Composing Egypt
Reading, Writing, and the Emergence of a Modern Nation, 1870-1930
Hoda A. Yousef



Literacies, Publics, and Gender

In 1894, Egypt’s first journal published specifically for women posed the following question directly to its audience: “Is a man allowed to open letters that arrive in the name of his wife, or not?”1 In this one-line notice, the journal al-Fataa was engaging implicitly and explicitly in one of the defining social and cultural shifts of turn-of-the-century Egypt: the emergence of public literacies as a set of practices and discourses that influenced communal life, civic engagement, and gendered exchanges in Egyptian society. What I am calling “public literacies” were interactions with the written word that made literacy a central platform for a wide range of Egyptians to engage in questions about the nature and future of a nascent Egyptian modernity. As topics of collective debate and sources of new communal exchange, public literacies were reading and writing practices that found articulation in public discussions while also influencing the very structure of the debates of which they were a part.

In both form and content, the al-Fataa question highlights several aspects of this new engagement with the written word. It appeared in a commercially sold journal that was one of many such enterprises that exploded onto the literary scene at the end of the nineteenth century. It explicitly referenced the expanding postal system that was making letter writing a viable way to connect distant homes directly to one another via broad networks of written communication. It targeted a female audience, an increasing but still relatively small portion of the newly literate elite. The very format of the question—posed directly to the journal’s audience—invited the reader to participate in a dialogue by providing a written response.

Meanwhile, the content of the question itself raised issues of visibility, privacy, and gendered roles in the family. Who should “see” written correspondences? What was the purpose of such communications? Could the presence of a sealed letter subvert the family order? How should the man of the house mitigate the latent perils of unmonitored messages between a woman and the outside world? The simple act of literacy described in the question—receiving and reading a letter—became doubly public: first as a matter interjected into a public forum for debate, and second as a matter of public concern and, ultimately, gendered surveillance. The answer provided in the next issue of al-Fataa made clear that this particular use of literacy was not merely a private matter but rather had implications for a woman, her family, and the social fabric of the nation as a whole.2 Literacy was never just about reading and writing.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the notion and practices of literacy—who used it and how, what form it should take, what it meant for Egyptian society—became integral to debates about the role of women in Egyptian life, what to do about the British colonial presence, the nature of religious and secular authority, and how to create a national community that was both authentically “Egyptian” and “modern” at the same time. Reformers of this era sought to instill “good literacy” as a way to influence the political and social changes of the era while mitigating the potentially dangerous effects of its “misuse” by those who could undermine their particular reformist goals. To this end, the Egyptian state and civil society increasingly defined literacy as a binary division of the population along the axis of successful “readers and writers” and the “illiterates” who were holding the country back. However, this is only part of the story. Even as literacy was becoming a narrower concept, more individuals—literate, illiterate, and semiliterate alike—were beginning to use the profound new techniques of “public writing” to influence the world around them. The disruptive technology of printing was an important locale for change, yet even the “old” literacy practices of using scribes and traditional educational methods were recast into the new mold of public literacies. In practice, literacies served the purposes of those who wielded them. Parochial, nationalistic, Islamic, educational, feminist, bureaucratic, and personal goals were all aided by this new domain of public literacies, as Egyptians sought to instrumentalize writing and reading to pursue the goal of creating a better Egypt for their communities, their families, and themselves. This work argues that reading and writing practices were not only the object of social reform, but also a central medium of public exchange for Egyptians, irrespective of their literacy abilities.

The Power of Literacies

One of the central questions that inspires this study is this: Does literacy matter to societies and, if so, how? Absent the historical and ideological context in which it is deployed, literacy does not make a society or a person more successful, reasonable, nationalistic, pious, empowered, or a myriad of other qualities that can and have been used to describe the importance of reading and writing. Nevertheless, the repercussions of this “literacy myth,” as Harvey J. Graff famously dubbed it, have been formidable.3 Across the globe, as a concept and ideology of reform, literacy and, even more so, illiteracy have underwritten ambitious government programs to create educational systems for the masses, influenced how societies enumerate and evaluate populations, and created an undying devotion to social reform by way of words. This book eschews this triumphalist vision of literacy as a universal good, one that has underwritten the march toward modernity in “developed” countries and become the singular failure of those countries still mired in “illiterate” ignorance.

