Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia (Dreams of Hind and Kamilia) opened in Cairo in July 1988 to public acclaim and critical controversy. Muhammad Khan’s feature film, the story of two maids and their unrelenting exploitation by husbands, brothers, uncles and employers, proposes a radical critique of contemporary Egyptian society and its class and gender inequalities. The conclusion to Hind and Kamilia, however, is borrowed from the stereotypical conventions of bourgeois comic romance and television melodrama. The two maids’ sudden discovery of the money buried beneath the tree, money made by Hind’s lover, husband and father of her child Ahlam, “saves” the two women. They spend it in abandon on a holiday outing from which they are abducted and robbed, and the film ends with the three women gazing at an idyllic Mediterranean from the sun-bathed beaches of Alexandria. Only this difference, that the “happy couple” is two women (the man in question is in prison on charges of black marketeering), challenges the generic conventions and cliched paradigms of the film’s conclusion.

The apparent failure of Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia to envision in its conclusion a political solution to the social problems that it dramatized is as much a historical problematic as it is an aesthetic or a cinematic one. That historical problematic, its longer history in the colonial relations between Egypt or the Arab world more generally, and Europe, is the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s book. Colonising Egypt focuses on the intellectual and political impact of Europe on 19th century Egypt and argues for a critical repositioning of the study of colonial history. Drawing on the methodologies of contemporary European intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who have analyzed structures of power and their role in the internal history of Western political ascendancy, Mitchell relocates the significance of these theories within a global context. That discursive shift is not without its own contradictions, for it raises compound historiographical questions at the same time that it poses a serious challenge to a Westernized theory of the colonial project.

In his discussion of the colonial implementation in Egypt of disciplinary mechanisms, such as the model village or the army barracks, Mitchell points out that “Perhaps [Foucault’s European] focus has tended to obscure the colonising nature of disciplinary power. Yet the panopticon, the model institution whose geometric order and generalised surveillance serve as a motif for this kind of power, was a colonial invention.” (p. 35). In expanding the Western intellectual historical narrative to a reading of its geopolitical conditions, exemplified here by Egypt, Mitchell draws on the ideological and political debates then taking place in Egypt in response to the colonial intrusion into Arab history and customs. Mitchell does not always, in his sometimes ahistorical application of a dominant Western theory, avoid a certain renewal of cultural imperialism. Still, Colonising Egypt does propose a re-reading of contemporary Western theoretical debates by introducing the case of Egypt’s intellectual history. Egypt provides not just the raw materials for Western empire building and theory construction, but a critique as well of the premises of the Western project of global hegemony.

Colonising Egypt opens with a description of the 1889 visit of the Egyptian delegation first to the World Exhibition mounted in Paris, and from there to the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists meeting in Stockholm. The European phenomenon of the international exhibit provides a working model for 19th century Europe’s relations with its “others”: “Throughout the 19th century non-European visitors found themselves being placed on exhibit or made the careful object of European curiosity.” This European “concern with rendering things up to be viewed” (p.2) is the focus of Mitchell’s critique of the contradictions implicit in Europe’s colonial history and its 20th century consequences. Much as Europe sought to represent a model of Egypt for the edification of visitors to the fairs, it attempted further to model Egypt itself, the country and its people, according to their representation in the exhibit. “There were,” Mitchell writes, “two parallel pairs of distinctions, between the visitor and the exhibit, and between the exhibit and what it expressed."(p.9)

Visitors to the exhibits, however, included non-Europeans as well as citizens of the metropolis. Their different reactions determined the ensuing political conflict between colonizer and colonized over the world contained in the representation. “The Egyptian exhibit had been built by the French to represent a winding street of Cairo, made of houses with overhanging upper stories and a mosque like that of Qaitbay. ‘It was intended,’ one of the Egyptians [who visited the exhibit in 1889] wrote, &lsquoto resemble the old aspect of Cairo.’ So carefully was this done, he noted, that ‘even the paint on the buildings was made dirty’ […] The Egyptian visitors were disgusted by all this and stayed away.”

