As the "back to school" season arrives it brings with it the stress felt by parents sandwiched between expensive tuition fees paid for the education of their children and grandparents who nostalgically reminisce on their own childhood times when school and college in Egypt was affordable and arguably better.
In such, moments black and white or sepia school photos from the first half of the 20th century are often retrieved from dusty family archives.
Similar images are abundantly on sale in the book market of Sur Al-Azbakiyya (Azbakiyya Fence), the antique stores of Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, and others on Hoda Shaarawy Street and elsewhere. Their provenance could be Cairo, Alexandria, the Delta provinces or Upper Egypt. Surprisingly, class photographs are little used in academic works that tackle the topic of the history of education in Egypt. Mostly researchers highlight the typical kuttab
photograph by Zangaki where the instructor seated on the floor is threatening to hit the students gathered around him with a stick.
As Muhammad Ali modernised education in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century, the kuttab
institution gradually went out of fashion and ultimately died out. It was replaced by an array of proper educational institutions ranging from public schools mostly for boys, private Catholic schools that catered to the elite as much as to deprived children in Upper Egypt, and secular English elite schools.
While the outcome of the boys school was the effendis
, girls remained house bound until attention was drawn to them by Gasham Hanem, one of Khedive Ismail’s 14 wives. Credit goes to her for setting up the first school for girls in 1873 with the administrative help of Aly Pacha Mubarak who was minister of education, then known as Nazer Al-Maarif
(the observer of knowledge). Still extant with its original 19th century building in Sayyida Zeinab district in Cairo, the Madrassa Siufiya is now renamed Al-Sanniya School. However, photos of girls studying at this school are difficult to find. It was already a breakthrough to send girls to school. Perhaps it was deemed too much to have them photographed.
One typical characteristic of these early photographs is that the class instructor, referred to sometimes by the Persian word khoja,
and the headmaster were always seated at the centre while the students were gathered around Sometimes the pupils are wearing their tarbushes, even if still in shorts. Rarely if ever a uniform was worn in the earliest school photographs, and especially in the case of male students. Once graduated, the young men became titled in Egyptian society as effendis
as opposed to uneducated peasants, the fellahins
, or the pashas ranking in the higher echelon of society
Occasionally, a man wearing the Al-Azhar outfit and headcover appeared in the photos. That was usually the Arabic language instructor.
But school photographs were not limited to students in class groups. Less common but existing are photographs of activities, outdoor sports or even scouts meetings, which are especially interesting because of the appearance of the tarbush.
Many of the above images were found in the personal photograph albums of Mr Abdin, a dedicated headmaster who ran a typical governmental school in Cairo in the 1940s. He was also an accomplished fencer who represented Egypt's official delegation in several international competitions. Thus one can expect that in his school, athletics were highly encouraged. Other than the usual class photos where he features in the centre, he also took a moment to pose with his crew members. In a rare image of its kind, Abdin is flanked by janitors, the porter, the gardener, and cleaners of the school.
School architecture seems to have caught the attention of educational authorities of the 1940s. It is difficult now to match any modern schools with the elegance and functionality of the classical prototype set down, though there is no evidence it was actually implemented in any education ministry construction.
The concept of the class photo seems to have been less common in Egyptian universities. In contrast, in the 1960s, the gardens of Cairo University and its tower clock constituted an iconic backdrop for captures of both male and female college students, whose elegance in fashion is to be admired.
Photos courtesy of Ola Seif.