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New Texts Out Now: Adam Mestyan, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt

Adam Mestyan, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Adam Mestyan (AM): What happens to a national narrative retold in an imperial context? My book Arab Patriotism addresses a contradiction. Many modern nations are understood as having emerged through the rejection of empire or as results of colonial domination. But what about nations which emerge from within imperial contexts, without a fundamental rejection of the empire?

I have long been interested in nineteenth-century Ottoman and Arabic theater history in the Eastern Mediterranean, specifically how this cultural arena functioned as a political art. As I did archival research in Istanbul and Egypt, however, I kept encountering the deep structure of Ottoman governance upon which everything else was built. This led me to ask: what would a history of Arabic theater, national ideas and practices, look like in the Ottoman imperial context? What role did late Ottoman-Egyptian elites play in the formation of “nation-ness”? And in what ways did theater and performance serve to talk to the Ottoman power? This question was a radical one insofar I did not take the British Empire as the defining imperial power in the Eastern Mediterranean but rather I explored the Ottoman effects in Egypt.

Methodologically, this was not easy. I had to theorize the possible existence of a non-resistant, non-revolutionary form of nation-ness within an imperial province. I had to suggest a framework in which the imperial center affects provincial discourse and other discourses connected by the same language (or rather, making the same language, new fusha Arabic) in various “Arab” provinces. Imagining a form of nation-ness connected by language, but connecting disparate sites required, in short, theorizing nation-ness as a discursive network.

My thinking for this book was also heavily influenced by events between 2009 and 2016 in Arab countries. For the last ten years, I have spent several months every year in Egypt, working in the state archives and other collections. I saw the start and fall of a revolution (or, rather, several revolutions), literally, from the archives, and I saw how intellectuals, artists, and ordinary people struggled to make sense of the events. More importantly, I watched how official authorities attempted to rewrite memory and create new political pacts. It was not hard to realize that something similar happened in 1882 after the ‘Urabi revolution. The last part of my book thus deals with one question: what happens after a failed revolution? How did intellectuals try to rebuild (and re-imagine) internal sovereignty?

Finally, since I am a Hungarian Orientalist and historian, I was also heavily influenced by the historical experience of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. Although I do not explore this explicitly in the book, I believe the Ottoman Arab provinces can be better understood not by comparing them to Western European empires, or the United States, but to the Habsburg Eastern provinces. There are important differences, to be sure, but in many fundamental ways, the making of the Middle East is very similar to the making of Eastern Europe.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AM: The book’s fundamental goal is to understand the emergence of nation-ness within empires. There has been a wave of historical works revising Balkan and Middle Eastern nation-state narratives and the secularization argument (namely, that nationalism is somehow a non-religious thing) by using the Ottoman context or global history. But such revisionist arguments have, perhaps, gone too far now in the opposite direction, rejecting nationalist ideas altogether in favor of narratives highlighting Islam or the ascendance of the global over the local. Whereas previously, the problem was reducing the Ottoman Empire to a mere pre-history of various nation-states, the danger now is overlooking the actual presence of patriotic concepts in the Ottoman context.

Arab Patriotism seeks to find the balance between these two extremes; I want to avoid throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The problem, put in this way, was how can we meaningfully engage with national expressions and practices in imperial contexts without reading them as the inevitable roots of nation-states or dismissing them as local discrepancies in a broader global narrative.

To do this, I make a clear—admittedly, even simplified—distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I suggest that patriotism—centered around the idea of the homeland and bringing together all the various neologisms associated with it in Arabic (starting with the word watani)—can emerge and function in an imperial framework. It is a muted form of nationalism that does not necessarily or explicitly strive for a sovereign polity, in contrast to more traditional understandings of nationalism as an ideology of a sovereign nation state based on ethnicity, nationality, and race. But in the Egyptian case it was made possible by the mediating role of the local Ottoman elite, the khedive, and the military households. The troubled making of the khedivate between the 1860s and 1880s is the troubled history of patriotism.

Importantly, I also argue that there is nothing romantic about this form of patriotism. It was an ideology that served power and facilitated negotiation among local elites (especially Muslim rural notables, intellectuals and the governor). Furthermore, it was a technology of power and emotion related to a new conception and practice of being public—and more specifically, being public in urban spaces, as urbanization brought about new forms of bodily comportment and language. The book is also a historical sociology of Ottoman-Egyptian elites through a history of the Opera House in Cairo.

