Education in Modern Egypt (RLE Egypt): Ideals and Realities (Routledge Library Editions: Egypt)

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Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today

The Arab-Jewish revolt in British Palestine which took place that same year further fuelled anti-Jewish feelings all over the Middle East and in Egypt and, as a reaction to that, contributed to the diffusion of Zionism among Jews. Considering all this, it is not surprising that Maurice Fargeon decided to publish two books on the history of Egyptian Jews precisely then. Les juifs en Egypte was the first comprehensive study dedicated to the history of Egyptian Jews written according to the principles of modern historiographical prose.

Further, following a linguistic theory which had been formulated already in the Hebrew Characters Derived From Hieroglyphics of the English John Lamb and gained great success over the course of the nineteenth century, he believed the Hebrew alphabet to have originated from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Additionally, Fargeon connected modern Egypt to the Pharaonic era: the true cradle of the eternal Egyptian nation.

According to this movement, Egypt had always had a unique national identity that since the time of the Pharaohs distinguished it from its neighbouring countries. Fargeon was one among many intellectuals and historians that continued to elaborate ways to interpret the Egyptian past, so as to give their readers present-oriented and articulated lessons of history. Fargeon historicized some of the most controversial aspects of the history of Egyptian Jews, like the fact that many of them did not have Egyptian but foreign, often European, nationality.

And then, who exactly were Egyptian Jews? As Hart demonstrated, starting from the mid-nineteenth century the ideas of Jews as the founders of modern science, of Jewish dietary laws as inspired by hygienic and salutary norms, and finally of Moses as the forerunner of modern doctors and biologists, gained popularity among many Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals and scientists, first in Central Europe and in the US.

Such intellectual hybridization is in fact a common feature of the beginnings of many non-European historiographies, and more generally of the processes of modernization undergone by colonial and semi-colonial countries. Among the renowned Jewish doctors of medieval Egypt was Maimonides Fargeon indicated two physicians, the Italian Elia Rossi bey and the Russian Serge Voronoff , as the initiators of a modern genealogy of Jewish doctors.

The fact that neither of them was strictly speaking an Egyptian Jew did not seem to bother him. The book title itself stressed how these doctors had decided to work for the sake [ au service ] of the Egyptian nation and its advancement. As Fargeon was aware that Zionism only interested a minority among Egyptian Jews, he opted for a vague blending of Egyptianness and Jewishness. In other words, the author proposed to his reader quite neutral models of conduct that explained how to be at the same time good Jews and loyal Egyptians.

With the exception of thirteen doctors actually born in Egypt eight in Cairo, three in Alexandria, and two in Tantah , all the others were born in European countries. Most of them were Russian, Eastern European seventeen doctors or German Jews eight doctors who had migrated to Egypt in the early twentieth century. Given the differences in terms of geographical origin, language, academic background, and political orientation, it is difficult to consider these doctors as members of a coherent national professional category. Furthermore, some worked for Egyptian hospitals, some for foreign ones, and many of them had come to Egypt only as a consequence of social and political circumstances and not because of an innate affection for the Egyptian nation.

For instance Dr. The presence of foreign professionals — doctors, but also architects, engineers, and archaeologists — was in many respects a common feature of colonial and monarchical Egypt. They were a foundational part of urban Egypt, that — especially before and the end of the system of the Capitulations — embodied a sort of Mediterranean borderland , which had not yet defined its national identity and ethno-cultural boundaries in a precise way.

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Elia Rossi bey was perhaps the quintessential example of how a foreign doctor could in a few decades become local , thanks to his professional activities and, last but not least, marriage alliances. Rossi was born in Ferrara from an Italian Jewish family. His social position was further strengthened by the marriage of his daughter Ida with Moise Cattaoui — the paternal uncle of the above-cited Joseph. Other doctors — caught in the midst of the European anti-Semitic politics of the interwar period — had instead chosen Egypt as the ultimate homeland where they could live a peaceful Jewish life.

This was the case of the renowned gynaecologist Carlo Pinto, an Italian national born in Alexandria in The special connection between Egypt and the People of Israel thus extended from the time of Moses to that of King Faruq, and highlighted how this country was and had always been a place where the Jews lived happily. His books can be interpreted as a means to incline Egyptian Jews towards an understanding of history not in terms of biblical generations and tales, but as a modern field of study that could help to clarify their identity and their national status.

On the other hand, by putting together very different ideologies and topics, and by mixing historical data with more disputable events and narrations, the books of Fargeon epitomized the ambiguous socio-cultural and national status in which many Egyptian Jews lived in the monarchical period.


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In this essay, I have reconstructed the relation between Jews and the study of history during the Egyptian constitutional monarchy. In the s, a renowned Cairo Jewish journalist and Zionist sympathizer, Maurice Fargeon, proposed instead a more clearly Jewish interpretation of the Egyptian Jewish past, which underlined the special connections that the Jews had with Egypt and its rulers.

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Initially, history was for the Jews a way for taking part in the cultural life of monarchical Egypt and an intellectual field thanks to which they could publicly display their status in the country. The authors and books that I have cited can be considered as the most visible expressions of a largely shared memory that aimed at connecting the Jews to Egypt, at a time when this nation could still be imagined in multiple and shifting ways. Furthermore, they are texts that also point out the crucial place that Egypt and its enduring presence in world history had for many early twentieth century non-Egyptian intellectuals and historians, which in turn influenced their Egyptian counterparts.

