Friday, 6 November 2020

Icons of modern Egyptian history

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Icons of modern Egyptian history

2020’s got us thinking about icons and their social influence: 2020 has given everyone time to reflect on the future, present and recent past, along with the role that leading figures play in directing social change — whether they’re rapid-fire tweeting presidents or football heroes.

And modern Egypt was undoubtedly shaped by towering figures who left their mark in almost every imaginable field: From science to art to economics, these icons used their individuality, tenacity and vision to create change, moving society in new directions and influencing countless members of the generations that followed them.

From Mahfouz to Mosharafa — who are the icons that really stand out for us? Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but Enterprise’s own selection of the iconic characters who played a significant part in Egypt’s modern history and whose personalities and achievements still have a hold on our collective imagination.

The creators of Egypt’s modern economy

Muhammad Ali: Progress or short-lived glory? The father of modern Egypt” is known for much more than streamlining the economy, but it’s certainly an area where he left a particular mark. Muhammad Ali Pasha managed to develop every sector of the economy beginning with agriculture and trade and ending with industry. Although the Albanian ruler established a state monopoly on farm land, further concentrating power at the top, he also successfully reformed a dysfunctional Ottoman system to turn large profits from exporting cotton, using the proceeds to develop domestic industry. The price for laying the foundations for Egypt’s modern economy was the racking up of huge debts to the British, ultimately paving the way for 70 years of colonial rule and damage to long-term prosperity.


Talaat Harb: Taking back control of Egypt’s financial system: Dominated by foreign powers, Egyptians in the early 20th century felt economically powerless and robbed of their identity. Many of the nation’s banks closed their doors when World War I broke out and were slow to pay back depositor money. Growing calls for financial and economic independence prompted Mohamed Talaat Harb Pasha — then a nationalist, industrialist and author of a book calling for the establishment of a national bank financed by Egyptians — to rise to the occasion. In 1920, Talaat Harb founded Banque Misr, with the idea of turning national savings into investments. He then went on to create over a dozen organizations, including Misr Cotton Ginning, Studio Misr, and what is now the country’s flag carrier EgyptAir.

Music: A legacy of national pride

Abdel Halim Hafez: The ‘Dark-Skinned Nightingale’ who poured his emotions into song: Singer, composer and actor Abdel Halim Hafez reached the zenith of his popularity in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but remains inextricably linked in many minds with both the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the 1952 revolution. Trained at the Arabic Music Institute, he is considered one of the great musicians of the Arab world. His career as a performer started with him playing the oboe at the Egyptian National Radio Station, training which proved instrumental in him learning how to control his breathing as a singer.

Hafez’s status as an icon was cemented by his ability to capture emotion through his voice, which wasn’t necessarily very strong but has been lauded for its feeling and described as “the sound of resilience”. He appeared in 16 musical films, which contained some of his most popular songs, including “Ahwak” (I Adore You), “Betloomoni Leh” (Why Do You Blame Me) and “Maw’ood” (Promised). He was also known as the voice of the 1952 revolution, thanks to his patriotic songs.


(xxLM) Umm Kalthoum: An unparalleled musical and cultural icon: Almost a century after her arrival in Cairo, Umm Kalthoum’s musical presence and legacy remain a ubiquitous part of the city. Recordings of her songs can be heard in taxis, shops, restaurants and public events, her voice forming a backdrop to Cairo’s bustle and guaranteed to provoke emotion in Egyptians irrespective of age and background.

Technical prowess and range contributed to her popularity: Umm Kalthoum had a powerful contralto voice that enabled her to perform to huge audiences without a microphone. Her vocal range was significant and she played with the scales and melodic phrases used in traditional Arabic music, to the delight of her audience. She was described by Maria Callas as “the incomparable voice.” Her career spanned 60 years, during which time she recorded about 300 songs, often exploring themes of love, loss and national identity. Some of these were based on complex Arabic poetry, while others embraced popular Egyptian music of the 1940s and 50s.

