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  • The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt
  • Will Hanley
The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt. By Michael Ezekiel Gasper. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009. 312 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

This is a book about imaginary peasants. At the end of the nineteenth century, the literate, middle-class Egyptians known as effendis [End Page 405] wrote a lot about the countryside, agriculture, and agriculturalists. In this revised dissertation, Michael Gasper examines bushels of books and articles produced by these men between the 1870s and the second decade of the twentieth century. Nation making was the central topic in effendi writing, and previous studies have considered its political, religious, and intellectual dimensions. More recently, scholars such as Beth Baron and Lisa Pollard have devoted considerable attention to the place of women in the national imaginary and the nation-making projects of the effendis. Gasper extends the range of subjects embraced in effendi-centered studies. He covers a neglected corner of the literature by gathering a diverse range of references to peasants into a narrative that shows the ways that effendis spoke about, as, and in place of peasants. Gasper successfully demonstrates that the effendis cast the countryside in a key rhetorical role in their urban political project, but his study does little to expand or modify received understandings of Egyptian history in general, or the identity formation of the Egyptian subject in particular.

The book is structured chronologically. Gasper assigns a character to each decade he studies, giving a clear sense of change over time. During the 1870s and 1880s (chapter 2), peasants were depicted as an unchanging and unchangeable mass, utterly distinct from the urban elites. In the 1890s (chapters 3 and 4), peasants became persons of interest in a broader effendi effort to remake Egypt in a modern mold. In the first decade of the twentieth century (chapter 5), Gasper argues, effendi writers joined their own identities with those of the peasant figures they depicted. In this decade, the represented peasant and the effendi were first united in a single, collective identity: the Egyptian. Gasper draws on reformist Islamic thought to identify a spectrum of attitudes (neglect-moderation-excess) that organized effendi writing about peasants during all three periods.

The book’s chief value lies in its collection of effendi references to peasants and their agricultural work. Some of this writing was quite colorful; Gasper’s treatment of effendi impersonations of peasant voices is particularly engaging. Another valuable part of this book is Gasper’s reflections on vocabulary change. His broad reading in the Arabic press over three decades reveals significant changes in the use of terms such as watan, milla, fallah, ahl, and jins (pp. 81, 119, 160 –161, 181–182, 206). These details deserve concerted study in their own right. The same is true of the institutions of agricultural education, of which Gasper gives glimpses in chapter 4. While Gasper adds his voice to a host of others (Timothy Mitchell, David Scott) who show convincingly that scientific agriculture was a nation-building discourse, it would be [End Page 406] useful to learn more specifics about the teachers, students, pedagogy, and curriculum of the Giza Agricultural School.

Although the book’s production and editing (by Stanford University Press, which is rapidly establishing itself as a top publisher in Middle East studies) is generally good, there are a number of errors of Arabic transliteration. Much of this is trifling; for example, the apostrophe used to indicate initial ‘ayn is consistently backwards in certain words (e.g., Mehmet ‘Ali). More significantly, in the lengthy discussion of the Arabic term for “cultivator” (pp. 160–165) this key word is misspelled as muzar‘i (rather than muzari‘) over and over again. (Elsewhere, pp. 212 and 265, the word is spelled correctly.)

The study suffers from genre trouble: it is a work of traditional, elite-focused cultural/intellectual history that wants to be a work of revisionist, peasant-focused social/material history. Although Gasper is clear that his sources “might not provide objective information on the state of the countryside” (p. 34), he never wholly abandons the aspiration to talk about real peasants. The...


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