Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (558)
May they rest in peace
The obituaries page of Al-Ahram has become a status symbol in modern Egypt. This makes it a mine of information on social and political change throughout the past century. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk analyses the Ahram obituaries as they matured in the 1930s and the insight they reveal on contemporary Egyptian society
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Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque -- many families own graveyards in the vicinity of the shrine
In the mid-19th century, Al-Ahram gave birth to a column that would distinguish it from other Arabic newspapers. At its inception, the features of the Obituaries page, as is the case with all newborns, were still miniature and indistinct. The column took up only a small space in what was then only a four-page daily. But, it met a need of Egyptians who, until then, relied on town criers, in the case of Muslims, or the tolling of the church bell, in the case of Christians, to disseminate news of the "grievous affliction".
Still, it would take some time before the practice of announcing the death of loved ones in the daily newspaper became an established Egyptian tradition. In the interim, the new mingled with the old, as was the case in many other areas of life. The town crier continued to roam the streets, especially in the countryside and provinces, proclaiming news of the calamitous blow that life ordains is the fate of us all. Churches, too, continued that mournful peal, as though it were a divinely ordained rite, even though, to my knowledge, there is nothing in Christian scriptures that suggests that it must be so. At the same time, death notices began to wend their way onto the pages of Al- Ahram, albeit slowly and very intermittently at first.
Time, however, would change all that; by the 1930s the initial trickle had evolved into a gush. By then Al-Ahram had quadrupled in size to a 16-page daily, permitting both for new sections and for increasing the size of old ones. Also, its readership included many more sectors of society, both because of the advances in technology and transportation that aided the publication and distribution of newspapers, and because of the spread of literacy. At the same time, trains and trams made it easier for people to come and pay their last respects, while the telephone, telegraph and better postal services made it possible for them to convey their condolences from afar if they were unable to put in a personal appearance.
In spite of these developments the town crier had not yet become a thing of the past. Some families still clung to the old customs when it came to the mournful business of announcing the death of a loved one including the traditional chants and lamentations by hired female mourners. Others were unable to afford the price of placing an announcement in a major newspaper of Al-Ahram 's status. On the other hand, in some ways the newspaper tried to stick to tradition in substance, at least with regard to the formulaic laments and elegies to the deceased. In all events, it is precisely this co-existence of the old and the new that warrant a closer look at the Al-Ahram 's obituary page.
Not surprisingly, the obituaries of "notables" occupied the greatest space on the obit page, not only because of the status of the persons whose passing they lamented but also because they were, in themselves news, even if privately paid for.
Osman Murtada Pasha had been the head of the Royal Cabinet in Khedival days. Underscoring the deceased's erstwhile status, the obituary dwelt at length on the funerary procession that had taken place the previous day. Proceeding from his villa in Munira, the coffin, "carried by his followers and disciples", was preceded by a contingent from the Mawlawiya Sufi order. More significant, however, were the personages who marched in the procession -- in addition to the secretary of Prince Mohamed Ali, there many several high- ranking pashas and beks. The announcement, placed by the late Murtada's family members, goes on to relate that the coffin was transported by hearse -- "followed by a stream of automobiles carrying high-ranking condollers" -- to "the tomb that he had constructed in his private mosque in the Imam Al-Shafei cemeteries". There, "Taftazani delivered a moving oration in which he praised the great contributions the deceased had made to all public projects and his major impact in the service of the Oriental League. He also mourned the passing of a resource of Egyptian history who had taken with him a collection of secrets never to be revealed by time." Another speaker, Abdallah Afifi, Arabic secretary in the Royal Cabinet of King Fouad, mourned the passing of "a distinguished Muslim figure whose devotion to Islam and the Orient moved him to dedicate himself unflaggingly to the Islamic and Oriental affairs of the moment until he was returned to earth amidst great outpourings of grief and sorrow". As was only appropriate to a man of that standing, in addition to the lavish funeral arrangements, his family had a large marquee erected outside his home to which "all persons of prominence and stature representing all sectors of society, political parties and government organisations" came to pay condolences.
Often a politician's role in government and national affairs would be mirrored in the turn out to his funeral, as was the case with Mohamed Muhib Pasha, who had occupied several ministerial posts during the notorious Sidqi era. Most of those who marched in his funeral procession were fellow officials in government or members of parliament during that period, or adversaries of the Wafd Party who at the time were making a comeback into government. Among the latter were Mohamed Helmi Issa, Sadeq Yehia, Tawfiq Rifaat, Hamdi Seif El-Nasr and Kamel Sidqi. If those who placed the obituary prayed for God's eternal mercy for the deceased and solicited His divine solace in their time of grief, it is difficult to imagine that the majority of Egyptians shared their sentiments; the general rancor bequeathed by the Sidqi era was still fresh.
