Reading Response: Modernization in Egypt, 19th Century

A reading response I wrote for a graduate class, based on four articles or selections about modernization in Egypt.


 

In “An Irrigated Empire: The View from Ottoman Fayyum,” Alan Mikhail uses agriculture in Fayyum and the maintenance of dikes and dams to make a larger argument about the balance of power in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Mikhail is arguing against Karen Barkey’s hub and spoke model which posits that all power is in the center and all resources flow through the center. Instead, Mikhail shows that Fayyum acted as its own power center with its own peripheries. One way he demonstrates this is by explaining Fayyum’s traditional role as the grain-supplier of the Hijaz region. Istanbul never attempted to reorganize this regional dynamic and instead supported it because maintaining Fayyum’s productive power was in the best interests of the empire as a whole. More importantly, Mikhail’s article challenges the top-down power dynamic associated with empires by showing that the Fayyumis, the peasants, were able to wield power of their own by using their agricultural production and local expertise as leverage. In Fayyum, the peasants, though at the bottom of the social and power structure, were able to manipulate that structure to their advantage.

Khaled Fahmy’s article “The Nation and Its Deserters: Conscription in Mehmed Ali’s Egypt,” while not making the same argument as Mikhail, plays to the same theme. Fahmy is arguing against the modern historiographical narrative that presents Mehmed Ali’s modernization of the Army as an expression of Egyptian nationalism. He shows quite convincingly that Egyptians saw military service as an onerous burden and went to great lengths to avoid being drafted. The draftees were subject to a modern medical examination to see if they were fit for duty. Understanding this, draftees manipulated the system through self-mutilation, forcing the government to make changes to its policies. While their resistance was not effective or successful, this shows that draftees, like the Fayyumis, understood and engaged with state institutions in ways that made them political actors, rather than passive recipients of top-down power.

In the second article by Fahmy, “The Anatomy of Justice: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Law in Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Egyptian peasants are shown to have engaged with and used the new siyasa legal system instituted by Mehmed Ali to their advantage as well. The article presents a historical narrative that is similar to the one presented by Milan Petrov in “Everyday Forms of Compliance: Subaltern Commentaries on Ottoman Reform, 1864-1868,” which discusses the way that people in the vilayet of Danube engaged with the new nizami courts. In this article, Fahmy is arguing against the prevailing teleological narrative of a steady progression from “backwards” shariah law to “modern” secular law. He argues instead that the government introduced these legal reforms not for the purpose of enlightenment or justice, but to improve state control over the population. In other words, this wasn’t European light illuminating the darkness of Arab backwardness. It was a carefully thought out plan meant to enhance the efficiency of the state. Fahmy focuses on autopsies and how they were used by the state and understood by the average person. Generally it seems that people understood the benefits of autopsies as a means of ensuring justice in areas that the shariah did not address or did not address adequately.

Brown’s article, “Who Abolished Corvee Labour in Egypt and Why?” is the only article that takes away agency from the common people, who are depicted as a formless mob who act only when ordered to act. In his article Brown is making the argument that corvee labor was not abolished for enlightened reasons, but because it became more profitable for the peasants to remain on their lands to harvest crops after year-round growing became established. The peasants were always being used to serve the greater interests of the state (or the landholders, who in turn produced revenues for the state), and even after the supposed renouncement of corvee labor, there were projects that necessitated the use of forced labor, especially in terms of the maintenance of the irrigation system.

It is interesting how great a role the irrigation system played in influencing policies in Egypt. Egypt’s agricultural output was its greatest asset when it was part of the Ottoman Empire and served as a vital part of the Empire’s infrastructure. After Egypt was separated from the Empire, agriculture was still of vital interest to the state. There were apparently conflicting interests, however. How was the irrigation system maintained when Mehmed Ali depleted the countryside of men to fill the ranks of his army?

168th Street #1 Train Subway Station Renovations: Working Hard to Make NYC Worse?

168th Street Subway Platform With Open Vaulted Ceiling
168th Street Subway Platform With Open Vaulted Ceiling

Today I went down to the 1 train platform at 168th Street in Manhattan to catch the train to 137th Street City College for a Summer class I’m taking. I really love the station. There’s something cool about the high, vaulted ceiling and the old ceiling mount where it looks like an electric chandelier used to hang. I can almost imagine how it used to look, and how it might look if the vaulted ceiling were renovated and covered with murals depicting New York City’s past. But, even if they never renovated it (except for structural repairs) there’s just something cool about a subway station that has street lamps and pedestrian bridges that go over the tracks.

Steel girders covering the previously open vaulted section of the station.
Steel girders covering the previously open vaulted section of the station.

So, it was with great disappointment that I discovered earlier today that the city is renovating the station. By renovating, I don’t mean they’re improving on the already dramatic and exceptional appearance of the subway station. They’re covering the vaulted ceiling with a low ceiling instead. After the space and atmosphere the platform had, the low hanging girders make the space feel extremely claustrophobic.

Section of 168th Street Subway Station With a Low Ceiling
Section of 168th Street Subway Station With a Low Ceiling

One end of the platform already has a low ceiling and I always avoided it, because the vaulted ceiling helped me forget that I was so far underground I had to take an elevator to get there. This station has no stairs or escalators.

An old light fixture mount, probably for an electric chandelier.
An old light fixture mount, probably for an electric chandelier.

I suppose they’ll close in the pedestrian bridge and make it look like any other subway station pedestrian tunnel, with those cheap, small, public-restroom-yellow tiles. They’ll cover the vaulted ceiling and replace it with something low and plain. They’ll cover up a part of New York City’s history instead of bringing it into focus.

What are they planning on doing with that extra space? Are they just going to turn it into storage? Or seal it off completely? Sometimes things have to be done for the sake of progress, but I just don’t see the point here. It’s not like they have to minimize the space to install air conditioning. This isn’t Singapore or Japan, after all, and our fares are barely enough to pay the top executives, let alone improve the system in any meaningful way.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope they’re just setting up those steel girders for safety while they renovate the ceiling and improve the station, but considering how big the girders are and how they perfectly align with the bottom of the pedestrian bridge, I’m sure I’m wrong. Instead of improving the transit system, the city is only making my commute worse by turning a vaulted and spacious station into a low-ceilinged, claustrophobia-inducing crevice in the earth that I will have to endure daily during my commute. Isn’t it enough already that there are no stairs or escalators and we’re forced to use elevators to get out of the station?