On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt

On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt

On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt

On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt


In this pioneering history of transportation and communication in the modern Middle East, On Barak argues that contrary to accepted wisdom technological modernity in Egypt did not drive a sense of time focused on standardization only. Surprisingly, the introduction of the steamer, railway, telegraph, tramway, and telephone in colonial Egypt actually triggered the development of unique timekeeping practices that resignified and subverted the typical modernist infatuation with expediency and promptness. These countertempos, predicated on uneasiness over "dehumanizing" European standards of efficiency, sprang from and contributed to non-linear modes of arranging time.

Barak shows how these countertempos formed and developed with each new technological innovation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contributing to a particularly Egyptian sense of time that extends into the present day, exerting influence over contemporary political language in the Arab world. The universal notion of a modern mechanical standard time and the deviations supposedly characterizing non-Western settings "from time immemorial," On Time provocatively argues, were in fact mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing.


One afternoon in the summer of 2006, during my research in Cairo, I headed to the cinema with two Italian friends. Before entering the theater, we rushed to buy sandwiches from a nearby kofta place. “How long will it take?” asked one of my friends in heavily accented Arabic. “We have a film to catch.” “Only five minutes,” said the kiosk owner as he started throwing meat on the grill. Then he added, “Don’t worry, five minutes American time, not Egyptian time [waʾt maṣrī].”

The kofta maker responded to what he recognized as the typical expectations of foreigners about Egyptian punctuality, reproduced in films and tourist guidebooks and endorsed by many Egyptians too. As the popular Rough Guide to Egypt puts it, “Time in Egypt is a more elastic concept than Westerners are used to. in practice, ‘five minutes’ often means an hour or more; bahdeen (‘later’) the next day; and bukkra (‘tomorrow’) an indefinite wait for something that may never happen.”

The designation “in five minutes” (baʿd khams daʾāyiʾ) may refer to an exact duration of clock time or may denote a context-specific interval, “a little while.” the sandwich vendor wanted to reassure us that the food would be prepared promptly. His comment demonstrates that punctuality entails articulating a spectrum of approximations, one of which is decreed to be standard while the rest become substandard. “Egyptian time” can be evoked only in comparison (here to “American time” or to “what Westerners are used to”). This book explores the colonial origins of this comparison, its productive powers, the history of its automatic evocation as a binary opposition, and its specific hierarchy: how did “Western time” come to be associated with standard clock time and “Egyptian time” with a substandard approximation?

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