Arab Patriotism focuses particularly on theater and performance as patriotic rituals that enabled elites to address the governor (the khedive). To this end, the book is a hopefully major contribution also to the history of the Nahda – I bring in new information, and I propose even some new names to be added, or I show well-known names in new lights. For instance, I show Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who is usually thought of as the grandfather of pan-Islam, as an Ottomanist who visited even an Arabic theater performance. In this way, the book finally contributes to the historicization of Muslim modernity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AM: The book grew from my doctoral dissertation at the Central European University but constitutes a distinct, new work. I also published two articles that are updated and rethought in the book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AM: I especially recommend the book to historians of modern Islam and globalization, and to literary scholars. Arab Patriotism provides crucial new data and context for rethinking the nineteenth-century Eastern Mediterranean intellectual production and what is often called the Nahda. 

What I have done is only the logical rethinking of nationalism building on revisionist arguments by previous scholars. And it only concerns one, very special province. While similar books might address developments in the other provinces, the imperial structure itself has to be also rethought which made differing trajectories possible. This work has begun and there are some good recent dissertations which can be connected to this problem.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AM: I have just finished a global microhistory based on a unique manuscript and a sheikh’s library in late Ottoman Cairo. I also translated the manuscript and there will be a bilingual English-Arabic edition released possibly at the end of 2018 or 2019. I also work on one article which further elaborates some aspects of the book concerning the ideas of Egyptian rural notables.

Finally, I have also started the research for my next monograph, Modern Arab Kingship, which is a comparative study of interwar Arab kingdoms. It focuses on the Arabic-Muslim constitutional semantics of monarchical sovereignty in the colonial age.

Excerpt from chapter six: Harun al-Rashid Under Occupation

Retroactive justice in Arabic

While there are eminent studies about the various aspects of the British occupation, the post-revolutionary relationship of local elites to khedivial power has rarely been discussed. The decade after 1882 remains a black hole in historical scholarship. It was indeed an embarrassing period for all actors involved. In 1882, ʿUrābī and Tevfik accused each other of treason, some elite groups denounced the khedive, Syrian Christians fled Egypt, everybody betrayed the sultan-caliph, who, in turn, declared the Egyptian soldiers rebels, and finally many were killed and thirty thousand men were arrested—and still Egypt remained an Ottoman khedivate now under British rule. This was a paradox to be solved. Retroactive history, a form of memory politics, was the solution. 

The Logic of the Early Occupation

In the winter of 1882–1883, administrative chains of command, offices, and ministries—now with British advisers—were quickly re-established. Members of the prerevolution zevat elite (most of them Circassian), like Mustafa Riyaz, Mehmet Zeki, Ismail Ayyub, and ʿAlī Mubārak, represented continuity in government. The army was put under a British commander, and expenditure was strictly controlled. Notables were grouped in three consultative bodies (Legislative Council, General Assembly, provincial councils), based on the colonial model in British India. New courts were set up, in addition to the already complex legal system. The Arabic press continued to be dominated by Syrian Christian cultural entrepreneurs, but soon Egyptians also started enterprises in press capitalism.

For the British, the logic of the early occupation was defined by the goal of evacuation until 1887. The occupiers saw stability and order as resting on the monarchical principle. The colonial officials remembered the Indian revolt in 1857, and so Consul-General Evelyn Baring upheld the importance of “traditional” power in 1883; Lord Salisbury wanted evacuation in 1885. Yet, by mid-1887, British-Ottoman negotiations had failed, due in part to Baring’s opposition, the Mahdist revolt, and French-Russian interference. From 1888 onward, the principles underlying the British occupation shifted towards a long-term colonial policy.

The Remaking of Tevfik

What role did Tevfik himself play in repairing his public image? The historiographical image of Tevfik is that of a puppet in the hands of British colonizers; the usual phrase is that “he reigned, not ruled.” In the fall of 1882, he wanted ʿUrābī to be executed but had to concede to the British who opted to impose exile instead. Tevfik would never allow ʿUrābī to return. He showed signs of extreme fear. He stopped his own nephew from becoming the secretary of his half-brother Hasan when Hasan was briefly appointed the governor of the Sudan in 1885. Tevfik feared that a new family faction was being built up against him.

To be sure, the khedive had much to fear. In Istanbul, his great-uncle Abdülhalim continued scheming. Even his own father Ismail (also ending up in Istanbul) attempted return from time to time. Masonic lodges also remained active in Ottoman Egypt; in 1890 there were twelve, including Kawkab al-­Sharq. Tevfik continued to struggle against Abdülhalim; it is worth noting that the official representatives of Abdülhalim’s estates in Egypt in the 1880s were ex-students of al-Afghānī: Saʿd Zaghlūl and Ibrāhīm al-Laqānī. Abdülhalim was considered several times by the British and the French as a potential ruler. The British found “Prince Halim” useful as a sort of stick with which Tevfik could be threatened.

