Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Of pashas and peasantry

An Egyptian cotton shirt once had a silky lustre that was unsurpassed, so what has happened to the country’s textiles industry, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

In ancient Egypt, foreign visitors from the Levant, Nubia and North Africa to the court in Luxor were often treated as “barbarians” or “uncivilised” people because of their mode of dress. The ancient Egyptians were one of the world’s first peoples to don first fine linen and later cotton fabrics.

For myself, I did not fully understand the international fascination with Egyptian cotton until I visited Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, a provincial city in the Nile Delta in Northern Egypt. About 80km north of Cairo, Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra has long been reputed to be the “Manchester of Egypt”. But when I last paid a visit, I was shocked by the sorry state of the city, with its alleyways peppered with workshops whose artisans had long since died and whose sons were not interested in keeping up the trade. That was until I met the Pasha.

Mahmoud Pasha Khalil is in his early 80s and has had a long working career dating from the days of king Farouk, when he was a mere adolescent, passing through the days of former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. A pasha, a noble rank in the Turkish-Egyptian aristocracy, cannot be outfoxed by a bunch of peasants. And to this day the traditional mindset of prejudice against the peasants prevails.

Yet, in the same way as the Egyptian cinema often depicts the struggle between pashas and the peasantry, the demand for social justice persists. The opinion that justice must be done is on the rise, and no more so than in the Nile Delta. This has been perhaps especially the case since the days of Nasser, who championed peasants’ rights and instigated radical land reforms that curtailed the powers of the pashas.

Youssef Chahine’s film Al-Ard (The Earth), a 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharkawi, for example, embodies the peasants’ struggles for social justice. The focus of the film is on a village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on the Nile to irrigate their crops, especially cotton. They live on the land, and they live from the land, but so do the pashas.

In the 1930s when the film was set Egypt was a semi-independent monarchy, but it was still ultimately under British colonial control. The pashas did not permit the peasants, the fellaheen, the tillers of the land in Egyptian Arabic, to have any rights. Charitable works in the name of religion were encouraged, and the peasants were supposed to be eternally grateful for the pashas’ largesse, but it was not until the 1952 Revolution that the peasants were to fight for their land and their crops.

For the Pasha himself, however, throughout these years there was almost no significant meeting of the textile industry from which he was debarred. Then after the 25 January Revolution he survived the military regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Muslim Brotherhood rule.

“I met many Muslim Brotherhood activists who were fine people in Al-Mahalla, and I was careful to invite them to my Ramadan gatherings where I prepared, or rather my wife did, lavish banquets, and there were Coptic Christian clergy there as well. These were fine moments of national unity. But when I heard the first speech of ex-president Mohamed Morsi, I was alarmed. I have no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood as such, but Morsi was a disaster,” the Pasha explained.

He is one of the survivors of Egypt’s cotton and textiles industry, and his mansion is an eye-opener. A magnificent marble staircase graces the entrance in Italian marble from Carrara of the highest quality in its distinctive blue-grey shade. It is all breathtakingly beautiful.

The Pasha’s palace is full of fascinating historical photographs, each of which tells a story. “Those were the good old days, and then there were the tough years,” the Pasha expounds. One picture shows his grandmother and his great-aunts and aunts, and in it none of them are veiled. As far back as he remembers women in his family only sported a veil when performing prayers, much like Orthodox Christians do today when they enter a church or are receiving the Eucharist.

“You cannot imagine what Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra looked like then. It was a cosmopolitan city of Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. The streets were as clean as those of Swiss cities, and there were tree-lined boulevards and villas of magnificent splendour,” the Pasha says. “Most of the pashas of yesteryear pulled down their palaces, and the ugly high-rise buildings you see now reared their ugly heads.” He pointed them out to me as we left his office for his mansion.

“Contemporary Al-Mahalla is a sad, disgraceful relic of a glorious distant past, but I am still proud of the city,” the Pasha said.


Family memories: The Pasha’s wife, Ihsan Saad Akl, nicknamed Ninette, is an Egyptian socialite, but she does much charitable work for the peasantry.

She once built clinics on her estates, and she also built schools and mosques. The Pasha insists she was his champion advocate, the comfort and connoisseur of his household and his family, just like the queen consorts of the pharaohs of yesteryear.

Alia Hanem Sadek Maher, the Pasha’s mother, was another such dignified lady. She once entertained the princesses of Egypt and was on the board of the Mubarra, or Hospital, of the Mohamed Ali family and entertained members of the royal family for fundraising purposes. “The sisters of king Farouk used to visit us in this very mansion,” the Pasha said, peering at me with his piercing blue eyes. He is of Albanian pedigree, and like the vast majority of Egypt’s aristocracy hails from the Balkans and the Caucasus Mountains.

But as fascinating as the Pasha’s pedigree was, I was not in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra to dwell too long on his impressive past. I was not composing a biography of the Pasha as such, and I instinctively felt that he understood this. He told me that Egyptian cotton was still favoured by luxury and upmarket brands worldwide.

