Mere Kalam Fadi?:

Language and Meaning in Modern Egyptian History

M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By John-Paul Ghobrial
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
May 2004

Full Thesis (PDF format—2 megabytes)


Table of Contents

“Archival Ghosts”: Lower-Level Agents and the Eastern Employment Ladder


“Fifteen Years’ Intercourse with the Natives”


Ideology, Modernity, and Contemporary Approaches to Egyptian History

Part One – Models Of Language

Boundaries, Order, and Modern Linguistic Approaches to the Arabic Language


A word on methodology


Diglossia and Arabic Sociolinguistics:  Bringing Order to the Arabic Language


Evolution of the model: Levels, discourse, and switches


The Cohesion of Arabic:  Multiple Codes and the Construction of Meaning



Part Two – Patterns, Periods, and Narratives of History

Early Narratives of Arab Nationalism


Texts and Ideologues


An Arab Awakening: “Masses Need Not Apply”


“New” Narratives:  The Maintenance of Order in Middle Eastern History



Conclusion – Practice and Meaning in Modern Egyptian history
Works Consulted



            American soap operas frequently introduce formerly deceased characters who trigger major epiphanies in any given episode.  A doctor who died in a skiing accident is suddenly revealed to be the living father of a needy orphan.  The diary of a rebellious misfit divulges her secret past in an Alpine nunnery.  Such devices usually contribute to a renewed understanding of the plot, theme, and message of a television series and leave viewers with a sense of finally understanding “the truth.”  Indeed, this sense of finality only lasts until the next surprise, resulting in a periodic pattern of revelation that suggests an asymptotic disclosure of the truth.  Although the notion of an objective “truth” remains problematic and perhaps impossible, it is not far-fetched to say that modern historiography, too, becomes richer and fuller in a renewed appreciation of characters that have been virtually forgotten.

            Bringing neglected characters “back to life” in historical narratives allows us to engage in a simultaneous act of affirmation and reconsideration.  In the first case, the introduction of new knowledge and details about an individual’s life impregnates the already-existing narrative, giving it renewed life and affirming its cohesion.  At the same time, the new knowledge may also necessitate a reconsideration of the broad structures and processes through which we understand history itself.  In this case, “what we thought we knew” becomes more complex, problematic, or even untenable, and a revamped understanding of “what we know” becomes critical if we hope to construct a more accurate historical narrative.

            John Selden Willmore is one such character that obliges both an affirmation and reconsideration of our understanding of a particular moment in history, namely colonial Egypt, and more importantly the approaches that have been used to understand the developments that have ensued in modern Egypt since Willmore’s time.  Indeed, the life and works of this “man of no repute” provides a sparkling prism through which larger processes of colonialism, nationalism, and modernity crystallize in a manner that affirms contemporary understandings of Egyptian history.  But the telling of Willmore’s life also necessitates a reconsideration, not simply of Egyptian history, but rather of the methodologies that formerly have been used to study Arabic-speaking societies in the Middle East.  In this way, the reintroduction of a barely remembered character in the drama of modern Egyptian history serves as a useful point of departure for a reassessment of contemporary academic approaches to the study of Egyptian history, politics, and culture.  A brief digression into Willmore’s life allows us to delve deeper into the implications of such resurrected characters to our understanding of Egyptian history.

“Archival Ghosts”: Lower-Level Agents and the Eastern Employment Ladder

            John Selden Willmore was by no means a Cromer, a Salisbury, or even a Dufferin.  At one time or another, he would indeed interact with most of these figures.  But in many ways, he represents the larger contingent of British colonial agents: those individuals that spent much of their lives in service to the Empire yet did not attain the famous status of the typical personalities usually identified with British rule in the East.  Such servants of the British imperial enterprise, sometimes lacking any actual legal, military, or administrative training, found themselves in constant flux as they were frequently moved from one position to another within the administrative hierarchy and geography.  The imperatives of colonial administration were such that a lower-level agent could prove his worth and eventually find himself running a Consulate or even an entire nation.  In the service of empire, advancement on the employment ladder relied just as much on the changing political and military climate or the availability of other personnel as it did on one’s own actual capabilities.  This was the administrative machinery that would allow Willmore to rise, in only ten years, from a student interpreter at Constantinople to a Judge in the Cairo Native Court of Appeals. 

            One important difference between people like Willmore and the (in)famous viceroys of the East remains of special concern to the modern historian, namely the sheer vacuity of the historical record with regards to such individuals.  Rarely in positions that warranted the use of a personal secretary, these “archival ghosts” did not leave voluminous catalogues of papers to be sifted through at the British Public Record Office.  Unlike in the case of Cromer, for example, the modern historian has little by way of memorandum or correspondence that reveals personal attributes of Willmore’s ideas, opinions, or decisions [1].  As for personal papers, Willmore may well have left something to his family.  Given that no single study of Willmore has yet to be written, locating such materials – although they may be gathering dust in the attic of one fortunate grandchild or another – has proved impossible.  The historical record remains slim, leaving the researcher faced with formidable challenges in forming an accurate narrative about the lives of lesser-known figures in the British colonial enterprise.  Nonetheless, the situation is not hopeless.  While some details of Willmore’s life and ideas remain inaccessible for now, it is possible to speak methodically and accurately with regards to certain aspects of his life and, most importantly, to his service in Egypt and his ideas surrounding Egyptian society, Arabic language reform, and modernization.  In this study, I will focus primarily on these aspects of Willmore’s life and place them, in as much as is possible, in the larger context of his relevance to our understanding of Egyptian history.

