Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (555)
Egyptians love to complain -- and there are historical reasons for it. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk found explanations in Al-Ahram
"Oh strongest of the strong, friend to the poor, father of the fatherless, husband of the widow, brother of the needy daughter, I praise your name because you set wrong right without demanding recompense. Oh enemy of criminals and lover of justice, you have heard my cry and allowed me to speak. I want to see your mercy. So consider this prayer a supplication to hear my case, and when you do you will find that I indeed have been robbed."
The preceding passage is an extract from one of the oldest recorded grievances in history. Dating back 4,000 years ago , the supplicant is an Egyptian peasant who fell victim to a vicious ruse. One day, the man had set off from his village in Wadi Al-Natroun, his donkey laden with crops, on his way to the market in the capital city. An officer working on the state of a wealthy official spotted the peasant in the distance and decided to lay a trap. He spread a length of fabric across the path, forcing the peasant to walk off the path so as not to trample on it. That little detour brought the peasant onto the edge of the estate, at which point the officer pounced, accusing the peasant of trespassing and confiscating his donkey and the goods on its back as penalty. When the peasant objected, the officer had him beaten and thrown into the wilds.
Abdel-Aziz Saleh, professor of ancient Egyptian history, goes on to relate that the peasant eventually made his way to the palace, where he presented his grievance to a senior counselor. The palace official was so impressed by the peasant's eloquence that he immediately reported it to the pharaoh. The pharaoh, in turn, ordered the counselor not to issue a ruling on the matter so that he would be able to hear more of the peasant's oratory. It was not until the poor man aired his grievance for the ninth time that the pharaoh ordered that all his possessions be restored to the peasant and that his assailant be punished as a lesson to others.
Since that day until the present, Egyptians -- peasants and non-peasants alike -- have never ceased to complain. Indeed, one might say that grumbling has become an intrinsic trait of the Egyptian people, which requires an explanation.
Perhaps the major reason resides in the thousands of years of oppression under foreign rule, which intensified at times when foreign overlords were unchecked in their attempts to wring a profit out of every last drop of sweat of Egyptian labour. Egyptians in turn would try to take their grievances to the highest officials -- unless those happened to be the plunders themselves. In his encyclopedic chronicle, Aja'ib Al-Athar Fil-Tarajim Wal-Akhbar, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti depicts a tragic portrait of the injustices that prevailed in Egypt under the Mamelukes in the period before the French invasion in 1898 and in the brief interval between the expulsion of the French and the arrival of Mohamed Ali. During this particularly anarchic period, the rulers or their officers confiscated merchants' goods or imposed exorbitant illegal levels. The merchants sought refuge with Al-Azhar officials, who would offer them protection, or they took their complaints to government officials who would sometimes take measures of redress and at other times issue hollow promises simply to restore calm.
A second cause of perennial grumbling is to be found in the nature of the oldest bureaucracy in history: the Egyptian government. In the modern West, the notion of public service constitutes the underlying concept of government, on which basis government employees are referred to as civil servants. These, moreover, are salaried employees who, like other members of the labour force, pay taxes on their income. Not so in Egypt, in which government position comes not only with a status that renders the occupant superior to those he deals with but also the power to impose his will on them. Because of these underlying concepts, if ordinary Egyptians have not always suffered bureaucratic tyranny, they have at least been vulnerable to humiliation and maltreatment. The odd thing is that Egyptian bureaucrats are the same regardless of their level of seniority; no sooner is one appointed than he is infected with the fever of lording it over others, an ailment that remains with him until the day he retires. Perhaps this accounts for that attractiveness of seats of power that makes resignation such a rare occurrence.
A third reason resides in another aspect of the Egyptian character. History shows that the Egyptian people are rarely given to recourse to violence against the injustices visited upon them through the millennia, for which reason they have gained the reputation as the most peaceful people in the world. Of course, the logical alternative to violence is to grieve and grumble.
