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New Texts Out Now: Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt

[Cover of Wilson Chacko Jacob, [Cover of Wilson Chacko Jacob, "Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940"]

Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Wilson Chacko Jacob: Working Out Egypt has a number of possible origins, some related to decisions I have made and others that seem entirely divorced from me. In the first place, it was a revision of my doctoral dissertation written under Zachary Lockman’s supervision at New York University. Having had a prior incarnation cannot but leave its mark. In this case, that previous life as a PhD thesis meant that what now sometimes seems to me to be a student’s concerns, about disciplinary and theoretical limits of representing the other, carried through into the book.

However, as I tried subsequently to explain the book (as it was being prepared) to different audiences, I began to see that it formed part of a larger quest that both predates and exceeds the decision to attend graduate school and pursue training in Middle East Studies. For sure the quest was linked to Egypt, a place I first visited as a junior-year abroad student and a place of especial significance in my awakening to the world. Lest your readers think that this is some banal claim to identity, as far as I know, my family has no kinship links to Egypt or the Middle East. Indeed that is precisely the point: Egypt’s specificity and generality, its strangeness and familiarity, all at once, yet subtly, overwhelmed me. Many of my own precious truths were knocked off their axes, and I was re-directed along new lines of inquiry, exploration, and reexamination.

So, I think, in the historical figure of the effendi—positioned in relation to Egypt—I discovered something of a kindred spirit. And ultimately, in the book, I wanted to try to capture that form and moment of dislocation that gives rise to a newness in the world, that emanates from and shuttles between what is simultaneously like and different, particular and universal. I also wanted to demonstrate at what points that ambivalence, or state of confusion, when it arises, becomes something to be contained and disciplined, through what modalities, and at what or whose expense. In that sense, the book was meant to be a paean to Egypt even as it tried to chart a different post-orientalist path through its history.

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

WCJ: As I’ve alluded to above, the book tries to tackle some of what I saw were the persistent problems of representation in area studies that had been theorized by many who had come before (from Edward Said to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Dipesh Chakrabarty). However, it seemed to me that even as we diligently steered clear of Orientalist generalizations, there was a way in which we sidestepped the overall critique of an historically produced asymmetrical order of representation and our implication in it as scholars positioned at one end of the divide. This was especially true in my discipline of history (with notable exceptions), wherein applying the tools and perspective of social history was thought to evade the problem—usually understood as poor or over-generalizations based on soft units of analyses.

This turn to the social set to work on generating better studies of the Middle East by focusing on more objective units—labor, class, capital, state, ideology—and resulted in some fine volumes, which were indeed far better in the main than what had passed previously for serious scholarship on recent times. Nonetheless, what was left un-interrogated was the colonial genealogy of those very concepts deemed better for illuminating the social, not to mention “the social” itself. That they were constituted through a series of binary oppositions centering on temporal and spatial divisions between tradition and modernity and through prior politically interested comparisons of societies/cultures was largely unproblematized in monograph-length studies. The reversal of terms, in essence recognizing the Middle East as also modern, insufficiently attended to the difference made by the specific Middle Eastern circuits through which the concepts underlying that singular modern were re-iterated and reformulated. Consequently, a global history of modernity—what I term “colonial modernity,” following Tani Barlow—was repeatedly foreclosed. The nineteenth-century diffusionist model intrinsic to the various missions civilisatrices continued to haunt our representations of the West’s Other (here, Said’s critique reaches a limit).

In a sense, it is true that only better historical analytics can reframe our common history as precisely that: a shared enterprise with all the rivalries, enmities, and friendships that entailed. The stakes here are high; envisioning another future is contingent on theorizing the world differently, and this can happen only once the terms of a historical plane capable of encompassing that world is worked out. This means retiring for good the tired divisions of tradition and modernity.