Rather, this work contextualizes the ideas and practices of literacies just as they were becoming central to Egyptian conceptions of reform, advancement, and civil engagement. To examine exactly how various literacies impacted Egyptian society—and they did—I focus on the public manifestation of literacies as a central practice and discourse of modern Egyptian life. This approach draws from the extensive work done by historians, ethnographers, and sociologists of reading and writing, which has come to be known as literacy studies. In the past few decades, scholars have made great strides in reframing literacy, not as a unitary concept but as a multiplicity of situated reading and writing practices that are bound by historical processes, social power structures, and cultural discourses.4 There is not just one type (or archetype) of literacy that bifurcates communities, societies, and civilizations along an oral-written “great divide,” separating those who possess it from those who do not.5

Rather, literacies—in the plural—exist along a continuum of practices and contexts that often include multiple valences of orality and textuality. By focusing on the practices of literacies, rather than on the designation of literate/illiterate, we can draw a fuller picture of the changing social and public uses of the written word in times and places with relatively low official literacy rates, like that of Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, this book is a corollary to others that examine modern Middle Eastern culture, politics, and society beyond the textual world and argue quite convincingly that oral and written culture often functioned in tandem, feeding on each other to reshape everything from social mores to political movements.6 From this vantage point, we can not only examine how historical change happened, but also get a fuller view of who was behind it.

The consequences of broadening the scope of historical actors engaged in literacies are far-reaching for the history of the modern Middle East and of Egypt specifically. Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century was at the literary center of the Arabic-speaking world, sparking social and cultural transformations that would influence the rest of the Middle East for the next century. With its relative autonomy from the Ottoman system, its regional influence, and its large urban centers that attracted immigrants from much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the events and movements that started or developed in Egypt rarely stayed there. As a result, this period has received particular notice as a turning point in the creation of Egyptian, and wider Arab, sensibilities about gender, political and civic activism, and cultural authenticity.7 The political and cultural backdrops for these late nineteenth-century transformations were the changing educational systems of the region and the naha, or the Arabic cultural renaissance, with its revival of local literature and intellectual thought. Indeed, secular educational systems that channeled the naha are often cited as the catalyzing force in creating a new middle stratum of Westernized elites (effendiyya) who were the would-be nationalist leaders, journalists, and reformers of the Middle East. In this historical trajectory, though the social import of education and literacy are assumed, the mechanics of how literacy or education actually produces social change within, and beyond, the circle of these educated elites are rarely unpacked or examined.8

The major contributions of this book lie in the interrogation of the everyday literacies of Egyptian men and women during this crucial period through the tri-part lens of gendered public literacies—that is, broad-based literacies that changed the contours of public spaces and had lasting implications for gendered uses of literacy.

Literacy, by its most limited definition, is the product of formal education, which in Egypt at the time was the purview of the few. However, once we focus on literacies as sets of skills—reading, writing, and their related practices—available to the many, historians can begin to look beyond the confines of schools or those who had access to education. Literacies were a particular kind of expertise that was widespread in society and that could be employed even by those who were technically “illiterate” or never went to school. Students who wrote petitions, farmers and urbanites who frequented scribes, children who memorized the Qur’an and studied little else, and communities that gathered to hear the reading of newspapers all participated in a spectrum of literacies that were taking on new communal import as Egyptians sought to reform and improve their society.

This approach requires a delicate balance between the totalizing aspects of institutional education and the ways in which literacy practices manifested in everyday interactions. Perhaps no state institution represents the full power of states to impose on young citizens not only specific reading and writing practices but also the wholesale indoctrination of social values more than a mass educational system. It is undeniable that the Egyptian government undertook several modernizing projects that sought to measure, control, and guide more aspects of Egyptians’ lives, not the least of which included schooling.9 In fact, it would not be difficult to read the sources used in this book as part of the forward march of these totalitarian mechanisms toward bringing the very medium of language under state control. However, there is a flip side to this power: the aspirations of a mass educational system were not absolute in their reach or implementation. In fact, despite moves to bring education under state control starting in the 1860s, it took decades for even the ideal of a mass educational system to arise as a pursuable government goal in the 1920s and 1930s. It would take several more decades before a true mass educational system was actually implemented in any systematic and wholesale way.10 Even then, the relatively low official literacy rate in Egypt to this day indicates that these systems have never been thoroughly successful in even their most basic goal: creating measurably literate Egyptians.

Furthermore, among the many subjects that educational institutions sought to instill, literacy was a particularly mutable skill. Even when schools, curricula, good society, and intellectual leaders worked to inculcate particular practices, writing and reading could easily be deployed for unsanctioned and “dangerous” uses. The subversive nature of reading and, particularly, writing for those who were not wealthy, urban, and male, was not lost on educators of the time. They therefore sought to control textual materials and to coax students toward the “good literacy” that they believed would strengthen the existing social order beginning with the individual, then the family, and finally the nation as a whole. However, every indication—and human nature being what it is—suggests that literacy was not so easily monopolized. Love stories were read, political pamphlets were distributed, and reading and writing became means for many to express their unfettered views. Petitioners used prevailing reformist discourses to make their case for improving their economic circumstances. Women used writing to thrust themselves and their words into various literary spheres. Egyptians often preferred fiction, romance, and adventure to reading materials that could be deemed more socially beneficial and intellectually edifying. Diverse literacy practices were becoming a part of the social life of Egyptians.