The purpose of the foregoing introduction was to help explain the appearance of a new column in Al-Ahram in the autumn of 1934. To place this in historical context, the government of Abdel-Fattah Yahya had just resigned and was replaced by that of Tawfiq Nassim. The changeover signaled an end to an era since associated with the name Ismail Sidqi, the heavy-handed autocratic prime minister who had come to power in 1930. Hopes were now pinned on the new government to rid the country of the ills of the preceding period. An item appearing in Al-Ahram of 21 November of that year gives an indication of how fervent and widespread these hopes were. Al-Ahram offices had been "inundated with so many complaints and pleas from individuals and groups that we must appeal to the Nassim cabinet to take urgent measures to alleviate their plight," it read. The article proceeded to list the authors of these complaints and provide a brief summary of their content. Not surprisingly, it appeared under the headline, "Grievances and Appeals."
Eventually, however, the deluge of complaints became so profuse that Al-Ahram felt it had better put a cap on things. In a subsequent commentary, it accused some writers who were critical of almost everything of entertaining too high hopes and exceeding the bounds of their demands. "Things have reached a stage in which the daily post brings us hundreds of letters containing wishes that cannot possibly be realised and that could not conceivably have even so much as a distant bearing on the commitments the government has made to alleviate injustice and to come to the aid of the wronged."
The Al-Ahram management was also disturbed by the fact that "some morally depraved individuals have wormed their way among the many with legitimate complaints." Among these were people "who claim to have been the victims of persecution, whereas in fact they were dismissed from their jobs for reasons connected to their performance or behaviour at work, yet who imagine that they can get away with such claims under the present circumstances."
Al-Ahram then explained that while it, like other newspapers, was willing to open its pages to the grievances of various groups, it could not possibly allocate enough space to individual complaints, "along with all the accompanying narratives and evidence which we cannot possible verify." In fact, "if we did so, our efforts would bring no avail to the aggrieved. Instead, he would have the opportunity for redress if he submitted his complaint, with a detailed explanation backed by evidence, to the relevant ministry or department. Then, that authority would add his report to their files and devote it the necessary attention, especially now given the government's policy to study grievances that are brought to its attention and adjudicate in favour of the wronged. As for complaints that are not lodged in this manner, then it is only natural that they have the result of crying in the wind."
This caution did not prevent Al-Ahram from publishing over the next few months a stream of "Grievances and Appeals," giving us, in turn, some useful insights into Egyptian society in the mid-1930s. When reading these letters, one is immediately struck by the fact that not all their authors were from the educated classes. Many of these letters originated from the poorer urban quarters and the countryside, where illiteracy was rife, if not ubiquitous. Not that these individuals were deprived of means for making their voices heard. The most common was the "public scribes" who were sought out in particular for their knowledge of the language of bureaucracy and officialdom. It was a common sight in those days to see people of modest means sitting at the small desk the public scribe took up as his office in the corridors of government buildings, dictating their complaint to the scribe who would dutifully transform their words into the acceptable formulas in exchange for a small fee. It is, therefore, not odd that Al-Ahram 's mail contained hundreds of letters from the depths of the countryside and the poorer urban quarters, although one must imagine that their authors must have been desperate indeed to have taken this step.
One of these letters implores the minister of finance to visit Al-Buheira in order to see for himself what goes on in the village markets in that directorate. "When he sees farmers selling their animals and the food they need for themselves, he will realise how wretched their circumstances have become. He will then be moved by his spirit of compassion to end administrative expropriations and to reduce taxes."
There were frequent complaints from the countryside of swamps that served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease. Representative of these was the letter from a villager of Mit Halfa in Qalyub, asking authorities to fill the swamps surrounding his village, "as a safeguard to our health from the mosquitoes which thrive in it and spread disease among the villagers." A similarly worded appeal was sent by the villagers of west Talkha. A third was directed specifically to the Department of Health and signed by Abdel-Aziz Rahmi from Ezbat Al-Nakhl, complaining of the plague of mosquitoes in his village and warning of a malaria outbreak. Finally, villagers from Buheira complained that they had written to the Public Lands Department informing it that a local cooperative society had offered to pay for the filling in of the swamp near the village. That authority, however, "never responded to our request, whether in the affirmative or negative."
