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  • Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt by Adam Mestyan
  • Will Hanley
Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, by Adam Mestyan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 368 pages. $45.

This book makes a compelling case that theater was a key site where the ruling family of the Ottoman province of Egypt staged politics between the 1860s and the 1890s. Adam Mestyan argues that the khediviate (formally established in 1867) was a novel [End Page 154] form of authority requiring novel cultural accoutrements, notably those of public entertainment and historicism. His book offers an engaging account of the khedivial office itself. Mestyan describes four distinct periods in its history. Egypt's elite was altogether Ottoman in culture until the mid-1860s, when Khedive Isma'il presided over a "gentle revolution" that blazed a separate path for Egypt's elite culture (pp. 125–63). That path was European in its aesthetic, fueled by an annual theater budget of one million francs between 1869 and 1875, spent largely on Italian opera (p. 110). Egypt's theaters changed course during the upheavals of 1878–82, with performances now functioning "similar to petitions" asking "for justice and solidarity from the ruler" (p. 179), sometimes even in Arabic. The British-backed restoration of the khedive was followed by a theater boom in the late 1880s, with Arabic words and Egyptian music and themes competing for equal billing with the European repertoire in legitimating the ruling order. The reader is left with the amusing image of the khedive and the Ottoman and British proconsuls each obliged to sit through the other's favorite shows.

Mestyan organizes his study around the unfamiliar concept of patriotism, which he is careful to distinguish from Arab nationalism (an analytical commonplace). Patriotism, he argues, shares with nationalism many threads of identity formation and community loyalty, but it does not involve demands for a sovereign polity or territorial unit. Only in the 1890s did an Egyptian nationalism begin to emerge that conceived of the Egyptian territory as a homeland to be wrested from British and Ottoman imperial overlords. Before that time, Egyptian patriotism coexisted with Ottoman loyalty, offering a means of "compromise" between province and empire. Because this patriotism was not built around the work of establishing territorial sovereignty, it sought other spheres of expression. Chief among these, Mestyan argues, was culture, especially as staged in the public theaters of Cairo.

Mestyan presents a vivid cast of artists and impresarios. His history of the management, administration, personnel, finances, regulation, buildings, maintenance, programming, advertising, touring, and khedivial patronage of the major theaters of Cairo will not soon be surpassed. In addition to memoirs and printed works of the later 19th century, his work draws especially well on newspapers and archives. Mestyan has worked for years to map the Arabic newspaper world of the 19th century,1 and the depth of his knowledge of this domain shows in this book, which is rife with reference to a broad range of titles over a broad range of time. He seems to have culled the total press coverage of the theater, and to have done the same work in the National Archives of Egypt. Mestyan is one of very few researchers to win access to the Dar al-Mahfuzat al-'Umumiyya ("the house of public records") in recent years. His reading of correspondence in that archive supports a synthetic, linked narrative of the official view of the theater. This is especially convincing in his explanation of Syrian and Egyptian promoters' attempts to book the Khedivial Opera House during the tumult of 1882 (pp. 190–96).

The text is divided into many small sections, but the impact of Mestyan's prose is dulled by frequent recourse to the passive voice, qualification, and speculation. The standard of copyediting is poor — errors, as well as unusual phrases and words such as "smoothlessly" (p. 43), are no credit to a first-rate publisher such as Princeton.

Although Mestyan's choice to skirt the overdetermined concepts of Ottoman imperialism and Arab nationalism may be warranted, I am not convinced that patriotism is a concept that offers discreet analytical...


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