Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 August 2000
Issue No. 495
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A Diwan of contemporary life (351)

Fundamental changes in the lifestyle and living conditions of Egyptians occurred in the wake of World War I and the 1919 revolution against British occupation. Advertisements in Al-Ahram, which began to appear immediately after it was born in 1876, served the twin purpose of reflecting these changes and engineering new ones. This instalment in the Diwan series deals with ads published in Al-Ahram in the second and third decades of the 20th century. Illiteracy among the majority of Egyptians at that time curtailed the impact of advertisements in numerical terms. The limited number of literate Egyptians who benefited from ads consisted of the rich and middle classes who had been exposed to Western influences. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* takes us through the advertising columns of Al-Ahram since that time

Ads: Mirror and catalyst

Advertisements have been a fixture throughout Al-Ahram's life, forever reflecting society's changing needs and economic and cultural developments. This is why it has been valuable to follow the progress of advertising in Al-Ahram, Egypt's oldest and most solidly established Arabic language newspaper. The Diwan series has chronicled the evolution of advertisements on the pages of Al-Ahram in the first years of its publication and once again in the first decade of the 20th century. It is time to resume monitoring the progress of newspaper advertising over the subsequent 15 years, a task that promises to be rewarding, but certainly not the last word on the subject.

While many of Al-Ahram's readers in the early 20th century may have imagined that they represent the majority of the populace, the fact remains that the vast majority of Egyptians at the time were still illiterate. This applies in particular to rural Egypt, and also to the popular quarters of the cities, where economic factors as well as rudimentary reading skills impeded access to the printed page.

As the educated segment of the populace, Al-Ahram's readers, in spite of their diversity, were also the most intensely exposed to the influences of modernisation, both in terms of ideas and modes of consumption. They were thus the first to abandon the products of the traditional crafts and flock to factory-made manufactures, whether produced locally or abroad.

Initially only a very small upper class spearheaded the changing consumer patterns, as epitomised by the advertisements in Al-Ahram, but the growth of the government civil servants and urban and rural notable classes added momentum to the popularity of the advertised products. An emerging middle class soon followed suit, as the general inclination of this segment of the society was to emulate those of higher status in spite of the economic difficulties involved.

Of course, the change in lifestyles and attendant shifts in modes of consumption did not occur overnight. Egyptians, even within a certain swathe of society, did not change from traditional garb to coat and tie from one day to the next, as is abundantly evidenced by the literature of the period. Although there are no figures available for the numbers of people who held out against the changing fashions or the numbers of people who overcame the psychological barriers preventing them from adopting Western styles of dress, it is reasonable to assume that the process took at least a generation. Indeed, we have many examples of prominent public figures of the period, such as Lutfi El-Sayyid, Saad Zaghlul and Mohamed Mahmoud, who continued to opt for the traditional galabiya and caftan until their dying breaths. While these figures would don Western attire when necessary, there are perhaps just as many examples from this class who could not bring themselves to wear Western dress at all. Perhaps the only exception to this phenomenon were such figures as Adli Yakan, Hussein Rushdi and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, all hailing from the Turkish aristocracy who never wore traditional Egyptian garb in the first place.

Nonetheless, it is easy to perceive that there was a climate of change conducive to the increasing proliferation of advertisements in the press. This climate was generated in part by the demands of certain occupations. Certainly, the functionaries in the early 20th century government bureaucracy could no longer turn up for work in the galabiyas, sandals and turbans that may once have been socially acceptable for their fathers to wear in such a setting. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a profusion of advertisements for shoes, replacing the bulgha, a traditional type of men's leather slippers. Moreover, given the consumers targeted for the products, it is not odd that most of the shoe advertisements promoted imported shoes, particularly British-made shoes, such as the following:

"David Bryan & Co. -- Shoe Department: Showroom for the sale at exceptional prices of great quantities of sturdy British-made shoes for men, women and children. An opportunity for those who care about economising."

A similar advertisement placed by "Robert Hughes, Souaris Square, Cairo" in Al-Ahram of 27 May 1922 read:

"In view of the satisfaction the public has demonstrated in the special shoe prices we have offered -- LE1.50 per pair (regularly selling at LE2.50-LE3.00) -- we have decided to prolong the sale at reduced prices. We have also included in this sale our leather-soled shoes with white cloth uppers for LE1.00."

In view of the fact that the Egyptian pound went a long way in those days, even the sale prices would have been beyond the reach of a large segment of the population. This leads us to the belief that the advertisements targeted the upper echelons of government functionaries, while the lower levels would have continued to frequent the small Greek, Armenian and Syrian shoemakers whose modest stores proliferated in middle class neighborhoods.