The Health Department, which had not yet become a ministry in those days, was the object of numerous complaints from the countryside. An example is the letter from patients at Bilbis Hospital who urged the rapid connection of water mains to the hospital, "especially considering that the Department of Health has already disbursed the expenses for this project to the local municipal council."
It was not surprising to come across many letters complaining of the treatment of patients in government hospitals. The edition of 30 June 1935 alone contained several. A student in the Egyptian University's Faculty of Arabic Language and Literature relates that a hospital attendant had kept him waiting at the hospital doorstep from 9.00 in the morning until noon, refusing to let him in. "All this time he ignored my pleas while engrossing himself in conversation with others." Then, when the student finally managed to meet a doctor, the doctor sent him on his way without treating him. An anxious father writes that when his daughter came down with a skin infection in her thigh he took her to the government hospital. However, she was not diagnosed properly which allowed the angry rash to spread.
populated by foreign expatriates. Perhaps the most pressing demand of the inhabitants of these quarters was for electricity. Take for example the telegram from merchants and inhabitants in Darb Al-Gadid in the Moski area addressed to the minister of public works, asking for road repairs and the introduction of electricity. "This is a quarter filled with major commercial establishments," they pleaded in defence of their request. In the Shobra district of Rod Al-Farag a group of inhabitants got together to pen a letter to impress upon the Ministry of Public Works that the lack of street lighting in their neighbourhood placed their lives in danger, "to which testify the many reports of assault and theft filed with the police." The same danger was implicit in a letter from a Sayyida Zeinab denizen who wrote that as one of those obliged by circumstances of work to return home late at night, he happened to have notice that the two street lamps on Nubar Street went out after 2.00am, "even though this street is directly in front of the Ministry of Interior."
Even in Cairo there were several complaints of the lack of water in some quarters because they were officially located outside of the city limits. Inhabitants of Al-Basatin informed Al-Ahram that the Ministry of Public Works refused to issue a permit to the Cairo Water Company to extend water mains to their area on the grounds that it was located outside the city limits even though the inhabitants themselves officially fell under the administrative and judicial authority of Cairo. "The people of Al-Basatin, therefore, urge the ministry to introduce fresh water mains in order to safeguard the lives of people who are currently vulnerable to disease from having to drink well or irrigation water."
Inhabitants of some provincial capitals had a similar complaint. In one case, it was an Al-Ahram correspondent instead of the people themselves who reported the grievance. Writing from Shibin Al-Kom, the correspondent said that the poor people of this provincial capital were now forbidden from getting their drinking water from "public faucets" for free as had formerly been the case. "They are thus forced to get their drinking water from the Nile, which is not free of germs and microbes. They are pleading with the authorities for permission to drink from public faucets again."
That public services did not keep pace with the rapid population growth in these neighbourhoods was also a source of grievance. People under Al-Azab police precinct, which then fell under the authority of the Shobra police station, wrote in to the newspaper proposing that their precinct be upgraded to a station "in view of the enormous increase in population in this quarter which is also larger than other police divisions." They added, "We take this opportunity to point out that there has been such a rise in thefts, break-ins and other disturbances of law and order that the people have come to fear for their lives and property. We, therefore, ask the police commissioner to increase the number of night guards until a decision is made on our aforementioned proposal."
The municipal authorities' negligence of garbage removal, street cleaning and other such public services for these quarters was legendary, a subject that Al-Ahram addressed on numerous occasions under the headline, "The national quarters." It was below this headline that the newspaper relayed a letter stating, "Refuse is accumulating horrendously in the lanes and alleyways of these quarters, contributing to the spread of disease and offending the inhabitants with its atrocious smell. The cause for this resides in the lack of care and attention given to these neighbourhoods and to the poor supervision over the workers charged with cleaning them." The writer appealed to the relevant authorities to take the appropriate steps since the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods were also taxpayers and, therefore, merited equal treatment with the inhabitants of the wealthier quarters.
