Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (556)
An ax and a pen
In 1935, Al-Ahram celebrated the establishment of an association aimed at developing the Egyptian countryside mainly by focussing on education. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk follows the aims and agenda of the society as they were announced on the pages of the newspaper
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The Corniche in Alexandria and two of the biggest fish in the Egyptian sea: Ahmed Aboud, top, and Ismail Sidqi
"To destroy a pillar of ignorance is to construct a pillar of the nation;" thus read the motto of the Villages Project Society, the creation of which was announced in Al-Ahram of 20 January 1935. The emblem of the Cairo-based association featured an ax with a pen crossed over it and above them a sun radiating rays.
The founders of the society declared three objectives: to teach farmers the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic, and other general knowledge to help them develop sound bodies, minds and souls and to improve their domestic and social life; to promote and assist mutual cooperation towards the reform and advancement of rural life; and to get village youth accustomed to investing their free time in engaging in public service, thereby instilling in them the spirit of social responsibility.
The society's charter differentiated three types of members. "Active members" had to be of Egyptian nationality, without record of a judicial verdict impugning the honour of their character, and to pay an annual membership fee of ten piastres. "Honorary members" were defined as "those who perform outstanding services or whose membership in the organisation will bring it honour". The third category consisted of "volunteers", who would be "the emissaries of the society to the villages and the disseminators of its mission. The society may accept as a volunteer any educated individual nominated by the General Volunteer Committee. Volunteers shall pay an annual due of two piastres."
Clearly, the Villages Project Society had big and ambitious beginnings, to which testify the names of the members of its first board of directors. Ali Ibrahim Pasha, the head of the board, was the director of the Egyptian University. Other members included Mohamed Farid Wagdi, managing editor of Nur Al- Islam magazine, Abdel-Wahab El-Naggar professor in the Faculty of Religion, Mohamed Mazhar Said professor of education, Abdallah Hussein from Al-Ahram, Butros Basili director of publications at the Ministry of Agriculture and Ahmed Kamel Qotb, professor at the Faculty of Law.
Al-Ahram exhibited its enthusiasm for the fledgling organisation by publishing two articles by two of the members of the board of directors. The first, by Mohamed Mazhar, head of the Volunteers Committee, was an impassioned appeal entitled "To my fellow countrymen". It concluded with the exhortation: "Turn to the truth and savour its flavour, even if bitter! Repudiate false appearances and ostentatious colours! Walk slowly, using patience as your guide and refrain from setting your ideals on illusory, unrealisable hopes."
Ahmed Kamel Qotb, secretary-general of the new society's board, was the author of the second article. In considerably less emotional tones he aired his belief that the future welfare of the nation was contingent upon rural reforms. "Our nation is, in effect, the countryside and its villages. No reform programme can benefit the nation as a whole unless the greatest proportion of its efforts focusses on rural life," he wrote. One solution he had in mind was relatively simple and the manpower for it was readily available: "During the annual summer holiday, which lasts approximately four months, the majority of students, teachers, civil servants and intellectuals usually return to their native villages. There, each of these individuals can perform a national duty by volunteering to educate the village peasants. He can gather them in a large assembly and deliver lectures useful to their daily lives, whether on health and hygiene, agriculture, economics, or social issues. Moreover, the volunteer can select a class of some 15 farmers to whom he would impart the principles of reading, writing and arithmetic."
In addition to these two articles, Al-Ahram dedicated that edition's editorial to the same subject. Its title: "The Villages Project and the duty of highly placed citizens and notables". Its author: Abdallah Hussein who, in addition to being one of Al- Ahram 's best known writers was the new society's treasurer.
