Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (505)
How sweet the peasant life
It was the early 1930s and the Great Depression had tightened its grip on Egypt. Because fellahin, or farmers, made up the vast majority of the country's population, Al-Ahram sent several reporters to the countryside to get a first-hand look at how that class of society was affected by the economic crisis. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines lean years of the land
The tentacles of the depression of 1929 to 1933 stretched to Egypt, particularly its rural belt, where a composite picture, resulting from a journalistic foray by Al-Ahram reporters, was far removed from that popular song that goes: "How sweet the peasant life".
The first reporter sent to the heartland set off to the markets of Motoubas, district capital of Fuwah. Business was dead and faces were uniformly glum. "Donkey, cow and water buffalo owners are sitting around idly. Women from the surrounding villages, selling their ghee or cheese, or with small sacks of wheat, corn or barley in front of them, or displaying sweets and fruits -- all are downcast or staring aimlessly at the sky."
The reporter ventured into the market to investigate prices. One could buy a cow with its calf for 720 piastres, a fine looking mule for 120 piastres and there was a large and splendid looking ewe for only 125 piastres. An ardabb (198 dry litres) of wheat cost 90 piastres, an ardabb of fava beans 65 piastres, an oka (1.25 kg) of lamb seven piastres, of veal six piastres and of beef five piastres, and eight eggs cost one piastre. And, these were only the "base prices", he observed. Before the economic crisis set in, merchants were able to drive them up because of the high demand. Now, however, it was the customers who were in a position to haggle them downwards. "This means that I could have gotten excellent deals had I been seriously intent on buying. In fact, I found that, quite unconsciously, I had put my hand in my pocket in order to buy one or two of those inexpensive items, but I discovered that the crisis had hit me too!"
Another reporter went to the livestock market where he learned that many of the animals on display had been confiscated in debt foreclosures. He relates, "People were just standing around and watching. I turned to the person next to me and asked why nobody was buying these animals which were being sold off for next to nothing. 'Certainly, you need animals like these in your farm,' I observed. The man turned to me, his eyes filled with tears, and said, 'Sir, those are my animals, which I'm being forced to sell off in order to pay my taxes. And as you can see nobody is even making an offer.'"
The reporter asked another person in the market whether there was no one in the vicinity who could afford to buy livestock which was being sold off for only 20 or 30 pounds. The man answered, "There are. But people around here do not want to embarrass a neighbour of theirs whose property is on forced sale."
A third reporter went to Al-Wasta in the directorate of Beni Soueif. In the market there he saw a village woman surrounded by her children and on one side of her a goat and the other a crate of chickens. He reports the following conversation:
"She called out to me: 'Effendi! Sir!'
'You want to buy these chickens?'
'Whatever you think is right. It's just that, God willing, I hope to get a few piastres so I can feed my children.'
'You haven't sold anything since this morning?' It was already one o'clock.
She replied, 'No. I set out at dawn and walked three hours to get to the market. Nobody's bought anything from me yet and I can't go back carrying all this load.'"
The reporter continues, "I gave her 10 piastres. When she started to hand over the chickens I told her that the money I had given her was to buy food for her children. She raised her hands skywards in supplication for me and then bent over to kiss my hand. I told her there was no need for that, and thought that if it were not for the fact that I had to leave for Fayoum I would have bought the chickens and, at least, spared her the trouble of having to carry them back home."
Not all the reporter's interviews left him so disheartened. Indeed some evoked, if only slightly, the commonly held romantic image of robust rustic life. A good example was Mohamed El- Leithi, a small landowner in Beni Mazar. El-Leithi was 102. "Yet, in spite of his advanced age, he still farms. His back is still straight, he can walk long distances and he can eat plenty of fatty foods. I asked him how much land he owns.
'Two feddans,' he answered.
'Do you rent out other land?' I asked.
'Twenty, 50, 70 feddans, depending on the money I have.'
'Do you smoke or drink?'
'I don't smoke. I don't drink coffee or anything else, forbidden or otherwise. Except I've taken to tea, which I learned from my children. I pray and fast.'
'Do you still have your teeth?'
'I have four.'
'Are you strong?'
'Yes. Give me any 18-year-old and I'll tear him apart. And give me four pounds of meat and I'll down them for you while we're sitting here.'
'Do you eat meat everyday?'
'No. That's because I can't get hold of the food I'd like. There's no goodness in the world anymore. God bless the old times. But still, all's well and what we get is a blessing from God.'"
If Mohamed El-Leithi's last answer is indicative of the hardship that had befallen the fellahin in those lean years, the spirit he shows in his other responses makes him an exception to the prevalent despondency in the countryside, that is if he was not yet prey to senile dementia.
As though the situation was not bad enough, economic straits delayed the completion of public works intended to improve rural conditions. The most urgent of such projects was the supplying of villages with clean water, which was the subject of a historical overview featured in Al-Ahram of 22 September 1932.