A similar complaint was aired by the inhabitants and merchants of Kasra Street in Port Said who asked the director of the city's municipal board to instruct the street cleaning authorities to spray their street regularly in the summer "to cool the temperature down and settle the dust that the wind blows into our stores and houses."
A more desperate plea came from house and store owners on Al-Anaber Street in Al-Sabtiya. Appearing in Al-Ahram of 4 August 1935, their letter complaining that the violent vibrations from the mechanised mill was disturbing their peace and causing houses to collapse.
Rail authorities were not without their due share of complaints. One arrived via Al-Ahram from the people of Sayyida Zeinab asking why the Cairo-Helwan train did not stop at their station. A second more general complaint was that the diesel trains running on that line were restricted to only first class passengers, while other trains had been rerouted. This meant that second class passengers had to wait an hour and 20 minutes between trains. "This is most disadvantageous to them and they, therefore, ask the Railway Authority to increase the number of carriages on the diesel trains and to allow second class passengers to board them."
We have left the letters from government employees for last. In spite of the fact that they occupied the lion's share of the new column, they were also the most familiar to Al-Ahram readers. Because of their numbers we have selected only those that were singular or were indicative of broader phenomena.
Part timers -- what we would refer to officially as temporarily contracted staff as opposed to full-time employees -- suffered from permanent anxiety. Al-Ahram received many letters from them demanding a fixed contract on the grounds that job security was one of the most important rights of the employee. "Only then can he be reassured of his future in the course of his career and after retirement. Nor will he have to be in constant fear of his superiors over a mere slip, leading to the non-renewal of his contract and possible penury."
Graduates of the School of Mechanical Crafts and Industries who had been hired on a daily wage basis by the Mechanics and Electricity Authority over the past five years were especially bitter about their circumstances. They felt that they received no consideration whatsoever "in spite of the difficult and exhausting duties they perform day and night in the electricity generating stations located in areas remote from the cities and urban conveniences." The writer of the letter adds that these employees had a glimmer of hope when authority instituted a just and equitable employment system. "However, they were shocked and dismayed when they learned that this system was put into effect without including all its employees."
Not only was the Railway Authority the subject of complaints from passengers but from its employees as well. The authorities' clerks and telephone operators submitted a written and signed petition to the director of the authority asking for a readjustment of their ranking and salary scales equivalent to that accorded to their colleagues. They also demanded second class rail passes to which they had formerly been entitled. In the same authority, office boys, janitors, signal-men and depot workers demanded the annual increments that had been withheld from them for six years. One recalls that those were days of great economic hardship, and it is not difficult to imagine the strain on these employees when they sought to stretch their already meagre salaries.
Employees in the Transport, Telephone and Communications Authority added to the complaints from the civil service. In a letter to the Minister of Transport, telephone operators wrote that when the government took over telephone communications from the privately-owned telephone company in 1919, they had been at the equivalent of a grade eight in government service. However, since then their salaries had declined to LE2.50 a month, "which is far from commensurate to the efforts they exert in their strenuous and exhausting job."
Slightly further up the civil service ladder, "mobile agents" in the Postal Authority demanded a promotion in their employment grade after having remained for some 30 years at the same level "in spite of the increase in their many responsibilities." Rent collectors from the Ministry of Awqaf complained of the five per cent deduction that was taken from their salaries as penalty for failures to collect, and a further deduction if they fail three months running. In their letter they added that their salaries were already intolerably low before deductions and that their inability to collect was more often than not due to pending litigation between the ministry and tenants. On a somewhat more amusing note, students of the constabulary department of the police academy were dissatisfied with their uniforms. They were too similar to those of ordinary army conscripts, they grumbled.
One final observation should be made on Al-Ahram 's "Grievances and Appeals" column, which is that in spite of the small space it occupied, it remained one of the longest-lasting features of the newspaper. Little wonder, given the constant and copious flow of complaints it has always had to keep it going, even if the logo changed from time to time.