            Other than that he was born in 1856, little is known about Willmore’s childhood and adolescence.  We can, however, obtain a general sketch of his professional service to the Empire [2].  As early as May 26, 1879 he passed a competitive examination earning him a position as a Student Interpreter at Constantinople [3].  By 1881, he was promoted to Assistant Interpreter.  Only after three years service did Willmore make his first request for leave in order to take his BA examinations at King’s College, Cambridge [4].  These early years witness Willmore’s assignment to various tasks including, for example, reporting on transit trade to Persia and looking into Ottoman rules surrounding the traffic of the pilgrimage [5].  In December 1884, he is assigned to Philippopolis to report with Captain Jones on riots in Macedonia[6].  Shortly afterwards, he receives his first substantial appointment, in the context of Captain Jones’ taking leave, as Acting Consul-General at Philippopolis.  This position marks an important watershed as from hereon Willmore is regularly assigned to fill positions for higher-level administrators who are taking leave.  Consequently, he finds himself in Angora as Vice-Consul in November 1885, Vice-Consul at Alexandria from January 1887, and, finally, Acting Consul at Alexandria in 1889.

            During his time in Alexandria, we get the first glimpse of Willmore’s interest in the Egyptian people in his report on the “Condition of Upper Egypt.” [7]   This report, requested by Lord Cromer himself, reveals some of the themes that would attract Willmore’s attention during the nearly thirty years he served in Egypt.  Interestingly, his report is scattered with Arabic terms like “mudirrehs” [bosses] and “shadoofs” and “sakkiehs” – whether or not his supervisors actually appreciated his penchant for Arabic is questionable.  In this relatively short report, his discussion focuses almost entirely on the “fellaheen” who he describes as being trapped between “the interference of the Sheikhs” and government officials who, by virtue of the corvée, have been calling them “away from their labour without adequate cause.”  He then turns to the question of their low agricultural productivity in comparison to “English labourers” but concludes that they are “capable of adapting themselves to European inventions” for want of one thing – adequate education.  Education, and its link to Egyptian modernization, becomes a recurring concern for Willmore.  His discussion then turns immediately from the link between education and productivity to the issue of language.  The Chief of Daira Sanieh, Willmore warns, has hired “at his own expense” an Austrian to teach French.  Willmore notes that Egyptian opinion elevates French over all other European languages and that French “is likely to be cultivated in preference to if not to the exclusion of English.”  The British concern with the teaching of French is a theme that various officials bring up time and time again [8].  What is interesting about Willmore is the manner in which he ties the issues of productivity, education, and language together:  productivity – modern development in fact – corresponds to changes in the current language situation in Egypt.  This theme would serve as the cornerstone of his later publications.

            Returning to Willmore’s career, his frequent movement deserves a brief note.  Whether or not this constant moving about indicates his superb performance or, more realistically, his inability to prove himself as essential to any one place is up for speculation.  At the same time, it strikes a resounding note with patterns of foreign office employment up to the present day, so it may have well simply reflected the mobility of most agents in service to the empire.  Little information presents itself during this time about his performance of any duties other than basic administration.  Indeed, there are a series of documents that point to what becomes a frequent occurrence of mistakes (or mishaps) on the part of Willmore.  Dispatches are frequently sent to the wrong people [9].  Accounts are left in disarray [10].  Given such oversights, he does not seem to shine in the actual management of consular affairs.  Yet, intriguingly, his performance proves impressive enough to earn his appointment to the Commission on Judicial Reforms in Egypt in March 1887 and, later, an even more important position [11]

            In 1889, Willmore was appointed Judge in the Cairo Native Court of Appeal, a position he held until 1909.  For our purposes, these twenty years of his life represent the focus of our interest in Willmore given that he himself insisted that his ideas on Egyptian society, language, and modernization were formed in the context of his experience in the Native Courts.  As a letter to the Foreign Office in London suggests, he may not have realized the significance of this opportunity prior to his acceptance: 

With reference to our conversation last Tuesday, I should like to think that in accepting office under the Egyptian Government, I am not in any way prejudicing my chances of promotion in the Consular Service.  I am, of course, most pleased to accept the appointment, but I cannot help feeling that I shall be incurring some risk if I enter so uncertain a service as the Egyptian [sic] without having good reason to hope that I shall be able to return to my former career in view of circumstances which cannot now be foreseen. I trust that you will be so kind as to submit this point in the consideration of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in order that, in the event of his Lordships’ approval , some form of assurance may be given me, which will make me feel more at ease in entering upon my new duties. [12]

His anxieties are put to rest by Lord Salisbury who assures him that reentrance into the Consular Service is possible.  During his service in the Native Courts, Willmore publishes a book that he claims to have been working on “at odd moments, chiefly in vacation time, in railway trains and steamboats.”[13]  This book, The Spoken Arabic of Egypt, was published first in 1901 and subsequently re-released in 1905, according to Willmore because of high demand.  This book, and the ideas presented within it, functions as a useful prism through which to examine larger questions of colonial ideology, modernity, Egyptian historiography, and contemporary approaches to understanding such phenomena.