The conflict over the control of representation and reality between Europe and its Egyptian subjects is reproduced, if in altered form, in the post- (or neo-) colonial period. Salah ‘Isa, the Egyptian historian and opposition journalist of the Tagammu‘ Party, has critiqued the negative opinion expressed by the establishment writer Anis Mansur of Muhammad Khan’s film. For Mansur, Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia, like the 1889 French exhibition, publicly revealed the “dirty side” of Egypt. The film, however, shot outside the studio in the streets of Cairo and on the back steps of its patrician apartment buildings, engaged differently from the French appropriation a century earlier with the world it presumed to represent, and insisted on a critical correlation between its dilapidated facades and the corrupt social structure which these tenuously sustain. As Farida al-Naqqash had already pointed out, “Egyptian cinema is far behind reality…even though here at the end of the 20th century we are in a country which every year sends thousands of women into the labor market and in a world where the women’s liberation movement has grown apace and the image of the working or fighting woman is no longer so very strange.” The critical controversy around Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia, its portrayal of the gender and class oppression of Cairo’s maids and its refusal of the cosmetic dressings of a studio decor, participates a century later in the “logic of the exhibition.” Yet the struggle between metropolis and periphery is not only geographically organized: it is internal to both “metropolis” and “periphery,” and one must still demonstrate the transformations, material as well as ideological, that have taken place from the period of territorial imperialism to that of global capitalism. How can one historicize this theoretical juxtaposition of Foucault or Derrida and colonized Egypt?

“Egypt at the Exhibition” moves from its analysis of European exhibits of the Orient to survey how the organization (nizam) of the exhibition was applied to the reconstruction of Cairo. The city itself, Mitchell shows, was enlisted as part of the apparatus of colonial domination and eventually became an arena of resistance against European control and domination. Mitchell elicits from within 19th-century Egypt the possibilities for re-narrating today the historical dynamic of the colonizing process. The issue of perspective, crucial to the idea of the exhibit, was less easily realized in “the East itself” than it had been in Europe. Orientalist writers like Flaubert and Nerval or artists such as David Roberts discovered this when they sought to retrieve their European-based images from a recalcitrant Egypt and found themselves caught in the contradiction “between the need to separate oneself from the world and render it up as an object of representation, and the desire to lose oneself within this object-world and experience it directly” (27). According to Mitchell, the division articulated by the West between a “realm of mere representations” and a “realm of ‘the real’” is complicit in the division of the world into West and non-West. How these divisions emerged in the 19th century informs the geopolitical order and the attendant international division of labor in the world today.

“Enframing” describes a particular stratagem traced in Chapter Two on the part of the European colonialists for ordering up and controlling the reality of its “others.” In Egypt this control took the form of the model villages, “run like barracks,” (34) the creation of a disciplined army through the mobilization and regimentation of tens of thousands of Egyptians, and eventually preparatory schools for the new soldiers. Discipline and surveillance as means of population control were the basis for the “new order,” or nizam jadid, so that in 1844, for example, a government edict was issued to district officials decreeing “death by hanging for anyone harbouring peasants who had absconded from their villages ‘in order to drop the word absconder entirely hereafter’” (42). Mitchell’s extraterritorial introduction of Bourdieu’ study of the Kabyle house in Algeria, however, to illustrate the British reconstruction of Egypt exhibits some of the methodological problems in the book.

“The Appearance of Order” (Chapter Three) shows how this coercive European political planning of Egyptian social space concretized the Western dichotomy of representation and the “real.” The word tanzim, for example, “organization” or “regulation,” was most often translated in this period as “modernisation” (67). Urban order programs, such as broad thoroughfares through the Delta towns or sewage systems, came to be linked as well to individual discipline and the establishment of military schools with tautly regulated daily schedules at central locations in the cities.

Schooling was further divided and ranked according to the size of the village or town in which the institution was located, and “by specifying the separate ranks of people eligible for each successive stage of schooling, a social order was represented in the exact form of a pyramid of social classes" (77). As in his comparison between the colonizer’s model village and the traditional Arab home, Mitchell’s reading of the new educational system against the &ldqou;craft and occupation of the fiqi, the local healer, Quran reciter and holy man” (87) elucidates the enforced separation of schooling and the written from “life itself — the division, that is, between a world of what we call ‘things’” and a “separate realm of intentions and instructions” (93).

