Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (650)
To the letter
To this day, letters from readers constitute one of the most enjoyable short sections that Al-Ahram's audience has customarily welcomed. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reads some out
In the endeavour to revamp Al-Ahram, the editor of the letters section, Ahmed El-Birri, set aside a collection of letters which addressed a specific issue that we can perhaps refer to as "the issue of the hour", and dedicating the entire section to it in the Saturday edition. El-Birri believed, and we initially agreed with him, that he was doing something new in the history of Al-Ahram. But then it was discovered that the person responsible for this same section, more than three-quarters of a century ago, did the same thing in 1938, with the occasional difference of the nature of the subject at hand. While we generally hold that history does not repeat itself, it seems that it in fact sometimes does in Egypt.
The significance of what we have termed "the issue of the hour" is in its lively presentation of the circumstances of an age, particularly the small details of life that either remain elusive to professional historians or do not receive sufficient interest from them due to their preoccupation with major events. In fact, a reading of history through these "miniature portraits" imparts a flavour much writing lacks.
This section offered a character-filled, multi-coloured panorama that revolves around problems Egyptians face. Some letters presented personal grievances while others addressed general issues. In many cases, the letters addressed readers' pain, directly or otherwise. Moreover, they did not consume much time or effort to read.
This section addressed a historical sentiment buried deep within most of the Egyptian people, a sense of the "eloquent peasant" as represented in ancient literature with his defensive speeches directed to the "pharaoh" to spare him from oppression, irrespective of this pharaoh's nature.
This mail section has presented various stories and ideas that have addressed everything imaginable. At the same time, it has been characterised by the light-heartedness Egyptians have always been endowed with. In my opinion, it has been one of the reasons for transmitting this light- heartedness from generation to generation.
Al-Ahram readers at that time could not help but smile despite the tragic nature of one issue when some people wrote letters in response to an article written by Miss "Daughter of the Shore", Aisha Abdel-Rahman, about the life of peasant farmers, the fellahin. In it, she had written about the "tragedy of hungry children sent to compulsory schools to write astonishing notes with hands made weak with hunger." The editor dedicated the 4 August 1938 mail section to their comments, under the large headline, "Is this bearable?"
In one comment, its author chose to adopt a nickname similar to that of the article's author, calling herself "Daughter of the Open Country". She made an unusual call to the families of these hungry children to travel north to the open country region where the land was spacious enough to hold its number of residents several times over. "The agricultural companies are seeking labourers for agricultural work. They should come to us, where there is good, prosperity and blessings."
The author of another comment chose to grasp the opportunity to attack the government that succeeded the Wafdist government. This prevented him from revealing his name, and so he sufficed with describing himself as the "fellah (farmer) at the Egyptian University". He posed the question -- for what purpose does the government exist? And he responded that it exists to serve the people and uphold justice, for the nation and the people are naught but miserable wretches convulsed with hunger and unable to find food. "Yes, beautiful, rich Egypt is one of the most wretched countries in the world, if not the most."
A third commenter took the opportunity to declare that despite being a public servant, his situation was no less miserable than that of the fellahin Aisha Abdel-Rahman had taken interest in. His salary was 150 piastres a month, the equivalent of five piastres a day, and this was not enough to cover food, clothing and shelter for one man alone. "And so what is the situation when he is married and has children? What do you imagine the circumstances are like for this family?"
Among the old-new comments that the Al-Ahram mail section published starting from that early period addressed what one reader called the "thug state," something that still continues today. "From time to time the papers inform us of their satanic activities and their pursuit of women and weak men. Their threat has become no less than that of murderers and drug dealers." He demanded that the government employ forcefulness and determination in combating them and to be stern with whoever falls into its hands.
Yet the predominant phenomenon addressed until this day has been what one reader termed "civil servants without work." This had newly become widespread at the time, although for different reasons than today. Partisanship was responsible for its origins, although it was initially limited and only found among a number of top officials. "Today, however, its reasons have multiplied, and now top, mid- ranking, and lowly civil servants all lack work, not only due to the partisan factor but rather through mere misunderstanding or because some directors may be full of rancour towards their subordinates due to their superior culture and higher degrees and so act to belittle them." The essential change that later took place in this phenomenon was that civil servants themselves worked to rid themselves of some of the burdens of their work in order to be free to focus on personal matters.