This diversity helped to fuel her broad appeal: Umm Kalthoum was beloved by both the elite and crowds of ordinary people throughout the region, and streets would regularly empty as they rushed home to hear her sing during weekly live broadcasts that ran for almost 40 years. She embodied pan-Arabism, and her strategic, mutually beneficial working relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser enabled both to promote their shared views about Arab unity and national identity. Umm Kalthoum’s global musical influence has also been profound, with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant once saying she had “blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.” Still, the artist known as “Egypt’s fourth pyramid” only performed once in Europe: at L’Olympia in Paris in 1967. She later said of this event, “No one can describe the extent of my pride when I went to Paris, stood in the middle of Europe, and raised my voice in the name of Egypt.”

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Your top 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in October:

  • A changing of the guard at CIB: CIB chairman and managing director Hisham Ezz Al Arab was forced to step down after the central bank alleged the bank had committed “gross violations” of regulations.
  • Private sector shows signs of life: Activity in Egypt’s non-oil private sector expanded for the first in 14 months in September following a pick up in consumer demand and rising business activity.
  • Bondholders <3 Egypt: Foreign holdings of EGP bonds have surged to USD 21.1 bn, more than doubling from USD 10.4 bn in May, Mohamed Hegazy, head of the Finance Ministry’s debt management unit, told Bloomberg.
  • The IMF is optimistic that covid hasn’t dealt too much damage to government finances: The budget deficit will significantly narrow next year and revenues will pick up again, the IMF said in its Fiscal Monitor Report during its annual meetings.
  • Green bonds go live in London: Egypt listed USD 750 mn of green bonds on the London Stock Exchange following the issuance at the end of September.

Iconic Egyptian artists

George Bahgoury: More than “the Picasso of Egypt”: Egyptian-French painter, sculptor, caricaturist and cartoonist George Bahgoury’s cubist-style paintings draw inspiration from Egyptian heritage and culture, and have led to comparisons with Picasso. His work has been extensively showcased in Cairo and internationally, including in the Louvre Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Amman, the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, and the Al Masar Gallery for Contemporary Art in Zamalek.

Bahgoury’s work is infused with his artistic philosophy and his political beliefs: His early work as a cartoonist combined political satire with promotion of Pan-Arabism, women’s rights and national reform.


Inji Aflatoun: An artist and a feminist activist, critics called Aflatoun a “pioneer of modern Egyptian art” for her surrealist and cubist paintings. She was one of the first women to study in the arts department of Cairo University and in 1945 she took part in the creation of the League of Young Women in Universities and Institutes which promoted left-wing, anti-colonial politics, and campaigned for gender equality. She was arrested in the 1950s before being released in 1963, where she continued her activism in the form of paintings under the “Art et Liberté” (Art and Freedom) movement.


Mahmoud Mokhtar: We’re sure everyone has come into contact with at least one piece of Mokhtar’s work: the Nahdet Misr sculpture in front of Cairo University. However, he started off small. Born to a peasant family, he would mold artwork out of mud near the Nile riverbanks before he moved to Cairo and joined the first class of École Égyptienne des Beaux-Arts school in 1908. He also moved to France to continue his studies and while there he created the original miniature Nahdet Misr statue which sat in a French gallery. It caught the eye of visiting Egyptian students and they returned to Egypt with a campaign to commission, fund, and erect a monumental version of the sculpture. Mokhtar was thrown into prominence in the Egyptian art scene and became known for combining Pharaonic imagery with a modern European sculptural aesthetic in his widely nationalistic works.