Thus, taking my cues from historical anthropology, postcolonial critique, and gender/sexuality studies, in Working Out Egypt I set out to write a history of the modern subject’s formation as a play of particulars and universals performed on one stage of a larger theater we might regard as the interconnected globe. The apparatus involved in the refashioning of the gendered self—the performative dimension of the modern subject that was my focus—from the late-nineteenth through the early twentieth century was dissected and reassembled to view the nodes at which Egyptian political, social, and cultural specificities joined with and were transformed through the technologies of power that were circulating globally; indeed, they were generated through the colonial encounter. I labeled the formation of bourgeois masculinity that underwrote Egypt’s national project and the broader program of self-making “effendi masculinity.” Across this localized domain of the generic subject of modernity I mapped new practices of caring for and communicating the self, showing a particular instance of the injection of “government” into state (as Michel Foucault would have it) that made for familiar yet strange political struggles. Finally, in this account of Egypt’s becoming, via effendi masculinity, a nation-state, the rogue futuwwa interrupts the narrative and challenges history to find a suitable language to translate a difference that the effendi found impossible in the terms of colonial modernity.    

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

WCJ: I hope someone will read the book! It is a bit long and tedious at times, but I think there are some nuggets of goodness to be mined from it, which may be of interest to Middle East historians, postcolonial critics, and scholars of gender/sexuality. As for impact, I can’t lie, I hope it will be taught from sea to shining sea, but I also know that lots of great books have come out in the last decade just in Middle East Studies. I haven’t had the time myself to read them all, much less teach them. So, realistically, I can only hope that the Egypt folks might take the time to engage with it. And by Egypt folks I also mean folks in Egypt. Although there is an American University of Cairo edition on its way, I’m also exploring the possibility of having it translated and published in Arabic. Beyond that, it would be nice if Working Out Egypt were regarded as a book that continues a conversation about representation and power that far more elegant and greater minds have engaged in for a few generations now.

J: What other projects are you working on right now?

WCJ: I’ve started recently working on what may seem like two very different projects. I’ll present the components separately then I’ll try to explain how I think they fit together within a single rubric. On the one hand, while completing the book I became interested in taking up more fully the challenge of the futuwwa mentioned above. That is, I want to engage futuwwa as a phenomenon in its own right and in a sense make at least an effort, however futile, to disentangle the concept and practice from the assimilationist terms of effendi masculinity, nationalism, and colonial modernity. So through police and court records and possibly interviews, I hope to re-read futuwwa as bodily presence, an ethics, and a politics. On the other hand, over the last few years I’ve returned to my original proposal for graduate school, which was to study an aspect of Indian Ocean history that would re-link the Middle East and South Asia regions in terms of their more historically realistic transoceanic connections. Here, I’ve started working on piecing together the life of one Hadhrami sayyid, Fadl b. ‘Alawi, who lived during the nineteenth century. He was born in the Malabar region of southwest India; the British exiled him to Arabia in 1852, when he was almost thirty. He spent the remainder of his life between Mecca, the borderlands of Hadhramawt, and Istanbul, where he died in 1901.  

So how could these wildly disparate research subjects possibly form one project? Well, in Working Out Egypt I attended to some of the routes by which state-ness was consolidated. And thinking in particular about what the grounds of dis-agreement were between histories that could accommodate the effendi but not the futuwwa led me to the question of sovereignty. Likewise, as I’ve followed Fadl around the Indian Ocean, this question was never far behind. It was especially salient in his claim to rule in Dhofar, but there were other less self-evident dimensions of sovereignty that were being re-negotiated during the time between Empire and nation-state. That this time was not merely chronological and linear was what the histories of futuwwa and sayyid seemed to suggest. Moreover, they each seem to delimit different yet complementary domains of what may be considered Islamic traditions of sovereignty, almost in a contrapuntal structure: the futuwwa was fixed, local, and physical; the sayyid was mobile, trans-local, and spiritual.

One or two projects? I think it is still too early to tell. Although I’ve done a substantial amount of research on Sayyid Fadl, I’ll have a better idea of how the two parts fit once I’ve made more progress on the futuwwa component of the project.

Excerpt from Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940

[From “Between the National Modern and the Everyday”]

…In Amsterdam, the Egyptian wrestler Ibrahim Mustafa became the first athlete from Africa to win a medal in the history of the modern Olympics.[1] He won the gold after defeating his German opponent in the light-heavyweight class.

