Last semester, spring 2017, I taught a class at Harvard on Arabic paleography and archival skills. Each week, we’d read a couple of Arabic, hand-written archival documents that I had culled from the Egyptian National Archives. The documents were mostly from the 19th century, although some dated from the 16th and 17th centuries. I’d have the documents transcribed and the quaint and odd words explained in advance. On their part, the students were supposed to a. translate the document, and b. practice reading it at home and be prepared to read it in class from the original, hand-written text.
The documents ranged from administrative correspondence to police and court records of criminal cases.
It was one of the better courses I have ever taught, and I, for one, had a blast with these excellent students. In the final week, I asked them if they would like to write something creative, e.g. a play or a short story, using one of the documents we’d read throughout the semester. This was a completely voluntary exercise that had no bearing whatsoever on their final grades. Five of the eight students responded, and I took their permission to publish their “reading” here, together with a short bio (written by each author).
Below is the third of these pieces. It is in fact two rare Arabic orders from 1835 issued by Mehmed Ali Pasha to district overseers in the Province of Daqahliyya — rare because he seldom issued orders in Arabic. Given that the recipients of this order knew only Arabic and would not understand the Pasha’s Turkish, he had the order translated into Arabic for the overseers to understand, and “hear” his menacing threats.
The original document comes first, followed by a transcription, then a translation, a short bio of the student, and finally, the icing on the cake: the student’s own “reading” of the document.
صدر أوامر كرام إلى نظار أقسام الدقهلية
عدد ٩ خلاف فودة حبيب
١. أنه صار منظورنا جرنال المكالمة الذي صارة بينكم وبين مديركم في ١٩ الماضي حرفا بحرف وكامل ما أبيدتوه (؟) من المحاولاة وعدم الاستقامة فالأجوبة المعطية
٢. منكم بخصوص توريد القطن والأرز وأنفار الجهادية والمسلي والنقدية ومهمات القناطر وعن حرة ثمانية عشر ألف فدان من المرتب لزراعة الأصناف في تاريخه جميعهم
٣. محروة مرة واحدة مع أنه كشف عما حرة في مسل هذا الأوان في العام الماضي توجد مبالغ حرة وبرش أربعة أوجه وصار الزراعة في صنف
٤. القطن ومن المعلوم أنه لا تكون الزراعة إلا من بعد تمام حرت الأراضي وكيف الآن يصير منكم التأخير في هذا العام فيكل الأشيا وتعطي
٥. أجوبه إلى المدير من باب الاستخلاص وفك مجلس فقط لا بالعمل كما استبان لنا منك مرارا فأنا أدخلتك في سلك الاعتبار
٦. وشرفتك وجعلتك حاكم ورفعت من عليك ضرب النبوة فأنت يا مزور يا ملعون ما تركت الملاعبة وقصدك عطل
٧. مصلحتي وملت بطبعك إلى ضرب النبوة على راسك كما هو عادتك الذي خلقة فيها من قديم الزمان فبحيث أفعالك هذا صارة
٨. موجبة كذلك فقد كتبت إلى مديرك بأن من الآن وصاعد إذا حصل منك تأخير في أدنا مصلحة ولم تركت طرق التزوير
٩. فيضربك بالنبوة لما يكسر وسطك وهلدي (؟) كل مرة أما إذا كان لم يطلع في يدك براح المصلحة فتعرض لي لأجل أوجه من ينظر تشهيل
١٠ مصلحتي عوظك وانت ترجع في زمرة الفلاحين يا خنزير يكون معلومك كينار أنه تقدم رفعة من عليك
١١. ضرب النبوة وخمنت أن فيك إنسانية ومن حيث أن فيك ذالك فكتبت لمديرك في هذه المرة يضربك بالنبوة فإن سلكت في طريق
١٢. الاستقامة وبراح المصلحة كان بهى وإن لم سلكت فأعزلك من النظارة بعد الضرب شل (؟) فودة حبيب
تابع يوم الاثنين ٥ ن سنة ١٢٥٠
صدر أوامر كريمة إلى نظار أقاسم الدقهلية
عدد ١٠ منها عدد ٢ دمياط وفارسكور
باقي عدد ٨
١. أنه صار منظوري الجرنال المحتوي على ما ورد من الأنفار المطلوبين للجهادية والباقي منهم وعن الأسئلة والأجوبة التي صارة بينكم
٢. مع خليل أفندي مديركم بخصوص ذلك وصار معلومي أنكم بتتعللوا بقبول البعض من الأنفار أنه موجب إلى التأخير والحال إني لما
٣. وزعت هذه الأنفار من ؟؟؟ كنتم أعطيتوني جواب بارح وتعهدوا بأن لم يصير تأخير وحيث أنكم تعلموا وتفهموا أن الأنفار
٤. الذي توزعة بواقي (؟) نظارتكم هي ممكن غلافها في أي وقت فيا هل ترى في وقت التعهد منكم كانوا ؟؟؟ وعهدتوا بتوريدهم بأقرب
٥. وقت من غير إعمال مقايسة والآن بتحاولوا في طريق التزاوير ثم منمدة سبعة وانتم بتدعودوا في مصلحت ضبط الأنفار وتعملوا طيب
٦. الأنفار الذي تقبل والذي لم تقبل وحيث أن الحال هذا المنوال فقد اتضح لنا أن ضبطكم الناس العواجز وإرسالكم إياهم
٧. متصوركم به فوتان الوقت وفقط عبارة عن أزية الناس الفقرا بدال ما ترسلوا ناس عواجز وتقدموا أعذار وتعولوا
٨. أنهم لم قبلوا وتعطلوا المصلحة وتتعبوني وترزلوا أنفسكم ولو كنتم تطلبوا أنفار جدعان شبان وترسلوهم كانوا يقبلوا من غير
