INTERVIEW: The claim that the French campaign was a turning point for Egypt is part of colonial mythology- Professor Gran
Ashraf Amin , Thursday 25 May 2023
Professor of Modern Egyptian History at Temple University, USA, Peter Gran, talk to Ahram Online about the impact of colonial ideas on western historians' analysis of Modern Egypt and the need to decolonize knowledge and dismantle the prevailing postcolonial thought.
Despite the signs of fatigue due to his long travel to Cairo, Peter Gran, Professor of Modern Egyptian History at Temple University, USA, was keen to conduct this interview. With fluent Arabic, Professor Gran talked about his new research projects, his recent book, and his debates with western historians on analyzing the history of Modern Egypt. He lived in Egypt for five years, starting in 1968, when he was preparing his doctoral dissertation on Sheikh Hassan Al-Attar, Sheikh Al-Azhar, and one of the most enlightened and well-versed scholars in arts and literature, in addition to his interest in applied sciences. Over the past decades, Professor Gran visited Egypt several times and made friends with intellectuals and journalists.
Ahram Online: Would you tell us about the purpose of your current visit to Egypt?
Peter Gran: I am very interested in promoting research and research projects related to the modern history of Egypt. Perhaps I consider myself a specialist in historical sociology, which focuses on the development of societies throughout history and how social structures are formed from organizations and institutions and their impact on society.
Unfortunately, this speciality is very weak and almost doesn't exist in the US, and the reason for this is that American society in general does not have a fundamental historical role, and perhaps for this reason, historical sociology is a marginal field of research, unlike sociology or history. Personally, I consider this field very important and inspiring many new ideas for researchers.
AO: What research projects are you currently conducting?
PG: I am currently looking for organizations to fund my research project on the late thinker Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad and his relationship and influence on Egyptian society, specifically in Upper Egypt. I am also finishing a draft of my new book, which deals with the social changes of migrant workers, the group working in Upper Egypt, specifically in the Assiut governorate, and the impact of the central decisions of Cairo and the pattern of governance on this social group.
I made sure that the study covers a long historical period, from the era of Khedive Ismail until the end of the era of the late President Anwar Sadat in 1981. I hope that the book will be published in the US next year, and that the Arabic translation will follow. Otherwise, the National Center for Translation has recently published the Arabic translation of my latest book, The Persistence of Orientalism: Anglo-American Historians and Modern Egypt.
AO: Can you tell us about your latest book and the most important ideas it deals with?
PG: This book discusses the postcolonial (colonial) ideas that were established by many Western writers and historians during the years of the British colonization of Egypt. Unfortunately, these ideas are still inherited among academics, so that some political analysts currently in the US adopt ideas about Egypt that are very similar to what Lord Earl Cromer dealt with in Modern Egypt which was published in 1908 without them having read the book, as if we were living the same culture and thought of the colonial period.
Perhaps it is necessary to emphasize that Cromer's book and his view as a colonizer of Egypt had an impact on the policy of royal rule and the family of Muhammad Ali in Egypt until the era of King Fuad, which believes that the rule and administration of the Egyptian state should resemble the history of the rule of ancient Pharaonic Egypt.
Despite the movements of liberation, independence and the national state that Egypt witnessed, starting with the 1919 revolution and what followed in the ensuing years and decades, the growth of the movement and the 1952 revolution, Western historians did not care to read and study that stage and talk about claims of freedom and independence. On the contrary, they focused on discussing the issue of modernity.
Until now the independence and liberation movements that Egypt went through did not receive sufficient attention and study from Western historians, and the reason for this is the dominance of the colonial and postcolonial school of thought among Western researchers.
AO: Can you describe for us academic discussions of postcolonial ideas?
PG: As I explained, I envisage that there will be research and academic criticism of colonial ideas, especially in the research community in the US and all those who adopt the colonial approach to knowledge. By comparing the number of Western studies that discuss and analyze colonial and postcolonial ideas in African, Latin American and Indian countries, we find that they are many and varied.
On the other hand, we find that such discussions and research marginal when it comes to studying the history of Egypt. On the contrary, there is almost a rejection and disregard for writing, and perhaps a hatred of Egyptian nationalism, even in Western academic circles.
However, it is necessary here to refer to the efforts of the Egyptian historian Shafiq Ghorbal, Professor of Modern History, who had great contributions, perhaps the most important of which is his book on the history of the Egyptian-British negotiations for independence, in addition to his efforts to confront colonial ideas.
AO: How do you see the extent of interest in historical studies by Western academic circles?
PG: Indeed, there has been an onslaught over the last two decades against historical studies in Western academic circles. For example, when studying social conditions in some countries, such as Egypt, there is a strong emphasis on focusing on the current situation of some societal groups, such as women or marginalized groups, without there being a reading to understand the historical sequence and the link between the past and the present.
The idea is that the past has a great impact on the present, and that is why most Western research centres that conduct such social studies are in fact succumbing to colonial and postcolonial ideas and discourse without reading and criticizing those old ideas, and this matter is very disturbing, especially in Western research centres.
AO: What is your comment on the ideas that promote that French and British colonialism saved Egypt from stagnation?
PG: This is colonial thought, and the response to that is that technology exists in the world, and whenever there is a desire and political will for rulers, it can be learned, transferred, or even stolen.
As we learned from history books, when the Mamluks needed technology, they sought the help of Greek scholars and benefited from them to develop the army.
During the reign of Muhammad Ali, he was keen to transfer knowledge and technology to the army and all sectors of the country.