The instructions were disseminated ultimately from European capitals. In “After We Have Captured Their Bodies,” Mitchell examines the complicit connections between Europe’s colonial history and the disciplinary history of the Western academy. Once the social body of the colony had been surveilled, disciplined and regimented, political power and an adequate notion of politics needed to be introduced and consolidated within Egypt itself. That notion was developed as “political science” in Europe. Mitchell in turn reads in 19th-century Egyptian thinkers such as Tahtawi, Mustafa Kamil and Muhammad al-Muwailihi the conflicted history of Egyptian politics over the latter half of the 19th century.

Such a history involves the Western disciplines of political science and ethnography and the Egyptian government-sponsored translation into Arabic of works critical (purportedly for the sake of reform) of an endemic Egyptian “character” complete with exemplary models of European superiority. It raises questions of language and the written bases of the historical record. In “The Machinery of Truth,” Mitchell analyzes the attempts by Egyptian intellectuals both to accommodate and to resist the European linguistic invasion of Egyptian political reality. Husayn al-Marsafi’s Essay on Eight Words, published in October 1881, one month after the Urabi revolution, is the pretext for an interrogation into the controversial political lexicon of European nationalism, “nation, homeland, government, justice, oppression, politics, liberty and education,” (131) and its disputed deployment in new territorial configurations. Marsafi, writes Mitchell,

warned the nationalists against dividing the country into hostile ethnic groups, invoking some further associations of the word hizb [party or faction]. Compared to the unity implied by the word umma, which means community or nation, Marsafi argued, the word hizb implied self-interest and factionalism (tahazzub). The word’s associations were brought out to discredit the politics of those who used it (137).

In a provocative though questionable approach in its mystification of Arabic as a language, Mitchell goes on to discuss the multiple interpretative possibilities — from the “ absence of vowels” to chains of recitation — inherent in Arabic, a linguistic potential that confutes the “machinery of truth” operated by Western colonial powers and its reliance on concepts of author and authority.

The highly complex argumentation and theoretical strategizing of Colonising Egypt opens, but does not resolve, new parameters for the discursive practices of contemporary politics across the historical divides of the 19th and 20th centuries, colonialism and post-colonialism, and the geopolitical distinctions of core and periphery, metropolis and colony, First and Third Worlds. Mitchell’s argumentative claims resonate no less critically in the Egyptian political and intellectual arena, where a significant theoretical effort to reconstitute Egyptian history and historiography is taking place, than in the West. From Rif’at Sa‘id's multivolume history of the Egyptian left to Fu’ad Zakariyya’s critical work on the Islamist movement, and including new journals such as Qadaya Fikriya (Ideological Issues, edited by Mahmud Amin al ‘Alim) and al-Muwajaha (Confrontation, produced by the Tagammu‘-initiated Committee in Defense of National Culture), the contemporary rewriting of modern Egyptian history suggests a critical moment in Egypt’s cultural politics. Western theory must now learn from that politics.

These intellectual reviews of the Egyptian past and its present agenda have consequences now, as they did a century ago, for the city planning of Cairo and the distribution of culture from the capital to the countryside. Minister of Culture Faruq Husni has, in a controversial new program, begun constructing and reconstructing qusur al-thaqafa, or palaces of culture, in Cairo’s neighborhoods and throughout Egypt, each specializing in a different aspect — folklore, cinema, plastic arts — of Egyptian and cosmopolitan cultural production. Husni’s plans have met with skepticism, support and resistance, and have generated polemical responses in town meetings and in both mainstream and opposition media.