The second contribution of this book lies in its focus on various public spaces as central domains for transformation in social understandings of and relationships with the written word. Reading and writing can be deeply personal and isolating practices. In fact, as more individuals became literate, many communal practices eventually gave way to individual literacies. The spaces and mediators of literacy shifted away from the community scribe and the group reading of newspapers and letters to the more private realms of personal writing and silent reading. However, at the turn of the century, Egypt was still very much in transition. The official male literacy rates, even for major urban areas, were only 20 to 30 percent, and communal practices still dominated social life. Furthermore, reading and writing coupled with the new technologies of print opened new possibilities for communication among people in public. This type of communication—via newspapers, journals, petitions, books, and pamphlets—had profound implications for the development of an Egyptian national consciousness, displays and protests, and the role of women in communal life.

Central to all these changes is the idea of visibility and its implications for public spaces. Indeed, written language itself is a type of visual disclosure, transposing the aural into the physical world. Once words are written they are no longer ephemeral, they become fixed in a corporeal space that can be decoded by anyone with access to the text and the ability to read. The use of printing presses only compounds the visibility and latent power of these texts, because they can be multiplied, moved, spread, and seen over and over again. Ideas, complaints, and requests that were once private or semiprivate can be shared broadly. Debates behind closed doors can reach large segments of society.

Written language has always had the potential to reach broad audiences as an extension of the communicative nature of oral language. However, an audience, a “listening” public that is engaged and ready to interact with public writing and communication, must exist in order for this potential to be realized. Locating this “public audience” has been the work of many historians. As early as the eighth century, famous Arabic masters such as al-Sibawayh and al-Jahiz were “publishing” texts created and disseminated with a public in mind.11 Other researchers have looked at premodern public spheres in the Muslim world—textual and personal networks that were neither strictly private nor state-run.12 The eighteenth century in particular seems to have seen an uptick in literary production by both religious scholars and “middle-class” or non-elite authors who voiced their opinions in writing.13 Between the private and the official, these public spaces were where people could engage each other in full view of a community that stretched beyond what was strictly local or familiar. One can argue that most societies with at least some semblance of a written tradition have developed text-based public spheres at one time or another.

In modern societies, the public sphere and language have taken on new relevance.14 The public sphere described by Jürgen Habermas is a space of rational debate (carried on, historically, by middle-class men) that allows citizens to assert their vision of the collective good and effect change in their society.15 Habermas locates the development of public spheres in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in parts of Europe and sees in these shared spaces the underpinnings of modern civil society and social movements. One of the central conditions of these public spheres was the emergence of an autonomous press that allowed news and debates to enter into the social awareness of the reading public. Benedict Anderson has elaborated on the role of the press in developing national consciousness, emphasizing the importance of what he terms print-capitalism.16 For example, Anderson describes the daily reading of newspapers as a communally reinforced ritual that connects individual readers to fellow compatriots, creating “that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations.”17 The dissemination and use of printed materials allowed imagined communities to develop in powerful new ways and ultimately set the stage for the modern nation-state. Taken together, Habermas’s and Anderson’s view of communal, modern life as shaped by nation-states is inconceivable without the written language, audience, and dissemination possible with literate publics. In this book I focus on an expanded understanding of literacy as it relates to communal spaces of shared exchange and debate. In the process, I do not restate or reformulate the argument that the press and its relationship to various public spheres significantly transformed Egyptian conceptions of national sentiment or communal interest.18 Suffice it to say, I accept the premise that public debates and conceptions of Egyptian subjectivity were transformed by print technologies and a growing, literate readership.

What I do not accept are the boundaries of a single, “literate” public sphere. Rather, what I provide here is a study of the literacy practices and gendered uses of the written word that reached far beyond a traditionally male, urban, and highly visible textual public. Once we fracture the notion of literacy into literacies, the publics they create are also multiplied. The very notion of a unitary reading and writing public—in other words, a single public sphere where a reader is also assumed to be a writer—made little sense in communities where there was a very sharp distinction between those who created and those who consumed written texts. Indeed, during this period, the skills of reading and writing were gendered, used, and often learned separately. As a result, the practices associated with these separate skills often gave individuals access to particular aspects of communal literacies, to the exclusion of others. A person might consume national news, participating as a “reader” of national public debates, and at the same time dictate a petition addressed to local officials, participating as a “writer” at a very different level of public interaction. Significantly, neither action would require formal literacy and could be undertaken by a person of almost any socioeconomic background. In such a circumstance, rather than approaching literacy as the price of entrance for participation in the public sphere, we can begin to think of literacies and their practices as enabling access to various “publics.”

As a result, rather than limiting my scope to textual material as such and to the producers and consumers of these works, I look at a range of literacy practices that embodied interactions with communal life via the written word. These interactions that lie between the acts of reading and writing, between the word and its social implications, between the use and negotiation inherent in deploying written text, are at the heart of this work.