One of the most curious problems the mail section addressed at that time was one the entire section was dedicated to in the 14 December 1938 issue under the headline "The problem of tea in Egypt". The section's supervisor published a collection of letters that addressed this issue of the time -- adulterated tea and nutmeg. At that time, however, they luckily did not suffer from the later developments of tea mixed with coloured wood shavings.
One reader wrote a comment saying that this kind of tea caused serious disturbances in the life of the poor working classes. "Some of them sell their bread to buy tea. Addiction to this drink has begun to seep into most homes, and with it comes worry, lack of appetite, constipation, and financial woes."
It seems that green tea was more common at that time, which explains why one reader warned against drinking black tea. He held that it destroyed the poor working classes, and refuted the claim that it perked the energy of workers. On the contrary, he argued, it sapped their vitality and drained their appetite for food. He also placed the blame on spice merchants for the spread of nutmeg consumption. Irritated by the stern monitoring of drugs, they created a drug from it by pounding and then pressing it. They then came up with symbolic names for it -- The Cannon; What's in Them; Esprit; The Invigorater. A pill cost one piastre, and our friend warned that excessive use numbed the intestines, lowered blood pressure, stiffened the body and caused death.
FAMILY LIFE WAS THE SECOND MAIN THEME of Al-Ahram's mail section following its development, and was the exclusive topic of more than one issue in order to address the many aspects of this topic in all its dimensions. Among these was the issue of women joining the workforce, an issue that faced opposition and severe attack from the majority of those who wrote in, most of whom were men.
Youssef Baktawi held that making the idea a reality would certainly lead to an increase in the number of unemployed, particularly among graduates of commerce schools. The reason he offered was that commercial ventures would prefer to employ women because they would accept lower pay. This opinion was also expressed by another reader, Mursi El-Qadi, who held that it provided work for wives and girls with no responsibility towards children "and makes our young men responsible for supporting families and homes unemployed."
Another reader added a further reason to prevent girls from leaving the house. This was that the girls would suffer from "coarse treatment by men and their not making way for them in the tram as they used to." He added that meek women had previously been the object of men's respect and consideration, but that if women went out to crowd men, their compassion for them would dissipate and they would treat them as they treat other men.
A teacher named M El-Fiqi agreed with all these readers. He held that it was best to prepare girls for successful motherhood and that the Ministry of Education should support this through the preparation of curricula for girls schools. This was particularly the case, he argued, given that most educated women shunned housework and refused to be subservient to men.
A reader from Damanhour, Abdullah El-Erian, disagreed with all of these views. He criticised men for discouraging women from legitimate competition to make respectable earnings. He held that restricting women to the home was nothing but an outpouring of men's selfishness. "As for the claim that their going out to work is incongruous with Eastern customs, this is refuted by the fact that working women are distracted from their jobs by skillful ornamentation and licentiousness."
The final reader to participate on this issue seems to have been a supporter of middle of the road solutions. While he did not oppose it, he held that it should be postponed until an appropriate time, for the number of graduates of commerce schools had exceeded their demand and "the government has not yet created means of living for them." He advised the minister of education to have the ministry take interest in opening the field of commerce to educated youth and to "prepare them for commercial life in a manner that would improve foreigners' opinions of them."
In its new robes, the mail section allocated another issue to the topic of "marriage in Egypt." It opened with a long comment by a lawyer, Abdel-Hayy Hegazi, on what he called women's right to marriage. While he admitted that this was not a legal right, he considered it a social right that society thrust upon the shoulders of the state. It was a right that had religious and moral motives "and so the state must create all incentive means to facilitate marriage." Hegazi even went as far as saying that "there is nothing to prevent marriage being required for government employees."
Some attributed the ruin of the marriage market to traditions followed in Egypt that were incongruous with the fundaments of Islam. "Many continue to view marriage from a material and commercial perspective." This reader demanded that these customs be changed and numerous suggestions were offered in this regard.
One reader held that the government should set dowries "and every young man should add what he can in accordance with his abilities and wealth." Another posited that the Ministry of the Interior should hasten to ban prostitution, and opposed the idea of obliging civil servants to wed "for in most cases this kind of marriage would be followed by divorce." A third suggested granting advantages to married couples and the "producers of children," by allowing them to "borrow cash advances in order to wed and lowering their fees for train travel and hospital treatment." The strangest suggestion put forth by a reader was to hold an annual lottery exclusively for unmarried youth and for the won sum to be used only to marry. "Thus the government would ensure the marriage of 2,000 youth per year from among small civil servants and workers."
