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Subcultures and Underworlds of the Early 20th Century

Panel XII-7, sponsored byAlaa El-Shafei, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
In the first decades of the twentieth century, anticolonial writers and activists laid the groundwork for the spread of nationalism in the Arab Middle East. They defined and visualized the modern national subject under the rubrics of productive, law abiding, and heteronormative men and women encircled by the bourgeois nuclear family. The effendiyya were the dominant figures in this imaginary, embodying the caricature of the upwardly mobile national subject. By imagining themselves as such, these modern subjects effectively excluded large swathes of their contemporaries from the national vision, and thus from history. By the same token, their prominence in nationalist narratives and the sheer range of written materials they left behind have made them the favored subjects of later scholars, who thus end up perpetuating the same erasures originally imposed by the Effendiyya and their likenesses. This panel tells the stories and histories of some undesired subjects, excluded from nationalist narratives: convicts, criminals, smugglers, and those who lived and practiced their sexualities outside of a sanctioned marital framework. Their histories are both within and larger than any single national frame, as attested by their ability to cross physical borders and trespass metaphorical boundaries. Together, these papers explore a series of methodological, historiographical, and theoretical questions. How can one tell the stories of people who did not want, or were not allowed, to be seen, such as smugglers and convicts? How did these undesirables shape the foundational categories of emergent nation, such as economy, state, and culture? And what are the limits of a postcolonial theoretical framework for understanding histories of its undesired elements, as with sex workers and other queer subjects? The panel collectively shows that despite being stigmatized and erased from historical narratives, these vernacular subjects nonetheless had a profound impact on society, economy, and culture.
  • How did inmates organize themselves in colonial Egypt? In what ways did their resistance affect conditions in, and shape perceptions of, the prison system? This paper studies Egypt’s colonial prisons from the vantage point of its inmates, presented here as both convicts and workers. By foregrounding the experiences of convicts, it reframes and disrupts larger narratives of empire and nation, underlining their mutual indebtedness to the work and activism of prisoners. Penal labor underpinned British colonial rule. Convict quarries supplied the raw material needed for the occupation’s signature infrastructure projects, while prison factories produced everything from home goods to war munitions. British officials trumpeted this output with great fanfare but downplayed the difficult working and living conditions inmates faced. Their silence hid the scale of convict resistance. Between 1900 and 1920, no less than eight major riots rocked Egyptian prisons, rebellions that turned prisons into emblems of colonial despotism in the public imaginary. This paper argues that inmate subculture shaped conditions in Egypt’s colonial prisons and altered the trajectory of official policy. Independent organizing among inmates often forced the colonial state to abandon any pretense of reform and to unleash outright violence and repression instead. Yet, episodic rebellions are only one part of this story. Inmates sustained their connections to the outside world through their families and with the connivance of their corrupt guards. Smuggling flourished, further enabling prisoners to shape the conditions of their imprisonment. Inmates constructed their own social world, both separated from and connected to their lives beyond prison walls. Any history of ordinary prisoners must grapple with the methodological challenge of their archival silence. They did not leave behind any documents in their own voice. To cope with this silence, this paper uses the tools of microhistory to build a fine-grained picture of convict life and to show inmates’ various strategies of survival and adaptation.
  • By the time he was stripped of British nationality in 1935, Mohammed Zakaria el-Hindi was well-known to authorities in Port Said. In previous decades, he had faced charges of smuggling narcotics, running a brothel, assaulting police, and even insulting King Fuad. However, as a British subject with consular protection, el-Hindi was rarely convicted. A master at manipulating legal loopholes and exploiting jurisdictional gaps, el-Hindi once argued that he could not be held accountable for owning a hashish den as the court had previously deemed him unfit to possess property because he himself consumed hashish. As historians, what do we make of foreign subalterns such as el-Hindi? Scholars have traditionally viewed these subjects through the lens with which contemporary elites described them: criminals, degenerates, and threats to the "honor" of empire or the "nobility" of nation. Drawing on a combination of court cases, police reports, and periodicals, this paper explores the illicit activities of subaltern foreigners within the context of the tumultuous transition between imperial, colonial, and national sovereignty in Egypt. It argues that this transformation produced myriad gaps, ambiguities, and inconsistencies between overlapping legal systems that allowed informal networks of profit and power to proliferate. In particular, the interaction between Ottoman-era extraterritorial privileges and the country's convoluted colonial court system created lucrative opportunities for foreign subalterns as smugglers, drug dealers, and brothel owners. These informal economic activities helped such subjects navigate an economic and political system closely controlled by colonial officials and increasing contested by local elites. However, they also invoked the ire of both British and Egyptian authorities. For the nationalist intelligentsia, such subalterns served as evidence of colonial malfeasance, obstacles to ongoing state-building efforts, and ideal foreign foils for an emerging national subject. On the other hand, British authorities considered them threats to the colonial system and severed ties with these pernicious proteges by deporting or stripping them of consular protection. In examining the exploits of el-Hindi and his contemporaries, this work details the development of the informal economy in early twentieth century Egypt. It contends that this set of social relations and illicit practices emerged as a dialectical response to the structures of local governance and, in turn, shaped the country's economy and institutions throughout the interwar period.
  • Egypt is plagued by periodic and unrelenting sex panics–moments of crisis that magnify the practices of queer sexual communities while subjecting those communities to the naked power of state repression and social demonization. My paper explores the deep historical antecedents to these “intimate crises” that are anchored in nineteenth and twentieth-century social transformations which re-wrote the relationship between sexuality, the family, and the state. While, at face value, these forms of violence may appear to be unprecedented, as Egypt has no laws which explicitly criminalize homosexuality, this paper examines a socially productive categorical ambiguity between homosexuality and sex work in particular; an ambiguity anchored in Egypt’s legal apparatus for criminalizing “prostitution.” In doing so, it aims to address and move beyond the nominalism that has suffused the history of sexuality in the Middle East and beyond. The antecedents this paper is concerned with emerge firmly in the interwar period. As nationalist figures, including Islamists and feminists, rallied to achieve national independence, they found common cause in the demonization of “sexual deviants.” For these figures, their image of an independent nation necessitated a bourgeois form of sexual subjectivation. As such, one of the hallmarks of these decades was a struggle against licensed sex work, a practice that the British occupation and later capitulatory powers regulated for purposes of sexual “hygiene.” In this way, the nationalist bourgeoisie cultivated a moralizing form of anti-colonialism, one which viewed sexual subalterns as forces colluding with a putative moral decline that enabled the intrusions of colonialism. Thus, this paper considers the tensions and ambiguities surrounding the sexual politics of anti-colonialism, revealing the constitutive status of “sexual deviance” in the making of the postcolonial Egyptian state. Charting a queer history that digs beyond the silences and lacunae written into the hegemonic discourses of this period, this paper will also aim to reconstruct worlds occluded and obfuscated by the language of power and its historiographical instantiations.