Finally, these public literacies were inextricably linked to gendered interactions with the written word. Traditionally, written literacies were the preserve of a small, educated, and most definitely masculine segment of society. However, during this period, new educational opportunities and the possibility of social mobility associated with schooling meant that literacy also implied a movement from rural to urban life, from the farm to the office, and from old ideas of Egyptian masculinity to new ones. For a man to engage in particular public literacy practices was to perform one of the essential acts of modern Egyptian life. Returning to the question that opened this chapter, although it was published in an ostensibly “female” journal, it was Antun Nawfal, brother of the female proprietor of al-Fataa, who ultimately responded with an answer as to whether or not a man was allowed to open letters on behalf of his wife. In doing so, Nawfal was engaging in what would become one of the defining practices of masculine literacies at the time: commenting and proscribing what literacy was to mean for both men and women in Egyptian society.

However, public performances of literacy were not always deemed sufficiently masculine, or without their dangers. Writing was at once a powerful action and an ambiguous one for the wrong sort of person. In particular, class concerns and fears about “lazy educated farmers” and masses “too bookish” to engage in manual labor were often present in discussions of education and literacy. Literacy did not always enhance the masculinity of a peasant, for whom it could be perceived as frivolous and a waste of time.

For women, literacies had very different implications. To write in public was to become observable, named, and known beyond an immediate social sphere; it was a move from the familial to the public and from the secluded to the visible. This written visibility was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, for elite women, writing in the privacy of the home was a more sheltered and acceptable physical assertion into the social arena than, say, leaving the home unveiled or working in male-dominated workplaces. Yet, on the other hand, writing and being “seen” (with or without a pseudonym) could be interpreted as a public invitation to notoriety and an unacceptable exposure of the female to the largely male outside world. Different suspicions came to the fore: the trope of an educated female became a “Westernized woman” who too freely consorted with men and the girl too caught up in books to look after her duties to family and nation. Nevertheless, many female writers did embrace the designation of “mistresses of the pen” and became part of a larger community of women, activists, reformers, and public intellectuals who were rethinking and critiquing Egyptian society and thus becoming visible to their compatriots. Ultimately, looking at literacies as gendered and embodied practices allows us to understand the implications and discomforts associated with increased literacy, the perceived power of writing, and the contested nature of literacy for newly educated segments of Middle Eastern societies.

In summary, this book provides a cultural and social history of the changing dynamics of an emerging Egyptian modernity by tracing the mechanisms by which individuals and communities sought to remake their circumstances through numerous kinds of literacies. This process was undertaken by a wide variety of Egyptians in emerging public spaces and was shaped by gendered understandings of what it meant to be Egyptians engaged in civic life. In essence, this work is a study of literacy not only in a particular historical context, but also as a central mediator of social change.

Methodology and Sources: Locating Literacies

Although the term literacy can refer to any sort of competency in a particular body of knowledge, in this book I focus on a broadly defined engagement with (or exclusion from) the written word. However, in using the term, I must acknowledge the problems inherent in studying Arabic language literacies. To begin with, there is actually no one word for “literacy” in Arabic. The closest corollaries are references to the composite skills of reading and writing in phrases such as al-ilmām bi-l-qirā’a wa-l-kitāba (competency in reading and writing). Nevertheless, a wide range of educated and learned people, whom we can call literate in different senses, certainly did exist: many could only “read” particular texts from memory, some were scribes who transferred oral dictation into written text, others were masters of the Arabic literary arts, and there were many other learned interactions with the written word. In discussing “literacy,” I am using it as a proxy for these various textual interactions. In this context, looking at literacies in the plural makes particular sense. Given the diversity of experiences, there was simply no one way to be literate in Egyptian society.

These rich varieties of literacies also present a methodological challenge: when language across this kind of breadth is your subject, everything ever written becomes your data.19 The locales of literacies are almost innumerable: published works of fiction and nonfiction, private diaries and correspondences, poetry, court records, business interactions, religious litanies and practices, legal texts, schools textbooks, the output of government bureaucracies, street signs and displays, and so on. To narrow down this body of sources, I have made some trenchant choices: to focus on Arabic prose writing and not on poetry or works in other languages, and to largely ignore material that vacillated between oral and written expressions but remained primarily oral, such as theater performances, religious observances and rites, songs, and speeches.20 Furthermore, other topics that came to the fore at the literary and linguistic moment of the early twentieth century—such as the contest between Egyptian colloquial and classical Arabic, the simplification of classical Arabic for public consumption, the impact of new literary forms and styles, debates about Latinizing the Arabic script, and shifting linguistic usages—though often referred to in order to highlight certain points about the nature of literacy changes, are not the subject of this work.21

To frame the material presented in this book, I focus on two topics: what Egyptian men and women thought and said about public literacies, and what Egyptian men and women did with public literacies. If these seem like two very different approaches, they are. Ideas about public literacies are discourses in the Foucauldian sense: systems of thoughts, ideas, and practices that shape our conception of intellectual and physical subjects.22 This constellation of meanings ultimately cannot be divorced from the power structures within which they operate and that provide legitimization and rules of engagement as we negotiate our understandings of the world. In late nineteenth-century Egypt, several structural changes were contributing to a particular discourse on public literacies: the colonial imposition of the British occupation, the government’s growing interest in the everyday matters of its citizenry, and the emerging class of educated elites who preached a gospel of educational betterment. In line with positivist trends in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, reform and social engineering went hand in hand with literacy promotion at the highest levels.23 The prevailing discourses cast literacy promotion as a unitary, definable, and measurable social goal.

