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An Incurable Past

Experience and Remembrance of Nasser's Egypt

Mériam N. Belli

Publication Year: 2013

Mid-century Egypt seems to shift its shape in light of ordinary peoples’ memories. In An Incurable Past, Mériam Belli examines collective memory, oral histories, and everyday communications to reveal not just the history of mid-twentieth-century Egypt but also the ways in which ordinary people experience and remember the past. Using official archives, government publications, press reportage, fiction, textbooks, cinema, art, and public rituals, Belli constructs a ground-breaking theoretical framework of "historical utterances" which provokes questions about the relationship between remembrance and reality. Belli argues that such personal testimonies and public representations allow us a deeper understanding of Egypt’s many sociocultural layers in the 1950s and 1960s. She spotlights three topics of vernacular expression in modern Egypt: education, the anti-colonial Limby Festival, and the 1968 apparition of the Virgin Mary at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo. Linked by the mid-century shift from communal life to an industrial and individuated society, these expressions also disclose the contradictory influence of ideologically homogenizing state policies.

Examining history not as it was but as it is remembered, this book contextualizes the classist and deeply disappointing post-Nasserist period that has inspired today’s Egyptian revolutionaries.

Published by: University Press of Florida


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-8

List of Figures

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pp. viii-9

List of Tables

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

A series of thanks reads curiously like a eulogy. But then, here it is. Over the years, from the beginning through the numerous revisions of this manuscript, I have become indebted to many people. A book is in innumerable ways a collective creation. ...

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Introduction: This Incurable Otherness

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pp. 1-14

Prior to granting me an interview, 'Uthman, retired worker, political activist, and amateur historian, had me give my word of honor that I would provide him with a copy of the tapes and transcripts of our conversations. His home office displayed his own abundant publications on the labor movement; he wanted me to publicize his name and work. ...

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Part I. Retelling Salah al-Din: The Future Is Everything

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pp. 15-18

In the summer of 1925 'Abd al-Hamid al-'Ajati, director of the secondary school of Mansura, gravely warned, in front of foreign and national teachers, pedagogues, and public officials at the Congress of Compulsory Instruction, that education “denatured” the lower classes and endangered the patriarchal social order:1 ...

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Chapter 1. Farouk Is Gone, Long Live the Revolution

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pp. 19-48

The brilliant thinker, writer, and civil administrator Taha Husayn served as technical adviser to the Ministry of Education (1942–44) during one of the many brief returns of the Wafd to government. During his term, he set out to democratize and secularize education. ...

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Chapter 2. The New Order

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pp. 49-74

Schooling reforms in the 1950s–60s followed the path traced by the Faruq monarchy (1936–52), but the republic formulated a new political idiom. It claimed to transform the schoolhouse into the seat and backbone of the new civil order. ...

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Part II. Burn, Edmund, Burn: The Present Is Everything

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pp. 75-84

In the politics of memory of the modern schoolhouse, the past is everything. Indeed, in the memory-politics of the nation-state, one’s identification with a specific past that a specific community shares provides the basis for interpersonal fraternity, solidarity, and loyalty. ...

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Chapter 3. When Edmund Allenby Became al-Limby

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pp. 85-104

Its geographical site conferred to Port Said an obvious strategic importance in traditional warfare and commercial ventures all through the twentieth century. Built on the Mediterranean shore, to the west of the Suez Canal and to the east of Lake Manzala, at the northern point where the Sinai Peninsula meets the Delta, ...

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Chapter 4. Port Said, Martyr City

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pp. 105-135

Between the end of the World War I and the Free Officers’ Revolution, our story of haraq al-Limby relies on elders’ recollections. They reckon that celebrations remained much the same until recent years, only varying in size. When people assert, as 'Abd al-Rahim Gharib al-Banna does, that the festival did not change, most speak of its corpus delicti. ...

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Chapter 5. The End of History

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pp. 136-162

Depictions of the Limby festival leap from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, when “it became big.” There is simply not much to tell (hiyya), some Port Saidis said, of a festival that remained unaltered in the decade following the nationalization of the Canal. ...

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Part III. St. Mary, Mother of Egypt: The Past Is Everything

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pp. 163-166

The previous section, “Burn, Edmund, Burn,” argued that the presence of the past lies in the continuous reinvention and renewal of the communal covenant that makes the past relevant, rather than in the stale rehearsing of old stories, as the schoolhouse does. But whose covenant, and what community? ...

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Chapter 6. The Science of Miracles

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pp. 167-191

On 5 May 1968 the Egyptian media offered rather unusual news. Kyrillus VI (Cyril VI), the 116th pope of the See of Alexandria (1959–71), head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, had announced that St. Mary; Theotokos, the God-bearer; al-'Adhra', the Eternal Virgin; Sittina, Our Lady; ...

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Chapter 7. Globalizing the Virgin, Nationalizing Religion

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pp. 192-215

Supernatural visitation, psychological manipulation, technical artifice, collective hallucination. The aporia that the Zaytun Mariophany has generated since 1968 carries enduring cultural, religious, and ideological implications. Zaytun utterances are as malleable as conceptions of the national community, interfaith relations, spiritual practices, and religious doctrine. ...

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Conclusion: “What Revolution?!”

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pp. 216-224

I asked the grandmother of a friend of mine, who lived all her long life right behind King Faruq’s 'Abdin palace: “Tell me about the revolution . . .” “The revolution? What revolution?!” She answered earnestly. There were tanks, and he left, and that was it. As for the revolution, she did not see it coming. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 225-226


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pp. 227-264


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pp. 265-284


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pp. 285-295

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About the Author

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p. 309-309

Mériam N. Belli is assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa.

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813044040

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 11 b&w illustrations, 7 tables
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Egypt -- History -- 1952-1970.
  • Egypt -- Politics and government -- 1952-1970.
  • Egypt -- Social conditions -- 1952-1970.
  • Port Said (Egypt) -- History.
  • Nasser, Gamal Abdel, 1918-1970.
  • Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint -- Apparitions and miracles -- Egypt -- Cairo.
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