“Fifteen Years’ Intercourse with the Natives”


Publishing his grammar on spoken Arabic would in fact prove a challenging task.  In the first place, he found it difficult to secure the backing of a publishing house.  In a letter to Oscar Browning, a prominent tutor at King’s College, Cambridge, Willmore expressed his frustration:

Bevan [a representative of Clarendon Press] was certainly not encouraging, nor was he in the least interested in my work.  He didn’t think a single copy of a book on a living oriental language would sell in Cambridge – if anywhere in England.  The ancients alone seem to have his sympathy! [14]

Moreover, Willmore was baffled by the rejection of his work given that “our Eastern possessions are so immense, and still expanding every year.”  Indeed, his indignation stemmed from his own conviction in his authority on the subject, an authority derived from personal experience.  This is a claim he makes over and over again.  In the same letter to Browning:

But I tried to make him [Bevan] understand that my calling brings me more than any one else contact with all [Egyptian] classes and that I was therefore in a position to arrive at the truth.[15]

In responding to the critics of his first edition, Willmore again emphasizes his personal role, as someone whose authority derives from actually having lived and worked in Egypt.  The author of a 1902 review who takes issue with Willmore’s transliteration receives this response: “It was because I had heard the helping vowel that I wrote these consonants double.”[16]  Moreover, he describes his methodology as firmly rooted in his interaction with Egyptians “of all classes”:

Not only have I submitted the spelling of these words to a native, and often to more than one native, but in many cases I have found the words written as I have given them by persons whose education is only such as to enable them to write phonetically or by kâtibs reporting the exact pronunciation of the speaker.[17]

            Willmore remains convicted of the importance of linking the accuracy of his grammar to his personal experience during his service in Cairo.  Unlike other scholars of Arabic that may never leave their offices in London, Willmore’s comprehensive knowledge of colloquial Arabic derives from “fifteen years’ intercourse with the natives” as well as his close study of “documents written in the vernacular.”[18]

            This insistence on authority rooted in experience is accompanied by his attempts to demonstrate the scientific nature of his methodology.  This is perhaps one of the more remarkable aspects of Willmore’s personality.  He seems constantly preoccupied, manically in fact, with “flashing his credentials,” reiterating to readers, critics, and friends alike the rigorous approach he adopts in studying his subject.  He summarily dismisses Bevan’s claims that his work is unscientific:

One more remark of his (Bevan’s) I can’t help repeating: namely that an unscientific treatise would be of no value.  He seemed to assume that I had had no classical education in the language; which as a matter of fact it is only during late years that I have given my attention to living dialects! And my studies of the classical have begun at a far earlier period than his own (and they have had the advantage of being pursued abroad).[19]

In a sense, Willmore endeavors to elevate his own personal experience of the Arabic language to the level of academic science.  His identification and categorization of certain linguistic components as being the “spoken Arabic of Egypt,” from his perspective, requires a simultaneous claim of authority and scientific scholarship.  Looking closer at both prefaces, however, it becomes obvious that Willmore is interested in much more than simply describing colloquial Arabic as he experiences it.  His greater goal, which only becomes clear in the second edition, entails a linguistic revolution that reveals much about colonial ideology and Egyptian history.

            In the first preface (1901), Willmore places himself firmly in the tradition of past “orientalists,” Wilhelm Spitta in particular, who have carried out “serious attempt[s] to sketch the distinguishing features of the literary and vernacular dialects.”[20]  Indeed, much of the discussion of the first preface suggests Willmore’s conception of his project as an exercise in identification and classification of those parts of Arabic speech that comprise colloquial Egyptian.  Put in another way, he seeks to bring order to the language.  Consequently, his book focuses entirely on what has been dubbed “vulgar” Arabic or, in other words, Egyptian colloquial Arabic.  Past grammars, he notes, betray a “confusion between two spoken dialects, such as Egyptian and Syrian, or a hopeless mixture of forms and expressions used only in conversation with those which are peculiar to the written language.”[21]  Instead, Willmore seeks to accurately isolate and categorize the characteristics of the colloquial.  To this end, he engages in a lengthy discussion of “its precise place in the Semitic family.”[22]  This “vulgar” dialect represents the “everyday speech of the people” and to this end “care has been taken to avoid words which are not familiar to all classes.”[23]  It is geared to “Arabic scholars” and, more importantly, to those who seek a “practical knowledge of the language.”[24]

            Willmore’s discussion of the attributes of Egyptian Arabic is wrapped in a larger argument advocating the adoption of the colloquial as the single written and spoken language of Egypt.  It is this aspect of his work that has been held up by contemporary critics as typical of the imperial enterprise of “divide and conquer.”[25]  Indeed, Willmore does suggest such changes as a critical means of maintaining an Arabic language in Egyptian society:

There is reason to fear that, unless this be done [adoption of the colloquial] and a simpler system of writing to be adopted, both the colloquial and literary dialects will be gradually ousted, as the intercourse with European nations increases by a foreign tongue.[26]

Apart from this casual mentioning, Willmore offers little explanation of the reasons for his support of the colloquial.  Only in the second edition of his book does Willmore tackle such issues head on.  For now, he simply suggests that such a movement “would best be started by the press” and, moreover, that it would “need to be strongly supported by men of influence.”[27]  The period of time required for such a change – again this focus on order – would be “say two years” in order “to spread a knowledge of reading and writing throughout the country.”[28]  Perhaps indicative of the difficulty of publishing his work, Willmore’s last comments refer to his “indebtedness to the heads of some of the Departments of the Egyptian Government and others for subscribing for a number of copies of the book, and thereby enabling me to carry it through the press.”[29]  This suggests that early Egyptian government officials may have actually been open to Willmore’s ideas given that they were willing to purchase copies of a book authored by someone so clearly in favor of Egypt’s adoption of the colloquial.  All in all, the first preface to Willmore’s book reflects an important side of Willmore, namely his self-conception as offering an authoritative, academic study and classification of colloquial Arabic.  It is only in the second preface (1905) that we are offered a glimpse into another side of Willmore, one that implies a delicate understanding of the complex issues at the heart of his advocating the adoption of the colloquial.  Unlike the preoccupation with order and classification found in the earlier edition, the second preface demonstrates Willmore’s estimable understanding of the intricate social, political, and cultural dynamics intertwined in the Arabic language situation in Egypt.

