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Imagined Empires: A History of Revolt in Egypt by Zeinab Abul-Magd (review)
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Zeinab Abul-Magd’s history of Upper Egypt covers the 1750–1950 period, and is centered on the idea that this region has always been suppressed by the governments of Cairo and the north, regardless of the dynasty or empire in control. She strongly believes that while its people were kept in subaltern status, they repeatedly rebelled against the forces of these so-called empires (which are only “imagined”) and thus represent a case study of resistance to imperialism and colonialism.

In developing her thesis, she borrows from Antonio Gramsci, whose work focuses on the exploitation of the south by the north; the “empire” studies of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; the postcolonial theories of Michel Foucault; the modernity critiques of Timothy Mitchell, and the subaltern studies of Ranajit Guha, aiming to rescue the “real” history of Egypt’s southern province from the “traditional historical narrative” fostered by nationalists working in tandem with or as partners of European colonialists. Abul-Magd’s style is rousing and deliberate — this is not a subtle historical study.

The author draws on substantial new research from the National Archives of Egypt, a remarkable trove of documents now being plumbed by historians for a more realistic account of Egyptian history. She read an extraordinary number of documents in the course of researching this book (originally her doctoral dissertation). Much of that detail, alas, has been left out of Imagined Empires, though it may be found in the dissertation (which is available online). Her accounting reveals she has definite ideas about how history is formed and shaped, and the archival facts are used to flesh out that structure.

In the Ottoman period, which starts her narrative, Qina province, some 400 miles south of Cairo, was an area independently ruled by a dynasty of Arab rulers from the Hawwara tribe. Under their rule, the region enjoyed a period of social justice and benign government, one in which, as Stanford Shaw wrote, “the welfare of the peasants [was] promoted far better than in Lower Egypt” (quoted in Abul-Magd, p. 24). Of particular stature was Shaykh Humam (circa 1740–69), who convened public councils of villagers and towns dwellers and who established a “social contract” with the elite Copts who assisted as financial supervisors, their traditional role. According to Abul-Magd, Christian and Muslim peasants enjoyed a “golden age” under Humam, and thus she retains the traditional halcyon view of Hawwara rule.

Qina’s prosperity was due to its fertile soil and strategic location astride two international corridors, one linking it to the Indian Ocean commercial network and the other to Sudanic kingdoms to the south. Farmers cultivated wheat, barley, lentils, and beans, which had markets in Cairo and in Europe. Abul-Magd ascribes a greater Qina definition to provincial boundaries, since she includes parts of Girga and Asyut to the north in discussions of provincial trade and politics. The long-distance merchants or jallaba from Darfur, for instance, did not come to Qina, but rather to Manfalut and later to Asyut, closer to the terminus of the Darb al-Arba‘in, the ancient road that connected the Nile Valley to those parts of the Sudan. The once prosperous route to Sinnar was erratic during this “golden age,” as merchants and missionaries seeking to go there left from Asyut, not Qina, at the beginning of the 18th century (see, for example, the travel account of Charles Jacques Poncet).

Cairo periodically barged into Qina’s provincial tranquility during the late Ottoman period, especially during the rule of ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir who overthrew the Hawwara tribal dynasty in the early 1770s. Thereafter a series of woes begin to befall the people of Qina that for the author remains unabated. The French invasion in 1798 brought a new attempt by Cairo’s rulers to incorporate the region into Egypt. French efforts failed, Abul-Magd argues, because the delusional hope they maintained toward Copts and “Arabs,” whom they believed would become “natural allies,” never materialized. Abul-Magd likes to correlate “imperial” designs and interventions with environmental disasters, and thus the plague that swept Egypt in 1801 was French-induced, leaving thousands of corpses in its wake. Plague and pestilence also...

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