What I want to point out is that Egypt did not witness intellectual stagnation or slavery like other countries. During my study of the history of Sheikh Hassan Al-Attar, I found that in that period there was interest in translations, production, and circulation of ideas and knowledge. Hence the propaganda and claim that the French campaign was a turning point for Egypt is in fact part of colonial mythology.
AO: What are your impressions of the changes that Egypt has witnessed over the past decades?
PG: When I came to Egypt in the late 60s, Egypt was like many countries. Anyone who follows the political history of Egypt can observe the growth of the middle class since the 1919 revolution until the end of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's rule.
With President Sadat assuming power, a major shift occurred in the middle class as a result of privatization policies. In fact, that period witnessed the same transformations that affected the middle class in the US.
Thus, the decline of the social contract of the state was a frequent scene in Egypt and many countries of the world, which led, for example, to changes in society through the adoption of existential and non-religious ideas. All these manifestations were the result of the withdrawal of states from the responsibilities and concerns of society and the erosion of the middle class to varying degrees.
AO: How did these variables affect the studies of historical sociology?
PG: As a university professor, I noticed that there is a growing interest by Western research centres in conducting marginal social studies without focusing on the historical aspect or linking the present and the past.
In addition, I've noticed that researchers in the US do not dare, for example, to publish studies on women's rights in the US because they will not find funding and support for such research, or even job opportunities as researchers in the field.
By directing their research on women's rights in Egypt and monitoring the suffering that, in fact, represents the suffering of women in the US, who currently, for example, do not have the right to abortion and suffer from the absence of justice in obtaining a fair wage in many jobs compared to men and other matters. In short, Egypt is part of who we are as an American community and that is one of the main points I discuss in my latest book.
AO: Would you explain how Egypt is part of the American and Western identity?
PG: Egypt, as we believe, is where the west began, that is linked to the migration of Moses and his people from Egypt, according to what was mentioned in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament.
Therefore, you find that there are religious ideas that have a profound impact on current American culture, and words such as exodus, barren lands, and wilderness, which were mentioned in the Torah, have deep roots and influence in American thought.
Likewise, the migrations of the founding fathers of America and during the stages of their formation of settlements in New England in the US, we find that they resemble themselves in the arid and wild lands, as was the case for the people of Moses.
Accordingly, there is concern in American thought that Egypt's orientations may change. What intellectuals want is for Egypt to be as it was mentioned in the Bible. And whenever Egypt has a nationalist orientation, as was the case during the period of the political leader like Ahmed Orabi, Saad Zaghloul, Abdel Nasser, or any rulers who had independent policies, this orientation arouses anger and resentment in the US, because what is required is that Egypt depends on the West as the leaders understand it, from the stories of Holy books, which is that Egypt is in a stage of decline and stagnation, and it can only progress when the West and colonial thought intervene.
For all of the above, Western academics glorify the French occupation of Egypt and the contributions of Lord Cromer's colonial thought. If you review his book Modern Egypt, you will find him talking on the first pages about the complete failure of Khedive Ismail and how the British presence contributed to saving Egypt.
And if you follow the colonial history of the UK and the US, you will find that historians always provide historical justifications for brutal acts such as slavery, murder, extermination, and unjust laws against women. For Anglo-American thought, that victorious group is the promoter of Western thought in the world, and it is the one that promotes the rise and dominance of the West.
For all of the above, I see that the prevailing postcolonial thought, its claims, and its description of Egypt, as I mentioned in religious books, is a thought that impedes the presentation of new visions and readings of history, and what I do in terms of research and studies is to dismantle this postcolonial thought.
Therefore, what I recommend in my book is that there be a re-reading and definition of American society. We in the US are not only a Western society, but rather a mixture of multiple cultures between Indians, Asians, Africans, and Europeans. This ethnic and cultural diversity is the reality of American society, and therefore we are not a Western society as it is. It was promoted during the colonial eras, and therefore if we redefine the identity of American society, we will, accordingly, accept the concepts of independence and the modern history of Egypt, not just the ancient history of Pharaonic Egypt.
AO: What helped you reach those ideas and intellectual convictions?
PG: In fact, I had the great opportunity to live in Egypt for years and to analyze the ideas and books of Western historians, as well as to get acquainted with Egyptian and Arab thought and heritage.
What I concluded is that the claims of colonial and postcolonial thought did not deepen the understanding of modern Egyptian heritage and thought.
Personally, there are many books I have read over the years by British historians about Egypt, which I later discovered lack the depth and true understanding of Egyptian society and even the culture of the Middle East and the Arab world. For example, the Scottish historian Hamilton A.R. Gibb. If you read his books, you will be surprised that his ideas are colonial and superficial. On the Islamic religion, where he describes it as the religion of "Mohammedanism", and when you read it, you discover that it does not understand anything about Islam, and its reading is superficial and misleading.
Accordingly, it was confirmed to me that many historians and current researchers repeat what was mentioned in the old books without reviewing or even experiencing and evaluating those ideas that were written during the colonial era.
All of this prompted me to produce studies to decolonize knowledge of this approach. There are a number of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians in Britain who support this approach and have studied it in some African countries and India. I believe that it is necessary to increase research in reviewing and dismantling colonial ideas associated with Egypt and the Arab world.
AO: Are there historians in the US who share your view?
PG: Yes, of course, there are historians who agree with my vision, such as the late Palestinian American historian Dr. Zeinab Abul-Magd, professor of modern history of the Middle East at Oberlin College, in addition to many researchers of Arab origins who have academic writings and contributions to American universities and research centres.
There is also a tendency to support the new research ideas of historians and to review and dismantle colonial ideas, which we hope will receive attention in order to have better readings about the current situation of the world and the relationship of history with the problems of the present.
-- Sent from my Linux system.