Review of Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture by Ziad Fahmy Stanford University Press

Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture.  Ziad Fahmy. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780804772129

With the recent revolution in Egypt, Ziad Fahmy’s Ordinary Egyptians Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture is a timely publication that engages the question of agency in Egypt’s 1919 Revolution.  It begins with the premise that the events of the 1919 Revolution bring to light the importance of placing non-elite nationalists into the Egyptian national narrative, a place typically reserved for a society’s elites and intellectuals.  Fahmy’s main objective is to examine how ordinary Egyptians came to cultivate a common sense of identity between 1870 and 1919, regardless of rural or urban locales, in a time when Egypt was attempting to wriggle free from not only elite domination, but also British colonial rule.  Fahmy suggests that the cultivation of a national identity among the masses in Egypt occurred through the proliferation of the colloquial Egyptian (Cairene) dialect of Arabic as it disseminated from the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria to Egypt’s rural villages and isolated areas.

To emphasize the importance of ordinary Egyptians in creating a modern national identity, Fahmy begins this work by examining the historical background, more specifically the process of political and cultural centralization around the country’s capital city of Cairo.  In this chapter, Fahmy explores the impact of modern modes of communication, including the printing press, increasing popularity of newspapers, and the rail network in Egypt, which allowed for new forms of collective identity to emerge.  From here, Fahmy shifts to examine nascent mass culture in Egypt through the use of a plethora of primary sources.  These sources include the works of notable journalists and playwrights, including Ya’qub Sannu’, ‘Uthman Jalal, and ‘Abdellah Nadim, as well as satirical press, vaudeville plays, recorded songs, cartoons and azjal (colloquial poetry), all appearing in the colloquial Cairene dialect.

The aural, oral, and textual sources analyzed give way to an intricate account of how ordinary Egyptians were able to take part in cultivating a modern national identity in Egypt through the vernacular, instead of the fusha (formal Modern Standard Arabic) elite culture that would have been inaccessible to the non-elites of Egypt due to high rates of illiteracy.  This also provides Fahmy the chance to engage with dominant theories of nationalism, most notably Benedict Anderson’s theory of print capitalism.

In explaining how dominant theories of nationalism may or may not be applicable to the situation in Egypt, Fahmy, based upon his primary source analysis of aural and oral media, presents a concept that mirrors the idea of print capitalism, aptly naming it “media capitalism.” This is defined as “[the] commodification of mass media, including print, and their function as a part of a media market.” (p.16)  Because literacy was considered a luxury in Egypt when?, print capitalism would not encompass the influence of various types of media on the cultivation of a modern national identity.  Rather, Fahmy argues that the ‘synergetic combination of all available media…helped to shape the “modern” identities of cultural consumers.” (p.16)  As these new forms of media began to arise, a national culture was cultivated and began to gain political significance among ordinary Egyptians, often in relation to the occupation of the British, in an example of territorial Egyptian nationalism that would describe Egypt’s 1919 Revolution.

Through scrupulous analysis of both quantitative and qualitative sources pertaining to the cultivation of a national identity in Egypt through the colloquial Cairene dialect of Arabic, Fahmy succeeds remarkable well in placing the ordinary Egyptian language? within the framework of the Egyptian national narrative.  The translated excerpts of azjal poetry, pictures of cartoons, and appendices of statistical measures only serve to enhance the richness of Fahmy’s unique study that stands in direct contrast to earlier works on Egyptian nationalism, which often seek to place nationalism within the realm of elite politics in Egypt, despite the attempts of the masses to break away from domination of both the British Empire and the fusha elite.  With recent events over the last year and a half in Cairo, Fahmy’s study of the importance of placing ordinary Egyptians into the national narrative through the use of the colloquial dialect takes on a greater level of relevance.  It serves as a blueprint with which to analyze the events of the 2011 Revolution in Egypt through colloquial chants, slogans, signs, and artwork, as the ordinary Egyptian sought freedom from Egypt’s military and political elites.


Reviewed by Rebekah J. James, Texas Tech University
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]