Lucia Carminati, Seeking Bread and Fortune in Port Said: Labor Migration and the Making of the Suez Canal, 1859-1906 (University of California Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lucia Carminati (LC): This book is a delta of sorts where different stories flow together. They all converge on the nineteenth-century history of the construction of the Suez Canal as it was witnessed mainly by migrant workers in the project’s first and northernmost worksite-turned-town, Port Said, founded in 1859.
At a time of heart-wrenching and enraging news about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to reach fortress Europe, I was puzzled to discover, thanks to my graduate school readings and mentorship, that the Middle Sea and the Middle East of the past had witnessed more frequent crossings than I had ever imagined. Further, I have always been irked by the fiction of nations—on Mediterranean shores and elsewhere—as homogenous and self-contained wholes constantly in need of distancing or purging themselves from alien bodies.
Finally, my own experience of pursuing an education abroad made me quickly realize that mine was a very privileged kind of migration. I decided that exploring the plurality of migratory paths in the past of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern region could be a worthwhile endeavor, especially since the worksites of the Suez Canal quickly emerged from several archives as places of hierarchies, tensions, and multiple forms of inequality.
I am grateful to all the teachers and the colleagues I have encountered on the way, because it was only through their inspiration and feedback that I was ever able to put down words on paper and to try to capture the myriad lives of those who made the Suez Canal dream into reality—often a harsh one.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LC: Seeking Bread and Fortune highlights the import of workers’ mobility on the success of the much-celebrated Canal across the Isthmus of Suez that was inaugurated in 1869. Men, women, and children headed towards the Suez Canal worksites from the rest of Egypt, other parts of the Ottoman empire, and several countries of southern, central, and even northern Europe. They came to inhabit a profoundly unequal migrant society, wherein supposedly ethnic or racial differences and gendered notions of respectability dictated uneven access to relocation, employment, lawful behavior, and leisure.
With the book, I hope to contribute to the “mobility turn” in the social sciences, according to which the concept of mobility or “mobilities” ought to embrace large-scale movements of people, objects, capital, and information, but also more local and mundane transactions, as well as instances of fixity and immobility.
Moreover, this study joins a heated debate in migration history. It examines the disparate sets of norms and practices of rule that, from the 1850s to the 1900s, different institutions such as the Suez Canal Company, the Egyptian government, foreign consulates, and, after 1882, the British-controlled Egyptian state attempted to implement. But, at the same time, it highlights the actions undertaken by migrant individuals and groups to counter the obstacles in their way. I thus contribute to the ongoing discussion on “agency” by showing that neither institutional representatives nor migrant workers appeared homogenous or acted coherently. Port Said’s residents were neither completely subject to controlling authorities nor fully autonomous in navigating their relations. Some of them appropriated the modes of action that were being imposed on them to advance their own interests often at the expense of others in comparable circumstances.
Seeking Bread and Fortune further argues that the creation and sustenance of an apparently peripheral spot such as Port Said altered circuits of mobility within Egypt and the Mediterranean. This brand-new hub played a novel role in connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and provisioning passing ships. But it also engendered a new arena of connectivity with locations farther down on the canal banks. The isthmus region continued to welcome people from the rest of Egypt and abroad, thus becoming at once self-contained and connected to sites elsewhere.
In sum, Port Said created its own orbit and timeline. Far from the dehumanized, teleological, and triumphalist histories of the Suez Canal as sheer economic investment or infrastructure that have dominated most of its historiography, this is a book about flesh-and-blood individuals. It delves into their apparently microscopic concerns and shows how these have the power to unsettle conventional narratives.
J: How does this book connect to or depart from your previous work?
LC: Seeking Bread and Fortune is my first monograph. It was born as a dissertation but eventually metamorphosized into another creature. During its gestation, I eagerly pursued inquiries in different yet inter-connected directions: mainly Suez-bound labor migration, urbanization in modern Egypt, and women and gender in nineteenth-century trans-Mediterranean mobility. The very beginning of these forays was a micro-historical study of the trial of a highly mobile group of foreign anarchists in Alexandria in 1898. But even when taking on apparently different challenges, such as discussing foreign migrant women’s role as prostitution entrepreneurs along the Suez Canal or mulling over Port Said’s apparent isolation from the rest of Egypt, I have maintained the lenses of social and cultural history and assigned pride of place to migrants and their life stories.