            Perhaps as a slap in the face of Bevan, Willmore opens his second preface with a statement of the popularity of his work:

The new edition has been called for by the publisher in view of the continued demand for the Grammar both in Europe and in Egypt since the first became exhausted six months ago.[30]

Noting that the book has been “favourably received” in Europe, Willmore then begins his usual discourse on the characteristics of Egyptian colloquial.  This time, his remarks are meant as a response to a critical review in the 1902 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.  As in the first preface, Willmore’s concentration revolves around the identifiable (and thus classifiable) characteristics of the colloquial dialect.  The larger part of his discussion focuses on the distinguishing markers that set colloquial Arabic apart from classical Arabic.[31]  Having painstakingly responded to each claim made by his critic, Willmore then turns his attention to the issue of the adoption of the colloquial as Egypt’s official language.  Diverging from his preoccupation with ordering the Arabic language, Willmore’s discussion of a movement “for” the colloquial betrays an enormous insight into the complex dynamics of Egyptian language and society.  Indeed, his discussion of such a movement suggests a nuance and delicacy not obvious in his earlier discussions of the characteristics of the colloquial.  Noting the discontent of “a certain section of the native press” to his suggestion “that for secular purposes there should be one language for speech and literature, and that the vernacular,” Willmore contextualizes his support for the colloquial with reference to modernization, education, and the relationship between intellectuals and the masses.[32]  It is worth quoting an excerpt in full:

It would be interesting to know how far the opinion of the country is expressed in the articles which have appeared in the newspapers.  Several native gentlemen of high standing have assured me that they desire the change.  One goes so far as to say that all thinking men are in favour of it; another considers that the project would find more partisans if it had not been started by foreigners; the idea has been several times advanced and advocated by native writers in the Muqtataf since the year 1881.  It is, I think, for the lower classes rather than the higher to express an opinion, as they are the interested party.  It is not for a small number of persons who already possess a means of communicating their thoughts in writing to decide that the rest of the population shall have no means of so doing.[33]

For Willmore, the issue of Egyptian language reform has captured the attention of both elites and the “lower [uneducated] classes.”  In the end, he insists that it is the uneducated who have the most to gain from such a change.  The next part of his discussion, which comprises the conclusion of his second preface, reveals Willmore’s own awareness of the complexity of the situation.  We obtain a glimpse of a colonial servant who is actually much more in tune with the nuances of Egyptian society than his earlier obsession with classification suggests.

            One by one, Willmore exhaustively engages the “principal arguments” of the Egyptian press against adoption of the colloquial.[34]  Surprisingly, he responds directly and succinctly to each criticism.  First, he addresses “the religious question,” namely that the adoption of the vernacular would in someway threaten the religion of Islam.[35] Noting first that the modern literary language used in documents differs markedly from classical Qur’anic Arabic, Willmore then makes allusion to countries like “Turkey, Persia, India, China, and a great many other countries where Arabic is neither spoken nor written.”[36]  Islam, he contends, clearly does not suffer from the disparity between the spoken language and Qur’anic Arabic in such countries.  Moreover, he returns to the theme of education that he mentioned in his report on Upper Egypt insisting “that it must be more in the interest of religious education, as of all other education, that the whole of the population should be able to read and write some form of Arabic than that a few persons only should have that privilege.”[37] 

            Next, Willmore argues against the notion that the adoption of a local colloquial would prove problematic to the cultural unity of the Arab world.  Again, he describes the current situation as being no better: it is rather one in which “the very great majority of persons search for, and are at the mercy of, not one but two interpreters, even when both the writer and his friend are living in Cairo.”[38]  Admittedly, Willmore may be exaggerating and yet the phenomena he is alluding to are larger cultural patterns of writing, literacy, and media production and consumption in Egypt.  Education alone would not improve the situation, as even “an educated Egyptian” may find it difficult to understand a letter from a colleague from another part of the Arab world.[39]  Willmore also rejects as futile the possibility that the educated could encourage the use of standard Arabic by the masses if only such elites began to use standard Arabic for oral communication.  He mentions correspondence with “one writer” whose friends have tried to make such changes but “confesses that they have to fall back on the vernacular in their lighter moods.”[40]  One after another, Willmore engages the arguments against the adoption of the colloquial: the challenges of selecting a specific Egyptian dialect, the role of the Government in language reform, and the preservation of heritage and a connection to Egypt’s past.  In each response, he reveals an adept consciousness to the complexities of Egyptian society and its use of the Arabic language.  This consciousness arises from his own experience with the use of Arabic by native speakers.  He even makes reference to realities that modern academic studies have only begun to explore.  In describing the dissemination of the stories of ‘Antar in Egyptian society, Willmore notes:

In reality ‘Antar is very imperfectly understood even by persons of education; but the gist of the stories has been made familiar to all from interpretations, sometimes given by the reciter himself.[41]

Such patterns suggest Willmore’s awareness of a dynamic of text and commentary at the heart of the Arabic language, one that has only recently gained the attention of modern linguistics.  All in all, Willmore’s exhaustive handling of the adoption of the colloquial reveals an intimacy with Egyptian society perhaps obscured by his simplistic classification of its language.  His proposals for reform prove even more revealing.

