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  • The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt
  • James Jankowski (bio)
The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt, by Michael Ezekiel Gasper. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. xi + 255 pages. Notes to p. 261. Bibl. to p. 281. Index to p. 294. $55.

"Peasant" is a word that has had different connotations at different times and in different contexts. Such has certainly been the case in Egypt. The Power of Representation analyzes the diverse understandings of the Egyptian fallah, and occasionally the fallaha, as expressed in elite literature from the late 19th until the early 20th century. But it does more as well: Through a close examination of representations of the peasantry, it also offers an illuminating account of the emergence of Egyptian national identity as well as a valuable emphasis on the continuing presence and significance of Islamic sensibilities and concepts in much of the era's thought.

Originally a doctoral dissertation, the study is based on a wide assemblage of original sources, some previously untapped by Western scholars (including some relatively unknown periodicals of the late 19th century, manuals of agricultural instruction, and short stories and picaresque literature of the period). Solidly informed by the perspectives found in contemporary anti-colonial scholarship, the study is remarkably skillful at teasing meaning out of these diverse materials. The result is an original and sophisticated reinterpretation of the formative era of Egyptian modernism and nationalism.

The work's primary subject is the elite's changing understanding of the Egyptian peasantry from the 1870s to the first decade of the 20th century and how the peasantry eventually became one of the mechanisms through which a modern nationalist understanding of the "imagined community" —to borrow Benedict Anderson's term —of the Egyptian nation took shape. Successive chapters trace a fascinating evolution. Elite images of the Egyptian peasant and his condition in the 1870s and 1880s were overwhelmingly negative: The Egyptian peasant was backward, benighted, and badly in need of "reform" directed by Egypt's literate 'afandi class. With a growing awareness of Egypt as an agricultural country whose destiny was in the hands of its rural cultivators, by the 1890s a more positive assessment of the fallah developed. The peasantry, while still in need of reform and guidance from above, was now portrayed as representative [End Page 500] of Egyptian permanence and authenticity, as having the truest understanding of rural conditions, and simultaneously as capable of acquiring "civilized" 'afandi ways. By the early 20th century yet other images took shape: those of the peasant representing genuine Egyptian values and virtues and of peasantry and elite as part of the same purposeful national collective, "a single people with a unitary fate" (p. 191). Thus evolving images of the peasantry played a central role in the consolidation of a firm sense of Egyptian national identity.

Woven through these chapters discussing representations of the fallah is an equally important theme. Repeatedly, the study demonstrates the presence and relevance of Islamic modernist thought in Egyptian reformist literature of the period. The concept of the necessity of a balance between the extremes of rigid adherence to past patterns and blind imitation of the West, initially articulated by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and promoted thereafter by his disciples, is shown to have resonated through elite representations of themselves as well as through their views regarding peasant conditions and agricultural reform. On the one hand, 'afandi understandings of their own leading role in society combined ideas of personal rights, national duties, and Muslim virtue in a self-representation that was simultaneously religious and modern; on the other, their writings on the peasant and his condition viewed agricultural reform not merely in terms of technological improvements made for the good of the nation, but also as a moral obligation imposed by Islam.

This revisionist interpretation of modern Egyptian intellectual history is convincingly demonstrated in the texts selected for analysis. Whether these texts tell the whole story of the reformist thought of the later 19th and early 20th centuries is another question. The study deals only briefly with a few writers of the period whom it...


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pp. 500-501
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