Seeking Bread and Fortune brings the themes of labor migration, urbanization, and women and gender together. But, unlike previous works, it maps one cycle in the life of Port Said in depth, with each chapter depicting this spot under a different light: from a swelling labor camp to a node in an isthmus-wide regimented labor regime, on to lawless borderland, and finally on to a hotbed for leisure and vice. The book progressively closes in on Port Said by first landing on the Isthmus of Suez, then moving on to its multiplying worksites, later approaching the town’s surroundings, and finally mooring in its streets and bars. While different and yet overlapping institutions attempted to control the Suez Canal region, they all substantially failed to single-handedly impose the social order they envisioned over the unruly, elusive, mobile isthmus population.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LC: When juggling words, I tried to recreate the excitement, the joy, and the sorrow that I myself felt when encountering the individuals whose bits of lives I reconstruct—as much as archival fragments enable me to do. I have included many of the jokes, absurdities, oddities, and concrete details I stumbled upon in my effort to emphasize the social and the cultural dimensions of life on the worksites. For those more inclined to listen than to read, I speak about my research and writing in an Ottoman History Podcast episode hosted by Dr Suzie Ferguson.
My hope is that the book appeals to the curious way beyond the closed circle of fellow academic historians. Students of modern Egyptian history would find it interesting, but so would those who want to know more about Mediterranean history, Middle Eastern history, global history, urban history, and infrastructural history. Teachers of modern Middle East history and those teaching about nineteenth-century transformations will find that students could benefit from the tilted perspectives I offer. After reading a plethora of biographies of or celebratory works about Ferdinand de Lesseps, I am hoping readers will be positively puzzled by this book, from where the other face—or all the other faces—of the history of the Suez Canal peeks out. An expression of nineteenth-century engineering ambitions, an onerous economic venture, a diplomatic lightning rod. The Suez Canal’s undertaking was all this but went way beyond: it was a very human story of toil, separation, death, as well as thrill, adaptation, and wild fun in and out of Port Said’s bars.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LC: I have developed too much affection for the multitude of historical subjects I have worked on so far to let go of them any time soon. But I am excited to test relatively new waters. I am developing a new book project that addresses a few of the questions that Seeking Bread and Fortune opens but leaves hanging: how did nineteenth-century immigration impact Egypt’s state and society at large—beyond the Suez Canal region? How did Egypt’s borders come to be formalized as well as transgressed by border-crossers? Another line of inquiry I am working on—a curiosity I share with my colleague Dr Mohamed Gamal-Eldin—is perhaps less lofty but surely as impactful: how did Port Said’s authorities and infrastructure cope with its growing immigrant population, especially when it came to disposing of heaps of garbage and excrements?
Different projects in the making will run in yet other broad-ranging directions. I can cite just three. One is an interview on Jadaliyya itself with Yasmin El-Rifae, one of the organizers of Opantish and the author of Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution (Verso, 2022), a blend of narrative non-fiction and memoir on the history and experience of Opantish.
I am also working on a project titled “Stampa migrante: periodicals of the Italian community of Egypt, 1892-1940 (EAP1474),” funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme and aimed at digitizing and making available a historical newspapers collection located in Cairo. Future publications will discuss the challenges and the promises of such digitization ventures and explore the history of Egypt’s multilingual press.
Finally, with Dr Ella Fratantuono of UNC Charlotte, I am editing a special issue of Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies on “Children and Youth Migrants in Middle East and North African History” that will be out in 2024. A ground-breaking collection of essays at the intersection of migration and childhood histories, it will eagerly welcome comments at the “Finding Child and Youth Migrants in Ottoman and Egyptian History” panel hosted by the 2023 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Montreal.
Excerpt from the book (from the “Conclusion” of chapter 2, pp. 111-113)
On the canal worksites, differentiating between engineer and earthwork laborer, “European” and “Arab,” righteously employed and idly unemployed, well-behaving spouse and illegitimate paramour served as a powerful tool of control. The workers toiling on the canal worksites were pigeonholed in hierarchies built on preconceived ideas about their national and racial affiliation, assumptions about their tolerance to the desert environment, and gendered expectations. If they spent time or money in cafés and brothels, which the Company, the Egyptian government, and foreign consuls persistently threatened to shut down, they were treated as irresponsible children in need of supervision. As for migrant women, they were at best approached as vulnerable dependents rather than the self-confident and enterprising individuals they may have been, occasionally enabling the migration of brothers, husbands, or other males. At worst, migrant women were stigmatized as fundamentally immoral, constantly lured by or falling into prostitution.