            In arguing for the adoption of the colloquial, Willmore recognizes the necessity of the participation of all segments of Egyptian society in realizing such a change.  A more naive approach would most likely assume that the intellectuals alone could move Egypt towards the adoption of the colloquial.[42]  To be sure, Willmore does insist that the movement “needs to be encouraged by the influential and patriotic among the native population.”[43]  More importantly, Willmore’s entire discussion focuses on the importance of adopting the colloquial in light of the imperatives of Egyptian modernization, development, and literacy.  Unlike the few Egyptian authors who would later advocate adopting the colloquial, Willmore’s perspective has little to do with the value of such a change to the national identity of Egypt.  For Willmore, language has more to do with modernity itself.  Consequently, the change requires the interaction of all strata of Egyptian society so as to bring Egypt in its entirety closer to increased literacy and sustained development.  Willmore draws special attention to signs of such a change already emerging as demonstrated by a group of court clerks – his perhaps? – that already had begun to take testimonies in colloquial Arabic. 

Formerly the statements of prisoners and the depositions of witnesses were invariably translated, as they were taken down, into the literary language.  It is obvious under these circumstances the judges, who had only the papers before them, were left very much in the dark as to what had actually been said; but in the last few years there have been found clerks bold enough to take down the declarations at least partially in the speaker’s own words.[44]

Like the advancement of the “fellaheen” requires education and language reform, modernization, in this case a rational modern judiciary, requires that the colloquial play a role.[45]

            All in all, Willmore was perhaps right to insist upon his “fifteen years’ intercourse with the natives” as a suitable foundation upon which to base his support for the adoption of the vernacular.  At the least, his discussion of the complexities rooted in such a movement reveal that he was aware of the social, political, and cultural nuances involved in such a change.  More importantly, we only gain a glimpse into the depth of his understanding of Egyptian society as a response to his critics in the Egyptian press, that is to say others similarly familiar with the Egyptian context.  To the critic from the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society however, who probably did not have anything like Willmore’s “intimacy” with Egypt, Willmore responds in a language that makes most sense to his Western academic critic, that is, the language of order, colonial ideology, and modernism.


Ideology, Modernity, and Contemporary Approaches to Egyptian History

Timothy Mitchell has described how “colonizing Egypt” entailed the imposition of a colonial ideology that organized and represented reality as a rigid set of hierarchies.[46]  The colonial project policed such boundaries in its efforts to make Egypt at once readable and conquerable.  This distinctly European notion of modernity stemmed from a conception of the world-as-exhibition or, rather, a world where representations and the reality they depicted merged together in a complex fashion.[47]  In this sense, the world-as-exhibition was simply an ordered representation of reality, but one increasingly taken for granted as constituting reality itself.   Meaning within this colonial ideology was constructed through order, plans, frameworks, and categories.  With reference to cities, institutions of learning, and the act of writing, Mitchell describes how colonial ideology introduced new assumptions of order into a pre-colonial system (Egypt) that had traditionally constructed meaning in other ways, namely through contrast and difference. Traditional Azharite styles of pedagogy are a case in point:

Life within the teaching mosque of al-Azhar required no walls to divide classrooms, no desks, no ordered ranks, no uniforms, no timetable, and no posted curriculum.  In short, as with the city, there was no order in the sense we expect, as a framework, code, or structure that stands apart.[48]

The process of enframing, or establishing static hierarchies, was crucial to the “peculiar historical strangeness of the new kind of order.”[49]  Colonizing Egypt was a process that sought to “re-order Egypt to appear as a world enframed”:

Egypt was to be ordered up as something object-like.  In other words it was to be made picture-like and legible, rendered available to political and economic calculation.  Colonial power required the country to become readable, like a book, in our own sense of such a term.[50]

Modernity itself is the culprit.  Colonial ideology, and the European conceptions of modernity at its foundation, relied on a series of intertwined binary systems, mechanisms through which reality could be identified, categorized, and, ultimately, ordered. 

            A hasty glimpse into the figure of John Selden Willmore mistakenly marks him as the very embodiment of the processes described by Mitchell.  Willmore’s fixation on identifying the category of colloquial Arabic so as to produce a more orderly image mirrors Mitchell’s characterization of colonial ideology and the world-as-exhibition.  In Willmore’s own words, “comparative philology is a science unknown in Egypt.”[51]  The “seats of such learning are to be found in Europe and America,” and his grammar is one such work intended to bring order to the seeming anarchy of Arabic.  As I have suggested in my discussion of Willmore’s views on the adoption of the colloquial, his approach to Egyptian society and language was actually remarkably astute.  In a quite significant manner, Willmore’s awareness of the complex social and linguistic dynamics in Egypt suggests that Mitchell’s characterization of colonial ideology may too easily dismiss the importance of the actual practice that occurred in the implementation of colonial ideology.  Modern colonial ideology may have sought to organize Egypt into a neat set of hierarchies, but individuals like Willmore, faced with practical realities “on the ground” so to speak, demonstrated a more judicious approach to the social, political, and cultural dynamics of nineteenth-century Egypt.