As is customary in every age and place, some of Al-Ahram's readers seemed to mourn the past. One reader wrote that the girl of the day had changed in nature, temperament and economic circumstances, to the point that she had practically become another creature. "Adorning herself has become her primary occupation that distracts her from the affairs of the home. Obedience to men has become a heavy burden on her and something that strips her of her right to freedom. Displaying her body in parks, summer resorts, and entertainment halls has become her means for gaining the companionship of infatuated youth."
Perhaps it was this image that motivated the individual responsible for this old-new section to devote one of its issues to what he called "The upbringing of the Egyptian girl." It consisted of responses to a long comment by Miss Shems Bahgat that noted that girls who graduated from Egyptian schools "lacked upbringing and refinement."
Many male readers rushed to support her claim, and one, Hassan Rida, placed the responsibility on teachers. He made a comparison between those in foreign institutes, where instructors had the time to raise the young generation and refine its manners, and those in Egypt, who "are distracted from upbringing by the toils of life and diversions of material needs. They only perform their educational duties, and their mission ends with instructing the young generation with the study curriculum."
On the other hand, someone criticised Miss Bahgat for the campaign she waged against Egyptian female teachers, whom she considered one of the primary factors in the lack of upbringing among Egyptian girls. This reader, while admitting that there were unrefined individuals among educated Egyptian girls, stated that "this cannot be taken as a basis for judging the majority of girls as lacking in morals. In addition to these weak women, the Egyptian environment has produced a large number of esteemed ladies and girls who Egyptian society is proud of."
This kind of issue could not pass without female participation. Miss Mary Basili of the college of arts wrote of her experience in foreign schools, confirming that the seeds of corruption were not planted in elementary or high schools but rather "in the first school, which is the home, at the hands of the first teacher, the mother." She also wrote that foreign schools had their weak points just like Egyptian schools.
Miss Niamet Hamed Muhammad wrote that Miss Bahgat's claims included faults and exaggeration. "So often we see graduates of foreign schools whose Eastern and Egyptian hides have been skinned off. Their status has been replaced, they have been filled with discontent and rebellion against their conservative Eastern environments, and they are ignorant of the language, history, and geography of their country and the fundaments of their religion." She concluded by saying that the picture Miss Bahgat had painted of the Egyptian girl was nothing but a figment of the imagination that rejected the Egyptian nature, Egyptian nationalism and a sense of affiliation to the East.
IN SOME OF ITS ISSUES, the new section took interest in drawing a map of social conditions in Egypt during the late 1930s. One was devoted to the "affairs of civil servants", another to "workers' affairs", and third to "affairs of the fellahin", each of which addressed these sectors' concerns.
At that time, civil servants occupied the largest space as they wrote the most to the newspaper. The majority of civil servants sufficed with signing the first initial of their names, a custom of traditional Egyptian civil servants stemmed in precaution and fear.
"Annulment of secret reports" was one of the urgent demands made by a large group of civil servants. In their opinion, it would raise their status and strengthen their morale and ethical courage. It would also prevent conspiracy and causes for grievance among directors and subordinates, and would do away with reasons to submit to bosses.
As claimed in a letter from an employee in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, bosses had obtained power over their subordinates in a manner that did not guarantee fairness and equality for the latter, thus closing the door in the face of low-level civil servants. Another government employee held that if he were left to perform his duties in the manner he saw fit without supervision, then matters would proceed in a manner satisfactory to all. All he asked for was contentment with monitoring employees' work and morals, and not their affiliation to influential Toms, Dicks or Harrys.
In the same issue of Al-Ahram, another reader wrote a long article about the origins and details of the matter of secret reports. He wrote that students graduate from school believing in higher ideals and filled with idealistic notions. "When they are appointed as civil servants, they and their notions are destroyed through the misery caused by some bosses. Some delight in ordering mistakes and being obeyed, while others grow ecstatic over treating their subordinates roughly for the most trivial of reasons in front of visitors and close friends. Woe upon the frankness of civil servants today. Most government environments are poisoned with slander, flattery, and hypocrisy. Civil servants are caught between two fires -- either they toss away their conscience, freedom, frankness and personality to integrate into this environment and gain relations, or hold onto their high ideals, personality, and courage and be met with administrative punishments should they err as all humans do."
