Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trams changed our lives

Samir Sobhi* relates how a little invention went a long way, as did a few piastres

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Few Egyptians knew anything about electric power before the introduction of the trams, so they were baffled to see comfortable trains -- sliding on rails, sending beams of light from their front lamps -- appear on their streets. Since the inauguration of the country's first tramline on 12 August 1896, the nation's fleet of animal-drawn carriages began to decrease. From then on, electricity became a byword for progress

The early years of the 20th century altered forever Egypt's political and social life. It was at that time that what is now called "public opinion" came into being. The newspapers and later on the radio were essential in shaping people's views, but there was something too: the tram.

Mohamed Sayed Kilani, a contemporary historian, elaborates: "When the inhabitants of the capital began to mingle, as a result of the introduction of the tram, public opinion began to take shape and influence the ruling apparatuses."

When the Ottoman Empire declared war on Greece in April 1897, Egypt was gripped with excitement. Egyptians awaited news from the front with eagerness and took pride in Ottoman victories. Committees were formed to collect donations for the Ottoman war effort, with 45 committees springing to action in Cairo alone. Nearly 300 committees operated in the rest of the country. An Egyptian all- women committee was formed to collect donations, and its members did not just solicit money from the rich and the middle classes. Donation boxes were placed in mosques to give people with humble means a chance to participate in the war effort. The country's supreme judge and the Azhar scholars issued edicts saying that helping the Ottoman Empire in the war was a religious duty.

When the Anglo-Boer war erupted in 1900, Egyptians sided with the Boers and gloated at any news of British defeats. A contemporary article in the magazine Mawsuat (Encyclopaedias) expressed a common view. "The nation of Transvaal, not the mightiest of nations, has stood up for itself. It has taken on the mighty brigades of the British, challenging them in battle, for the British, with their famous greed, are trying to take away their livelihood and land."

Few Egyptians knew anything about electric power before the introduction of the trams, so they were baffled to see comfortable trains -- sliding on rails, sending beams of light from their front lamps -- appear on their streets. Since the inauguration of the country's first tramline on 12 August 1896, the nation's fleet of animal-drawn carriages began to decrease. From then on, electricity became a byword for progress.

Egypt's press felt no sympathy for the technological backwardness of the Mahdi movement when the latter lost the war in 1898. The leading newspaper Al-Moayyad wrote: "The fall of the dervishes' state in 1898 illustrates the difference between the scientific-industrial war and the outdated modes of battle when combatants relied on their personal courage and fought till victory or death. The courage of the dervishes didn't help them, and their bravery in defending their land meant nothing in the face of long- range fire by cannons and rifles raining lethal thunder upon their heads, giving them no other option but to surrender."

SPLURGING OUT IN 1920: Here are notes from the diary of the head of a middle class family living in Cairo in the early 1920s. He was a translator in a government office and lived in Abdine, the rather affluent quarter not far from the king's palace. Government employees at the time made anything between LE8-80 a month, according to their grade. He made a decent salary of LE15 a month (one pound= 100 piastres= 1,000 millims).

Here are the expenses for one day, chosen at random: Breakfast 15 millims, two lottery tickets 20 millims, pocket money for the three children 60 millims, three pounds of fish 100 millims, corn and fuul 50 millims, sardines and cheese 50 millims, milk and oil 150 millims, grapes 50 millims.

Another day goes thus: children pocket money 50 millims, milk 50 millims, eggs and flour 250 millims, gasoline tank 150 millims, two lottery tickets 20 millims.

A day in which he buys clothes for the family: breakfast 10 millims, meat and lunch 180 millims, five pairs of socks 200 millims, six colour handkerchiefs 90 millims, a can of shoe varnish 25 millims, four calf shanks 90 millims, wooden clogs for the children 100 millims, mending of son's trousers 50 millims.

A day in which he meets his monthly obligations: pension fund contribution 750 millims, government stamp 40 millims, company fund contribution 300 millims, coffeehouse account 525 millims, tip for the coffeehouse boy 10 millims, two-way tram ticket from Abdine to Ataba 12 millims, lunch 30 millims, lentils and oil 150 millims, cigarettes 35 millims.

From other entries in the man's diary, it is apparent that a bottle of codfish oil cost 17 piastres, a meal of cheese and cold cuts was five piastres, two pounds of soap were seven piastres, an ounce of salted codfish (baccala) five piastres, a box of 25 kilos of sugar LE1, plus four piastres for transportation.

Children's expenses took up a big share of the family budget. The second instalment of a son's tuition fees at Abdine Elementary School was LE2. Medical treatment of another son was 16 piastres, including 10 piastres in doctor's fees.

And a man had to keep up with the news and look good. A newspaper cost 15 millims and a cup of coffee was five millims, and a shave set eight piastres. For the patriotically-minded, a picture of Saad Zaghloul went for 15 millims.

* Senior editor at Al-Ahram.

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