            Like many of his contemporaries, John Selden Willmore’s ideas and actions were just as much a product of colonial ideology as of the diverse realities he faced in his position as a colonial administrator.  Mitchell’s characterization of European processes of “colonizing Egypt” does indeed capture the nature of colonial ideology in its fixation on order, hierarchy, and representation.  But in spite of its heavy theoretical dimension (or perhaps because of it), Mitchell neglects the complex realities at work in the ideas, careers, and trajectories of the people that were charged with implementing such ideologies in Egypt itself.  Returning to the divergence between Willmore’s response to his European critics and that given to the native Egyptian press, it becomes clear that “colonizing Egypt” involved a much more complex process than that accounted for by Mitchell.  In many ways, what Mitchell leaves largely unaddressed is the manner in which colonial ideologies of order and hierarchy maintained and perpetuated themselves over time, even when faced with conflicting traditional pre-colonial systems of meaning.  More importantly, Mitchell makes no mention of the influence of colonial ideology on other non-political mechanisms through which rigid hierarchies of order were projected, albeit less tangibly, onto Egyptian society.  People like Willmore and his “authoritative” grammar played just as much, if not more, of a role in reading (and misreading) Egyptian society and culture as the colonialists themselves.  Addressing such lacuna is crucial to an accurate reading of Egyptian history.  For a start, enormous insight can be gained by shifting our gaze to the work of Judge Willmore or, rather, to his intended audience and contemporaries: Western academic orientalists.

            This work explores the methodologies and approaches at the heart of contemporary studies of Egyptian history, politics, society, and culture with an eye towards both affirmation and reconsideration.  As such, John Selden Willmore reflects the manner in which colonial ideologies of order, hierarchy, and modernity extended into the academic study of Arabic-speaking societies in the Middle East.  At its core, the colonial project sought the transformation of the “disorder” of pre-colonial Egypt into a series of neat, rigid binary systems of order.  Total and penetrating imperial authority required the existence of such order.  Ideology, nonetheless, did not always triumph over the practicalities of Egyptian society resulting in actuality in a more flexible system than that described by Mitchell.  No one knew this better than the colonial agents themselves.

            Academic orientalism is another story.  In its detachment from the real minutiae of Egyptian society, Western orientalists preserved more zealously the obsession of colonial ideology with order, categorization, and hierarchy.  It is for this reason that Willmore’s response to academic critics draws on the rigid language of colonial ideology whereas his reactions to native Egyptians is more reasonable in its appreciation of the complex realities of Egyptian society.  Contemporary academic approaches have remained overwhelmingly preoccupied with description, classification, and the ordering of Middle Eastern history, politics, and society – perhaps more intensely than the colonialists themselves.  Indeed, one can even go so far as suggesting that this (European) modernist approach to the Middle East has been more rigidly articulated in academia than in the colonial project itself.  The ultimate outcome of such academic approaches remains a skewed, incomplete, and imperfect understanding of the social, cultural, and political dynamics of modern Egypt.

            Nowhere is this truer than in the methodological neglect of colloquial Arabic.  Relying on sociolinguistic and anthropological approaches, I argue the existence of a pervading trend cutting across various academic disciplines that rejects the crucial role of colloquial Arabic to our understanding of the intricacies of Arabic-speaking societies.  Essentially, this neglect of the importance of colloquial Arabic stems from the manner in which Western conceptions of modernity – embodied in colonial ideology – have resulted in academia’s almost singular focus on the description of categories (social, linguistic, cultural, or otherwise) instead of the greater importance of how such categories interact with each other in practice.  Like Willmore’s first preface, academic approaches to the study of the Arabic language have focused all too much on describing and classifying colloquial Arabic.  But unlike in the case of Willmore, there has rarely been a “second preface” through which contemporary studies have revealed a more delicate and shrewd understanding of the modern Middle East.  As a result, such studies have ignored the larger context in which the interaction of colloquial Arabic with standard Arabic offers substantial insight into larger processes in Egyptian history and contemporary society.

            This study is also about the place of non-traditional media in historical research.  Texts, elites, and standard Arabic have for too long captured the lion’s share of academic attention.  Throughout this work, I seek to illustrate the colorful and multidimensional insight to be gained through an integration of new media in the writing of Egyptian history.  Linguistic, anthropologic, and literary studies of Arabic-speaking societies have already explored elements of a world that has been generally neglected by modern historiography.  Admittedly, this realm of colloquial Arabic, audiovisual sources, and even songs poses many challenges, but the benefits are undoubtedly worth the effort.  As I hope will become clear, such a rejuvenated approach to the use of mediated sources is not only critical, but indeed it remains necessary given the manner in which meaning itself is constructed in Arabic-speaking societies.

            Meaning – whether it be Arabic speech or, taken more broadly, our understanding of Egyptian history – is constructed relationally through the interaction of marked categories with each other.  It is the interaction between standard and colloquial Arabic, for example, that produces humor, irony, or authority.  Similarly, our understanding of developments in modern Egyptian society requires a focus on the manner in which different categories (the “elites” and the “peasants” for example) interacted with each other rather than simply focusing on the classification of characteristics within the categories.  Willmore’s “precise” descriptions of colloquial Arabic may have been a suitable response to his academic critics.  It revealed much less, however, about the actual dynamics of Arabic than his more delicate discussion of the adoption of the colloquial, a discussion that focused on the relationship of different strata of Egyptian society in evaluating the prospects for actual language reform.  This is because his discussion of the adoption of the colloquial focused on practice, that is to say the actual realities that all groups in Egyptian society faced together.  The implications of this change in methodology, I believe, will become clearer in the entirety of my analysis.  A history of Egypt written “from the middle,” or more accurately from a “pulsating center of gravity” to which all actors in society are drawn and interconnected, provides a fuller, more perfect, and cohesive version of modern Egyptian history. 

