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Rare glimpses of Egypt’s modern history in sociologist Sayed Owais’s autobiography

Sayed Owais (1913-1988) pioneered the discipline of sociology in Egypt, pioneering in its practice — contributions revealed in the reprint of his autobiography

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 10 Dec 2017
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Muzkarat Sayed Owais (Sayed Owais’s Memoirs) by Sayed Owais, The General Egyptian Book Organisation, Autobiographical Series, 2017. pp.262

While Naguib Mahfouz achieved huge success through portraying in an artistic way the lives of contemporary Egyptians before and after the 1919 Revolution, the late sociology pioneer Sayed Owais recorded in his autobiography rare and vivid glimpses of the preoccupations and hopes he lived along with his fellow compatriots witnessing the same revolution.

Sayed Owais (1913-1988) wasn’t just Egypt’s sociology pioneer, but one of the renaissance builders who bore the brunt of Egyptianising the science of sociology, directing it towards studying local social phenomena and searching for solutions in the light of widespread ignorance, poverty, the British occupation and despotism that continued for long decades. Owais had to strive to get an education and to produce in a hostile environment.    

What’s curious is that the General Egyptian Book Organisation, which is the largest and most influential Arab publishing house, committed several mistakes when it reprinted Owais’s autobiography.

It didn’t retain the original title, The History I Bore on My Shoulders, which Owais has chosen when he published the first edition of his autobiography with Dar Al-Hilal in 1985. And it didn’t mention that the current edition is the third edition and that it invented its own title, Sayed Owais’s Memoirs.

At any rate, reprinting the first part of this autobiography, titled The Land and the Life, is a rare cultural event stemming from a man who founded a field almost unknown in Egypt at the time.

Owais narrates in an elaborate and yet simple way Al-Khalifa, the neighbourhood in which he was born, brought up, and spent most of his life in. This ancient neighbourhood is located at the foot the Saladin Citadel in the heart of Muizzi Cairo and is distinguished by the mausoleums of a number of Islamic figures.

Owais recounts how a world diminished: the world of the extended family, inclusive of cousins, maternal and paternal uncles, and the division of work, distribution of wealth, and absolute bias towards males. He charts the beginnings of formal education in schools in Egypt, and the 1919 Revolution. All this was fused into one alloy made up of simple narration and truthful expression.

Owais belonged to the middle class in a family of urban traders. His father died when he was about to graduate in the 1930s. Thus, he was obliged to leave school in order to feed his family. Through the Sharia Society, located in the neighbourhood, Salafists played an important role in his life and intellectual make-up.

He also met Hassan Al-Banna, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, several times in public meetings. Eventually, he was able to get rid of these influences and enroll in the School of Social Work (later the Higher Institute of Social Work) and graduated in 1940. Afterwards, he got his MA and PhD from the US in sociology.

Perhaps one of the most important things in his long life journey was his practical experience in the field of studying delinquents, whether in Cairo or Upper Egypt. The most significant legacy he has left is his pioneering studies on the phenomenon of Egyptians' messages inserted in special boxes at the mausoleum of the Islamic scholar Al-Shafi'i, asking for him to intervene, stop the injustice they suffer, or help them to overcome a personal crisis.

Another noteworthy study he conducted dealt with the phenomenon of writing on all kinds of vehicles moving in Egyptian streets. Also his study about immortality in Egyptian cultural heritage, and many other studies focusing on distinctive Egyptian social phenomena.

There remain two other parts of this autobiography. Hopefully the General Egyptian Book Organisation will return to the original title when it reprints them.

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