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On Time

On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt

On Barak
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 364
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  • Book Info
    On Time
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95656-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. MAPS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. INTRODUCTION: Another Time?
    (pp. 1-20)

    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...

  8. ONE En Route
    (pp. 21-52)

    THE TERM MIDDLE EAST WAS born in the beginning of the twentieth century.¹ It would have been unthinkable without a series of spatial transformations in the nineteenth century, including the deployment of new steamer and telegraph lines, railways, and the Suez Canal, which together constituted a new West-East route via Egypt and gradually replaced the long sea voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope. The geography we now deem natural was produced by these technologies of transportation and communication.

    The longue durée expansion of European trade and colonialism was shaped by the monopoly of Muslim merchants, cities, states,...

  9. TWO Double Standards
    (pp. 53-84)

    THE OVERLAND ROUTE TO INDIA via Egypt, which replaced the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, received its deathblow from the Suez Canal, which the route itself had facilitated. From its 1869 inauguration, the canal brought to realization the desire to pass quickly through the Egyptian landscape by making landing redundant: the Egyptian “land obstacle” was finally hollowed out. In 1871, the British Empire formally shifted its India traffic away from the Egyptian State Railways (ESR)—whose Alexandria–Cairo–Suez lines were the backbone of the Overland Route—to the canal. Deprived of its main source of income, the...

  10. THREE Effendi Hauntologies
    (pp. 85-114)

    THE PIONEERING 1917 SHORT STORY “FĪ AL-QIṬAR” (In the train), by playwright and essayist Muḥammad Taymūr, describes six passengers in the second-class carriage of a train traveling from Cairo toward the Delta. Onboard, a heated conversation breaks out over the proper ways to discipline the peasantry. When a Circassian asserts that the whip rather than schooling is what the peasants really require, everybody joins the debate and the carriage is split into two rival camps, conservatives versus reformists: an ‘umdah (village headman) and a sheikh join the Circassian to endorse physical violence, while a young student and a dandy effendi...

  11. FOUR Harmonization and Its Discords
    (pp. 115-144)

    “THE MAN WHO FANCIED he Saw the New Moon,” by the Sufi poet Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī, offers an appropriate springboard for a discussion of the politics of fact setting and the relations between timekeeping and authority. ‘Umar, the caliph who established the Hijrī calendar, has the authority to command the observer to clean his eye, thereby revealing the absence of the moon (or the man’s realization that he should be wiser than to claim to spot the moon before the most observant caliph). The opposite could not have been the case: had ‘Umar himself seen a hair rather than the...

  12. FIVE The Urban Politics of Slowness
    (pp. 145-174)

    DURING THE FIRST FEW DECADES of the twentieth century, Egyptians began to mark out their era as ʿaṣr al-surʿah, “the age of speed.” The new epochal characterization, part of a larger trend in the English- and French-speaking worlds,¹ was not attached to a particular historical period or a specific event. It was wedded, nonetheless, to technological developments and particularly to the introduction of modern means of transportation: trains, trams, automobiles, and later airplanes, and to the social changes these devices brought about.² “Everything dashes in this age, everything hastens,” reads the opening line of Al-ʿĀlam Yajrī (The world dashes), a...

  13. SIX Counterclockwise Revolution
    (pp. 175-204)

    THE GROWING DEPENDENCE OF THE colonial project in Egypt on technologies of rule such as railways, tramways, and telegraphs—its “networked” nature—made it pervasive and effective. Yet it also opened up unforeseen avenues of anticolonial contestation for the Egyptian operators and users of these technologies. As a result, the technological aspects of colonialism in Egypt helped demarcate the spectrum of possibilities for anticolonial action and informed the shapes and foci of anticolonial modes of affinity, first and foremost nationalism.

    It has become commonplace to assume that by connecting distant places and peoples and creating a shared temporality, technological networks...

  14. SEVEN On Hold
    (pp. 205-235)

    THE BELL TELEPHONE WAS INTRODUCED into Egypt in August 1881. The not insignificant diplomatic efforts of Edwin De Leon, Bell’s emissary to Egypt, in gaining government permission, were dwarfed by technical complications. In particular, a resolute minister of public works, ‘Alī Mubārak, insisted on creating a network without telephone poles.¹ Poles—first for telegraphs, then for telephones, and later for trams—repeatedly became bones of contention in Egyptian urban and rural reconstruction schemes.² They interfered with urban traffic,³ raised land taxation issues and even questions of waqf (an inalienable religious land endowment),⁴ and were seen as aesthetically displeasing.⁵ Moreover, poles...

  15. CONCLUSION: Countertemporality
    (pp. 236-250)

    CLOCKS HAVE BEEN THE PRESENT absentee in the preceding chapters. While examining time in Egypt, I have avoided the technology of timekeeping, thereby trying to evade the conventional bias according to which, as Lewis Mumford famously put it, “the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men. The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”¹ As this book has shown, “society” or “social synchronization” cannot be so easily disentangled from “technology,” and clocks sometimes follow (and not always set the pace) for the...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 251-308)
    (pp. 309-334)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 335-341)