The Egyptian silver screen

Nour El Sherif: An artist with a message. With some 200 silver screen titles over the course of a four decade-long career — met with either critical acclaim or commercial success — Nour El Sherif, is no doubt one of Egypt’s most prized professional actors. El Sherif got his start after being cast in a supporting role in an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Kasr Al Shawk (Palace of Desire, 1967) shortly after graduating from the High Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1967. It wasn’t until 1972 when El Sherif starred in Makan Lil Hob (A Place for Love) — which takes place in the aftermath of the 1967 war — when he began etching his mark as an actor with a penchant for strong social commentary. His role in Al Karnak (1975), another Naguib Mahfouz adaptation, is one of the first major performances audiences receive of El Sherif in a highly dynamic and heart-wrenching portrayal of a young medical student, Ismail, who becomes wrongfully swept up by police following a protest. Ismail, who starts out the film as a cleanly shaven force of hope in state institutions among a group of Leftist activists, is brutally ground down by torture and emerges disallusioned and broken. The film is an incredibly painful display of cruelty that showcases El Sherif’s range early on in the young actor’s career. His 1991 biopic of the assassinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, which he both produced and starred in, shows El Sherif taking on one of his most politically charged roles. The film was banned from Egyptian theaters shortly after its release and drew criticism from regional governments for its negative portrayal of Arab states’ approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fierce convictions, pragmatically tempered: While El Sherif’s legacy can be looked at through his carefully considered political messaging in film, his more commercial achievements in television and complex interpersonal roles have made him a household name for many more. His lead in Lan Aiesh Fi Gelbab Aby (I Won't Live in My Father's Shadow, 1996) and the 2001 Ramadan hit Haj Metwali's Family generated widespread admiration from broader audiences in recent years. Appearances in several films by Youssef Chahine, most notably in the 1982 production Hadoota Masreya (An Egyptian Story) saw El Sherif lead a deeply moving take on the somewhat unhealthy pursuit of the director’s own success and is widely recognized as a cult classic in Egyptian film. Even if overlooked for bringing bitter social realities to the movie screen, his personable and often modest charm make him an icon in the field.


A romance icon with subversive undertones: Widely referred to as “Egypt’s Cinderella,” Soad Hosni was at the forefront of the romance genre in Egyptian film from the late fifties through her untimely death in 2001. The title, though, fails to capture the diversity in Hosni’s career that makes her a true cinematic icon. Hosni started performing for audiences at just three years old while singing for the children’s radio show Papa Sharo. Her transition to film came when she was cast as Naima, a young girl who chases love instead of wealth and her father’s wishes in Hassan wa Na’ima (1959). Hosni was often cast for the sort of roles that portrayed a youthful and almost naive innocence like those seen in Sagheera Ala El Hob (Too Young for Love, 1966) and Khally Ballak men ZouZou (Take Care of ZouZou, 1972). And while some of these earlier films drew on stereotypes that positioned female actors as objects of desire, they also shed light on harmful power dynamics in Egyptian relationships like in Al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30,1966) where Hosni’s character finds herself faced with crippling poverty on one hand and a life of domestic servitude to a wealthy man on the other.

More overt messaging: Hosni began appearing in films that more directly dealt with social and political issues in the 1970s, widening the actress’ scope well beyond the heartthrob she became known for during her first decade of work. Ala Man Notlik Al Rosas (Whom Should We Shoot? 1975) and Al-Karnak (1975) both saw Soad Hosni cast as part of an idealistic crew of college students who are brutally confronted with the reality of their surrounding political environment in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Her characters in both films are brave, highly educated, independent women that hold it together amid immense hostility. While undoubtedly one of the most widely adored actresses across the Arab world, Soad Hosni also challenged many longstanding notions about society and women both covertly and head on.

The power of the pen

The first Arab author to win a Nobel prize: Naguib Mahfouz’s name is synonymous with old Cairo, whose winding back-alleys he so faithfully captured in his iconic Cairo Trilogy (1956). Widely considered his magnum opus, the trilogy serves as a microcosm of Egyptian society, following a family not dissimilar from Mahfouz’s own across three generations, from the 1919 revolution to WWII. Born in the Al Gamaleya district in 1911, Mahfouz published his first novel in 1939, and would publish forty more along with short story collections, screenplays, stage-plays, and articles throughout his distinguished career.

