Al-Ahram : A Diwan of contemporary life (539)
Only in Al-Ahram
When they founded Al-Ahram in 1876, Salim and Bishara Taqla realised that the autonomy of their newspaper, indeed its very survival, hinged on income, which is why advertising has occupied such an important place in its history. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk selects some of the more interesting and unusual advertisements of 70 years ago
Click to view caption
From the top: This ad, appearing in Al-Ahram, sought to sellNorexa, a Swiss-made watch which the ad described as being precision-perfect; a clothes factory publicised that its silk shirts were tailored for 15 piastres and a pyjama for 20 piastres. Suits could be made for LE3; Aspiul was an aspirin that could apparently cure all: "headaches, rheumatism and influenza"
Throughout its history Al-Ahram was always careful not to openly oppose the government. In fact, it tended to avoid as much as possible direct involvement in domestic squabbles although this did not prevent it from adopting positions consistent with nationalist sentiment over which, in all events, there was little discord. Another related constant in its editorial policy was to remain neutral while opening itself as a forum to diverse and often opposing opinions. These policies served to keep the government at bay. It could be said that a dialectical relationship arose between the newspaper's advertising and editorial policies. At the same time, the respect that Al-Ahram won from all quarters by virtue of these policies encouraged advertisers to seek it out for their publicity, since the newspaper's prestige and integrity would inherently lend such qualities to the advertisements it published.
But because of this, it fell upon the newspaper's management to ascertain the veracity of the material advertisers wanted to appear on its pages. In other words, Al-Ahram could not afford to solicit or accept just any advertisements regardless of their nature simply in order to up its income from that department. On the contrary, management realised from the outset that careful screening might curtail advertisement in the short run but that in the long run it would augment the newspaper's attractiveness and enable it to charge advertising fees higher than its both daily and weekly contemporaries.
Because of such dynamics, we have devoted a number of instalments of the Chronicle to this important component of Al- Ahram 's activities, the last being on advertisements in times of economic crisis. Today's episode, in a sense, is a sequel.
In 1934, the global depression that had stifled economic activity over the previous four years began to subside and the sense of resurgence was inevitably reflected in advertisements. At the same time, we decided to devote this instalment on post-depression advertisements to a section of the newspaper that has not received our attention before. Although Classified Ads had long been the most stable section of the newspaper, it nevertheless occupied only a very small space, no more than a column or two in the back pages. Another reason for ignoring this section for so long was the general monotony of the material which due to the demands of brevity lacked the attention grabbing devices of larger advertisements. Nevertheless, after having combed through hundreds of these pages over 1934, we have found that taken as a sum, they are highly indicative of prevailing economic conditions. For the most part, the advertisements fall under the following categories: jobs wanted or available, real estate and finally what we might term public announcements. This said, let us begin our tour of Al-Ahram 's Classified Ads which we present verbatim because of the significance of both the text and the subtext.
Under the "jobs available" section, it is interesting to note how many advertisements were posted for various types of teachers. Perhaps one reason for this is the spread during that period of private schools whose tuition fees were often far more affordable than public schools. One "teachers wanted" ad to appear regularly that year was that placed by Amir El- Said Elementary School which read: "The school board announces positions available for qualified male and female teachers. Personal interviews are held daily in the school's administration building, 4 Mubtadian Street, Sayeda Zeinab."
A similar ad was placed by the Main Coptic School in Cairo: "Wanted, French teacher and science teacher with certificates from the Higher Teachers Institute and Dar Al-Ulum respectively. Applications should be addressed to the Director of Coptic Schools in Cairo."
The following advertisement must be by far the shortest in this category: "Wanted: teacher with science degree." The advertisement was placed by the Alexandrian Society of Youth and Union which was clearly one of those small community organisations on a very tight budget.
It is uncertain whether universities at that time were legally obliged to advertise vacant positions, as has been the case since the 1970s, or whether advertisements were placed merely so that university officials could select from the best available candidates. We presume the latter, as is suggested by the following advertisement appearing in Al-Ahram of 16 February 1934 under the headline, "The Egyptian University, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Dentistry":
"The Faculty of Medicine announces an opening for a dental surgeon, pathologist and teaching supervisor in the Department of Dentistry in Cairo. Candidates must possess a British diploma in dentistry and have experience in teaching and administering a school of dentistry. The successful candidate will be awarded a three-year contract at a salary ranging from LE1,020 to LE1,200 per annum, with approximately seven per cent deducted for government taxes. The selected candidate will also be entitled to a monthly travel allowance. The appointee will not have the right to pursue an outside occupation. If the selected candidate is a government employee and if the current laws and regulations do not permit his placement at the above-mentioned salary scale, employment by virtue of this advertisement does not confer upon him this right unless approval is granted by the relevant authority. Applications, with the relevant certificates and documentation attesting to qualifications and experience attached, should be submitted to His Excellency the Dean, Faculty of Medicine, Cairo, by no later than 31 March 1934."
