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Echoes from the past: The voices of Egypt's WWI soldiers

Researcher Alia Mossallam tells Dina Ezzat how the voices of Egyptian troops in World War I can be reconstructed

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 14 Nov 2018
Egypt in World War I
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Alia Mossallam, a recearcher who reads history through the parallel accounts of cultural artefacts and documentary archives, has been busy listening to the voices of Egyptian men who went — or were made to go — to the front during World War I, when Egypt was a British protectorate.

How she does it?

“I trace their voices through documents in the imperial archives and the songs the Egyptian Labour Corps were singing on the various fronts of World War I as well as the songs singers of the time were performing, which articulate the grievances felt about the war,” says Mossallam.

On the occasion of the centenary of the Armistice, Mossallam, who has been working on the issue since 1940, reflected on some of the most famous songs as well as the memoirs of politicians and the British archives. Her aim was to redress a situation in which “little is known about the experiences of Egyptians who went to World War I and those they left behind”.

The British recruited hundreds of thousands of Egyptian peasants to send to the war. Close to a third of Egypt’s male population between the age of 17 and 35 ended up at the front, says Mossallam, though the vast majority of Egyptians felt the war had nothing to do with them. And now, she adds, “we only have echoes of the voices of those who were sent”.

Much of Mossallam’s efforts were focused on assembling the history of the most famous song of the time, Ya Aziz Einy (Oh, apple of my eye), first performed by the Upper Egypt based diva Naima Al-Masriyya and later performed by Sayed Darwish.

Sayed Darwish
Egyptian singer and composer, Sayed Darwish

The song reflects the estrangement and loss felt by Egyptian men on the fronts and the pain endured by their families. The same sentiments, says Mossallam, are echoed in Chronicles of a Village, a two-volume novel by Egyptian judge and writer Esmat Seif Al-Dawla that is contemporaneous with the song’s lyrics.

Mossallam says her research shows the song was a favourite among those who went to the front, mostly to clear battlefields of unexploded shells, among other tasks.

The memoir of Ernest Kendrich Venables, a British lieutenant who oversaw the Egyptian Labour Corps, confirms her findings. He reports often hearing the song at the front, and in a later diary entry Mossallem references, dating from a decade after the war ended,

Venables records being taken aback on hearing a railway worker in England humming the tune, which he must have picked up as a soldier. After the initial shock Venables joins the railway worker and sings along.

Egypt in World War I
Cover of Latifa Salem book, Egypt during World War I

Ya Aziz Einy does more than articulate feelings of pain, argues Mossallam. It also draws attention to the political debate, ongoing at the time, over the ways the British lured peasants, using local agents, to “volunteer” to join the troops.

The situation those who were seduced into going to the fronts found themselves in, says Mossallam, is also reflected in a later Sayed Darwish song, Salma ya Salama Rrohna we-Geina bel-Salama (Oh, we went and came back safe and sound).

The lyrics of these two songs, Mossallam argues, chart a growing awareness of the unfairness of Egyptians being forced to participate in a conflict in which they had no part, and chart the beginnings of a growing awareness of the iniquity of Egyptians being conscripted.

Any research into World War I would be incomplete without looking into the archives of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and its records of the "criminal activities" uncovered in several governorates, implicating village mayors in the forced conscription.

This, she argues, was effectively the “beginning of the biggest peasant revolt of the 20th century, which allowed Saad Zaghloul and Ali Shaarawi to leverage the British administration into negotiations.”

In November 1918 Zaghloul and his compatriots founded the Wafd and mobilised students and lawyers across the country to collect the signatures of peasants on forms granting the Wafd the authority to speak on their behalf. “Once this had happened,” says Mossallam, “the revolution could take on a different face, with coordinated calls for strikes and riots.”

Unlike British documents and the archives of the Ministry of Interior, contemporary memoirs by Egyptian politicians tend to view the “criminal recruitment activities”that took place in the provinces as the beginning of a national movement that led to the 1919 Revolution.

