The ambivalent hybridity of pre-independence Arab societies
مؤتمر الموسيقى العربية في القاهرة عام 1932

It has been almost a month since I came back from Edinburgh on a very windy, rainy day, almost missing my connecting flight from London. I was there presenting some research at a workshop on cultures of diversity in pre-independent societies in the Arab world organized by the Center for the Advanced Study of the Arab World in Edinburgh. The workshop and the beautiful historical campus of the University of Edinburgh in which it was held contrasted with the contemporary capitalist “renovation” of the old town. Generic shops lined the streets all around the striking campus, adding pertinence to the question of how to understand historical legacies in the present world.

Memory is a profoundly problematic issue in the Arab world, from questions of ownership to its repeated refashioning to shore up authoritarian dictatorships or undermine perceived enemies. In Egypt, the modern notion of national memory was the result of Mohamed Ali’s modernizing project and the colonial scramble for the region. The double bind of constructing a national identity that distinguished itself from Ottoman mandates and embraced Western notions of modernity created fascinating models of assimilation and resistance, as well as hybrid subjects that would seem unusually radical to our contemporary eyes. This radical hybridity was what many workshop participants tried to capture.

Numerous research areas were tackled, from Arab participation in the Chicago Expo of 1893 (by Cafer Sarikaya) and early Lebanese photography, self-orientalization and perceptions of women (Yasmine Taan), to translation as way to situate identity in Palestine under the mandate (Sarah Irving), the endurance of bilingualism in the Maghrib (Idriss Jebari) and the possibility of archiving a bee-keeping, modernist polymath, Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi (Joy Garnett).

As participants shared their research and ideas, the first question that came to my mind was how they accessed their material. As an ordinary Egyptian citizen, I am not able to access my national archives — they’re subject to the dual horror of entrenched bureaucracy and the heavy securitization most Egyptian institutions have undergone in the past four decades. Even if I pass the scrutiny of security staff, bloated and inept bureaucracy gets in the way. (Khaled Fahmy’s efforts to make them more accessible is a crucial initiative.)

What artefacts, tokens, documents and objects do the national archive hold, I wondered, that are threatening to the extent that it must be closed, lock, stock and barrel? The founding myths of the post-independence state are based not on demonizing the past but as regarding it as a historical anomaly – something that should not have happened, or that unfortunately happened and the post-independence state has come to fix. The naive idea that history is made up of unconnected segments is dangerous because it creates mutilated and fragmented narratives that can be used to manipulate ill-informed citizens – falsifying consciousness for political propaganda.

Alia Mossallam’s presentation on dissent movements and protest songs pre-1919, Prelude to a RevolutionPoetics of dissent in Egypt 1917-1919, summarized this for me. Two facts serve to show how problematic it is to interrogate history as Egyptians: that Musallam had to research most of her material (which was initially for the play Whims of Freedom) at the UK’s Foreign Services Archive and the British Library, and that the impact of World War I on Egypt and its economy is little studied and rarely discussed critically and openly, even a hundred years on. Yet what Musallam showed is the immaterial remains of such events, like songs or chants that keep resurfacing, and how these remnants are an alternative voice in the hegemonic narrative or, at least, a token of the suppressed one. Their presence and resistance in our cultural memory forces us to question their origins and why they persist.

A 1932 music conference, most likely organized at the behest of King Fuad I and the suggestion of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, demonstrates how Egypt’s ruling elite envisioned “restoring” or “revitalizing” cultural legacy. Rebecca Wolfe’s Making Music Civilized: The 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music sheds light on this key event in Arabic music, perhaps the first of its kind, and how it came into being through an uneasy collaboration between neoclassical modernists and curious orientalists.

Inviting European musicologists to work alongside Egyptian musicians and historians in pondering the future of Arabic music sounds suspicious now. Why did the burden of “modernization” have to fall on the shoulders of the white man? The greater clarity with which we see this less-than-perfect Western involvement did not exist then — the presence of the enlightened white subject was taken for granted as a welcome or needed presence. Moral condescension and civilizational superiority aside, there was indeed a genuine interest on part of some of these European musicians and historians, but how and why they were involved would be the biggest point of later critique. Of course, that failed modernization engendered continued relations of dependency and patronage that still persist  this very workshop was organized by a European institution, after all.

These alliances and affinities with European intellectuals echoed in Hussam Ahmed’s research, The “Local” and the “Foreign” in Egypt’s Francophone Literary Circles and Salons. If the burden of modernizing Arab music fell to both Egyptian and European modernists, it makes sense to examine the kind of relationships they had and how the Egyptian intelligentsia viewed itself in relation to its Western counterparts. The cultural salon model that spread throughout the Arab world in the 19th century and the participation of members of various communities (such as Italians, Greeks and Armenians) – all united by the French language – created interesting tensions and exchanges. Ahmed argued that these salons hosted some of the debates of key Egyptian intellectuals, like author Taha Hussein and the proto-group of Les Essayistes, part of which later branched out to form the Art and Freedom group. These intellectuals and artists published in French and a vibrant French press dominated the intellectual landscape in Egypt for a long time.

While one might assume that these publications and discussions would be elitist and exclusionary by nature (only the literate and those able to read French had access), one cannot argue that Taha Hussein did not become a public intellectual, or that artist and writer Ramsis Younan from Art and Freedom did not eventually become one too, writing and publishing extensively in Arabic. Ahmed used the term “porous” to describe the subjects that participated in these circles, and examining the historical context we get to understand why. The very first learning institutions to study Egypt were those of the French scientists that accompanied Napoleon. Mohamed Ali’s first group of scholars to study abroad were sent to France. A lot of the Egyptian rising national elite saw that aligning with France is a way to counter the interests of the British occupation, and so on. Most all official communication was done in French. This unique combination of historical circumstances created the porouness or hybridity whereby “Egyptians” or residents of Egypt embraced their francophonie, not as a declaration of their loyalty to France or its colonial interests but rather due to pragmatic interests, political circumstances and economic and social conditions.

Elena Chiti’s research, Cosmopolitanism, an Alexandrian Francophone Cliches? Towards a Cultural History of the Concept (1879-1940), highlighted the complex reasons why subjects such as the francophiles of the literary salons clearly and directly identified themselves as the clichéd “cosmopolite.” Chiti has charted its lexical and semantic map and its meaning across time. Her findings show that the contemporary sense of cosmopolitan, as “the capacity of going beyond national horizons,” was never used as such by those who lived in Alexandria themselves. The term was used to denote many things, including “civilized,” “liberated from earthly ties,” “race with no homeland” (a specific reference to Jews living in Alexandria), and “dangerous mix of races.” 

This unstable, intangible category to which we cannot ascribe a specific political or cultural meaning creates exciting possibilities in furthering and broadening our understanding of these subjects of pre-independent societies. On the other hand, it leaves us wrestling ambivalently with the collaborations between Egyptian and European modernists that have irreversibly shaped our contemporary realities.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism