- Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture by Ziad Fahmy
Are nations mere figments of a distinctively modern collective imagination, or are they primordial entities taking different shapes at different times, or are they something in between? As far as modern nation-states go, this question has largely been decided by cultural historians in favor of the “imagined community.” To this now vast literature, informed by Benedict Anderson’s seminal work and the “linguistic turn” in general, we can include Ziad Fahmy’s engaging book Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Fahmy’s book both complements and extends the findings of this large body of work by taking yet another “turn” via sources that engage senses other than the visual alone.
This other turn is set within the rubric of “media capitalism” and marks a departure from what Fahmy regards as the narrow terms of Anderson’s “print capitalism.” The latter, he argues, makes it difficult to explain the dynamics involved in the project of imagining the nation in a largely peasant and illiterate society such as Egypt around the turn of the twentieth century (more precisely, 1870–1919). He echoes Partha Chatterjee’s critique of the Eurocentrism presupposed in Anderson’s modular nationalism. Moreover, by focusing on the engagements with elite cultural productions in print, Fahmy contends, historians of Egyptian nationalism have ended up privileging the history of a very small class of actors. He sets out to correct for the two failings of Eurocentrism and elitism through an investigation of many previously unexamined or underutilized popular cultural sources (among others, the satirical press, vaudeville plays, recorded songs, and azjal [colloquial poetry]) that would shed light on the “agency of ordinary Egyptians in constructing and negotiating national identity” (p. xi).
A short preface and an introductory chapter are followed by five substantive chapters and a brief conclusion. The introduction, which is also chapter 1, provides a succinct account of the problematic aspects of studying nationalism beyond the paradigmatic cases of northwestern Europe but seems to raise more questions than a monograph on national identity from below can answer. It is especially in Fahmy’s innovative account of the rise of colloquial Arabic (‘ammiyya) that this is evident.
On the one hand, it is the book’s central claim that the register in and through which the “ordinary” subject of Egyptian nationalism was realized historically was colloquial Arabic, to the extent that the period [End Page 237] from 1870 to 1940 saw an unprecedented proliferation of publications in ‘ammiyya. On the other hand, the introduction reveals that it was a particular colloquial in the Cairene dialect that became hegemonic as the country was physically connected through railroads, post, and telegraphs, and the people discursively linked by the instruments of media capitalism. Indeed it goes further to note the production of the “internal ‘other.’” “Upper Egyptian Sa‘idi characters, with exaggerated Southern dialects, were often portrayed as dimwitted and backward and were usually contrasted with a ‘normal’ Lower Egyptian-speaking urbanite” (pp. 8–9). The constitutive fissures and erasures of Egyptian nationalism evinced here are curiously, or ineluctably, unexplored in the remainder of the book.
Rather, Fahmy examines the implications of an ostensibly more fundamental split between ‘ammiyya (the popular, ordinary) and fusha (pure or high Arabic that is usually only written), which had always engendered its own hierarchies only to be reproduced along more aggressively secular, classist, and statist lines during modern times. Although he acknowledges that cultural productions in colloquial Arabic spoke to all Egyptians, he argues at the same time that the fusha productions of cultural elites were neither accessible nor enjoyed by the vast majority. Therefore, “to fully grasp the growth of national identity in Egypt, we cannot solely rely on the official Fusha discourses of the state and the intellectual elite” (pp. 7–8).
Accordingly, with chapter 3 (chapter 2 seems a continuation of chapter 1, rehearsing the major economic, political, and technological changes in Egypt that...