Revisiting the accounts of Saad Zaghloul, Esmat Seif Al-Dawla and historian Latifa Salem shows, says Mossallam, “how the hegemony of the powerful crumbles, and how elements of articulated resistance, of the drive behind the revolt, persist beyond the nationalist narrativising and framing of the 1919 Revolution, informing the legacies of resistance until the present day”.

The peasants’ revolt was silenced, says Mossallem, “for the sake of larger nationalist priorities, and the question today is what if it had not been silenced?”

“What might have been achieved? What form of governance would have come about?”

Egypt in World War I
Latifa Salem, Egypt during World War I, Al-Shorouk, 1984, pp.445

Chronicles of a Village
Cover of "Chronicles of a Village", a two-volume novel by Egyptian judge and writer Esmat Seif Al-Dawla

 

“Not a typically trodden subject that should be carefully examined from all its aspects given its direct impact on Egypt’s Nationalist Movement.” This was how historian Latifa Salem qualified her interest in and research of one of the most under-studied subjects: Egypt’s participation in World War I.

Salem chose to provide full insight into the issue through her book whose title is simply Egypt during World War I first published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation in 1984 and now available in Al-Shorouk edition first published in 2009.

In 445 pages divided into five chapters, Salem allows the reader to see the participation of Egypt in World War I not just as an inevitable outcome of the British occupation of Egypt that effectively started in 1882 upon the defeat of an earlier phase of the Egyptian Nationalist Movement which had started while Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, even if relatively independent, but also as a major “development” that brought about many changes to the “state of Egypt”.

In the book, Salem clearly shows how Britain ended the subordination of Egypt to the Ottoman Empire and acted to impose its protection on the country and how it tampered with the internal political sphere to secure the full subordination of Egypt during the war.

However, in doing so, the historian is also reflecting on the inevitable impact of the legitimacy deficit of the country’s subsequent rulers and their dependence on external support to cover up for their lack of legitimacy and how that ends up keeping the entire country hostage to the entangled wills of international powers.

Salem’s book is also a testimony to the joint wish and interest of a ruler whose ascension to power is essentially superimposed and of an occupation force in eliminating the Nationalist Movement through martial law, unfair trials and security persecution.

This is essentially the crux of Chapter I of the book. Salem then dedicates her second chapter to examining the economic context in which Egypt became a British protectorate and sent its men to fight for Britain in World War I — and the impact of this conscription on the economic situation of the country, including the printing of banknotes beyond the limits allowed by reserves “in what constituted a major blow to the national financial system” that had not until then depended on the banknotes and forced severe austerity measures upon a sharp budget deficit that influenced all state ministries except the Ministry of War (Wezaret Al-Harbiyah), and a severe increase in prices.

Salem then moves on in Chapter III to examine the social impact of Egypt’s participation in World War I — with an eye on the political and economic developments, especially the evolution of a new elite that was aligned essentially to the British occupation and that was opposed by a rising intellectual movement that set the base for the new Nationalist Movement.

As part of its reflection on the Nationalist Movement, Salem presents poets and singers who took positions against Egypt’s participation in World War I. She also reflects on the close association that this new intellectual elite managed to have with diverse layers of Egypt’s blue and white collars.

Salem then dedicates the entire Chapter IV to reviewing the many details of Egypt’s actual “military” participation in World War I.

Throughout the chapter, Salem shows the conscription of Egyptian men into the war as an unmasked act of abuse that was exercised with almost direct consent from a ruler who would not have been able to keep his throne without British support and who as such did not mind sending men to die in a war that Egypt was not getting anything out of and was even unlikely to survive without a considerable negative impact on its economy — not to mention the incredible causalities.

Chapter V is Salem’s account of the ability of the Nationalist Movement to survive the oppression of the ruler and the occupation but that was divided amongst itself between two camps — one believing that Britain was the only vehicle for Egypt to exit from the rein of the Ottoman Empire and another that believed that Britain was only an alternative occupation of Egypt.

Eventually, as Salem shows in her final chapter, the mainstream Nationalist Movement was opposed to both the British occupation and the Ottoman Empire and chose to pursue Egypt’s full liberty through acts of protest and civil disobedience that eventually led the way to the 1919 Revolution.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Echoes from the past

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