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Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Book Review - Registered Mail: The letters of a century-long story

The lost art of writing by hand is the focus of a new collection of 20th century letters by ordinary people, compiled by Ahmed Kheireddine, giving a glimpse of life in past times

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 15 Sep 2019
"Registered Mail" book cover
"Registered Mail" book cover
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“My love, you will find that the colour of the ink I am using to write you this letter has changed. This is because my pen is out of ink so I had to use another one.”
 
With this extract from a letter that a young lady, Ahlam, is sending her beloved, Adel, in the mid-1950s from Alexandria to Cairo, Ahmed Kheireddine is reminding the reader of the norms of communication in Egypt, and the world, in pre-IT revolution times.
 
Ahmed Kheireddine is a journalist and news anchor by profession. He studied in Egypt and currently lives in the US, working for an Arabic satellite news channel.
 
The extract is taken from an actual letter, one of close to 8,000 letters that Kheireddine diligently collected over a couple of years. Of these, he used a selection to put together his recent book Registered Mail, published by Dar Al-Shorouk a few weeks ago.
 
The letters that Kheireddine collected, from merchants of old and secondhand books and furniture in Cairo and Alexandria, date from the early years of the 20th century.
 
The letters he has span back to 1905 and forward to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the practice of communication via letter among friends and family members, either in Egypt or overseas, subsided in favour of telephone communication and finally electronic mail that put an end to the once prominent presence of postboxes – red for local mail and blue for international mail.
 
According to the author’s remarks, gathered at the end of the book under the title ‘One Last Letter,' a key purpose for him in working on this close to 300-page book was to document this all but vanished form of communication.
 
However, it is also by design of the author that the reader of this selection of letters gets to learn volumes about the norms of living in Egypt in the 20th century.
 
It is, for example, from the first section, titled “To Ihssan”, that the reader remembers that it was once very common to use this name, which is now rarely used, for men, as in this case it was used for a woman.
 
It is also from this section that one learns, or maybe remembers, that Ras El-Bar, a coastal city that is located on the Mediterranean at the mouth of the Damietta Nile branch, was once the “in" summer resort — almost the Sahel of the 1930s. It was the place to have a fun nightlife during the summer holidays, with beauty competitions and dance tournaments.
 
“To Ihssan” also reminds of the visible presence of mixed ethnicities in early 20th century Egypt and of the upscale hotels that used to dot the country from the north to the south in the cities of Minya and Assiut before being demolished to give way to unremarkable tower blocks.   
 
And it is from the second and third sections, titled “My dear children” and “From Pennsylvania,” that the reader is introduced to the different waves of immigration of Egyptians, essentially to North America, especially after the 1967 defeat, and to the sentimentalities marking the exchange of mail between parents and children who live continents apart, when it would have taken weeks for a letter to be delivered from sender to recipient.
 
The two immediate subsequent sections, “To Samir” and “To Hussein,” depict the changing destinations of Egyptians from the 1950s through the 1960s to the 1970s, as the reader comes to understand that instead of heading Europe and the US in pursuit of postgraduate studies or prominent careers, Egyptians started to head east, to Arab Gulf cities, in pursuit of rewarding salaries.
 
The details of the shopping lists that children and wives sent to dads and husbands, first in the West and then in the Arab Gulf, is a reminder of times in the 1960s until the mid-1970s when Egypt was short on many commodities prior to the “Open Door policy" that prompted a change of requests from specific items to amounts of money.
 
There is also the reminder of the forms of money transfer of the 1970s that pops up in the letter that Sanaa sends to her husband in March 1975 when she thanks him for the “registered cheque."
 
The prices of commodities is one of the things that keeps coming up in the letters that Kheireddine selected.
 
In the same letter of Sanaa, she tells her husband of a day’s shopping that included 130-150 piasters per kilo for meat, and 65 piasters or more for a kilo of fish.
 
There is also a letter dated December 1940 from a son to his mother referring to the purchase of law books, which cost 45 piasters for three.
 
The reader will find entertaining the evolution of style and language over the years. The letters of the very early decades of the 20th century include some extinct vocabulary.
 
The letters of the 1950s to the 1970s are in a very emblematic style when, for example, Samira writes to her husband, Ahmed, “I raise my hands to the skies and pray for God to protect you from all evil and to give you a long life so that you would live for thousands and even millions of years.”
 
It is also there in an undated letter, which probably goes back to the 1950s, judging from the content, from the “faithful son Mohamed” to his “beloved mother” where he writes, “To you I send salutes that would turn into a full bright moon if they reached the skies, or to turn into a grand pyramid if they were to end on the ground."
 
Kheireddine’s letters also remind of the years, prior to 1967 military defeat, when Egyptians went to and came from Gaza just as they did to other Egyptian governorates, as this part of Palestine was under Egyptian administration before the Israeli annexation in 1967. They also remind of the years when Egyptian soldiers were sent on the long fight in Yemen.
 
Above all, the letters that appear in Registered Mail remind of times when letters were an integral part of the lives of families and friends set apart, and when waiting for the postman was the day’s highlight.
 
Unlike books that include compilations of letters from a particular figure to a friend or relative, Kheireddine’s book is the compilation of letters of ordinary people who tell their stories of love, desire, fear, need and pain.
 
In his remarks, Kheireddine asserts that he was careful to conceal the exact identity of those who wrote the letters, in keeping with rights of privacy.
 
As they came together in Registered Mail, they ended up telling a collective story of the middle class of Egypt, as those were essentially the senders and recipients of Kheireddine’s volume of letters.
 
The book is available for EGP 60, in Al-Shorouk and other bookstores.
 
Registered Mail is Kheireddine’s second book. His first, From the Window, a 2018 publication of the same publishing house, is a collection of short stories that reflect on the dramas and traumas of young men and women in Egypt over the past decade.

*Kheireddine is a journalist and new anchor by profession. He studied in Egypt and currently lives and works in the US for an Arabic satellite news channel.

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