Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

An Incurable Past: Nasser's Egypt Then and Now

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

An Incurable Past: Nasser's Egypt Then and Now

Article excerpt

AN INCURABLE PAST: NASSER'S EGYPT THEN AND NOW Mériam Belli Gainesv il le: University Press of Florida, 2013 (xii + 296 pages, bibliography, index, figures, tables) $74.95 (cloth)

In stark contrast to colleagues who work on the rule of Muhammad 'Ali Pasha and his successors, historians who focus on the Nasser period in Egyptian history are hobbled by the absence of substantial and accessible government archives. Indeed, while the past twenty years have witnessed a veritable renaissance of inquiry into, and interpretation of, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-due in no small part to a careful excavation of documents at the Egyptian National Archives, or Dar al-Watha'iq-pathbreaking analyses of the Nasser years have remained far fewer in number.

This is not to say, however, that critical exploration of the 1950s and 1960s is impracticable. What historians of these years lack in terms of government archives, they can make up for in abundance through the use of the voluminous popular culture materials dating to this period.

This task is, in part, what Mériam Belli sets before herself in her book, An Incurable Past: Nasser's Egypt Then and Now. But only in part, for this book is no conventional history of the Nasser years. Indeed, one could well be forgiven for thinking, on examining the work, that it is not history at all, but ethnography. Without question, the book draws inspiration as much from anthropology as from history, for its central concern is not solely the past, but the work that the past performs in the present. Given how frequently Nasser and the years of his rule are invoked in discussions of Egyptian politics-not least since the 2011 revolution-Belli seeks to grasp how and why these invocations are used.

Drawing upon Bakhtin, Belli frames the study in terms of "historical utterances" dating to the 1950s and 1960s. In shunning references to memory or commemoration, she seeks to emphasize "the wide sphere of 'human communications and activity' that takes history for object" (9). Likewise privileged in Belli's notion of historical utterances are the ways in which history is appropriated and articulated in everyday life-the vernacular as opposed to elite, government, or media appropriations and articulations. As a result, this project ultimately entails an exploration not simply of the Nasser years themselves, but of the traces of those years that have consistently emerged in Egyptians' lives since that time.

What this project demands in terms of sources is both the popular culture materials mentioned above and detailed interviews with a wide range of Egyptians reflecting upon how interpretations of these materials have changed over time. In order to focus the study, Belli has selected three experiences of the Nasser period that have taken on varied connotations through the years: the experience of the Nasserist educational system, the experience of the effigy-burning festival haraq al-limby in Port Said, and the experience of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Zaytun.

In her exposition of Nasserist schooling, Belli is concerned with exposing a commonplace assumption as a myth-namely, that the 1952 revolution ushered in an era of free and universal education. She adopts two principal tacks to achieve this aim: first, to illustrate that, in fact, the origins of the idea of free and universal education lay not in the Nasser period, but rather in the preceding liberal period; and second, to expose the manifold failures of the education system that emerged under the Egyptian republic, particularly in cultivating a civic ethos among Egyptians. Through a careful review of the textbooks mandated by the state since the 1952 revolution, Belli charts how successive leaders have obscured the accomplishments of their predecessors, frequently by simple omission. This haphazard approach to textbook development has resulted in a civics education that is incoherent at best.

From the broad experience of Nasserist schooling, Belli moves into a fascinating case study of haraq al-limby, the burning of effigies once common at festival times in the cities of the Suez Canal zone. …

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