Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture

  • Ziad Fahmy
  • Stanford University Press
  • 244 pp.
  • July 11, 2011

A timely look at the roots of national unity as revolution percolates in the Middle East.

Reviewed by Kelly M. McFarland

The recent national uprising and eventual Egyptian revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and antiquated regime did not begin within the Ivory Towers of academia or the sitting rooms of elite Egyptian intellectuals’ homes. Rather, it began in the economically deprived “street,” at café tables and on the Facebook posts of the low- and middle-class Egyptian masses. These groups, protesting against everyday economic hardships and the overt corruption of government officials and Mubarak cronies, used the communications means available to them to create national unity, allowing them to take back their nation and topple a regime.

This recent movement was similar in many ways to their predecessors’ formation of a unique Egyptian nationalism in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. In Ordinary Egyptians, Ziad Fahmy, an assistant professor of modern Middle East history at Cornell University, analyzes the latter movement and describes the formation of Egyptian nationalism from the lower- and middle-class strata, looking at previously undocumented colloquial Egyptian sources and reshaping views on how nationalism is created in the process.

Fahmy’s work is significant particularly for two reasons. The first is that the author views the rise of Egyptian nationalism and the 1919 revolution through the prism of everyday Egyptians and their uniquely Cairene (soon to become one in the same as Egyptian) colloquial dialect, in lieu of the upper-class and elite written standard fusha Arabic. The author rightfully notes that the current historiography deals with Egyptian nationalism and the 1919 revolution only through the words and actions of elite politics. “Missing from these narratives are everyday Egyptians and the colloquial language used to address them,” and as the title suggests, Fahmy investigates “the agency of ordinary Egyptians in constructing and negotiating national identity.” To that end, the author uses the chapters that follow to describe the ways in which lower- and middle-class Egyptians wrote, spoke, sang and acted in their colloquial Cairene dialect, helping to create a new “national identity.”

Throughout the book, Fahmy describes the new colloquial linguistic means in which normal Egyptians expressed their everyday frustrations and Egyptian life, thus creating nationalism amongst the masses. These ranged from colloquial newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals, which reached new production heights during this period, as well as popular songs, plays, poems and vaudeville acts. The author also correctly notes how important new technologies and the cultural centralization of Cairo played key roles, as “the effects of these new political, economic and cultural institutions played an important role in the gradual identification of more and more Egyptians with a sense of territorial national identity.” New infrastructure, especially the expanding railroads, allowed for the dissemination of Cairene culture and Cairene colloquial Egyptian displayed in newspapers, plays, poems and so on to make its way in to the countryside. As cultural phenomena expanded, the public clamored for more and more of these new cultural and media outlets, which as a result, expanded “to cater to a growing national audience.” Fahmy interestingly concludes by describing the ways in which these new popular cultural expressions coalesced during the 1919 revolution, in which everyday Egyptians used the preceding 40 years of burgeoning cultural expression to put forth a nationalistic outpouring.

The second significant aspect of Fahmy’s work is the author’s expansion of the ways in which we view the growth and formation of nationalism. The author does this by examining what he terms “media capitalism, which expands the historical analysis of Egyptian nationalism beyond just print and silent reading through the incorporation of audiovisual, sound and performance media.” While taking to heart many of the arguments of cultural nationalist theorists such as Benedict Anderson, Fahmy dismisses some of their universalist approaches to nationalism because they do not seem to fit the largely illiterate and lower-class nationalist movement in Egypt. Because these Egyptian groups did not have the ability to read the intellectual nationalist tomes being written in fusha, Fahmy posits that one must expand beyond just the elite print media to look at the printed and spoken colloquial Egyptian language to gain a true understanding of how nationalism was formed in late 19th- and early 20th-century Egypt.

Fahmy’s work is a well-written and compelling argument to expand our thinking on the formation of Egyptian nationalism. By looking at new sources, found in the written and spoken colloquial Egyptian of everyday Egyptians, Fahmy has greatly added to the historiography of this topic. The author also shows that we must move beyond our Western European-centric notions of linguistic cultural nationalism if we are to wholly understand the formation of nationalism in the Arab world.

Kelly M. McFarland is a historian and analyst for the U.S. Department of State who also teaches as an adjunct professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs and the History Department at George Washington University.  The views presented here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government.

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