Here, we give pause to an excerpt from that article which revealed an early understanding of what has later come to be termed "civil society". Hussein wrote: "In the context of our concern for public issues and politics, it is our duty to attend to the individual components upon which can be anchored our national independence. Greater devotion to philanthropic works, such as the founding of refuges and hospitals, the spreading of education, the instilling of higher virtues, the fight against vice, the preference for domestically produced manufactures, the promotion of cooperation and, above and beyond this, greater attention to the Egyptian village and its inhabitants in these matters, will truly generate greater happiness for the Egyptian people. Had such concerns been remedied earlier on, Egypt could have faced the economic crisis more confidently than it had the crises brought on by the Great War." Hussein thus secured the moral and religious dimension of philanthropic works in the broader domain of politics, economics and social affairs, which is precisely the realm of civil society.
In her important study on this subject, Dr Amani Qandil offers a succinct and eminently useful definition of civil society. Civil society, she writes, consists of a "collection of relatively autonomous voluntary organisations that occupy the public sphere between the family and the state and work to promote the interests of their members or to realise collective benefits for society as a whole. These organisations adhere to a common set of values and criteria for the respect, accommodation and peaceful management of diversity and difference of opinion. The concept of civil society, thus, rests on three cornerstones: firstly, the exercise of free will (through communal initiatives); secondly, the existence of a commonly agreed upon organisational framework; and, thirdly, a moral/behavioural outlook conducive to civil society culture (the acknowledgment of differences, mutual tolerance, cooperation and the peaceful management of disputes and conflicting interests)." That these three "cornerstones" were exhibited in the Villages Project Society makes it an important case study in the history of civil society in Egypt.
Before we set aside Dr Qandil's seminal Civil Society in Egypt at the Beginning of the New Millennium, it is first useful to take note of the schedule listing the numbers of civic societies that existed in Egypt during four successive intervals. From 65 such societies before 1900, they rose slightly to 95 between 1900 and 1924, then soared to 633 between 1925 and 1944, after which they tapered off to 508 between 1945 and 1949. In other words, the founding of the Villages Project Society during the third interval is associated with the most vibrant period of civil society work in the pre- revolutionary era.
Not long after the announcement of its creation in Al-Ahram the new society got down to work. Among the first actions of the board of directors was to set up committees in provincial capitals, subcommittees in district capitals and branch committees in the villages. It was also decided that the chair of the provincial committee would be offered to the provincial director of education, and if he did not accept, to the principle of the secondary school in the area and then to the principle of the elementary school. The decision reflected the priority the society accorded to its goal of spreading education. Other decisions confirmed this priority, such as the decision to ask provincial educational directors for permission to use existing school premises as classrooms for farmers.
As though this priority needed justification, Mohamed Mazhar Said painted a moving picture of the ubiquitous illiteracy in the countryside and its consequences. Ninety per cent of Egyptians, most of whom inhabited the countryside, cannot read, he wrote. This was a source of shame for Egypt in comparison to other nations. "I am not referring here to Britain, France, Sweden or other great nations which have long since banished illiteracy from their midst, but rather to smaller nations whose names we learned from the Atlas as children, such as Guatemala, Cyprus, Ceylon, Gibraltar and Argentina. In these countries, the rate of education among males of 19 and upwards ranges from 40 to 60 per cent. In comparison it may come as a shock to you that this rate in Egypt is only 15 per cent, among the lowest rates in the world surpassing only India, China, Liberia and those other nations that have not yet been exposed to modern education."
As things currently stood in the villages, when a farmer wanted to write to a relative, make a simple calculation concerning the sale of his cotton, or fill in or respond to a document affecting his property or other rights, he had to turn to someone in his village to perform this services in exchange for far more than they were worth in terms of money and gratitude. "The men of the village as a whole thus feel that they are permanently indebted to the man who sounds the call to prayer, the village court clerk or the local banker, regardless of how crude and awkward their composition skills are."
But more than mere sentiment and form were at stake, especially when contracts, bills of exchange and other official documents were involved. "The man writing these documents may err, thus selling to the farmer a field or a house he did not want to purchase, or deducting from or adding to the size of the property in question. Then the ignorant and trusting farmer accepts these documents as sound, only to discover their inaccuracies long after having affixed his stamp or sign and completed the other legal procedures that make him personally accountable for the substance of these documents before other people and the courts."