            The pulse of this work therefore engages the term “meta” at multiple levels: it is at once meta-historical and meta-linguistic.  It focuses on the manner in which academics have carried out their endeavors to think, read, and write the Arab world.  It is my hope that through a close examination of the methodologies scholars have used, we may achieve a deeper and more perfect understanding of their actual subjects such as the relationship of intellectuals and the masses in the emerging Egyptian state, the politics of representation, the Egyptian public sphere and political space, and the nature of Egyptian modernity.  On all such counts, historiography and analysis of the Middle East has been hindered by an approach that elevates intellectuals, elites, and standard Arabic over the masses, popular culture, and colloquial Arabic.  This approach itself is an expression of modernist and colonial ideologies that focus entirely on categories and hierarchies to the detriment of understanding the more important phenomena that occur across the fluid boundaries of such categories. 

            I have divided this work roughly into two parts. In Part One, I explore traditional linguistic approaches to the study of Arabic that reflect a fixation with order and classification instead of a more useful (practice-oriented) relational approach to language.  I argue that in spite of significant improvements in sociolinguistic analysis of Arabic, the dynamism and fluidity of Arabic continues to be characterized and approached through the context of the rigid hierarchies of the diglossic model.  Linguists, all too often preoccupied with description, have neglected the more significant dynamics of Arabic, namely the manner in which the delivery of meaning, relevance, and clarity in Arabic takes place through the interaction of standard and colloquial Arabic.  I propose a revamped model of Arabic, one that focuses on how meaning is constructed relationally through both standard and colloquial Arabic and serves as a foundation for engaging larger issues of modern Egyptian historiography. 

            Part Two explores how modern historical approaches to the study of Egyptian and Arab nationalism have maintained a consuming focus on classification to the detriment of a holistic understanding of the complex phenomena of nationalism in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.  Keeping our renewed linguistic model of Arabic in mind, I use the study of Arab nationalist ideology as a means of bringing to life the manner in which the pursuit of order remains an obstacle to our understanding of Middle Eastern history.  In this context, historians have focused almost exclusively on the textual ideologies of a representative group of nationalist intellectuals or, in other words, cultural production in standard Arabic while summarily neglecting the existence and interaction of the sphere of colloquial Arabic.  In many ways, the essentialist claims of Arab nationalist intellectuals have reinforced the enframing process of colonial ideology.  Having sketched out the broad trends at work in contemporary historiography, I look closer at specific historical approaches that, although increasingly improving on methodologies of the past, still manage to maintain a somewhat singular focus on rigid hierarchies while summarily ignoring the interaction that takes place between such categories.  Intellectuals, elites, and standard texts remain the focus of such studies: perhaps the assumption is that these categories somehow exist in a cohesive manner separate from other phenomena.  The result of these modernist approaches remains a highly simplified, inaccurate, and alarmingly flat understanding of the Egyptian experience of nationalism.

            As I noted at the outset, this work intends to function as both an affirmation and reconsideration of past analysis, approaches, and insights into modern Egypt.  My purpose, therefore, is not simply to take a critical stance to my sources but, rather, to enrich them through a reconsideration of the manner in which they came to their conclusions.  Indeed, I am fully aware that any relevant insights that I can offer into changing approaches to the study of modern Egypt has only proved possible because of the very methodologies that I seek to transform.  An understanding of how the interaction of standard and colloquial Arabic produces meaning, for example, would be unattainable without having first developed a working notion of each of these variants within themselves.  It is the rigidity of past formulations that concerns me.  In an almost absurdist manner, improving the academic approaches of the past necessitates a deep appreciation of the invaluable product of such earlier methodologies to modern Egyptian history.  It goes without saying that such acts of creative destruction have proven both challenging and humbling and yet, I confess, entirely exhilarating. 

[1] See, e.g., Roger Owen’s discussion of the challenges of biography in the Preface to Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).  Lord Cromer himself played an active role in leaving a body of documents upon which he hoped future biographers would base their research.  These personal papers coupled with the enormous collection at the Public Record Office (PRO) represents both an opportunity and a challenge to the modern historian.  Fortunately or unfortunately, John Selden Willmore was not as premeditating. 

[2] A timeline of Willmore’s career in the Foreign Office can be gleaned through a survey of the Foreign Office Directories at the PRO and, particularly, The Foreign Office List and Diplomatic and Consular Year Book for the years 1879 to 1921, the beginning of his retirement on a government pension.  He died ten years later on April 24, 1931.

[3] Additional materials pertaining to Willmore’s cohort of student interpreters can be found in PRO FO 78/3427.

[4] John Selden Willmore, letter to Lord Dufferin, 11 April 1882, PRO FO 78/3403. 

[5] On the abrogation of transit trade to Persia, see a memorandum submitted by Willmore on July 8, 1884: PRO FO 78/3634.  Willmore’s appointment to examine Ottoman pilgrim traffic in October 1884 is mentioned in PRO FO 78/3635.

[6] Wyndham appoints Willmore to Macedonia, 5 December 1884, PRO FO 78/3629.  For Jones and Willmore’s coverage of the riots, see correspondence in PRO FO 78/3775.