Father of the Arab novel: A civil servant by profession, Mahfouz served in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, as director of the Censorship Bureau, as consultant to the Ministry of Culture, and as head of the National Film Board. All the while, Mahfouz kept writing, preoccupied with matters perhaps considered unusually existential for a civil servant; time, progress, and the tension between the individual and society, with a strong political undertone running throughout all his novels. His allegorical Children of the Alley (1959, alternately known as Children of Gebelawi) drew the ire of those who objected to the character of Gebelawi symbolizing God, and motivated an assassination attempt in 1994 which left Mahfouz with life-long injuries. The book was banned from publication in Egypt until 2006, the year of Mahfouz’s death aged 94. Widely considered the father of modern Arabic literature, Mahfouz’s portrayal of Cairo — old and new — put the city firmly on the map of world literature, and popularized the now ubiquitous, but originally European, form of the novel in the Arab speaking world. He was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature in 1988, becoming the first Arab author to receive the distinction.


The Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World: Doctor, psychiatrist, activist, feminist; Nawal El Saadawi wears many hats. Born in Qalyubia in 1931, Saadawi studied medicine and was a practicing doctor throughout most of her career, an experience which allowed her to connect the dots between issues of class, imperialism, and patriarchy which contributed to her female patients’ psychological and physical ailments. Of her more than 50 works, her most famous non-fiction book is perhaps Woman and Sex (1972) — considered a seminal text of second-wave feminism — in which she frankly tackles violence against women’s bodies, particularly female genital mutilation.

A truly radical feminist: Throughout much of her narrative storytelling — which is either loosely based on her own life or overt autobiography — Saadawi addresses women’s health, religion and sexuality head on. Never one to mince words, she was imprisoned for a year in 1981 after criticizing then-president Anwar El Sadat’s policies, an experience that forms the basis of one of her best-known biographical works, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986). Similarly, her most popular novel in translation Woman at Point Zero also takes place in a prison as an inmate recounts the familial abuse and societal oppression that drove her to commit murder. Saadawi’s early candor in addressing women’s issues that had largely been kept in the shadows — as well as her centering of her female characters’ experiences in how her stories were told — paved the way for contemporary feminist writers and thinkers, who are no doubt indebted to Saadawi’s progressive, if not always palatable views. As for her feminist credentials, Saadawi dislikes being compared to Beauvoir, proclaiming in a 2018 interview: “I’m much more radical than her.”

Einsteins of Egypt

Mourned by Einstein: Theoretical physicist, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Cairo, contributor to quantum theory and the theory of relativity, Ali Moustafa Mosharafa is still considered one of the greatest Egyptian scientists in history. Born in 1898 in Damietta, Moshrafa obtained his primary certificate in 1910 ranking first nationwide – and only four years later, he was awarded his Baccalaureate in 1914, becoming the youngest student at that time. His excellent work motivated the Education Ministry to send him to England where he obtained BSc from the University of Nottingham before completing a PhD from King's College London. In 1924 Mosharafa was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science to become the first Egyptian and only the 11th scientist to ever obtain this degree. He went on to publish 25 papers about quantum theory, the theory of relativity, and the relation between radiation and matter. Mosharafa’s death in 1950 was not only shocking to the Egyptian scientific community but also Einstein himself, who went to publish an eulogy as one of the best scientists in physics.

Egypt’s first female nuclear scientist: Around the same time, Sameera Moussa became the first Egyptian woman to both earn a PhD in atomic radiation. Moussa dedicated her career to harnessing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and making it widely available to treat medical conditions. She was the brains behind an equation that enabled scientists to make medical nuclear technologies, such as X-rays, cheaper. In 1952 her life was tragically cut short when at the age of 35 she was killed in a car accident, which some regard as an assassination by Mossad agents determined to prevent Egypt from acquiring nuclear tech. She received posthumous recognition from the Egyptian army, which awarded her the Order of Merit for Science and Art in 1953.

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