Summer was now approaching and the society's first major season was at hand. However, things would not be as easy as they first appeared. The society was desperately short of student volunteers needed to perform its educational mission. At first, society officials attributed their poor recruitment levels to the two piastre dues that volunteers had to pay. But even when they cut that in half they did not get the desired results.
The society thus stepped up its recruitment campaign to which Al-Ahram lent itself as a podium. In one article, entitled "The Villages Project: Advice from Teachers to Students", the society's Secretary-General Ahmed Kamel Qotb alerted readers to the fact that the scholastic year was nearly over. "Soon students will be returning to their villages. There they will meet and associate with the peasants among whom they will fight illiteracy and ignorance and otherwise strive to lead them from darkness to light. The best possible advice teachers could give their students before their students depart from their classrooms is to remind them in the name of patriotism of the duty to uplift the Egyptian peasant. Teachers must serve as beacons for their people. They should nourish the minds of the young with knowledge, fill their hearts with the true spirit of patriotism and impress upon them that in Egypt there are peasants who have been neglected for thousands of years."
Abdallah Hussein voiced a more direct appeal beneath the headline, "Encouraging youth to combat illiteracy". Those who are able should sacrifice a little of their time in lending a helping and guiding hand to those young men who will be going out to help the villagers, he writes. "Nothing pleases them more than our efforts to work with them, nothing encourages them more than when we stand by their side. This practical sympathy between the old and the young, and between fathers and their sons, is needed to unify our efforts and strengthen our resolve. Its results are a certain success."
The society also cast about for other sources of funding. Evidently disappointed in the private donations and membership dues it had collected so far, it had no alternative but to turn to the government, choosing the Ministry of Education as its first target given the intrinsic connection between that ministry and the society's mission.
On 5 February 1935, a delegation headed by the head of the board of directors Ali Ibrahim met with the minister of education. After displaying a collection of their publications, as well as model examinations for peasants who were beyond the age of compulsory education, they formally requested the ministry's assistance in pursuing the society's aims. According to Al-Ahram, Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali, then minister of education, "expressed his great appreciation of the aims of the society and lauded the services societies such as this had performed in European countries in the past, adding that such societies were highly effective in spreading education among the people".
El-Hilali then passed the society's petition to the senior supervisor of education, Mohamed Awad Ibrahim, who soon afterwards submitted a lengthy and favourable report, which was subsequently published in Al-Ahram. In his introduction, Ibrahim enumerates the aims of the anti-illiteracy programme, among which were the promotion of health and hygiene awareness, and the inculcation of the rudiments of agricultural, economic and social sciences. He noted that he had examined the lectures printed by the society for distribution to the volunteers and that he had found these on the whole "essential for the education of villagers who have not had the advantage of schooling". Nevertheless, he had a few observations, the most important being that the lectures contained only seven reading and writing lessons. He feared that the villagers who had received this instruction would quickly forget it once the volunteers returned to their schools when summer holidays had ended. He therefore proposed that the lessons continue during the scholastic year at the hands of volunteers from government or private schools in the village.
Still, the ministry approved an LE400 grant to the society for expenditure on transport, materials and supplies. It also approved the use of classrooms in government schools in the villages for the society's purposes and pledged to have the society's lectures and textbooks printed in the government's printing house at its expense.
The society then got down to the business of forming a number of specialised committees, one for health education, another for economics, a third for reading and writing instruction, a fourth for social instruction and a fifth for agricultural instruction. It was now poised to go into action.
Almost a year later the Villages Project Society presented an account of its activities. This took two forms: a summary report drafted by the board of directors and speeches delivered by board of director members during a first anniversary ceremony held at the Royal Opera House.
In their report the board of directors said that the work of their organisation had been extended to most of Egypt's 700 villages, although they admitted it would take a long time -- at least 20 years -- before their programme would have accomplished its aims. They added, "The society must continue to work with unflagging dedication and commitment... As long as our resolve remains firm and our energies unstinting, we are confident that we can attain astounding results in the elimination of illiteracy, the reform of the Egyptian village and the advancement of the Egyptian peasant."