The obituary of Mohamed Tawfiq El-Orabi is an example of the type of obituary that seemed to profile the status of the family to which the deceased belonged. The list of names of those who attended the funeral procession made it clear that the former official in the Ministry of Finance counted as his brothers a bek, a counseller in the national court of appeals and a physician. Other relatives included the chief inspector for the National Department of Health, an inspector in the Ministry of Finance, a director of government estates, a general director in the Ministry of Trade, the director of the finance department in the Cairo Governorate, the deputy chief magistrate of the Qena primary court, not to mention a number of senior officers in the army and navy.
Al-Ahram obituaries, however, were not exclusively the domain of the "big families" in Cairo and Alexandria, as was evident in the obituary of "His Excellency Hassan Bek El-Gamal, former member of parliament from Beni Sueif." His relatives included a number of provincial notables, such as the mayor of Al-Maymoun, a member on the Beni Sueif Directorate Board, the mayor of Kom Abu Radi and the mayor of Beni Suleiman. El-Gamal "heeded the calling of his Lord at the age of 70, after a life of devotion and piety. May God rest his soul." That was not a short life span by the standards of those times.
Frequently the subject of an obituary acquired importance not because of the economic status of his or her family but because of his or her relationship to a noted member of that family. This was the case with the mother of Nabawiya Moussa, advocate of female education and the founder of the Al-Ashraf School for Girls in Alexandria. Contrary to general custom, Nabawiya Moussa's name preceded the names of the male members of the family, many of whom, it is interesting to note, were also active in the field of education: Mohamed Abdel-Razeq, a public school teacher; Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, professor at Dar Al-Uloum; Mohamed Said, principle of Ras Al-Tin Elementary School and Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, senior teacher at Abbasiya Secondary School.
A similar situation applied to the death of Tawfiq Suleiman, son of Youssef Suleiman Pasha, former minister of finance. Among the other prominent relatives mentioned in the obituary were Fahim Suleiman, a judge in the National Court; Minister of Agriculture Kamel Ibrahim; Iskandar Shenouda, a notable from Tanta; and Aziz Suleiman, chief engineer in the Mansoura department of the national Railway Authority. Compounding the family tragedy in this case was that the dearly departed had been "seized by the hand of fate in the prime of his youth". Those who wished were invited to pay their last respects at the funeral ceremonies, which were to be held at 10am on the same day the obituary was published, with the procession commencing in front of the Police Academy in Abbasiya.
From the obituary of "The Khawaga Dimitri Boutros", it appears that the Coptic Batarsa family of Belina occupied as respectable a place in the social order as the Suleimans. Dimitri was the son-in- law of Fouad Zaqlama, the uncle of Fikri and Munir Boutros, the nephew of the "Khawagas Zaki and Qazman", and the uncle of Youssef and Zikri Girgis Mashraqi who were two eminent citizens of Girga. "The coffin was escorted in a magnificent procession that commenced from the home of the late Dimitri Boutros to the family graveyard, where the body of the dearly departed was laid in its final resting place, may the Lord grant him eternal mercy."
A word should be said here about the title "Khawaga". Although the term currently refers to foreigners of Western origin, it originally came from the Persian for "master" or "wealthy merchant". In Egypt it was used as a title for wealthy merchants but with time it came to refer specifically to wealthy Coptic merchants. In fact, it still is used in that sense in parts of Upper Egypt and even in some quarters of Cairo and Alexandria in which Coptic merchants from Upper Egypt proliferate, such as the market of Wikalat Al-Balah. This fact is borne out in the following obituaries:
"The Khawaga Shafiq Ghali, jeweller, his sons Rifaat Shafiq and Nazem, his brother Maher and the rest of the family mourn with heavy hearts the death of the late Shawkat Shafiq, student in the final year of the Faculty of Medicine, at only 23 years of age. The three nights of vigil will be held at home, on Cleopatra Street, Masr Al-Gadida."
"The Khawaga Murgan Ibrahim was called unto the Lord. A notable of Mallawi, he was the father of the Khawagas Yaqoub, a jeweller in Cairo, and Aziz, a merchant in Mallawi. He was also related directly or through marriage to the Mallawi notables: Khawagas Abdel-Sayed, Sirbana and Ramzi Farag."
