Writing to be Seen: Public Literacies and Petitions in Egypt, 1900-1930

By Hoda Yousef
Submitted to Session P3404 (Sensing Cairo: Sights, Sounds, and Public Spaces since the Late-Nineteenth Century, 2013 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the decades before and after the iconic 1919 Egyptian Revolution against the British Protectorate, an era of public petitioning was coming into its own; villagers banded together to push for more resources from central authorities, Coptic groups requested more political autonomy, citizens organized telegram campaigns, and students devised ever more elaborate requests for access to better job opportunities. This presentation will explore the events of the first thirty years of 20th century Egypt through the lenses of communal action and visual language in the capital city of Cairo. My proposition is that through the use of “public literacy” practices, the notion of writing for a wide audience was becoming a new social force in Egypt’s modern culture of petitioning and protest. Egyptians across the social spectrum were learning how to wield the written word in more potent and visible ways.

I will focus my discussion on the group petitions that have been collected in the Abdin collection of the Egyptian National Archive. While there are, by some estimates, over 1 million petitions saved in various Egyptian archives, the subset of collective actions from the early part of the 20th century, in content and form, represent a significant break from the long tradition of petitioning that preceded it.

By focusing on these public and communal petitions, I will offer a reexamination the classic literate/illiterate dichotomy that often colors the history of social change in the Middle East. Even as the educated elites were expressing themselves and their interests in the new media of the era, individuals from all walks of life were dictating their complaints to scribes, listening to newspapers, sending telegrams, and availing themselves of the expanding postal system even if they themselves were not “literate” in any official sense. This paper will shed new light on the ways in which individuals and groups were using communal expressions of discontent and new technologies to visually and publicly influence debates well beyond what we would consider the “literate” strata of society. Ultimately, it is the changing landscape of written expression, for the literate, semi-literate, and illiterate alike, that reshaped the public spaces of modern Egypt.