Historical sources that address these dominant discourses of public literacy are everywhere. Professional writers had a particular stake in promoting the written word as a medium of exchange and communication. More people engaged in literacy meant more readers, subscribers, and patrons of their work. But professionals were not the only ones promoting literacy. This period has a rich record of journal articles, books written by authors of varied backgrounds, government reports, and pedagogical materials all engaging or advocating notions of literacy and its role as a public concern and widespread social practice. The authors of these works span the social spectrum, with journalists, activists of all stripes, concerned citizens, and bureaucrats, both European and Egyptian, all enlisting the idea of literacy in service of their own social reform projects, be they nationalistic, religious, cultural, economic, or political. Indeed, many of these writers represent an unexplored tier of social reformers—religious figures, schoolchildren, and teachers—who were never famous enough to make it into history books but nevertheless actively expounded on their vision of Egypt’s future and the role that literacies could play in creating it.

How Egyptians actually utilized public literacies is a more complex development to trace. As a set of practices, the literacies that were advocated in print fractured into multiple and variegated directions as individuals and groups used these skills to reproduce, challenge, and transform their social circumstances. Words on a page, which we often rely on as our most sacred historical source, could simply be a first (and perhaps most superficial) expression of the communal practices of literacies. A newspaper could be read to a group, discussed, and debated before being passed on to others; a letter ostensibly between two people may have had several intermediaries encode and then decode the symbols put to paper; flyers and notices meant to mobilize the many may have been accessible only to a few, who then mediated how those texts were “heard” and received. How are we to gauge such ephemeral actions, ones that touched the lives of many who would never leave a written record of their interactions with literacies?

Here I rely on a combination of aggregate and anecdotal sources. From a macro-level view, data about literacy rates, postal use, and telegraphic communications provide snapshots of the changing landscape of literacy practices on a national scale. A careful reading of these trend lines, along with what they include as well as exclude, shows much, although not everything, about the dynamism of literacy practices in the decades that spanned the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Each of these measures provides a slightly different view into the ways in which Egyptians were using literacies. At the other end of the scope, the individual examples of literacies in practice that appeared in printed texts, letters, and petitions written by Egyptians from various walks of life; works of fiction; and even colonial intelligence reports fill out the particulars of what the statistics of the era were tracking. They provide the “thick” descriptions of what it meant to interact with the written word during this period: the angst of petitioners turning to ever more public ways of seeking redress from the government, the arrival of letters and their reading as communal affairs, or the ubiquity and swiftness with which protesters used public literacy practices to mobilize their fellow Egyptians. This combination of sources allows me to reconstruct some of the humbler origins and uses of literacies that were adopted and adapted by people across the literacy spectrum, be they formally literate, illiterate, or somewhere in between.

Looking at both the discourse and the practices of literacy highlights the natural tension between the top-down and bottom-up factors that drive historical narratives. The fact is that the story of Egyptian turn-of-the-century literacies cannot be told without both.

Historical Background

The literacies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that emerged as important sites of public interaction as well as the subject of intense public concern have deep roots in Egyptian society. Arabic had long served as the language of culture, religion, and intellectual inquiry and it witnessed something of a literary revival starting in the late eighteenth century.24 Meanwhile, traditional communal schools, known as kuttābs, provided basic education that could be channeled through various types of literacies to many thousands of Egyptian children. The technological and political evolution of the country starting in the early 1800s set the stage for many of the changes that would only accelerate as the century came to a close. On the heels of the short-lived French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801, Mehmet ‘Ali seized control of the Egyptian province of the Ottoman Empire and began a reign from 1805 to 1848 that oversaw the expansion of the country’s centralized bureaucracy. Throughout his forty-three years in power, ‘Ali imported European expertise and models of rule as a means of achieving his vision of reform across the military and agricultural sectors of the country; he began sending educational missions to Europe, employed European advisors, and published Egypt’s first official journal.