Private businesses were also regular suppliers of "jobs available" ads although these had a different flavour. Take for example the announcement of a vacancy for inspectors for the Egyptian Public Bus Company, which stipulated the following qualifications: "Applicants must have at least a second stage secondary school certificate (baccalaureate) or the equivalent, and must be conversant in both Arabic and English. They must be at least 25 years old and have previous relevant work experience in a government or private agency. Applicants will sit for an examination and those who succeed will be required to furnish certification of good character, an official birth certificate and nationality papers. They will also be expected to undergo a full medical examination by the company's physician. Applications must be completed and posted, with the relevant documentation attached, to the General Director of the Egyptian Public Bus Company, PO Box 2717, Egypt, by no later than 31 July 1934."
In contrast to most of the "jobs available" notices, job wanted ads were for the most part very brief. Frequently, too, job searchers worked out an agreement with the newspaper's management to keep their advertisement running until fortune finally smiled on them. The point of this, of course, was to avoid having to delve too deep into the pocket. The following are only a small sampling of the many such advertisements that appeared over the year:
"Registered pharmacist, lengthy experience, fluent in French, English and Arabic, seeks position in Cairo or suburbs. Telephone: 39583."
"Educated woman with travel experience seeks work in mornings as translator or the like. Also prepared to offer private lessons in French. Highly qualified and is also fluent in English and German and speaks Arabic and Russian. For further information she may be contacted at 7 Qasr Al-Aini St, 4th floor." Our suspicion is that the multilingual job seeker was a Russian refugee unable to return to her homeland following the Bolshevik revolution a decade and a half earlier.
Unlike her, the next advertisement makes no secret of the subject's nationality. "Austrian woman, 32, seeks position in Cairo or countryside, as household manageress, governess or nurse for no more than two persons. Certificates available. Respond, in French, to "Austrian woman", Al-Ahram."
Clearly, the expatriate women who placed these ads had their hearts set on positions in the homes of Egypt's well-to- do, who could afford to pay higher salaries and who would also be able to communicate with them in French. As for the Egyptian upper classes, foreign governesses, nannies, personal nurses and the like were much sought after status symbols.
Also in those distant days we find the beginnings of the now rampant "private lesson" phenomenon, evidence of which is the following: "English teacher offers private lessons to students who must re-sit first and second stage secondary school English examinations. Inquire at the Al-Ahram Bureau, 1 Touson St, Alexandria." Evidently, the English teacher was looking for a summer job, given that his ad appeared on 4 July, probably just after examination results were posted. At least then, private lessons were restricted to special circumstances, having not yet become integrally ingrained into the educational system as they are today.
Some job wanted ads at the time could not help but make you smile. Take for example: "Staid young woman seeks work as doctor's assistant in private clinic. Also offers French lessons for secondary school qualifications. Send inquiries to: 'Staid', Al-Ahram, Egypt."
Many among the elderly today reminisce over the "old days" when "For Rent" signs were the commonest way to find a new flat or commercial premise. We imagine, too, that the real estate notices from that bygone era would evince a heartfelt sigh, even if most of them were placed by foreign- owned companies or owners of recently constructed apartment blocks. Still, even if the "For Rent" sign offered the more convenient and cheaper route to new premises, the curious would probably have still run their fingers down the classified section to see what was available. The following was typical:
"For rent in the best mid-price locations: small, medium and large apartments, from five to nine rooms. Moderate rates, open to negotiation. Contact: Al-Ahram Administration, 14 Mazloum Pasha St."
"Single rooms or three, four or five room flats available for law offices, medical clinics or private dwelling. The Tawfiq Doss Building, next to the New Mixed Court Building on Fouad I St. Inquire at Umniya Company, 18 Al-Madabigh St. Tel: 53552."
"Luxurious villa near the English Bridge. Six rooms in the latest style, two living rooms, garage, three rooms on the roof and 1,500 square-metre garden. Transportation facilities nearby. Contact Professor Hosni El-Shantanawi, Barrister at Law, in his office at 1 Al-Qadi Al-Fadel St."
And down market, if only slightly: "For rent: Nile-side apartment, three rooms and entrée with all necessary fixtures and fittings, and large balcony. Suitable for commercial office. LE7.50 per month. Available for viewing from 10--12am and from 4--8pm, 24 Al-Maghrabi St, flat 4, 2nd floor." The rent, LE7.50 per month, was a hefty sum for the time, but given its size and location the apartment seems worth it.
The more well-to-do may have even perused the real estate for sale announcements, as few as they were since that was still the age when homes tended to be leased rather owned outright.
One tempting offer appeared under the headline: "Beautiful seaside villa for sale, LE1,400". It read, "A unique opportunity not to be missed. Purchase an elegant villa overlooking the sea at Sporting, 30 Zahra St at the intersection with the Corniche in front of the Coast Guard. With an area of 611 square yards, it consists of two floors with balconies overlooking the sea. Adjacent to the villa is a small three- room house and land suitable for a garden or a garage. For immediate sale at LE1,400 or best offer. Inquire with Mme Eugenie, Lavison St, Boulkley."
