience on the benefits of reconciliation, the advantages of forgiveness and the error of feuding."
Apparently the governorate's experiment met with some success. In a letter to Al-Ahram, Amin Effendi Mohamed lauded the scheme to organise Upper Egyptian migrants, which he believed had its origins in the attempt to organise workers on the basis of their occupation, beginning with the qahwagiyya, waiters in a street café. He relates that upon the death of one of their colleagues, the qahwagiyya of Alexandria got together to arrange the funeral procession. "So as to announce that the deceased was a coffee maker, they all decided to wear the uniform of their profession. The procession was a moving spectacle and underscored the power of the occupational bond and the benefits of solidarity. It was this that inspired the plan to organise the workers from Upper Egypt in Alexandria, whom the police believe are more in need than others of such efforts."
Amin Effendi's enthusiasm expressed not only the general sentiments among Sa'idi workers in Alexandria, but in other major cities. Against this backdrop Major El-Sayed Abdel- Rahman launched a second initiative. On 26 February 1932, he invited Upper Egyptians in Alexandria to a meeting in the governorate building where he proposed his scheme for a Sa'idi Club. The response was immediate. On that day, alone, the police officer collected LE417 in registration fees. As Al- Ahram remarked, "To have collected such a sum in a single meeting is testimony to the importance diligent Upper Egyptians attach to their project and proof of their desire to unite and organise their affairs in Alexandria, in which their numbers are steadily increasing."
This was only the beginning. By mid-March, funds raised through membership fees had climbed to LE1,157, enabling the Sa'ayda to open their new club, located on Al-Khidiwi Al- Awwal Street. Al-Ahram's Alexandria correspondent, on hand for the inaugural ceremony, described the premises. "Located in a handsome building, the club is furnished in the Western style. Two rooms serve as the offices of the club president and secretary. In addition, there is an assembly hall and two smaller rooms for private conferences. A telephone has been installed and the furniture as a whole is tasteful."
The ceremony itself was attended by several significant individuals. Heading the list were Prince Omar Touson, Alexandria Governor Hussein Sabri Pasha and Police Commissioner Henn Bek, along with other senior police officials, society notables and the members of the Upper Egyptian reconciliation committees.
Given that the Alexandrian Sa'idi Club was founded primarily in the interests of maintaining law and order, attention naturally focussed on whether the new association would perform the required function. On 2 April, two weeks after the official opening, the Al-Ahram correspondent in Alexandria addressed this question under the headline, "Alexandria's Sa'idi Club and public safety". Certainly, a single rallying point for the Sa'ayda would facilitate the police's task of safeguarding law and order "in the environment of those workers long accustomed to animosity, dispute and feuding", he commented.
These were still early days in the experiment. Nevertheless, a month later Al-Ahram was able to conclude that the club was well equipped "to prevent crime among Upper Egyptian workers and to resolve their disputes through arbitration". In the same report, the correspondent described how the club functioned. With a 31-member board of directors, the club possessed an "incident ledger" to record all complaints, disputes and arbitrations. "For every reconciliation a contract is drawn up in duplicate, one copy of which is given to the reconciled parties and the second of which is kept in the incident ledger which is kept under the supervision of the relevant governorate authorities."
At the same time procedures were under way to appoint "Upper Egyptian notables" as administrative heads for supervising the affairs of people from their native provinces. "Each administrative chief shall have at least one deputy. One of the functions of the chiefs and their deputies shall be to inform the club of any incidents involving the Upper Egyptians under their supervision. The reconciliation committees shall then investigate the incidents that are brought to their attention."
In essence, the writer continues, the club was "the headquarters of an unofficial Upper Egyptian government in Alexandria. It consists of six groups of officials: a board of directors, a general reconciliation committee, a regional reconciliation committee, subsidiary reconciliation committees, administrative chiefs and their deputies, and lastly the public security deputy who participates in an advisory capacity."
Before concluding his report, the correspondent noted, "Upper Egyptian work chiefs earn sizeable incomes from supplying labour and other businesses they are customarily engaged in. The wealthier among them earn thousands of pounds a year. Whenever asked for money or assistance they offer either or both willingly and happily."