The demand for a "cadre of low-level civil servants" was one of the most important that repeatedly came up in the mail section. This class of government employees expressed their concern over repeated talk that officers, judges, engineers and top officials monopolised the greater portion of government patronage, leaving them only a meagre pittance. One of them reminded "His Excellency the Minister of Finance" that a group of baccalaureate holders had been appointed in positions outside the staff framework at salaries for less than LE4 per month. Then their raises and promotions stopped "and they came to equal servants, office boys, soldiers and guards."
All of these grievances tempted a student to write to Al-Ahram to say that government posts restrict thought, kill talent and imprison free opinions. "While they guarantee a regular salary, assist in the success of marriage, and allow their holders contact with the sophisticated classes and the attendance of official events, they stand in the way of brilliance, free opinion and sincere determination." We don't know whether our friend held onto this opinion following his graduation or whether he, in turn, ran after a government post.
These complaints drove someone else who described himself as "the civil servant the nation wants" to also write to Al-Ahram. He blamed most civil servants as responsible for the spirit of boorishness between them and the public. "They feign importance and dignity in their dealings. But if a person goes to a civil servant in his office for a matter concerning him, he treats him crudely and coarsely. The time has come to do away with the sources of incivility, and for every government employee to understand that he is hired to serve the public."
As the mail page the editor dedicated to "workers' affairs" in the 30 September issue of Al-Ahram it was dominated by a typically pessimistic tone. This was apparent in the letter by worker Hanafi Nigm, in which he addressed the issue of the model housing intended to be built for workers. He wrote that the labourer himself was the only one to be enthusiastic about this kind of healthy housing, "for a great number of them were previously built on School of Medicine Street and not a single worker has lived in them until today, for it is unreasonable for any worker to pay LE2.50 as monthly rent for housing unless he is willing to go without food and clothing for himself and his children! For where is the worker who saves LE1 from his wages after the costs of food?"
Nigm noted that workers were not interested in model housing but rather in obtaining a wage that allowed them to live a humble, virtuous life. Their first demand was to put in place a minimum wage and to find work for their unemployed. Following that, thought could be given to model housing, the last of the workers' demands.
Another worker, Muhammad Hamdi from Tanta, asked his colleagues to form a strong front that would protect them from swindle. He wrote that Western workers' unions were making a call to hold a general conference in which their organisations and groups would be represented. He urged his colleagues to offer their opinions and suggestions for the success of this conference.
This inspired one of the students in the college of sciences to write about what he considered a new movement on the horizon of politics and formed of two new parties. One of them would defend workers' issues while the other would defend issues related to the fellahin. "Egypt complains of division among its people and complication of its issues, and is in need of one hand that works and implements."
As for the fellahin, they did not defend themselves as much as others defended them, as Abdel-Rahman had done. When someone undertook their defence, it was usually a landowner and not a real worker in the field. Their demands thus served their interests.
An example of this is the letter of someone who described himself as "Fellah" and demanded that the government show mercy in the collection of cotton monies, particularly since the administrators had received instructions to bar farmers from transporting their cotton before receiving a document from the bank stating that they had paid their required monies. This same topic was the focus of another letter from a resident of Damanhour, in which he made clear the inability of many farmers to face the losses incurred by holding back agricultural crops. He asked that government and bank loan monies be payable by instalment "to protect the fellahin from death and destruction."
The last contributor who wrote on affairs of the fellahin was a resident of Al-Menoufia who had studied the rent system and its effect on the conditions of the fellahin. He condemned the exploitation of large landowners in his directorate through raising the rent value of their land, as well as illegal subletting and the crops' liability to drought, pests, and low prices.
Alongside all these serious calls for reform of the circumstances of Egyptian fellahin were also some incredibly romantic calls. One was made by a reader called Hamida Muhammad Abu Zeid, who mentioned a recommendation that had been put forth by a famous Irish writer in 1923 when he visited the pyramids in Giza -- to demolish them and build homes for impoverished fellahin with their stones. Another was made under the title "A young boy's suggestion," to form an "association for charitable gifts to the poor, deprived, hungry, and miserable fellahin." This was the most Al-Ahram could offer concerning the residents of Egypt's countryside in "the issue of the hour."