After his victory, the picture of Mustafa’s half-nude body became a regular image in the popular press. In fact, the propulsion of Egypt into the pantheon of nations that had won a gold medal emboldened the launching of new sports magazines during a harsh economic climate.[2] One of these was al-Abtal (Champions), a sports supplement to the popular weekly al-Musawwar, which was started in 1924. The first issue of al-Abtal appeared on December 17, 1932. The masthead announced the magazine’s editorial staff as having been drawn from the crème de la crème of athletes. The cover of issue number 8 featured a black-and-white photograph of Mustafa in a shirtless, flexed pose.

[Ibrahim Mustafa. Image from "Working Out Egypt," via the author.]

Mustafa’s first encounter with sports of any kind was watching weightlifters competing informally and showing off in front of a stand that sold sugar cane juice near his home in Alexandria. He observed them for a while before joining in and eventually surpassing them all. Another account of his life, which also depicts the arena at the juice stand, locates his first experience of sports elsewhere. According to the sports historian Al-Sayyid al-Faraj, Mustafa was apprenticed to an Armenian carpenter when he was eight, and he used to watch from the roof of the shop when the members of the Armenian sports club next door came out to the courtyard to wrestle and lift weights.[3] When he was about eighteen and his athletic promise had become obvious, his boss, Mehran Garabadian, an influential member of the Armenian community in Alexandria, secured admission to the sports club for Mustafa and three fellow apprentices. Faraj also notes that the young Mustafa was inspired by watching the popular strongman show of Abd al-Halim al-Misri in Alexandria.

The biography in al-Abtal suggests that his entry into wrestling started on the streets horsing around with his peers, until a group of sports enthusiasts started a makeshift club they named Al-Nadi al-Ahli al-Iskandari (The Alexandria national club) in 1921. It was essentially a hut on the beach. Mustafa joined and became one of the club’s best wrestlers. Wanting to exhibit his talents to a wider audience, the club organized a tournament for boxers and wrestlers from the Alexandria region in the Rashid Gardens. In this match, considered Mustafa’s official debut as a wrestler, he faced a trained opponent, the Greek wrestler Mitso Dandia.

Mustafa lost that match, but this taste of competition and his popular appeal (‘atf al-gamahir) only inspired him to train harder. The experience also got him noticed. Soon he was being trained by Bianchi, a well-known coach at the Italian sports club Ballistra. According to al-Abtal, “It was not difficult for Bianchi to mold [Ibrahim] into a new creation because of his naturally strong and docile body and his simple and modest character.”[4]

His training produced results: he was selected to represent Egypt at the 1924 Olympics. Unfortunately for him, Mustafa was one of those athletes who suffered from the negligence of the EOC toward the members of the delegation. The description of Mustafa’s experience in Paris is quite poignant. He was given shoes that were not fit for wrestling and a uniform made of flimsy material that ripped easily. Al-Abtal explains that no one in charge expected him to get beyond the first round. As it turns out, he made it to the semifinal round and lost because his feet kept slipping and he was constantly preoccupied with trying to hold up his torn uniform. The author recounts that Mustafa cried after this defeat. The humiliating loss affected him so much that he withdrew from the match to determine third place.

Although the biography is sympathetic, it does not comment on how badly Egypt let Mustafa down. After returning from Paris, he was forced by financial pressures to quit training and devote all his time to earning a living. Before the next Olympic trials, he was fortunate to be taken under Bianchi’s wings again and qualified for the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. Mustafa defied all odds yet again, reaching the final round this time and capturing the gold medal. After his victorious return from Amsterdam, he was rewarded with a job in the municipality, and, owing to his tremendous popularity, he started attracting students from the next generation of wrestling aspirants.

[1] When the first African Games finally were held in 1965, it was decided to engrave the medals with the likeness of Ibrahim Mustafa. […]
[2] Al-Mulakim (Boxers) in Alexandria in 1929; al-Al‘ab al-Riyadiyya (Sports) in Cairo in 1932.
[3] Al-Faraj, Ruwwad al-Riyada, 67–76.
[4] Al-Abtal, 6.

[Excerpted from Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940. © 2011 Duke University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here.]

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