Similar conditions prevailed for other Western-style clothing items, for which innumerable advertisements filled the pages of Al-Ahram. It is interesting to observe that some clothing stores of the period were the first in Egypt to adopt a new advertising pitch. On 27 June 1924, Al-Ahram featured the following:

"As we at Chemla and Brothers have always been keen to preserve our superb tradition of satisfying our customers, we have organised an outstanding end-of-season sale." "End of season" might appear an odd expression to use when considering the date the calendar tells us. But as the hot season in this country in whose clear skies the sun always shines had begun a long time ago, the products Chemla had on offer were indeed end-of-season.

The advertisement goes on to add, "The sale is not restricted to a few scattered items in our vast store on Fouad I Street, but rather extends throughout all departments and includes thousands of products that are being cleared at incredibly low prices."

Along with new clothing fashions came new types of cleaners and pressers to replace the traditional washing and hand- or foot- ironing stalls. It was thus becoming commonplace to come across such advertisements as that for "Sphinx Cleaners," dry-cleaners for "valuable and ordinary" men's and women's clothes. The ad reminded its readers that "clean and neatly pressed clothes are an important ingredient for success."

Certain advertisements could only have targeted the most well-to-do. Purchasing an automobile, for example, would have been beyond the reach of the petit bourgeoisie and would never have entered the wildest dreams of the working classes whose highest aspiration as far as transportation went was to obtain a comfortable seat on the bus or tramway. Take for example the following advert which appeared in Al-Ahram of 29 August 1924:

"When choosing one's automobile, one must be discerning and discriminating. Buy Citroen. Its ten horsepower engine is more economical than any other motor and its mechanical components are of a perfection that brooks no criticism. You can save LE50 to LE60 if you purchase this model at Citroen agent George Valsamedes on Soliman Street in Cairo and Fouad I Street in Alexandria."

The "savings" alone were a small fortune by the standards of the time. It is difficult to imagine that Egypt's rich of the period were overly concerned about saving LE50-60 on what was more a status symbol than a means of transportation.

Affecting the consumer climate in Egypt were the large European expatriate communities in the major cities and, to a lesser extent, the provincial capitals. Egyptians resented the exploitative aspect of the foreign presence, but as they intermingled with individual foreigners they were bound to be taken by certain facets of their lifestyle. Musical tastes and habits are a prime example. We note, for example, that many members of the Egyptian middle class at the time began to acquire pianos and hire musical instructors for their children. In addition, the gramophone began to occupy a vaunted position in the reception room, declaring to all visitors that the occupants of that home were well ensconced in the sophisticated comforts of the respectable bourgeois class. It was with such tokens of status that families enhanced the marital prospects of their daughters, not to mention respect for the master of the home.

Not surprisingly, most of the music store-owners were foreigners. Perhaps the best known and most widely advertised were the G Caldern Stores. With two branches, one on Emad Eddin in Cairo and the other on Sherif Street in Alexandria, G Caldern boasted competitive prices and easy payment schemes.

Among the many gramophone and record stores was the National Beidaphone Company, which announced to its "honourable customers" in one of its adverts that it had recently acquired "a new collection of the recordings of musical compositions and lyrical songs by the original and talented Zaki Effendi Murad." Another music company, Odeon, proclaimed that it had just obtained "the most beautiful and solidly built gramophones and the latest recordings of the most famous Egyptian, European and Turkish performers," and that it was "prepared to meet all requests at affordable prices." But, "the word is not the same as coming to see for yourself!" it exhorted potential customers.

Another frequently advertised luxury item was watches. The fob-watch, rather than the wristwatch, was still more prevalent at the time, in view of the fact that the golden chain from which it was suspended was another visible sign of class. Omega's large advertisement in Al-Ahram was bedecked with several pictures of its products surrounding the picture of an obvious gentleman of means sporting an Omega watch. "Omega watches never go wrong," blazoned its caption. Another company, Byon Cramer and Partners, announced that it offered "the most accurate timepieces in the world." A more down market brand was "Tramway," popular among the lower ranks of government functionaries. It sold for a much more affordable LE1.40 and was promoted as "the watch chosen by the Egyptian Railway Authority and the Electric Tramway Company."

Three samples of ads published in the 1920s

A significant proportion of Al-Ahram's early 20th century readership could afford leisure time and holidays abroad to fill it with. The Lebanon Resorts Company was perhaps one of the best known tourist companies that advertised on the pages of Al-Ahram. In one promotional announcement that it could "facilitate travel to Lebanon, whether via Palestine to Haifa and from there to Beirut or by sea from Port Said." The company further leased furnished homes in all Lebanese resorts at reasonable monthly rates. In short, it promised "to "transport holiday goers to Lebanon over the shortest route at the cheapest prices and to serve them honestly and faithfully."