The country’s kuttābs did not serve his bureaucratic and military interests, so ‘Ali started several government-sponsored schools that specialized in administration, translation, medicine, engineering, and the like. However, once his territorial and regional ambitions waned in the 1840s, so too did the Egyptian government’s commitment to state-run education. In the wake of the withdrawal of public funds, private initiatives, backed mostly by foreign missions and minority communities—Greek, Italian, Armenian—began expanding and opening their own European-style schools.25 In the latter part of the nineteenth century, ‘Ali’s grandson Isma‘il (r. 1863–1879) revived some of the earlier state initiatives by investing heavily in the country’s infrastructure and expanding government schools, which were largely inspired and run by Europeans.26

Interestingly, few of the state-run or private schools founded during this period were focused on Arabic literacy per se. The state had little interest in expanding educational and literary endeavors beyond the exigencies they provided for better governance; and foreign-sponsored schools tended to favor the languages of their benefactors, not the Arabic of the majority of Egyptians.27 Nevertheless, these attempts at introducing more “modern” modes of education had a lasting impact on Egyptian reformers, who would later take part in restructuring the country’s educational system. In particular, a new generation of native Egyptian bureaucrats interested in literacy and education—people like Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi and ‘Ali Mubarak—began their careers in enterprises sponsored or inspired by Mehmet ‘Ali’s initiatives. These beneficiaries represented a small cadre—no more than a few thousand in a country of millions; however, their ambitions for the Egyptian government and its reach were almost unbounded. They designed plans to build “modern” schools in every town, drafted laws to reorganize the kuttābs into an extension of the government system, published textbooks on reading and writing, and pontificated on the benefits of education for modern Egypt.28

These bureaucrats were part of a new political and social elite in Egyptian society that shifted over the course of the nineteenth century. Progressively more native Egyptians, Egyptianized Ottomans (Turks, Armenians, etc.), and Arab immigrants from the Levant became engaged in the political process.29 In addition, intellectuals and activists were willing and eager to express their views in public forums, often challenging themselves and others to pursue reforms they believed would create a better nation for all Egyptians. Meanwhile, women activists and Islamic modernists, who became particularly vocal in the early twentieth century, drew from these narratives of progress and reform to present their own solutions for Egyptian society. More Egyptians than ever before were engaged in asking, and seeking answers to, the great social questions of their age: how to improve the material and moral cultures of the country and restore Egypt to its former glories. Many felt that “intellectual revival and national consciousness have Arabic and historical traditions as their indispensable foundation.”30

The urgency of these questions was intensified by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and as literacy took on a dimension of political and linguistic competition.31 Although spoken and written French would attain a clear cultural ascendency among the upper classes in Egypt, the English language of the colonizer became the language of power and access to power in the bureaucratic realm.32 Arabic was used only at the local level and in bureaucratic offices that had direct contact with the populace.33 This linguistic separation between the rulers and the ruled was not unusual in Egyptian history. Nevertheless, the extent to which the British occupation promoted both English and Arabic, in strikingly different educational contexts, was unprecedented. Unlike other colonial endeavors, which sought to “civilize” the colonized by forcing Western language and culture on indigenous peoples, in Egypt early colonial administrators such as Consul-General Lord Cromer advocated strict linguistic segregation in the educational system.34 British administrators were aided in part by the Egyptian elites who benefited from this separation and who believed that “higher standards” were maintained by keeping lower-class students out of elite government schools and hence out of white-collar employment.35

Education became a political battleground. For anticolonial and nationalist movements, Arabic-language education and literacy served as both a cause célèbre and a potential social and political balm.36 Education was seen as the best means to strengthen the national character and make Egyptians more capable of self-rule. Furthermore, increased literacy was one way for the activists in these movements to make sure their fellow Egyptians could receive their wisdom and ultimately their vision of what Egypt was to become. Colonial intransigence toward demands for more educational opportunities was justified in part on the premise that the British occupation of Egypt was necessary in order to impose fiscal austerity on the Egyptian state and economy. The new British administrators largely frowned upon free education and strove to limit the reach of government schools. When they did eventually begin in the 1890s to encourage education, it was in the traditional kuttāb schools. As with earlier attempts, there was hope that these “subsidized schools” would become a nascent elementary school system that could focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic for the masses. However, in practice, kuttābs often served “alternative” literacies by continuing to educate children by the hundreds of thousands not in reading and writing but in the basics of Qur’anic recitation and Islamic or Coptic belief. Ultimately, most Egyptians relied on a network of informal and private instruction that would produce graduates with varying degrees of competence in reading and writing.

In this educational milieu, those who aspired to better their economic and social standing clamored for far more opportunities than elite government schools could provide. Through much of the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, the private missionary schools opened by French, British, and American churches educated many more Egyptians of all faiths than government schools did. Soon nationalists and local religious reformers sought to make their own mark on the educational foundation of the country by opening their own private schools, some of which were purely charitable. However, a common complaint of the era was that too many “for-profit” schools had opened their doors and were taking advantage of parents who were all too willing to pay for education that might or might not improve the employment prospects of their children. For the largely rural population of the country, the productive capacity of children as part of the family unit working the land was often weighed against the considerable time and expense needed for children to attend full-time schools. Nevertheless, there was a general sense that education could confer tangible benefits: the prospect of government employment, the opportunity to teach, and the possibility of continuing on to higher education and professions in law, medicine, and engineering, among others. Furthermore, as we shall see, the profession of “writing,” so long associated with scribal and secretarial pursuits, was now expanded to writers who could make their way in life as journalists, novelists, translators, and public intellectuals. Education was associated with brighter prospects and, in the words of countless intellectuals, parents, and students, was considered a way to prevent “losing the future” (ayā‘ al-mustaqbal).

