Literacies and the Emergence of Modern Egypt

with Hoda Yousef

hosted by Graham Pitts

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During the late nineteenth century, Egyptian society witnessed the rise of new debates and practices concerning reading and writing in the Arabic language. In this episode, Hoda Yousef explores the discources surrounding literacy in Egypt, which is the subject of her first book entitled Composing Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2016). This work examines how different actors from Islamic modernists and feminists to journalists and officials sought to produce particular kinds of Egyptians through language politics. Dr. Yousef demonstrates that emergent practices of reading and writing had impacts well beyond the conventionally-defined literate circles.  Even for those who did not read and write, the written word became an important part of daily life. Through the medium of public exchange created by the writing, different segments of Egyptian society could engage in discussions regarding nation, home, and belonging.

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Hoda Yousef is Assistant Professor of History at Denison University. Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of language, literacy, education, and gender in modern Egypt. 
Graham Auman Pitts is a PhD Candidate in Georgetown University's History department, where he studies the environmental history of the modern Middle East. He is currently finishing a dissertation entitled "Fallow Fields: Famine and the Making of Lebanon (1914-1952)," which probes the intersections of ecology, capital, and colonialism.


Episode No. 247
Release Date: 11 July 2016
Recording Location: Georgetown University
Editing and production by Chris Gratien
Sound excerpts: Baglamamin Dugumu - Necmiye Ararat and MuzafferIstanbul'dan Ayva Gelir Nar Gelir - Azize Tozem and Sari RecepHarmandali - Recep Efendi, Cemal EfendiAbdel Wahab-Balash--Nile records # 117-B
Images and bibliography courtesy of Hoda Yousef

This image from the 1919 Egyptian revolution highlights the use of symbols that would have been a powerful and effective way to reach the vast majorities of Egyptians who witnessed this show of dissent (Source: Sijill al-Hilāl al-Muṣawwar, vol. 1 (Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, 1992), 1:98.) 
Photographs of protests held on the same streets during the 1940s and 1950s provide a very different visual landscape. In those protests, banners awash with long statements dominated the processions. Within thirty odd years, public processions and more importantly, public communication, had changed drastically in Egypt. (Source: Sijill al-Hilāl al-Muṣawwar, vol. 1 (Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, 1992), 1:134.)
This was a very typical "group" petition sent by a community to the central state in 1915. (Source: Dar al-Watha'iq al-Qawmiyya, Cairo)
This is a printed petition from 1925, consciously addressed not only to "those in power," but also to "public opinion" (Source: Dar al-Watha'iq al-Qawmiyya, Cairo)

Composing Egypt
Hoda A. Yousef
Stanford University Press, 2016
Ayalon, Ami. Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Baron, Beth. The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Bassiouney, Reem. Language and Identity in Modern Egypt. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Ben-Bassat, Yuval. Petitioning the Sultan: Protests and Justice in Late Ottoman Palestine. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Chalcraft, John T. The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories: Crafts and Guilds in Egypt, 1863-1914. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Collins, James, and Richard Blot. Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Fahmy, Ziad. Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Fortna, Benjamin C. Learning to Read in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Gully, Adrian. “Arabic Linguistic Issues and Controversies of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Journal of Semitic Studies 42 (1997): 75–120.

Hanna, Nelly. “Literacy and the ‘Great Divide’ in the Islamic World, 1300-1800.” Journal of Global History 2, no. 2 (2007): 175–93.

Hatem, Mervat F. Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of ʿAʾisha Taymur. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Russell, Mona. “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 & 2 (2001): 50–60.

Ryzova, Lucie.  The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Sajdi, Dana. The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Sedra, Paul. From Mission to Modernity: Evangelicals, Reformers and Education in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Suleiman, Yasir. The Arabic Language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2000.


Arsalan said…
What an insightful piece of research! The guest in this episode was inspirational.

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