The late Yaqoub Tadros also had a lot of "khawagas" in his family. The "notable from Minia" was "the father of the Khawaga Henry Yaqoub, merchant from Minia; the uncle of the Khawagas Gabriel, Rafael, Youssef and Habib Hanna, and of the Khawaga Murqos Abdel-Mesih; the relative of the Khawagas Basili, Aziz and Adib Hanna; and related by marriage to the Khawagas Murqos and Youssef Shehata." The late Yaqoub Tadros "died at the age of 60 and was laid to rest following a widely-attended funeral ceremony".
The obituary placed by the "El-Humar" family from Abi Tig stands out, not least because of the family name. "El-Humar" -- meaning "the donkey" -- is not a name that one comes across frequently among the Copts in Upper Egypt or elsewhere. But also, in contrast to the preceding obituaries, the deceased -- the Khawaga Wissa Armanius -- counted among his relatives and in-laws many "effendis", the title generally accorded to civil servants. These included an official in the Badari Municipal Court, an irrigation engineer in Tahta and an irrigation inspector in Minia. We should also bear in mind that it was the custom in the composition of obituaries to play up relatives with important social standing, especially if they had a title, while ignoring others, however close, whose names would add nothing to the status of the deceased.
The Copts, it should be noted, repeated the laments for their dead on several occasions. In addition to the three-day vigil, they held commemorative ceremonies after the passage of seven, 15 and 40 days, and on the anniversary of the death. There were also the less formal "visitations" when, on religious holidays, families would visit the graves of their relatives. This custom, inherited from the Ancient Egyptians, was eventually transmitted to other Egyptians, rendering festive occasions also opportunities to pay tribute to the dark hand of fate.
Just as families would profile the political and economic connections of the deceased, they would also highlight his religious credentials, especially in the case of obituaries for religious figures. The late venerable Sheikh El-Sayed Abdel-Wahab Abul-Naga, head of the ashraf (Descendants of the Prophet) in Gharbiya, for example, was an in-law of Sheikh Mohamed Mursi Tabl, teacher at Al-Ahmedi Religious Academy; Sheikh Ibrahim Mugahid Abul- Naga, Qena Religious Court judge; and Mustafa Effendi Mugahid Abul-Naga, employee at the Mansoura National Court.
Sheikh Mohamed Said El-Zawahri had been similarly well- connected in the religious community. The former Al-Azhar scholar was the brother of the venerable Sheikh Mohamed El-Ahmedi El- Zawahri, rector of Al-Azhar; Sheikh Mohamed El-Shafei El- Zawahri, rector of the Alexandria Religious Academy; Sheikh Mohamed El-Hosni El-Zawahri, inspector at the Religious Institutes Authority.
The announcements of the foregoing funerals notified readers that the prayer ceremonies for the deceased would be "restricted to a single night". Undoubtedly this was to emphasise their rejection of the widely practised "pagan customs" Egyptians had inherited from the ancestors.
Just as pashas and beks proliferated in the obituaries of politicians, "khawagas" in the obituaries of wealthy Coptic merchants, and sheikhs in the obituaries of religious leaders, effendis would abound in the obituaries of civil servants and the practitioners of the liberal profession. Such was the case with Hanin Effendi Bishara, whose relatives included a Port Said customs official, the director of the Alexandria Customs Economic Security Department, an irrigation inspector and an East Delta Public Works inspector. The same applied to the wife of Ghali Abadir who was the agent of the post in Abshwai, to the sister-in-law of the effendis Kamel and Nassef and cousin of the effendis Munir, Edward, Gabriel, and Maurice Sawaris" and to the late daughter of Abdel-Latif Effendi Fayid ("sister of Abdel-Maqsud Effendi Fayid; aunt of Ali Effendi Hassan, police inspector in Shebin Al-Kom; and cousin of Abdel-Azim Fayid Effendi of the Minia Municipal Board, and of Tawfiq Effendi Fayid).
Al-Ahram 's obituary page is also an indicator of other prevalent social customs. One trend the obituaries prove is that until the 1930s marriage within the extended family was still prevalent. Since most Egyptian women traditionally keep their maiden names after marriage, evidence of this phenomenon can be found in the obituaries of women who had the same family names as their husbands. As with many traditional societies, marriage was a means to cement and promote economic relations within kinship networks. Simultaneously, parental prerogative combined with the strong restrictions on the intermingling between the sexes limited the choices available to prospective grooms. It should be added that it was not until recently that the medical dangers of inbreeding were discovered.
Obituaries of women might seem peculiar to a modern reader because the deceased were more often than not referred to in terms of their relationship to a male member of the family; a woman would be identified not by her first name but as the wife or daughter of such and such a man -- be he alive or dead. Perhaps this custom emanated from the belief that even a woman's name should be kept private.
Al-Ahram of 27 December 1935 contains the obituaries of two "anonymous" women, identified only by their families. The first was "the wife of the late Ali El-Shishini Bek", although her more socially significant identity was as "the mother of the honourable Hassan Kamel El-Shishini, director-general of the Ministry of Trade and Industry". It was clearly the name of the latter that had brought the hundreds of VIP visitors to the El-Shishini home to pay their condolences, foremost among whom were "His Excellency Mustafa El-Nahhas, Ustaz Makram [Ebeid] and other ministers and high-ranking officials."
The second was the obituary of the young "wife of Yassa Boulis". Here, too, the husband was eclipsed by a more prominent family member; the late Boulis was to be remembered as the "niece of Boulis Hanna Pasha". From the address on El-Mahmoudi Street in Shicolani, where the funeral procession began, it is clear that Yassa, in common with many members of the Coptic petit bourgeoisie was a resident of Shubra. One can therefore imagine that it was at the advice of the pasha, the deceased's uncle, that Yassa limited the funerary reception to a single night.
Another example appears in the Al-Ahram of 23 November, informing us of the death of the wife of the late El-Sayed Effendi Fakhri, a chief engineer in the department of the royal estates. "Mayors and other notables marched in the funeral procession and she was laid to rest amidst great lament." The dearly departed, who died at 70, was extolled for a life devoted to spiritual devotion and piety. Not that these were unusual attributes in obituaries, as it was another Egyptian custom to think well of the dead and commemorate their virtues.
In all events, there were not a few exceptions to the rule of not identifying the deceased woman by name. Most of these were women from aristocratic or upper class families. We have, for example, the obituary of Fatoum Hanem El-Gayar, daughter of the late Ibrahim Bek El-Gayar, who died at the age of 60, following a life of philanthropic works and generosity to the poor. Her funeral proceeded from her estate in Kharbata, Kom Hamada, to the family graveyard. A second was Olwiya Hanem Yakan, daughter of the late Ahmed Amin Pasha, former governor of Istanbul, and wife of the late Mohamed Ezzeddin Bek Yakan. The Yakans, one of whom served as prime minister, were clearly of the Turkish aristocracy.
It appears that Copts were even less assiduous about the rule than others, for the Al-Ahram obituaries reveal quite a few names of women from bereaved families, although here we will only mention two. The first was Juliet Maqqar, daughter of Kamel Bek Maqqar and wife of municipal engineer Fouad Bishara. The second was Madame Sophia, whose name was curiously unattached to a father or husband, if the obituary did mention her children, who, it is interesting to note, were listed in terms of age rather than social or professional standing.
Non-Egyptians, too, often made their way to the obituary page. That most of these were of Levantine origin is not surprising, given the size of the Levantine community in Egypt and the fact that Al- Ahram itself was founded by Lebanese and continued to count many Lebanese among its senior staff, prime among whom was Editor-in-Chief Anton Al-Jumail. Gamila Yazbek, wife of the late Suleiman Yazbek, and Tobia Hagg, father of Effendi Hagg, for whom funerary ceremonies were held in the Maronite Church in Shubra were only two of the many Levantines mourned on the pages of Al-Ahram.
But, foreigners on the obituary page ranged both further east and further west. Of the former was Al-Sayed Ghalam Hussein Kazaroni, a notable of the Iranian community, who died "after a life filled with philanthropic works" and whose death "came as a grievous blow to his friends and acquaintances". Kazaroni was "the uncle of Abdel-Hamid Bek and Abdel-Meguid Bek Kazaroni, prominent merchants in the capital". Of the latter was Emanuel Dantemauro, "who passed away following a brief illness and whose remains were transported to Alexandria for burial". Dantemauro's obituary reminds us that he was the contractor for the Alexandria Corniche construction project, which had not that long before been the focus of a national scandal. Naturally, the circumstances would not permit for raking up the differences between the contractor and the municipality. Indeed, the general-director of the municipal board was on hand to pay the municipality's last respects at the funeral.
The existence of long-established expatriate communities in Egypt, such as the Lebanese, the Iranians, the Italians and many others, makes their appearance on the obituary pages understandable. Relations and friends in their second homeland had to be notified of their death. The same did not necessarily apply to other foreigners. However, their business or political dealings in the country still warranted an appropriate remembrance. This was perhaps the case with the eminent American businessman Ralph Chasboro, who passed away following a brief illness, leaving a widow and two sons. Although Chasboro's obituary made no mention of his bequest, one imagines that they were left quite comfortably off.