The story began in 1890 when rural municipalities were charged with the task. Nevertheless, the newspaper remarks, "Although there were more than 100 such councils, only some three million Egyptians had access to clean water, which meant that 12 million continued to use polluted water." It went on to explain, "In its natural state, Nile water in the canals is only suitable for irrigation and only becomes potable when purified by modern methods. Water in the Nile and the conduits that branch off of it not only contains stones, silt and dirt, but also remnants of food, human and animal corpses, and various parasitic microbes. Even in the narrowest and shallowest of canals passing through a village, you will find the villagers urinating and defecating in or near it, burying recently deceased cats or dogs in it, washing their clothes and their bodies and disposing of domestic waste. In such water there are extremely harmful and sometimes lethal germs."
It was not until 1928 that the government began to contemplate in earnest a centralised water project to provide clean water to the countryside. The following year, it engaged a British expert, a certain Mr Hill, to study the matter. He concluded that a nationwide purification project would cost no less than LE12 million. This was beyond the means of the government of Mohamed Mahmoud, which temporarily shelved the project. When the global depression set in the following year, the project was deferred indefinitely. It appeared that the fellahin were destined to a life described in a 1932 Al-Ahram article as follows:
"Fifty years have passed since the British occupied the country and the Egyptian village is still unfit for the habitation of even animals."
Although it was common knowledge that fellahin had been hit the hardest by the unprecedented drop in cotton prices, Abdallah Hussein, an Al-Ahram staff writer, pointed out that the problem, in fact, was far more extensive. Under the headline, "The agricultural crisis and grain," in Al-Ahram of 27 September 1932, Hussein observed that two years earlier when the cotton crisis hit, farmers began to turn some of their fields over to grain production. The newspaper had sent out reporters to investigate, expecting perhaps that the shift to grain had helped compensate for the loss in cotton sales. Instead, they discovered that the farmers had deeply regretted their move. The article of 27 September summarised their many grievances.
Firstly, the Ministry of Agriculture had miscalculated the amount of wheat needed to be produced domestically, basing its projections on an outdated figure of average yields. The average yield was now 5.62 ardabbs per feddan instead of 4.85. The latter had been the rate when most of the better land had been taken up by cotton cultivation, but when that land was turned over to wheat the yields increased. The result was a huge surplus and a consequent decline in domestic wheat prices, the effect of which was to nullify the aim of switching from cotton to wheat in the first place. Before that, the government had hesitated too long over raising customs duties on imported wheat, which gave Egyptian merchants the opportunity to import large quantities of wheat and flour. "As is well known, Australian, Russian, Romanian and Canadian wheat are cheaper than Egyptian wheat, which has been edged out of the market by the huge quantities that had been brought in." To make matters worse, in June 1932, the government lowered the duties on foreign wheat imports, "in spite of its knowledge, firstly, of how cheap foreign wheat is and, secondly, of the fact that this year's production of Egyptian wheat far exceeds the needs of domestic consumption."
Farmers also laid a portion of the blame for the drop on the Agricultural Credit Bank. The bank had sold an ardabb of seed on credit for 250 piastres, which was repayable at 300 piastres. By that time, however, the ardabb of wheat sold for 100 piastres. "Where is the fellah supposed to get the money to pay back this debt?" asks Al-Ahram. "For many, wheat has become their primary crop. Now they have to pay three-fourths of their yield in order to repay the bank for their seed."
The government needed to take several measures to counter this situation, Abdallah Hussein urged. Firstly, surplus wheat had to be removed from the market, "even if that means burning it". Secondly, customs duties had to be raised again, to a level moreover that would "prevent the import of foreign wheat entirely". Thirdly, the area under cotton cultivation had to be expanded sufficiently to accommodate domestic consumption. Fourth, the Agricultural Credit Bank should be reorganised in a manner that would enable it to reduce its interest rates on loans. Finally, cotton strains should be improved to make Egyptian cotton the best in the world in both quality and moderate prices.
But more than just monitor the effects of the economic crisis on the countryside, Al-Ahram went on to investigate how that rebounded on the city. According to the newspaper, the economy of certain quarters of the city relied heavily on rural tourists. Al- Ghouriya, Al-Sukkariya, Al-Migharbelin, Al-Khayamiya, Al- Hussein, Al-Muski, Al-Gawhargiya and Al-Sikka Al-Gadida all contained important religious monuments, and the pilgrims would bring their wives and children, "as well as their savings, and while there they would wend their way through the commercial outlets to purchase fabrics, linens, sandals and those clogs with coloured metal clasps".
Certain professions were affected, at least more directly than others. The court of cassation and small claims laid off some of their attorneys, who, in turn, were unable to pay the rent on their offices. Al-Ahram remarks, "Although the numbers of lawyers are increasing, villagers can only afford paltry fees. These they present in the form of a down payment and the balance at the end of the case. Most of the time they pay the former and forget the latter."
The medical profession was equally affected, according to the newspaper, although it did not explain how. Most villagers relied on homegrown remedies and local healers except for the rich who could afford the expenses of travelling to the city and to pay the fees of modern medical practitioners.