Like his father, Tevfik and his men encouraged positive reports in the European press about his modernizing rule. New patriotic rituals were invented (imitating the sultan) such as the celebration of the birthday of the khedive, and more formalized ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā receptions. Sultan Abdülhamid II’s accession to the Ottoman throne was also celebrated, announcing that Egypt was an Ottoman province. “The Palace” appears now as political center, separate from the government. It advertised Tevfik’s joint appearances together with his wife Amina—appearances that Kenneth Cuno argues publicly connected monogamy to national regeneration. Amina was often mentioned by the title “Mother of Charitable Persons” (Umm al-Muḥsinīn) in the Arabic press since, like Hoşyar, she established religious endowments and donated money for the poor. Tevfik also engaged in the protection of Islamic monuments. This activity, it is suggested, may have aimed at differentiating Egypt from the Ottomans in architecture but certainly helped to repair the khedive’s pious image. Tevfik continued to tour the countryside each year, providing occasions for rural notables to affirm their loyalty. He pardoned imprisoned intellectuals involved in the ʿUrābī movement, such as ʿAbd Allāh Fikrī who wrote a long poem asking for his grace, and for the re-installment of his pension. Fikrī made the pilgrimage in 1884, perhaps as part of penitence, and published a patriotic moral manual in which, as Abū al-Suʿūd had done in his 1872 history book, he cleverly explained the meaning of “date” (tārīkh) by the example of the start of Tevfik’s governorship. Even Muḥammad ʿAbduh was pardoned in 1889. But, of course, there was no pardon for ʿUrābī. 

Who Is the Traitor?

The repair of khedivial authority was effected through the interpretation of the revolution as an illegitimate break in the divine order that had led to catastrophe. Tevfik’s legitimacy hinged on the depiction of ʿUrābī and the ʿUrābists as having caused the British occupation which, in turn, was connected to Tevfik’s own image as a brave leader in the face of chaos. Creating this image involved an elaborate restructuring of the immediate past.

There was an accusation that Tevfik had sought refuge on board a British ship during the bombardment of Alexandria on 11 July 1882; some historians have even taken this accusation as fact. If true, it would mean that the ruler left his army and his people; he would be a traitor. However, all available sources suggest that Tevfik was in Ramleh Palace on both the 11th and 12th of July. He did, however, collude with the British in other ways. Most pro-khedivial texts emphatically deny Tevfik’s

flight, but the fact that they felt the need to do so indicates the extent to which such a rumor must have been circulating in the late 1880s. This rumor, extracted by “reading against the grain,” was the ultimate argument for deposing the khedive, and only an equally strong argument could fight against it. This counterargument was that, on the contrary, Aḥmad ʿUrābī had caused a disruption in Muslim unity by betraying his ruler. This argument reached back to the role of the khedive as representative of the caliph and mobilized Islamic principles. Ironically, it was usually Syrian Christians and Ottomans who fabricated this argument.

The narrative of ʿUrābī’s immorality began to be produced through the Arabic press. As early as mid-August 1882, al-Ahrām called the activity of the ʿUrābists “oppression” (ṭughyān) and published the congratulatory poem of Muḥammad Munīb (a captain in the cavalry) to the khedive on the Festival of Breaking the Ramadan Fast. Journalists quickly produced prodynastic histories that portrayed ʿUrābī as a traitor and Tevfik as a brave ruler. Salīm Naqqāsh himself compiled the first officially endorsed history of the revolution with the title Egypt for the Egyptians (Mir li-l-Miriyyīn) in 1884. Its publication was allowed by the Ministry of Interior. Naqqāsh described ʿUrābī as a rebel, and his followers as ahl al-fitna (revolting people). He quoted an observer who stated that the khedive left Rāʾs al-Tīn only on the morning of 12th July. According to Naqqāsh, ʿUrābī gave fifty thousand franks to the soldiers to kill everyone in Ramleh Palace after the bombardment of Alexandria, but Tevfik bravely negotiated with these soldiers. Finally, Naqqāsh quoted prokhedivial articles arguing that ʿUrābī “clearly left the necessary obedience to the Exalted Khedive therefore he also clearly left the obedience owed to the Commander of the Faithful [the Ottoman caliph].”


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