- Egypt: British colony, imperial capital by James Whidden
In step with new imperial history’s focus on the complications of colonial identity, James Whidden’s Egypt: British colony, imperial capital revisits Edward Said’s central thesis in Orientalism (1978) regarding culture as the arm of imperial power. While not refuting this claim, Whidden broadens the terms of engagement beyond identifying the formulaic ingredients of dominant imperial discourse. He uncovers those cultural strains or “dissenting voices” of coexistence, acculturation, and cultural relativism found in British memoirs and travel writing that, he argues, were muted by the dominant imperial narrative, premised on civilization, progress, race, and exoticism (3). Living among Egyptians, British colonials acculturated to Egyptian society and thus changed their perceptions of both Egypt and home; by extension, they reconsidered, and often challenged, imperial inventions, fantasies, and even racism. British colonial identity, therefore, was never reified in Egypt because colonials questioned conventional interpretations of the imperial relationship, despite determined efforts to define clear colonizer-colonized boundaries. Whidden’s study pulls apart the convergence of British colonial voices to chart divergences in the imperial discourse that capture real and evident forms of plurality in colonial society. This plurality forms the basis of his challenge to the scholarly certainty of imperialism as a monolithic and singular project.
Whidden methodically crafts a study based on a few critical premises. First is his careful handling of the complicated meanings of “British” in Egypt. With demographic shifts, especially during the interwar period when British officials no longer predominated, combined with the colony’s developing laissez-faire attitude and lack of social segregation (in fact, social mixing was required), the British colony in Egypt was an imperial society of mixed regional origins, multiple languages, and diverse confessional groups. Its elasticity was the product of instrumental colonial relationships that helped further certain colonial interests. More significant than a predictably rigid colonial hierarchy are the plural meanings of “British” that gave rise to the unexpectedly divergent voices of those colonials who did not necessarily affiliate themselves with the official “ruling caste” or establishment in Cairo (9). This study illuminates these “multiple strands,” not as an anomalous “bricolage” or “sign of degeneracy,” but rather as an everyday feature of colonial society (16). A second and related premise is the critical role that time and place play in the formation of British colonial subjectivities. In light of the highly cosmopolitan spaces where British colonials lived, Whidden’s deep dives into individual narratives serve to “capture changes in subjectivity wrought by dwelling in, and actively experiencing multiple colonial places” (7). That he focuses mainly on the interwar period—during Egypt’s “liberal experiment” and the colony’s “golden age,” when imperial policy shifted after World War I—is not coincidental (7). Whidden [End Page 653] shows how liberal ideals cemented a colonial pact based on a “degree of social permissiveness” and “intimate relations” between certain British and consenting Egyptian elites who shared similar class and cultural backgrounds (8). As such, he makes room for the Egyptian who adopts the colonial perspective and the colonial who “says no” to “the famed exclusivity and insularity of the severe British” in order to demonstrate where the colonizer and colonized overlapped (6).
The book focuses on the memories of individuals found in travel writings and memoirs since “private memory is less likely always to fit into the norms of thought or codes of behavior laid out in a collective memory, yet is not less valid for revealing this plurality within society”(6). Moving beyond Said’s method of linking works of cultural production to imperial hegemony, Whidden highlights a “compendium of stories,” whether individual narratives or full biographical treatments, to avoid problematic generalizations about imperialism, but also to distinguish them from public narratives of the “unambiguous imperial voice” (20). The colonial writings of Gertrude Bell and E. M. Forster, for example, illustrate voices muted by the official narratives of Lord Cromer, Lord Milner, and Lord Lloyd. Because memoir and travel literature represent transcultural experience, Whidden finds in them rich historical evidence...