٩. تعويق وتزول هذه الكيفية من الوسط ولم كنت أصير بلا راحة وأنتم أيضا كنتم تترزلوا يا ناس لموا عقولكم في دماغكم
١٠. واتركوا السلوك من غير طريق المستقيم وعلقوا باقي الأنفار المطلوبة بلا تأخير وأعلموا أنه إذا لم حصلتوهم على وجه السرعة
١١. خلاصكم في يدي شيئ (؟) من المحلاة (؟) يكون ذلك معلومكم
We have seen a daily transcript of a call that occurred between you and your supervisor on 19 of the previous month, letter by letter, complete with your bad behavior. Including the responses by you regarding the imports of cotton, rice, conscripts, butter, equipment of the barrages, and the release of 18,000 of the allocated feddans for the cultivation of types. In the past, they were plowed one time, and they were examined for what made them barren at that moment. Last year, they were sprayed on four sides and a species of cotton was cultivated. And it is known that agriculture does not thrive except after the proper tilling of the land, and now because of you there is a delay this year in everything. Provide excuses to the supervisor to get to the bottom of this and only to nonbinding, mere talk, not for the work shown to us from you repeatedly. I have kept you in consideration, dignified you, put you in control, and lifted off you beating by stick. But you—you frauds, you demons—you did not abandon your cheating, and you intended to counteract because your actions have revealed your true nature, I have written to your supervisor from now on my interests, and as is your nature, you deserved beating on your head, following your ways, which have been with you for a long time. Since your actions have been confirmed in this manner, I have written to your supervisor that from now on, and to be increased if you delay any of these interests, if you do not abandon your fraudulent ways he will beat you with the stick until he breaks your back every time. In the case that fraud does not escape your hands, you may petition me, to which I will find someone else to facilitate my interests. Return to your gang of peasants, you pig. Marginal note: I have written to your advisor this time to beat you up. You should know that you may petition not to be beaten, and we guess that there is any humanity in you, I will write to your manager this time to beat you with the stick. If you follow the right path, and take into account my interests, so it will be; and if you do not manage to do that, I will isolate you in prison after beating and paralyzing you.
I have read the daily report that contains the information about the soldiers who were summoned for conscription and the remaining of them and on the questions and answers that occurred between you with Khalil Effendi, your supervisor, pertaining to this matter. I learned that you are being picky about accepting some of the individuals. It is a duty that came upon you when I asked for these individuals (?), that you would have given me an answer earlier and assume that no delay will occur. You said you were able to do so without affecting delivery time. Since you know and realized that the quota that I have assigned to your districts can be brought from somewhere else. I wonder if you know and understand that the individuals I asked for from your departments remain to be covered by someone else at any time. Do you see at the time of your commitment that they were obligated with delivering them as soon as possible, without proper estimation or surveying, and now you are attempting fraudulent means. And by the way, for the past seven years (or months?), you are practicing the process of conscription, both regarding those who are eligible and those who would be deemed ineligible. And since this is the state of matters, then it has become clear to us that you are conscripting old people and sending those people, imagining that this will waste time, and this is only causing harm to the poor. Instead of sending old people, making excuses, and thinking that they would be rejected, and as such, cause harm to my interests and wear me down, and disgracing yourself. If you had from the start gathered young, healthy men and sent them, they would have been accepted. And I would not have ended up angry. Gather your wits, and leave the twisted path and suspend the rest of the summoned individuals without delay. And know that if you don’t gather them quickly, your end will be at my hands. Let that be known to you.”