Literacy was the first step on the official educational ladder and, as such, was on the minds of Egyptian thinkers of the time. From the religious figure Muhammad ‘Abduh to the feminist writer Malak Hifni Nasif, Egyptian activists made “reform of the Arabic language” an important part of their agendas.37 Central to this debate about Arabic reading and writing was the question of who should learn and how. For many Egyptians, the growing strain on limited educational resources served to reignite questions about the goals and beneficiaries of education. These debates had both a class as well as a gender dimension.38 What kind of Arabic should be taught? Did everyone need to become a master of the language? What kinds of reading could be deemed dangerous? Was writing appropriate for women? How could these subjects be taught without compromising the moral character of students or their happiness with their current place in society? At the turn of the century, educators were carefully treading the path of literacy promotion, even as they sought to control and influence how it would be taught.


1. “Su’āl,” Al-Fatāa 1, no. 11 (March 1, 1894): 497.

2. Anūn Nawfal, “Al-Zawjān,” Al-Fatāa 1, no. 12 (March 16, 1894): 547–550.

3. Harvey Graff, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

4. Brian Street, Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); James Paul Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 4th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011); and James Collins and Richard K. Blot, Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

5. Some of the most influential works on the “great divide” between oral and written cultures are Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982); Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962); and Jack Goody and Ian Watt’s “The Consequences of Literacy,” in Literacy in Traditional Societies, ed. Jack Goody, 27–68 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968). In his more recent work, Goody addresses some of the critiques of the “literacy hypothesis” and articulates a more nuanced approach. See Jack Goody, The Power of the Written Tradition (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 1–25. For a good overview of the critique of the “great divide” concept, see Joyce Coleman, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1–33.

6. Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Carmen Gitre, “Performing Modernity: Theater and Political Culture in Egypt, 1869–1923” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 2011); and Virginia Danielson, The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

7. Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Dyala Hamzah, ed., The Making of the Arab Intellectual: Empire, Public Sphere and the Colonial Coordinates of Selfhood (New York: Routledge, 2013); Omnia El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Eve M. Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Hanan Kholoussy, For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

8. Surprisingly, literacy in Egypt during this period has received little attention, although some excellent work had been done in the other parts of the Middle East and on earlier periods of Egyptian history. See Benjamin Fortna, Learning to Read in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Ami Ayalon, Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900–1948 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004); Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Dana Sajdi, The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Nelly Hanna, In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo’s Middle Class, Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003); and Konrad Hirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). For research on contemporary literacy campaigns and language usage in Egypt, see Nermeen Mouftah, “Building Life: Faith, Literacy Development and Muslim Citizenship in Revolutionary Egypt” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2014); and Reem Bassiouney, Language and Identity in Modern Egypt (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

9. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

10. Judith Cochran, Education in Egypt (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 22–52.

11. Gregor Schoeler, The Genesis of Literature in Islam: From the Aural to the Read, trans. Shawkat M. Toorawa, rev. ed. (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 87 and 104.

12. Miriam Hoexter, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, and Nehemia Levtzion, eds., The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

13. Hanna, In Praise of Books; and Sajdi, Barber of Damascus. On the cultural and scholarly revivals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Peter Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840, rev. ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998). For a study on the increase in textualization and its popularization among non-elites in earlier periods, see Hirschler, Written Word.

14. For an interesting set of approaches and good introduction, see the collection of works in Armando Salvatore and Mark LeVine, eds., Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). For some historical treatments of the importance of print, see Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

15. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 23–31.

16. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 37–46.

17. Ibid., 36.

18. For a good exploration of how public discussions during this period contributed to ideas about Egyptian identity, reform, and modern subjectivities, see Gasper, Power of Representation, 37–41 and 95–103. More generally, Armando Salvatore and Mark LeVine provide a useful summary of the applicability and limitations of Habermas’s public sphere to modern Middle East societies in “Introduction: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies,” in Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies, ed. Armando Salvatore and Mark LeVine (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 1–25.

19. Making the helpful distinction between a study of language and the study of the ideologies behind language in his own work, Yasir Suleiman has noted that “Arabic does not constitute the data for this book, but pronouncements about Arabic as a marker of national identity do.” See Yasir Suleiman, The Arabic Language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 14.

20. Recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of orality to the construction of popular culture and nationalism. See Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians; Virginia Danielson, Voice of Egypt; and Carmen Gitre, “Performing Modernity.” On poetry, see Mounah A. Khouri, Poetry and the Making of Modern Egypt (1882–1922), vol. 1 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1971); and Heather J. Sharkey, “Arabic Poetry, Nationalism and Social Change: Sudanese Colonial and Postcolonial Perspectives,” in Literature and Nation in the Middle East, ed. Yasir Suleiman and Ibrahim Muhawi (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 162–178.

21. For an overview of these issues, see Anwar G. Chejne, The Arabic Language: Its Role in History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969); Adrian Gully, “Arabic Linguistic Issues and Controversies of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Semitic Studies 42, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 75–120; and J. Brugman, An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1984). For an overview and history of language policies across the Middle East, see Reem Bassiouney, Arabic Sociolinguistics: Topics in Diglossia, Gender, Identity, and Politics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009), 210–256.

22. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

23. For a survey of these social engineering projects in action, see El Shakry, Great Social Laboratory.

24. See Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism.

25. James Heyworth-Dunne, An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt (London: Frank Cass, 1968), 271–284 and 330–339.

26. Ibid., 346–358.

27. Notable exceptions were British, and later American, missionaries who favored the vernacular in their work with Egyptian Copts—a development addressed in the next chapter.

28. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, chapter 3; ‘Alī Mubārak, arīq al-Hijā’ wa-l-Tamrīn ‘alā al-Qirā’a fī al-Lugha al-‘Arabiyya, 2 vols. (Cairo: Maba‘at Wādī al-Nīl, 1868); and Rifā‘a al-ahāwī, Al-Murshid al-Amīn li-l-Banāt wa-l-Banīn, ed. Munā Amad Muammad Abū Zayd (Cairo: Dār al-Kitāb, 2012).

29. The events of the ‘Urabi Revolt in 1881 highlighted the new coalitions of indigenous groups who were willing to champion political reforms. Juan Cole notes that “the propertied peasants, the urban guilds, and the intelligentsia played the leading role in the Revolution, opposing the dual elite of Ottoman-Egyptian nobles and the European bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy in Egypt.” See Juan R. I. Cole, Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East: Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt’s ‘Urabi Movement (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999), 22. For a helpful overview of the various segments of Egyptian society during the nineteenth century, see ibid., 23–52.

30. Chejne, Arabic Language, 18.

31. For a good overview, see Mona L. Russell, “Competing, Overlapping, and Contradictory Agendas: Egyptian Education Under British Occupation, 1882–1922,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21, nos. 1 and 2 (2001): 50–60. For more on this period, see Robert L. Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882–1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).

32. Richard Jacquemond, Conscience of the Nation: Writers, State, and Society in Modern Egypt, trans. David Tresilian (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008), 11 and 112.

33. ‘Abd al-Samī‘ Sālim Harrāwī, Lughat al-Idāra al-‘Āmma fī Mir (Cairo: Al-Majlis al-A‘lā li-Ri‘āyat al-Funūn wa-l-Ādāb wa-l-‘Ulūm al-Ijtimā‘iyya, 1963), 486–494 and 501–505. Arabic became the official language of government correspondence only in 1924.

34. For a case study of the former, see Collins and Blot, Literacy and Literacies, chapter 6. For the differences between the North African case of French colonialism and the Levant and Egypt, see Bassiouney, Arabic Sociolinguistics, 210–254; and Suleiman, Arabic Language and National Identity, 11–12.

35. The idea of education differing on the basis of class was not new. However, the degree to which the British strove to stratify and separate school systems on the basis of the language of instruction was a novelty in Egypt.

36. Although the Arabic language was central to Egyptian nationalist movements of this period, Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski observe that the pull of Arab nationalism, as a competing allegiance, was not strong in Egypt in the first decades of the twentieth century. Most nationalist sentiment before World War I was of an “Egyptian-Ottoman orientation” or was a more exclusive Egyptian territorial nationalism. The latter predominated after World War I. See Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski, Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 15–20.

37. See Muammad Rashīd Riā, Tārīkh al-Ustādh al-Imām al-Shaykh Muammad ‘Abduh, vol. 1 (Cairo: Maba‘at al-Manār, 1931), 11–12; and Malak ifnī Nāif, Al-Nisā’iyyāt: Majmū‘at Maqālāt Nushirat fī al-Jarīda fī Mawū‘ al-Mar’a al-Miriyya (Cairo: Multaqā al-Mar’a wa-l-Dhākira, 1998). Likewise, Qasim Amin, author of the controversial The Liberation of Women and The New Woman, was interested in the reform of the Arabic language. See Mary Flounders Arnett, “Qāsim Amīn and the Beginnings of the Feminist Movement in Egypt” (PhD diss., Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, 1965), 115–120.

38. Selim, “People’s Entertainments”; Mona L. Russell, Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education, and National Identity, 1863–1922 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 130–132; and Marilyn Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).