The European world exhibitions that opened the way for Orientalist tourism had, as Mitchell points out, a collateral function of channeling political discontent within Europe itself: “Despite their apprehension about allowing enormous numbers of the lower classes to congregate in European capitals so soon after the events of 1848, the authorities encouraged them to visit exhibitions” (20). Popular fairs in Egypt, by contrast, such as the mawlid (feast) of al-Sayyid Badawi in Tanta, were at the same time being suppressed by the colonial authorities as threats to the public order and municipal hygiene (98). Contemporary Cairo nonetheless continues to witness the mawalid of Husayn, Sayyida Zaynab, and the Prophet Muhammad each year according to the Islamic calendar, and international exhibits, such as the Cairo Book Fair and the Trade Fair, annually host visitors and displays from countries throughout the world. These exhibitions, like al-Sayyid Badawi’s mawlid a century earlier, have in recent years again become the scene of political confrontation, today contesting Egypt’s accommodation with the United States and Israel and the economic “open door.”

Once held in the fair grounds on Gezira Island in central Cairo, the exhibits now take place on new premises in Madinat Nasr, well removed from the central city. On the previous site is the newly-built Cairo Opera House, which opened in the fall of 1988 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida, first commissioned to mark the opening of the Suez Canal. The history of the cultural struggle in Egypt over the allocation of urban space and the displacement of indigenous practices narrated in Colonising Egypt continues today. In January 1980, the Israeli presence at the Cairo Book Fair resulted in the arrest of numbers of members of Egypt’s opposition and prompted the formation of a Committee in Defense of National Culture. And in March 1986, three Israeli representatives were shot as they left their exhibit at the Trade Fair by members of Thawrat Misr, a Nasserist organization many of whose members are presently awaiting trial in Egyptian prisons.

In the tradition of al- Jabarti’s critique of French Orientalists and the Napoleonic proclamation issued upon the emperor’s arrival in Egypt in 1798 (133), contemporary Egyptian intellectuals continue to challenge the cultural, political and economic domination that is the legacy of territorial colonialism. Included among Farida al-Naqqash’s essays collected in Yaumiyyat al-mudun al-maftuha (Diaries of Open Cities) is an article written in 1982 on the Egyptian city Port Said, the port which once welcomed the soldiers of Egypt returning home from the battlefront and is today a free trade zone. Salah ‘Isa’s Al-Karitha allati tuhaddiduna (The Disaster Which Threatens Us, 1988) reviews the colonial past, the debates between Urabi and Mustafa Kamil, the history of al- Azhar, and Taha Husayn’s role of the bourgeois intellectual, and culminates in a class critique of the 1952 revolution. Both al-Naqqash and ‘Isa propose a radical re-reading of the dominant ideology current in Egypt — the outcome of the processes described in Colonising Egypt — as complicit in Egypt’s own “underdevelopment.”

Mitchell’s conclusion, “The Philosophy of the Thing,” represents the city designed by Western imperial projects as now a site of resistance and confrontation. The control over the local population that such designs had once exerted is told in the anecdote of the 1916 Trade Fair at Fez, according to which a rebel leader, seized by curiosity, asks permission of the authorities to visit the exhibit. Permission is duly granted, and the leader and his tribe are welcomed, and “after his visit he and his tribe made submission” (162). Nonetheless, Mitchell goes on, “this colonising process never fully succeeded, for there always remained regions of resistance and voices of rejection. The schools, universities and the press, moreover, like the military barracks, were always liable to become centres of some kind of revolt, turning the colonisers’ methods of instruction and discipline into the means of organised opposition“ (171).

Colonising Egypt, both through its re-historicization of colonial history and the methodological strategies enlisted in that re-historicization, sketches a theoretical model for undermining — actively “de-lapidating,” to redeploy one of the more derogatory terms used by 19th century Europeans to describe Cairene edifices (22) — the academic structures of Western domination erected in the 19th century and which continue today to prescribe a linear historical narrative of development and underdevelopment. Colonising Egypt elaborates new historical configurations, another “division of labor” that must now engage with the theoretical production of Egyptian intellectuals no less than with that of their European counterparts, to reorder historical as well as geo-political priorities. Such a practice might eventually produce another ending to the “dreams of Hind and Kamilia.”

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow "Mitchell, Colonising Egypt," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).
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