IV. Samaa Elimam’s “reading”:
Samaa Elimam is a PhD student in the history of architecture and urbanism at the Graduate School of Design in Harvard University. She is originally from Daqahliyya, Egypt.
The Nazirs of Daqahliya, A Conversation
Inspired by Khedival Orders to the Department Governors of Daqahliya
Date: 5 Ramadan 1250/4 January 1835
Location: Somewhere in the governorate of Daqahliya…
Supervisor: The Pasha sent out an Order, issued for Fuda Habib.
Fuda Habib (FH): What?
Supervisor: Where are the men?
FH: [Reading, silently mouthing out the words. Eyes widen, face turns pale.]
Supervisor: Look, he’s being merciful this time, I’m told to let it pass without beating.
FH: I understand.
Supervisor: But you really need to get him what he’s asking for without delay—no more nonsense, no more talk or excuses.
Supervisor: If this happens again, it’s over for you.
FH: [Pacing back and forth] He knows. He read the daily. He knows everything, letter by letter. What am I going to do?
Nazir Qism Mansura (NM): [Sitting back, slouched] What daily? How could that transcript arrive all the way to Mahrusa, every day? He’s just trying to scare us.
FH: Yes, and I’m afraid. It’s like I can hear his voice. I don’t want to get my skull cracked open.
NM: [Sits up suddenly] Well what does he want us to do—act like brutal conscripting officers, force and drag fellahin as if they were off to toil and suffer like corvée?  He knows the matter needs to be handled gently. Otherwise, the consequences will be like ’38 and ’39,  and we’ll end up in a worse situation than we are now.
FH: Then what else? You know Zifta’s reputation up there with gathering men—they already have it out for me.  What are we supposed to do?
NM: We need time. He knows we can’t fill up the quota he’s asking for, let alone with able-bodied men.
FH: He’s off fighting in Hijaz—he doesn’t have much time. Which means we have even less to avoid getting crushed.
NM: Listen, we’re doing our best with what we have. We sent some rice and the barrage equipment he asked for. A little late yes, but now at the very least he has some provisions.
FH: [Anxiously sarcastic] Oh, certainly. Doing our best. Especially with the two fugitives from Mansura you let escape two weeks back. At this rate, we’re no better than the village shaykhs— perhaps we deserve the whip.
NM: Let it go. Those poor men were about to chop off their fingers and blind themselves to get out of it.  Besides, one of them was an orphan with an infant brother. I had to help them run away.
FH: Yes, then maybe his little brother will thank you when the only family member he has left gets prison for life; or better yet, he gets conscripted instead once the Pasha gets notice. 
NM: He won’t find out. You think the great Mehmet Ali, Esteemed and Honorable Pasha of the Ottoman province of Egypt, cares what happens to one miserly fellah up in Daqahliyya?
Besides, it’s not like they were a hundred men, like the nazir that ended up in Abu Qir.  Then it would make sense for the Pasha to get furious—it’s all about the numbers. When they don’t add up, the gangs start to notice, it gets to the authorities, and then we’re in trouble. 
FH: We’re already in trouble. Aren’t you the least bit afraid of what could happen to you after the qanun of ‘30? 
NM: There is technically nothing in there about us getting beaten. That’s for the shaykhs and fellahin.
FH: Are you forgetting your origins?
NM: Never. I know where I came from. And I’d give it more dignity than what he does. [Sarcastically] We really have been elevated by his highness, that’s why we’re being threatened to death. We’re all the same to him.
FH: No one can avoid beating. It doesn’t have to be written in the document to be legal— [gestures to the order] and these are the spoken words, the khedival utterances, to prove it.
NM: Tell me what we’re supposed to do when the whole village is deserted, when fellahin would rather abandon their family homes and leave their land barren, than be tied up and tethered like cattle (bahayim) for conscription. 
FH: That’s going to be us. Look, I’m in the same situation. I want to do the right thing. I want to help my fellow countrymen, but I also don’t want to get hung by the neck.
NM: It’s not just about doing the right thing. What he is asking for is not doable at all. Even if we could send him all the men in the country, there wouldn’t be any left to plow the land and till the soil. How would the cotton that he wants be cultivated, the rice tilled, the butter churned?
Nazir Qism Faraskur: These are the same men that run the irrigation—they clear the canals of dirt, they build the dikes—without them, there would be no water running through the land. 
NM: That’s right. No water means no food, no food means no men. No men, means no water…
FH: I get it. I get your point. He’s putting us in a hard place.
NM: Not hard—impossible. I say we take his offer and petition to get some help.
FH: You must be out of your mind!
NM: He gave us the option.
FH: Yes, as another threat, after calling us lowlives, frauds, dirty pigs.  A petition to accept my worthlessness, to be beaten to death and disposed of like an animal, replaced by someone else that can do the job.
NM: Look, he needs us. He has no better chance than us to gather up the men and the supplies he needs. Who else knows the villages and their inhabitants like we do?
FH: The shaykhs? The district governors? 
NM: He sent this in your name. No doubt it’s a threat, but a threat to you.
FH: To me, to you, to eight other nuzzar. Don’t make it sound like it’s a personal gift.
NM: You should take it as a gift that he is offering a petition. Otherwise, we can try to stall.
FH: No, no more excuses. We told him earlier that we would deliver on time, no delays. We’re on the line here. He needs men.
NM: And we want to send him the best, so we need time too. Or, we can send just send anyone…
FH: What does that mean?
NM: I don’t know. Use your imagination—crippled men, blind men, sick men [looking in the distance]…
FH: You are cruel. How can you put these wretched people in this position? They’ll either die on the way or be beaten to death when they get there.
NM: [continues] …women disguised as men. Anyone we know will get rejected.
NF: [Casually, gestures upwards with his head] Send some old men. At first, they’ll look like they may do, but it will take them longer to figure out they’re not fighting material…[smirking] not much manpower there.
NM: Not bad…
FH: Very bad! This is a catastrophe.
NF: It will buy us time. In the meantime, the healthy men staying here can plow the fields and work the land. By the time the old men are rejected and returned to the villages, we’ll have both the types (asnaf) that he’s asking for, and the youth will be available to send.
NM: [Abruptly moves from his position] I’m convinced.
FH: I’m not.
NM: Tomorrow we make the rounds—find some folks we can recruit, tell them they’ll be back in a few weeks, nothing more than an act here.
NF: How do we convince them? And how do we get them past the authorities?
NM: Step by step…the hardest part will be to get around the numbers, each man we find will have to have his tezkera  ready in case the gangs ask for them.
NF: And if they ask why these men are being sent for conscription? NM: We act dumb—the Pasha asked for men, here they are.
[A few weeks later.]
Khalil Effendi: A Khedival Order has been issued in your name…
1. Khaled Fahmy, All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army, and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 98. Fahmy cites Mehmet Ali writing to Ibrahim Pasha on 6 B 1237/29 March 1822.
2. Ibid., 99. The years 1238/1823 and 1239/1824 are when tactics to resisting conscription, like escape and self- maiming, became common.
3. Ibid., 106. In March 1828, the department of Zifta sent men for conscription who had already been registered as factory workers. FH is paranoid that the Pasha has it out for him specifically.
4. Ibid., 102.
5. Ibid. When self-mutilation was practiced frequently, Mehmet Ali sent the men to prison for life, or conscripted their relatives instead.
6. Ibid., 101.
7. Ibid., 130.
8. Ibid., 101. Helen Anne B. Rivlin, The Agricultural Policy of Muḥammad ʻAlī in Egypt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 102-103. Habib is referring to qanun al-filaha passed in 1830, which included 80 clauses that legally defined and regulated the behavior of fellahin with regards to agriculture, irrigation, public works, military activity, etc., as well as the administrative positions that were responsible for overseeing and enforcing them: shaykhs, hakims, etc. NM is being perhaps overly technical when he says nuzzar are not mentioned in the text of the qanun.
9. Fahmy, 100.
10. Rivlin, 88-89 and 242.
11. See text of the first document above, before “marginal note.”
12. Hakim al-khutt. Rivlin, 92-94.
13. Fahmy, 106. The idea of tezkeres for villagers as well as the shaykhs (hakims and nazirs?) were a new surveillance
technique adopted a few years earlier in an attempt to properly monitor the movements of fleeing villagers.