Far from being solely confined to the workplace, the hierarchies described thus far were also inscribed in the urban space. Port Said was divided from its inception into a so-called European quarter and an Arab part of town and maintained unequal sewer and water infrastructure across its two halves. Because of the inflammable materials it was assembled with, the latter part of town was more prone to fire accidents, such as when a cracked clay bake oven let out flames that set on fire the fibers and planks of the hut where it was located as well as the surrounding ones; by the time the pumps were brought, the whole neighborhood was on fire. Smoking in straw-filled storerooms adjacent to stables could also become an incendiary habit. Street names in the “Arab” part of town reflected the diversified provenance of much of its immigrant population, such as Minya, Sharqiyya, Aswan, al-Daqhaliyya, and Damietta. Ismailia would also develop a “European” section that would remain separate from two distinct Arab “villages,” a Greek quarter, and a Calabrian quarter, in all four of which the overwhelming majority of residents lacked proper sanitation. Urban dwellers constantly crossed the lines that were drawn in the urban layout. People in Port Said persisted in setting up shop, peddling, consuming, or residing where they were not supposed to and challenged the Company’s efforts to prevent their mundane transgressions. Even if limited because of their spatial separation, there were still marriages between Ismailia’s Egyptian men and foreign women, which “contributed to the mixing of cultures and languages and habits in the city.” The canal towns were not just the products of blueprints devised in Cairo or Paris, but rather became theaters for performances of power and unintended urban realities.
Official reports conflated the unemployed and the would-be workers who happened to have no engagement contracts or identity papers on them with criminals. Especially those migrants doing odd jobs or toiling outside the realm of the Company eschewed the mechanisms that were supposed to regulate life on the isthmus. The measures contemplated or taken throughout the 1860s by Company management, foreign consulates, and the Egyptian government revealed their shared concerns about individuals out of work and workers out of place, whose existence raised red flags precisely because they eschewed the national, racial, and gendered hierarchies and expectations in place. Nothing much could be done about the former group, composed of the allegedly numerous “unemployed outcasts” hovering around the worksites and frequenting its entertainment venues. “No means but legal means” could be applied to them, which in substance meant they dodged Company surveillance. Instead, the Company could attempt to regulate the behavior of those on its payroll by imposing or threatening punitive measures. If workers fell sick due to venereal disease, intemperance, or voluntary brawls, they would receive no salary. If they left voluntarily, were frequently absent, performed poorly, or refused to work or to respect discipline, they would be dismissed without the fifteen days’ severance pay that would otherwise be granted upon dismissal. The same applied if it was discovered that the worker suffered from a chronic or contagious disease that had not been declared at the time of the engagement. Conversely, productivity was encouraged and prized under the often misplaced assumption that remuneration could act as a powerful stimulant to the fatigues of labor. Workers could obtain supplements in their salaries by working at night, laboring extra hours, or taking on exceptionally challenging or dangerous tasks. Some observers commented that the laziness of a few created confusion and caused delay to the works, but that most were diligently enforcing the rules and making sure their companions also contributed to the common tasks.
Company, consular, and government officials may not have cared about the stuff of workers’ everyday lives. In 1863, for example, a man called Geyler, a municipal superintendent and French consular agent in Ismailia, pronounced on the reimbursement of 18 francs that Grouaz, a trader in town, demanded from a laundrywoman, Madame Geroli, for a lost jacket. Geyler said that he and other Company officials had no time or willingness to deal with such “minimal issues.” Profoundly disagreeing with Geyler’s position, this chapter has lingered on issues that can be considered as minuscule as Grouaz’s lost clothing item and Geroli’s missed gain. Paying heed to mundane everyday life on the isthmus reveals that migrant workers could indeed be at once indolent and watchful, adopting actions that ranged from the trivial to the theatrical. Workers reacted to unpopular measures and circumvented often daunting realities in manifold ways and for disparate reasons. Men and women, single or married, abandoned the worksites, went on strike, fled the country, switched jobs, or had one drink or one bet too many. They changed occupations and residences frequently and resorted to mobility as an effective strategy whenever their circumstances changed for the worse. When opportunity arose, male and female workers conveniently utilized officials’ paternalistic notions to maximize benefits or to seek out new opportunities, even at the expense of their peers.
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