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Book Review: Egypt's 1919 Revolution from multiple angles

The truth was that the public reaction and active heroic participation in the revolution took the Wafd's leadership by surprise and their writings warned of the 'evil poor' who might disrupt the state

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 28 Apr 2021
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Thawret 1919 fi Al-Adab wa Al-Cinema (Egypt 1919: The Revolution in Literature and Film) by: Dina Heshmat, originally published in English by Edinburgh University Press 2020 and translated by Shohrat Al-Alem, (Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk), 2021

“Each present forms its own past,” is a brilliant quote that Dina Heshmat wrote and was able to prove in her book Egypt 1919: The Revolution in Literature and Film.

Even though the writer states clearly that her aim was not to rewrite the 1919 Revolution's history, she exposes the fallacies in the canonical or official story given of the revolution, tying them to the time each version came out, while shedding light on the literature that was less known and produced narrating the same historical event of the revolution.

The writer chose a few books published over the past 100 years, three movies, and a series to make her point and reach the above mentioned conclusion.

The collective remembrance of the 1919 Revolution is that the main trigger for the uprising was exiling Saad Zaghloul Pasha, the charismatic Egyptian leader who was negotiating with the British occupation forces, demanding Egypt’s independence.

But that was not the whole story. There were also the compulsory service that the British forces imposed on Egyptian workers and farmers, buying cotton for cheap prices with the collaboration of the Egyptian government and exploiting Egypt’s wealth and resources, leading to a miserable life for most Egyptians. These were the direct causes for the continuous revolts that occurred after WWI (1914-1918), between 1916 all the way through 1923.

These revolts took place in the countryside, but the canonical story led by the Wafd Party exported that it was the Cairene middle class that were leading the revolts all along, which excluded to a great extent the role of the railroad workers, farmers, and the population of the countryside in the revolution.

The truth was that the public reaction and active heroic participation in the revolution took the Wafd's leadership by surprise and their writings warned of the “evil poor” who might disrupt the state.

The revolution was brewing for a couple of years before 1919 and some gains were actually won during that time, such as increased wages and better working conditions in some factories, but in the end, even though it was the main declared purpose of the revolution, independence and national sovereignty were not achieved.

The examples chosen by the writer are numerous, but the concentration is on Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Bein Al-Qasrein (Between Two Palaces) that was published in 1956 and filmed in 1964. The eight-year gap between the novel and the movie resulted in each projecting a different story according to the then present. In spite of Mahfouz stating that he was not writing a historical account of the revolution or the middle class, he was widely regarded as a pioneer in social realism.

The novel is the first part in his trilogy about life in Cairo. It covers the end of WWI until the end of 1919 when the revolution erupted and Saad Pasha returned from exile. Between Two Palaces is the peak of the social realism phase in Mahfouz’s writings, according to Heshmat’s analysis.

The novel is about the middle class' struggles in Cairo between traditionalism and modernity. It tells the story of a merchant from Gammaliya; a despot father leading a double life, strict at home while at night he enjoys the company of his numerous female friends; a subservient mother; two daughters that take after their mother; the elder son, who is reckless, taking after his father and chasing after women; the middle son is the idealist who dies during his participation in the revolution; while the youngest was too young to have a role at that point in the trilogy.

The representation of the 1919 Revolution in the novel has no mention of women, the workers, or the farmers, which was a negative point according to literary critics when the novel came out. Heshmat clearly states that she is not adding her voice to those critics but she refuses to accept the novel as an objective account of the revolution; she regards it as an elitist view of the middle class' males.

The novel fails to mention the other parties involved in the revolution, including foreigners who lived in Egypt, and does not offer an explanation to the real reasons of the revolution.

The fact that the novel ended with the return of Saad Pasha in 1921 and the second part started in 1924 was seen as a deliberate attempt to ignore two years of continuous revolts against the British occupation. The bottom line is, this novel was among the canonical books adopted by its present.

When the same novel was turned into a movie, the present had changed. The new regime that took over in 1952 had a harsher grip on society; cinema and culture were among the tools used to export the official view on historical events. Accusations of not being loyal to the spirit of the novel were made against its director Hassan El-Imam.

The scenes of belly dancers made it more of a commercial movie shooting for the box office rather than a movie that “represents an important phase of the people’s struggle for freedom and unity." The marginalised groups that participated in the revolution were shown in the movie not as participants but rather as followers to the urban middle class in a clear projection on the “present” of the 1960s; the officers in power (who also belonged to the middle class) are leading Egypt and its people.

Aside from novels, the memoirs were another source that Heshmat examined. Mostafa Amin’s book “From One to Ten” shows Saad Zaghloul as an amazing figure, nearly a god among men; a liberal in his house, he treats both genders as equals, caring about the whole country and eventually leading the negotiation and the revolution. According to Amin, Saad Pasha was a man ahead of his time.

In the lesser known play The Elections by Amin Sedky, the author mocked the gains of the 1919 Revolution promoted by the Wafd Party which was getting members of parliament elected by the free will of the people.

Sedky saw that it was a scam to get the upper class voted into office. He clarified that the candidates were interchangeable, following their class interests, and plain corrupt.

The writer made parallels between two failed revolutions; that of 1919 that did not achieve Egypt’s independence and suppressed the public's demands for justice, better working and living conditions, and a decent life; and that of 2011 where nearly the same demands were made, fought for, and are yet to be achieved.

The book is a well-documented academic study that was written and translated using a smooth language. The study raises questions about the official history and parts that were hidden and ignored on purpose by the political elite then and now. 

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