All this continued up until the s, when more rigid and less inclusive definitions of Egypt and of Egyptianness slowly emerged, in which very little, if any, space for the Jews and all other non-Muslim minorities was left. From an Egyptian point of view, texts such as those cited above nowadays are nothing but a marginal and distant project that cannot be contained anymore within the national historiographical canon.

It was instead one of the ideas along which a modern and secular Egyptian national identity and its urban bourgeoisie could be envisioned. Such re-writing of Egyptian Jewish history can therefore mainly be read as part of a complex cultural and emotional imaginary, where the Jews could find traces of their enduring, proud presence in the history of Egypt, connecting the Pharaonic era to the constitutional monarchy and the prophet Moses to King Faruq.

His research interests are the cultural and gender history of the modern Middle East — with a special focus on Egypt and Israel — and Israeli literature by Jews from Arab countries. How to quote this article: Dario Miccoli, "Moses and Faruq. Contested Narratives of a Shared Past, eds. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Contested Narratives of a Shared Past. Sharing and Unsharing Memories. Memories, Myths and Representations of a Contested Land. Moses and Faruq. Miscellanea Holocaust Research and Archives in the Digital Age.

Stefan Pfeiffer

Holocaust Intersections in 21st-Century Europe. The Great War. Portrait of Italian Jewish Life ss. It is not the individual image that carries meaning but the way images are, literally, strung together to form a visual repertoire of the body horizon. This frees seals and amulets from being a representation of formalized religion in rural Egypt. People simply united available resources on the body for protection. They may have attributed meaning to things without knowledge of the meaning that Egyptologists reconstruct for individual images on the basis of royal culture.

An Archaeological Reconstruction

Perhaps one can go a step further from here. I have portrayed the body horizon as something typical of villages. It certainly plays an important role beyond small-scale communities, but I imagine the village as a context where it is particularly overt. Kemp : 20 argues that the pharaonic mindset has never ceased to operate within the village horizon. Similarly, Lehner sees the household as the social model pervading the organization of life in Egypt. If funerary culture is understood as an epitome of the body horizon typical of life in small-scale communities, these comments contribute to explaining why funerary culture has become so dominant in ancient Egypt.

I return to this point in the following section. I have paid little attention to diachronic change so far. However, for the Egyptian archaeologist, chronological variability is a major axis for arranging differences in the evidence that afford explanation of something previously not recognized or taken for granted. As such, it is similar to the importance of cultural variability for social anthropologists.

Egyptian temples are a good case in point. Excavations since the s show that temples developed only over time into the monumental structures that archaeologists had previously recognized.

Education problems in Egypt

Kemp : — framed Egyptian temple development with reference to a model proposed by social anthropologist Robert Redfield. A wider discussion of the model brings together some of the thoughts developed earlier and reveals the potential and difficulties arising from interdisciplinary borrowing. Redfield observed Great and Little Traditions among the s peasants of Mexico.

Tambiah and Goody : 22—32, with ancient Egyptian example argued that writing can lead to the accumulation of conflicting traditions over time and result in the Great Tradition becoming ambiguous. Stewart introduced the nature of institutions maintaining traditions. He claimed that the Orthodox Church in modern Greece would accept alien elements as long as its core tenets were not threatened. Outside analyzers would identify pagan survivals in a syncretized religion in which practitioners see the various elements of their belief system cohering sufficiently on a synchronic level.

Little Traditions, he says, are characterized by personal experience, local settings, and individual events presented in oral narratives lost in the historical record. He points out that practices of high-status, urban groups could be at variance with the Great Tradition, and he thus distinguishes between tradition and how people use it.

Redfield was a professor of anthropology in Chicago until He might have met in person Assyriologist Leo Oppenheim who had fled Nazi Austria and, in Chicago, established close relationships with the anthropology department. Oppenheim : 12, 22 argued that the stream of written tradition as reflected in learned literature needed to be set against noncanonical writings, such as letters. Kemp : — emphasizes that high cultures across the world are stylistically distinctive, originate in courts, and succumb folk culture. Folk culture, in contrast, often remains unchanged and can oppose high culture.

Kemp is one of the few Egyptologists who give empirical examples of Little Traditions and remarks that they usually surface in the archaeological record only after having transformed in the patronizing channels of high culture. Trigger : — maintains that only the ruling classes are innovative.

Ordinary people, he assumes, would tend to reproduce passively the little harmonized customs of more ancient times, absorbing only from time to time elite innovations. Maisels : — argues that Great Traditions are a corollary of social evolution and legitimated across society by virtue of universalization and parochialization.

He uses the Egyptian myth of the Ennead of Heliopolis as an example but does not explain how it reflects these processes. Richards : 90 equates Great Tradition with state cult and Little Traditions with domestic religion. Frankfurter : 34, 87—98; see also Dijkstra, : 1—42 focuses on the institutional transformation of local cults from pharaonic into Christian times. He acknowledges interaction between Great and Little Traditions, the former being institutionally manifested in national temples, the latter in local shrines.

This review shows that the model does not translate unequivocally into the Egyptian evidence.

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Some arguments, such as the passiveness of ordinary people and the self-referential nature of elite culture, have already been discussed in earlier sections of this article. Most Egyptologists take the systemic view of the outside analyzer and give little thought as to how Little Traditions can be retrieved from the record as a context for Great Traditions. Great Traditions tend to be presented as a well-integrated whole and are interpreted as a reflection of power. The difference between people, objects, and ideas is not clearly articulated, thus overlooking that both elites and other social groups interacted with Great and Little Traditions even if in different ways.


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