Apparently the Lebanon Resorts Company was true to its word for Al-Ahram lauded it for having been instrumental in boosting Egyptian tourism to Lebanon, to the degree that the number reached 58,000 in one year. In view of the fact that Al-Ahram's founders and most of its editorial staff were originally Lebanese it is not surprising that the newspaper promoted tourism to Lebanon. In particular, it wrote that most Egyptians prefer Lebanon over other holiday destinations "due to the quality of its air, its proximity, the customs of its people, the mode of life there and its language, all of which factors Egyptians and Lebanese have in common." The preference was also due to "the Lebanese people's deep-rooted tradition of loving and respecting all Egyptian people."

But not all advertisements catered to class-oriented consumer patterns. Indeed, many addressed much broader segments of the population and reflected important changes that were taking place in behaviour and concerns. Above all we note the advertisements for various educational institutions that proliferated particularly from August to October every year, the time preceding the academic year when school administrations sought all means to up their enrolment figures, including promotion in Al-Ahram.

Two major factors lay behind this development. The first pertained to the British occupation educational policy of cutting back on public education allocations and closing down schools, in response to which many citizens took the initiative to open privately run and financed community schools. The second was the growing perception that modern education was a route to more prestigious and better paying jobs and to social advancement in general. This situation remained just as true in the 1920s as it had at the beginning of the century. However, the declaration of Egypt's independence in 1922, and with it the removal of British control over the educational system, inspired many to open new schools, which they would promote in the national press.

Many of the advertisements played upon the attractiveness of the school premises and the facilities it offered. The Wadi Al-Nil School in Sayeda Zeinab, for example, was "situated in a grand villa," had "highly trained instructors" and was particularly keen on "sports and school excursions." It also featured boarding facilities with "food of unparalleled quality." A visit to the school "will convince you that you have found your destination."

Fouad I School in Shubra boasted its new boarding facility in "a newly constructed building set in the midst of a large garden and with a capacity of a thousand full and part-time boarders." Evidently, boarding schools were become quite popular, for another school, the Secondary Preparatory School, announced that, "in response to the requests of parents and guardians, we have resolved to open a boarding school as of the beginning of this year, equipped to meet all standards of sanitation, care and orderliness." Nor did the advertisement forget to mention the fee: LE45 per year. One imagines that this advertisement targeted rural notables who could afford to place their children in these exorbitantly expensive institutes by the economic standards of the age.

Some societies established themselves specifically to provide accommodation to students from out of town. The Cairo-based Friends of the Holy Bible Society, for example, published an advertisement in Al-Ahram of 24 September 1924 announcing that it offered a home for students within easy transportation distance of all schools. Lodging cost LE25 per year, "inclusive of food, bed, laundry and lighting."

A constant peripheral to official education was private tuition. "PhD in French law, prepared to offer private and group tuition in legal and economic sciences, baccalaureate requirements and all European languages, using the most up-to-date teaching pedagogy," is typical of the wording of advertisements for this service. It is interesting to observe how this phenomenon that has come to plague our educational system today had its origins at this early date.

Al-Ahram advertisements in the 1920s also reflected a change in the prevalent attitudes towards medical treatment, and specifically a shift away from traditional herbal remedies to the modern pharmaceutical sciences. In addition to advertisements placed by physicians with degrees obtained in the West, hardly an edition of Al-Ahram failed to herald the availability of a new wonder drug. Many of these ads make amusing reading today:

"Skink powder tours the world!" proclaimed one promotion of an amazing treatment for intestinal upset and liver ailments. The new potion, concocted from a type of lizard, "has now appeared in Egypt and has been certified by a large number of physicians in this country." In addition, "It has become widely known in Paris, Zurich, Vienna and Karlsbad. It is easily obtainable at all pharmacies, which dispense it in bottles."

Another new medicine was promoted by the Egyptian-British Pharmaceutical Company in a lengthy advertisement captioned, "The ancient Egyptian god of healing." The product, Yadil, consisted primarily of garlic extract such as that prepared by the ancient Egyptians and it cured an astounding array of ailments: sinusitis, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, fever, diphtheria, chronic bronchitis, scarlet fever, and, last but not least, indigestion. It appears that the advertisers ascribed to the ancient Egyptian god more responsibilities than he bargained for.

A third wonder drug whose publicity pursued Al-Ahram readers over endless editions was Zambuk, which promised a rapid remedy to itching and other dermatological ailments. It was billed as "naturally soothing and, more importantly, it is a disinfectant that hunts out and kills germs and bacteria even if they reside deep within the cutaneous tissues. Zambuk stops painful itching, burning and inflammation once and for all, cleanses away contaminated skin particles and cures the skin in an amazing way."

Lastly there remain the advertisements promoting the newly invented household appliances that were beginning to ease domestic work. One was "Radius," the new Swedish-made stove, of which "None better exists!" The advertisers predicted that this stove would soon find its way into every kitchen. Their prediction proved correct.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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