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The Problem of Society

The question of the crowd has already been mentioned in Egyptian accounts of journeys to Europe. What was remarkable about Paris or Marseilles was not only the layout of the buildings and the shops but the disciplined, industrious manner of the individual in the busy streets. 'Each person was occupied with his own business, proceeding on his way, taking care not to harm or interfere with anyone else.' Such descriptions are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's 'Man in the crowd', who observed from his café window how 'by far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied, businesslike demeanour, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on.'[77] The crowd in the street, in fact, became a common topos in both Western and Egyptian writing. 'No subject', observed Benjamin, 'was more entitled to the attentions of nineteenth-century writers.'[78]

The crowd in the city's streets was the theme in a work of fiction that appeared in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. Like the works I examined in earlier chapters, the story was written in the form of a journey. But although its protagonists eventually find themselves in Paris (travelling there, I should add, to see the Exposition Universelle of 1900), for the first time in a work of modern Egyptian fiction the major events are set not in


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Europe but in Cairo. The two protagonists, a young writer named Isa ibn Hisham and his elderly and respectable companion, the Pasha, are jostled by crowds from the very start of their journey. They meet in one of the cemeteries outside Cairo, where the Pasha, who lived in Cairo fifty years before, has returned from the dead to discover with shock and confusion what has happened to the city since. As they set off into the city, a donkey driver tries to cheat the Pasha over the payment of a fare and an argument breaks out. The Pasha calls the donkey driver an 'insolent peasant'. He in turn warns the Pasha 'we are in an age of liberty, and there is no distinction between the donkey driver and the prince'. Around them, we are told, a crowd has already formed. A policeman arrives, more interested in a bribe than in 'preserving order,' and marches the Pasha off to the police station. They are accompanied, the author adds, by the enormous crowd.[79]

In subsequent chapters the two characters journey through the modern streets of Cairo and the new spaces of its public life. They find themselves in the court house and the gaol, the hotel and the restaurant, theatres and dance halls, bars, cafés and brothels, accompanied throughout by the restless, noisy crowd. 'What is this enormous commotion?' asks the Pasha on one occasion, as they walk during the evening in the centre of the city, ' ... this cleaving multitude, this crowd?' He supposes there must be some fantastic feast or funeral. 'No,' answers Isa ibn Hisham, 'just people congregating in public - companions spending an evening together and drinkers getting drunk.'[80]

This combination of the unruly commotion of life and the absence of all moral and political discipline repeats itself in almost every episode of the novel. The crowd is encountered not only in the brothel and the café but even at the final place they visit on their journey, the theatre. The theatre in Europe (a companion explains to the Pasha) is a place where people's morals are refined, by the portrayal of their history and other themes in dramatic form. Here it was very different. The actors danced, shouted, and caroused on stage, and the audience, composed of people from every class, did not sit silently like Europeans, as spectators, but joined in, laughing and applauding as a raucous crowd.[81]

The Tale of Isa ibn Hisham , as the book was called, was described by later writers as the most important work of imaginative literature of its generation.[82] It was very widely read. An expurgated version was later used by the Ministry of Education, as a text in all government secondary schools.[83] It has been interpreted as a work of social criticism that expresses the liberalism which emerged in the political thought of the period. The term liberalism tends to be misleading. The donkey driver's statement about an age of liberty has been cited to illustrate a major theme of the book, that Egyptians must be taught the principle of equality before the law.[84] But these words


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come from the mouth of an insolent peasant. The concern of the book is not with equality of rights but with social chaos, a chaos suddenly visible in the indiscipline of the city's streets where the peasant behaves as an equal of the Pasha. Indiscipline is not usually considered a central concern of liberal thought, but rather than abandoning the label of liberalism I would prefer to use these writings from Egypt to understand liberalism in its colonial context. Egyptian liberalism spoke about justice and legal rights; but these concerns were contained within a wider problematic. Rights could only be enjoyed within a society of obedient and industrious individuals, and it was these characteristics, as we have seen, that Egyptians now suddenly seemed to lack. Liberalism was the language of a new social class, threatened by the absence of the mental habits of industry and obedience which would make possible a social order. The Tale of Isa ibn Hisham articulated the political fears of this class.

The novel was written by the thirty-year-old Muhammad al-Muwailihi and published between 1898 and 1902 in Misbah al-Sharq , a paper founded and edited by his father. The father was a member of a leading merchant household of Cairo, the Egyptian branch of a wealthy textile-trading family from the Hejaz (the Red Sea coast of Arabia). The history of the family is worth mentioning, for it illustrates the fortunes of this mercantile class. The Muwailihi's had grown prosperous in the eighteenth century with the prosperity of Egypt's Red Sea trade, and in the nineteenth century had become close political allies of the Egyptian ruling family. Such alliances, however, were unable to secure the country's large merchant families against the expansion of European commerce. In the 1870s, after being rescued from commercial ruin by the Khedive, the Muwailihi's were among those who led the nationalist opposition to Egypt's commercial and financial control by the European powers.[85] By the 1890s the son was employed as a government official under the British, who had responded to the nationalist uprising in 1882 by placing the country under military occupation.

Muhammad al-Muwailihi wrote Isa ibn Hisham at the same time as two influential friends of his own age, Qasim Amin and Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul, were writing the similar works of social criticism I have already mentioned, one describing the country's condition as a state of absolute disorganisation, the other as part of a universal social crisis.[86] The three men were all members of the same social and literary salon, where they mixed with fellow government servants, magistrates, and prosecuters, with members of some of the country's important Turkish families, with British officials, and with visiting Orientalist scholars.[87] The concern among those who gathered in such salons towards the end of the nineteenth century was not so much the colonial occupation, from which as landowners, merchants and government officials their families were beginning to benefit even as they resented the


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fact of European control, but the crowd that threatened in the streets and cafés outside.


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