There followed an outline of the steps the society had taken to implement its programme. These included the production of three lectures per week which were distributed to the volunteers, the publication of a complete lecture series suitable for an entire summer programme and the publication of a booklet containing an overview of the five branches of study that had been delineated in the society's charter. "It should be noted that the aim of this booklet is to provide lecture points upon which volunteers can elaborate in their lectures to the peasants."
The report goes on to claim that villagers responded enthusiastically to the project, "which inspires the greatest relief and optimism". It adds, "The Egyptian peasant who has remained unaltered for 4,000 years has finally been imbued with a new spirit, characterised by the thirst for the knowledge that will lift his intellectual level and improve the conditions of his daily life."
Equally encouraging were the results of some of the tests that had been given to the villagers. Merely to look at the answer sheets written by people who had not been able to decipher the alphabet or even hold a pen filled one's heart with tremendous joy, the report's writers emphasised. "How beautiful it is to see an illiterate peasant learn how to sign his name, pen simple sentences and perform basic arithmetic operations of addition and subtraction!"
Finally, the writers of the report took great heart in the fact that their project had inspired similar initiatives. "During the past year several other major programmes have emerged, all of which aim to improve the conditions of the Egyptian peasant." These included the compulsory village education project, the model village project and the rural public health project. They also lauded the renewed concern in the long overlooked plight of the Egyptian peasant.
The celebration the society held at the Royal Opera House, attended by the minister of education, featured a lengthy succession of speeches. Following a brief introductory address by the head of the board of directors, Dr Ali Ibrahim spoke at length on the aims and achievements of the Villages Project Society. The text of his speech was published on nearly a full page of Al-Ahram. Evidently he had gotten a bit carried away, for in addition to the specific objectives of the society he spoke on the need to beautify the Egyptian village, to provide hygienic and fire-proof housing and other such reforms.
It was up to the next speaker, Abdel-Halim Nosseir, to bring things back to the order of business. He first expressed his regret that there were no peasants among the speakers on this occasion in which they were the focus of concern. He then proceeded to relate a story that must have awakened the interest of the many in the audience whose eyelids were drooping from the previous speech.
Nosseir related that when the Emperor Napoleon toured the villages in Egypt he expected the same protocol to apply as when he toured the villages in France. This entailed the mayor and villagers assembling to receive him and sounding the village canon to salute his arrival. In one village he visited Napoleon did not hear the canon salute. When he asked the reason, the mayor explained there were many reasons, the first being that the village did not possess a canon. Napoleon interrupted him saying that that alone was sufficient. Napoleon then asked why there were no peasants among those present. Again the mayor said that there were many reasons, the first being that the Egyptian peasant was illiterate, which dispensed of the need to mention the other reasons.
On a more practical note, Mohamed Mazhar Said spoke of the new and faster methods for teaching peasants reading, writing and the principles of arithmetic which were very different from the methods used to teach children. Children, naturally, had the time available to endure the lengthy introduction of the alphabet, with all the names of the letters, their proper articulation and how to form them accurately in writing. This alone could take a year, after which children would learn how to form words and read them in isolation. Naturally, the adult villagers in the literacy programme did not have such time at their disposal, and with the new methods it was possible to significantly condense years of education into months and produce rapid fruits.
The last to speak was Abdallah Hussein who, as treasurer, addressed the society's financial circumstances. Resources were still a serious problem, he said. The largest amount of money they received was the LE400 grant from the Ministry of Education, which enabled them to rent premises with modest furnishings. He concluded with an appeal for members to pay their dues and for other philanthropically minded persons to step forward with donations.
Following the ceremony, Al-Ahram made no further mention of the Villages Project Society. By no means does this diminish the importance of the society's entry into the annals of the development of civil society in Egypt.