“The export of Egyptian cotton was stagnant until about 1862, just before the American Civil War, and it reached its highest point in 1864. This is when the city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra developed as a centre of textile manufacturing in Egypt. Those were exciting times,” the Pasha said.

“Mohamed Ali seized power in Egypt in 1805 as a governor who became an independent viceroy of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt went through drastic modernisation in every field of the economy, and he was of Albanian origin like myself,” he added.

We stopped at the cultural palace in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra that was originally the palace of the Pasha’s paternal uncle Abdel-Hai Pasha Khalil. The ramshackle remains of what was once a magnificent building were heart-wrenching. The Pasha refused to enter, and I stood aghast and heartbroken. A 19th-century French cut-glass chandelier dangled from the ceiling, itself made of marvellous stucco carvings depicting various images of a bygone age.

The Pasha explained that the term “artisan” was originally applied to those who made things or provided services, including weavers and spinners. His forbearers came originally from Albania and settled in the Mediterranean port city of Damietta. Some then moved to Al-Mahalla, and others left for Canada.

In those days, Egyptian cotton exports reached a record level. Cottons in all forms and lengths witnessed huge increases in market price. Europe was the main importer of fine Egyptian cotton, with Britain in particular being a large importer. Today, the largest importer of Egyptian cotton is India.


Ancient times: Egyptians were one of the pioneering peoples in the earliest textiles industry worldwide.

Estimated to have been cultivated well before 2500 BCE, flax was the major textile produced by the ancient Egyptians. The annual variety of flax (Linium usitatissimum), which grows well on sandy soils, was grown in Egypt, and the country was famous for its weaving. Most of the spinners were women, among them the royal wives and concubines of the pharaohs as the Middle Kingdom site of Al-Lahoun and the New Kingdom site of Tel Al-Amarna testify. The Ptolemies later forced a tax on weavers based on the number of looms in the various governorates. 

We tuck into the bewildering spread of the world’s finest cotton in Egypt. The Pasha turns to the good old days, when the ancient Egyptians wore high-quality linen with a superfine weave.

I wanted to know why Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in particular became the Manchester of Egypt. The Pasha explained that Talaat Pasha Harb, a renowned industrialist and pioneer of Egypt’s manufacturing industry, and Abdel-Hai Pasha Khalil, the surviving Pasha’s paternal uncle, founded the Egyptian Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the early decades of the last century in what he described as the heyday of modern Egypt’s textiles industry.

The cotton trade blossomed with the eruption of the American Civil War, when Egypt was regarded as the best alternative to the southern states of the US because Egyptian cotton was of high quality. Egyptian cotton exports to Britain reached their highest point in 1864, but even after the war ended the export of Egyptian cotton increased by up to 140 per cent in 1876, at least four times the average before the war.

The oldest evidence of dyeing textiles comes in the shape of a brownish linen textile found near Tarktan and dating back to the First Dynasty, the first ancient Egyptian kingdom. Yarn manufacturing came later, when exquisite fabrics were created throughout the country. Linen was favoured, and the ascendancy of Egyptian fabrics was acknowledged across the Mediterranean world and beyond.

After some deliberation in the modern period, the British decided that Egyptian cotton was the best. “I want to see what happens next,” the Pasha said. “Fabrics, cotton to be precise, have been my life, just as they were once the lifeblood of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra. I am an optimist by nature,” he added.

“However, I am not claiming this is how it was all supposed to be.” He inspected his mansion pensively. The Pasha remains one of the most compelling figures in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra. He is a depository of knowledge. He is proud of his non-Egyptian heritage, but he acknowledges that Egypt, at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia, has always been a melting pot, a potpourri of races.

A veteran labour unionist and activist from Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra who has long participated in protests against what he sees as incompetent management concurs with much of what the Pasha says.

“What ruined the Egyptian textile industry was not poor quality or the worker’s mastery of his art. The Egyptian textile worker has been an artisan since the days of ancient Egypt, even from pre-Dynastic times. His or her workmanship is unsurpassed. Ruination came primarily because of poor management,” Al-Sayed Habib, a lifelong champion of workers’ rights, said.

“The city’s textiles workers began to demand their rights in the last decade of the rule of ex-president Hosni Mubarak,” Habib said. “Graft and corruption ruined our industry and our livelihoods. This is why we went on demonstrations. I remember those of 2008, but to no avail,” he added. His impressions matched those of the Pasha. “Poorly qualified managers who did not understand anything about the industry were forced on us by Mubarak’s cronies,” Habib said.

But there were other factors involved in the decline of the industry. Egypt was renowned for its extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, a type unique to Egypt and to no other country. “It grows as a small, bushy tree and yields cotton with unusually long, silky fibres,” the Pasha said.

“The Egyptian textile industry today is based on poor-quality cotton, the short-staple type imported from countries such as Syria and Greece. The irony is that Egypt now exports its fine long-staple cotton to 148 countries and imports low-quality cotton instead, producing a mishmash of cotton yarn mixed with ELS from countries such as Sudan,” Habib complained.

Both the Pasha and the union activist concurred that ELS had the upper thread count, something like 1,000 threads per square inch. It was this that historically had given Egyptian cotton products their almost silky sheen, they said.

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