The success the Sa'idi Club had in fulfilling its function naturally attracted the attention of Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi. Under the constant scrutiny of the large opposition parties, the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalists, Sidqi saw progress in the preservation of law and order as a key to winning popularity.
Thus, on 17 July 1932, Sidqi made a special trip to the Sa'idi Club in Alexandria where he was received with great fanfare. The members of the club had arranged to slaughter a cow at the entrance of the premises "as a demonstration of generosity and hospitality in accordance with the traditions of the people of Upper Egypt".
Following the welcoming speech of the Sa'idi Club President Khalifa Hemmam, who announced that the Alexandrian municipality had offered the club a plot of land for a nominal price, the prime minister rose to speak. Sidqi lauded the new- found peace and tranquillity in Alexandria "thanks to the efforts of your club in settling disputes that had long disturbed the peace we desire". He went on to say how impressed he was with the comprehensive system adopted by the club, which "has ushered in a new age for the 100,000 inhabitants of Alexandria who hail from Upper Egypt". True, there were at most 80,000 Sa'idis in Alexandria at the time, but Sidqi may have been excused on the grounds of rhetorical hyperbole.
Not long afterwards, Al-Ahram informed us of a certain Masoud Farrag Masoud who launched a campaign to found Sa'idi clubs in Port Said and Cairo. One day, while on summer holiday in Port Said in July 1932, Masoud was standing at the dividing line between the so-called "Arab" and "foreign" quarters of the city when it struck him that "every morning tens of thousands of Upper Egyptian workers head off, alone and in small groups, to their jobs and return to their wives and children in the evening. These are the people that make up the labour force upon which major businesses depend on for their abundant profits." He concluded that these people, more than others, deserved a place to serve as a communal gathering spot.
Soon afterwards, Masoud called on several Upper Egyptian labour chiefs and put to them the idea of creating a club. Their response was enthusiastic, "because they feel that they are just as deserving as their brothers in Alexandria, for they are no less numerous and they, too, boast many wealthy and propertied individuals."
In mid-August, Masoud returned to Cairo where he pursued the idea for a Sa'idi club in the capital. Evidently it was an uphill struggle. In a letter to Al-Ahram he complained that government officials had not given sufficient thought to the many appeals to put the idea of a Sa'idi club into effect. "It is as though they neither hear nor see, even though Upper Egyptian workers range in the hundreds of thousands and many possess vast wealth and considerable influence." He also reproached Upper Egyptian workers in the capital. "Shame on the Sa'ayda in Cairo. To be the productive labour force in the capital yet do less for themselves there than in Port Said."
It was perhaps this criticism that goaded Mohamed Zeidan, a prominent fruit merchant in the capital, to form a committee to study the possibility of creating a club in Cairo. After the committee dispatched a delegate to the Sa'idi Club to gather relevant information, Zeidan announced that he would furnish all the costs and do all in his power to create a counterpart in Cairo.
Eager to contribute to the projects in Port Said and Cairo, the Al-Ahram correspondent in Alexandria propounded a vision for how such clubs should be structured. In his opinion, the Alexandrian Sa'idi Club could serve as a model for others. This would help generate similar organisational structures which would facilitate creating a bond between the clubs that would serve the interest of public safety and Upper Egyptians at the same time. In addition, drawing on the Alexandrian model would "save time and the energies put into experiments and preliminary arrangements".
Towards this end, he suggested that members of the team who organised the Alexandria club serve as advisers to the clubs in Cairo and Port Said. Then, once those organisations were in place, they would create a coordinating body to ensure conformity "and to help regulate matters so as to render the shirking of one's responsibilities difficult for those Sa'ayda who frequently move back and forth between these cities."
Al-Ahram does not inform us whether or not these recommendations were implemented. What is certain, however, is that the community approach to maintaining law and order proved highly successful in curtailing what Prime Minister Sidqi described as the "courage and hot-headedness in the Sa'idi character that drives some of them to rash behaviour". Nevertheless, the Sa'idi club system was inevitably destined to fade into oblivion as, over time, migrant communities became more established in and acclimatised to the northern urban environment. This is not to say that they acquired all the ways of city life, for no matter how remote the Sa'ayda are from their native homes, much of the character and customs of their forefathers remains indelibly imprinted in them.
In keeping with tradition, an elder Sa'idi writes a letter of reconciliation following
a feud between two families
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.