[7] John Selden Willmore, “Condition of Upper Egypt (No. 167),”  4 March 1887, PRO FO 78/4042.  All references to Willmore’s trip to Upper Egypt are drawn from this three-page report.

[8] See, e.g., “Education in Egypt.  Views on Question of Sending Young Egyptians to Europe,” 4 November 1888, PRO FO 78/4148.  In this lengthy, confidential report to Salisbury, Cromer takes up the subject of English language instruction with great detail and concern, concluding that it “would greatly facilitate the task we have in hand.”  See also the correspondence between Cromer and Ya'qub Artin Pasha in the summer of 1886 pertaining to Artin’s lengthy report on “L’instruction publique en Egypte,” PRO FO 78/3940 and PRO FO 78/3946.  Owen (2004) gives little attention to Cromer’s views on education and language, but from his numerous notes of gratitude to Artin, it seems that Cromer’s interest in social issues was indeed substantial.

[9] Willmore’s first request for leave as well as his final correspondence before being appointed Judge in the Native Courts are both sent to the wrong address.  These are not the only occasions.

[10] See ,e.g., Willmore’s mishandling of British accounts in the Ottoman Bank, PRO FO 78/4249.

[11] John Selden Willmore, Letter requesting compensation for his work on the Commission on Judicial Reforms, 2 September 1887, PRO FO 78/4048.

[12] Letters relating to Willmore’s appointment to the Native Courts are included in PRO FO 78/4249.  See, particularly, two letters dated September 12 and 23, 1889.

[13] John Selden Willmore, The Spoken Arabic of Egypt (London: Ballantyne Press, 1905): 1905 Preface, xxv.  Originally published in 1901.  All citations refer to either the first preface of the 1901 edition or the later 1905 preface.

[14] John Selden Willmore, letter to Oscar Browning, 28 October 1898, Oscar Browning Papers, King’s College Archives, University of Cambridge.  All references to Willmore’s letters to Browning are drawn from this collection.

[15] Willmore, letter to Browning, 28 October 1898.

[16] Willmore, Preface (1905): ix.  Emphasis added.

[17] Willmore, Preface (1905): ix.

[18] Willmore, Preface (1905): xii.

[19] John Selden Willmore, letter to Oscar Browning, 28 October 1898.  The portion in parentheses was added in superscript in the original document suggesting it was most likely an afterthought.  This deliberate verbosity is typical of Willmore’s efforts to justify his work.

[20] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xix.  Wilhelm Spitta Bey’s Grammatik des arabischen Vulgärdialectes von Aegypten was published in 1880.  Such pioneering works still garner the attention of modern linguists.  See, e.g., El-Said Badawi and Martin Hinds’ discussion of Socrates Spiro’s 1895 dictionary of Egyptian Arabic in their “Introduction” to A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1986).

[21] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xix. 

[22] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xx.

[23] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxii.

[24] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxv.  Emphasis added.  Interestingly, Willmore suggests that certain Arabic scholars would not be interested in his work: “It was startling to learn from a professor of Semitic languages at one of the English universities that he excluded the living Arabic dialects from his studies.”

[25] Walter Armbrust mentions Nafusa Zakariyya Sa’id’s The History of the Call for Colloquial and Its Influence on Egypt which describes “European studies of the colloquial” as attempts “to deceive Egyptians into believing that their opposition to adopting the colloquial would expose them to a greater danger than they realized, namely the extinction of both the modern and the ancient [written] languages, in favor of a foreign language as a result of their increased contact with the European nations.  This was to make them accept the colloquial for writing – because it was the lesser of two evils.” See Walter Armbrust, Mass Modernism and Culture in Egypt (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1996): 45.

[26] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxiv. 

[27] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxiv-xxv.

[28] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxv.

[29] Willmore, Preface (1901):  xxv.

[30] Willmore, Preface (1905):  vii.

[31] Willmore, Preface (1905):  vii-xii.

[32] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiii.

[33] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiii.

[34] See Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiii-xvi.

[35] In this respect, Willmore differs from the perspective of one of his contemporaries, Sir William Willcocks, who regarded colloquial Arabic as the key to a Christianized Egypt.  To this end, he encouraged a translation of the Bible into Egyptian colloquial Arabic.  Better remembered for his contributions to Egyptian irrigation works, his views on language can still be found.  See, e.g., Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000):  225.

[36] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiv.

[37] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiv.

[38] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiv.

[39] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiv.

[40] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xiv.

[41] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xvi.

[42] Indeed, this would be the position of those few Arab nationalists that advocated adoption of the colloquial.  They were less interested in the masses than in the role of intellectuals in effecting such a change.

[43] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xvi-xvii.  Emphasis added.

[44] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xvii. 

[45] As a postscript to the first preface, Willmore also attaches an additional “Note” or rather an extended quote of a passage from the work of an unnamed American who also supported the adoption of the colloquial.  This citation runs to nearly half the length of Willmore’s own preface.  Although Willmore neglects to name the author, the most likely source would be the American philologist William D. Whitney who was best known for his grammar of Sanskrit.

[46] See Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1988). 

[47] See, especially, Chapter One “Egypt at the exhibition” in Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt.  Further discussion is also available in Timothy Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31.2 (April 1989): 217-236.

[48] Mitchell (1988): 82.

[49] Mitchell (1988): 82.  See, particularly, his extended discussion of “Enframing” in Mitchell (1988):  32-62.

[50] Mitchell (1988): 33.

[51] Willmore, Preface (1905):  xii.