Not that it was always private individuals who placed such advertisements. There were a number of real estate agencies at the time that provided regular fodder for this section of the classifieds. One was the Anglo-Belgian Company whose frequent notices varied according to the property at hand. There were the ordinary and straightforward such as: "House for sale at 25 Al-Madaris St, Al-Helmiya Al- Gadida. Exceptional offer and excellent payment facilities -- a quarter of the price down payment in cash and the remainder in instalments over five years at low interest."
But occasionally one comes across a more innovative formula such as the following: "Have you considered that with the amount of rent you have paid up to now you could become the owner of a beautiful salubrious villa in Giza, located in the midst of luxurious gardens, alongside the faculties of humanities and law, two secondary schools and other smaller schools, not to mention within easy reach of transport facilities? Are you aware that the price on offer today will double in the future and that this is the safest investment possible?"
Not infrequently the classifieds would venture into the countryside and the sale or leasing of agricultural land. The following, from 14 May is a typical example. "Farm for sale", read the heading, and its text: "Land for sale in Mashtoul Al-Souq in front of the Mashtoul market next to the agricultural road. Covering 33 feddans, the property comes complete with house and farm buildings, irrigation ditches and machinery, as well as a five-feddan wide orchard. Within three minutes, or at most a kilometre, from Mashtoul train station. Price and payment terms negotiable."
"Public auctions and tenders" -- under this headline Al-Ahram 's classified columns listed notices placed by various government departments. The department most represented on this page was the Ministry of Public Waqf Foundations. This was the ministry that supervised religious trusts and endowments, with regard to the management and disposal of which any number of rules and regulations came into play. We get a sense of what was involved from the following:
"The Ministry of Waqf Foundations, in its capacity as custodian of the estate of His Highness Prince Ahmed Seifeddin, announces a tender for renovation works on the stables on this estate located on Al-Dakhiliya St. The modifications are to be made in accordance with the specifications document, a copy of which can be obtained from the headquarters of the estate, on 9 Haras St, Qasr Al-Dubara, for LE1. Tenders must be enclosed in sealed envelopes stamped with red wax and submitted to the Waqf Ministry by no latter than Tuesday, 17 July 1934. Any tender received without a deposit equivalent to two per cent of its value will be disregarded." The advertisement concludes with that oft cited codicil that government agencies relied on to avoid potential litigation, which states, "The ministry is free to accept or reject any tender without declaring the reasons for said action."
The Ministry of Education came in a distant second in terms of the space it occupied in the "Public auctions and tenders" section. Every year this ministry would initiate a tender for the construction of pavilions in which to hold end of year examinations and 1934 was no different. Its announcement read:
"The Ministry of Education has opened for public tender, firstly, the construction of fully enclosed tent pavilions in Cairo for the purpose of the 1934 final examinations, and, secondly, the construction in specified courtyards in Cairo of wooden structures to be covered by the tenting supplied by the ministry, again, for the examinations of the aforementioned year.
"The tender shall stipulate the cost per square metre of covering, whether the fabric is issued from the ministry storerooms or supplied by the contractor. Submission forms may be obtained during official working hours from the ministry storehouses on Al-Gamamiz Lane in Cairo or from the school in which the examinations board is based, for LE1. Bidders must pay the required deposit as stipulated in the tender regulations. Payment should be made to the Cairo Central Treasury board or, if in the provinces, to the relevant directorate or governorate treasury."
As ponderous as some of the government advertisements might have been, there was the occasional one that piqued one's curiosity. Take for example the notice placed by the Sanitation Department for public bids "to obtain a two-year lease of the Wusta Coffeehouse in Said Square, valid from the date of approval". One cannot help but wonder what the connection was between an authority responsible for garbage removal and street cleaning and its ownership of a coffeehouse up for lease.
Some government departments had some very specific demands that they would put out for public tender. Of particular note is the announcement that the "Railway, Telegraph and Telephone Authority of the Government of Egypt is now accepting bids to be submitted to the office of the senior engineer in Egypt concerning the supply of the quantities of reinforced factory-produced red brick needed for the works of this authority for a period of a year. The specifications and conditions for the tender may be obtained from the General Department of Engineering." And once again we come across that notorious escape clause: "The authority has the right to accept or reject any bid without need to declare the reasons."
There remains the advertisements placed by rural administrative authorities. Most of these were connected to the services provided by rural government agencies, as the following two items illustrate:
The first, placed by the Minia Directorate Municipal Board, advertised a tender "to supply daily meals to the Elementary School for Girls and the kindergarten". The caterers would be expected to supply 12 breakfasts per day and 114 lunches to students of the elementary school and breakfast and lunch to the 135 kindergarten pupils.
The second advertisement was especially curious. Placed by the governorate of Cairo, it announced a tender for the provision of children's clothing for holiday camps. It is advertisements like these that make one pang for what many among the older generation would describe as "the golden days of the past".