The "class of Qur'anic chanters" were also hit by the slump in the rural economy. Many of these lived off of trusts linked to the income on land, which had long kept them in comfortable circumstances. The economic crisis, however, "seems to have hastened their departure from reciting and chanting from which they had supplemented their income".
The severity and pervasiveness of rural poverty compelled some to take a closer look at the nature of the clouds that had cast their shadow over bucolic bliss. Some of these concluded that if the fellahin had indeed once known the "sweet life" eulogised in popular song, they stood little chance of experiencing it again unless some drastic measures were taken. This was the opinion of Abbas Mustafa Ammar, a geographer who towards the end of his life became minister of education. In Al-Ahram of 23 September 1932, under the headline, "An aspect of the rural crisis", Ammar declared that, contrary to the commonly held belief, the plight of the fellahin was not a transient phenomenon that would pass with the end of the depression but rather the product of structural problems endemic to the Egyptian countryside.
According to Ammar, the most critical problem was population growth. "The source of the problem is the disruption of the balance between the powers of land and man to produce. The feddan of land can only produce so much, as the exploitation of any given area of land is limited. Not so in the case of man, whose productivity in terms of offspring is unlimited. When population exceeds the productive capacity of land, poverty and want are inevitable."
To drive his point home, Ammar resorted to the stark language of statistics. In Apercu sur l'Egypte, 1840, Clot Bek placed the population of Egypt at approximately four million -- 3,856,226 to be precise. Since then, writes Ammar, irrigation works in the late 19th and early 20th century increased cultivable land to five million feddans while, by 1882, the population had reached seven million and by 1927 more than 14 million. Otherwise put, he continued, if at the beginning of the 19th century the ratio of population to cultivated land was one person to 1.33 feddans, this ratio fell to 1 to 0.66 feddans at the time of the British occupation and to 1 to 0.33 feddans in the late 1920s. Although he confessed that improvements in agricultural production had raised the productivity of the feddan "that does little to alter the reality". The reality was that as long as the per capita share of the land was so low and still declining, even if crop prices were to climb again, it would not alleviate the fellah's poverty.
Aggravating the situation was what Ammar described as the "alarming" fragmentation of property ownership. He explains: "When I look back a quarter of a century ago to the village in which I grew up, I recall how land was held in the names of a few prominent families. Every time I returned from school for my summer holiday, I would find these families' wealth and status declining as their land was partitioned among its various members. The more time elapsed the more this phenomenon became apparent, and the more I realised that poverty was gradually encroaching on these noble houses. And thus it was that the names which evoked rank and wealth had become associated with misery and hardship. Today, of what was once hundreds of feddans, their grandchildren possess only a few lots each. They are burdened with life's troubles and all that remains of their families' past are the titles which have little use and offer no consolation."
Hussein, who had already contributed to Al-Ahram much of its material on the "rural crisis", was not of so pessimistic an outlook. There was a way out but it entailed an overhaul of the system of cooperative societies.
Hussein took the occasion to furnish a brief history of these societies in Egypt. In 1909, he wrote, Omar Lutfi Bek travelled to Italy where he learned the principles of operating cooperative societies. His success in establishing several of these societies in Egypt upon his return encouraged the government, in 1913, to draft the Cooperative Society Law which was adopted by parliament the following year. Although, according to Hussein, the law had certain shortcomings, it was an important step forward.
With the start of World War I, implementation of the new law ground to a halt and did not pick up again until the law was amended in 1927. Over the next five years, agricultural cooperative societies increased to 519. However, there clearly remained major problems. Out of those 519 societies, only five had been established in 1932 and 25 the previous year. In addition, of the LE300,000 in loans the societies had extended the previous year, only 25 per cent had been repaid.
To give readers an idea of the activities of these societies, Hussein turned first to Abul Namros, a village in the governorate of Giza in which there was a cooperative society that supplied chemical fertiliser and sold assorted pulses, herbs, spices and scents. The village itself had a population of approximately 7,000 whose total landholdings stood at 1,500 feddans, of which only 200 had been planted that year. Conditions were obviously tough. However, Hussein notes that "because harmony prevails among the members of the cooperative and because the cooperative has adopted a policy of prudence and gradual progress, the financial crisis here is not as grave as it is in other villages." Some cooperatives were more diverse. The cooperative in Kafr Tahramos, for example, had been established to purchase and sell fertiliser, seeds, grains, molasses, garlic and assorted agricultural produce.
Although these societies, with their ability to pool resources, had considerable potential, they required much more encouragement from the authorities. As Hussein put it, "Villagers are fully prepared to cooperate but they need special attention. The economic crisis has made it clear to them that they must cooperate, the proof of which I have seen in the spread of joint ownership and use of livestock and irrigation equipment these days."
Unfortunately, a look at the subsequent development of cooperative societies indicates that the plea of Abdallah Hussein and other advocates of the cooperative movement went unheeded. Evidently, authorities were satisfied with "the sweet peasant life" as an image, not a reality.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.