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Petra Kuppinger (Monmouth College)

DOMINANCE AND CONTROL: SERVANTS AND WORKERS IN COLONIAL CAIRO

 

On January 1, 1900 the Consul General and Minister Plenipotentiary of Germany in Cairo, Herr von Muller, lavishly entertained thirty hand-picked members of the German community at a dinner party in Cairo’s famous Shepheard’s Hotel. A menu of thirteen items had been arranged and printed copies (in German) were handed to the guests. After the party, the consensus among the guests was that the party and the food in particular had been exquisite. This extravagant dinner party to welcome the year 1900 was just one of many occasions where the colonial elite and, in this case nationals working under the protection of the British colonial government, entertained, celebrated, performed, engaged in sports, or simply relaxed in settings that exclusively catered to their needs and comforts. Hotels, clubs and private villas perfectly duplicated their European models and therefore left nothing to be desired as elegant stages for upscale social events.

Such neatly orchestrated exercises of European turn of the century bourgeois sociability, when set in a colonial context, raise a series of issues. First, there is the obvious point that it was largely the colonized who worked hard to realize these bourgeois social fantasies. While the chef who did the Potato Croquettes was probably French, Italian or Swiss, the person who peeled the potatoes more likely than not was Egyptian, Nubian or Sudanese. The same holds true for waiters, cleaners, guards and armies of other workers who made colonial entertainment possible and for the most part so successful. Equally obvious is the fact that the Egyptian contributions to the success of colonial extravaganza were neither acknowledged, nor ever mentioned, in the lengthy discussions of such events. Less obvious, but very significant, is the direct or indirect use of the colonized at such occasions to demonstrate successful pacification of colonial subjects, and the management of potentially dangerous colonized bodies. While parties, like Herr von Muller’s, were conspicuous or even conceited productions of colonial dominance and control, the conscious display of the subordinated colonized suggests cracks or ambiguities in the edifice of collective colonial confidence, and individual colonizers’ sense of security.

            In this paper I examine the role of colonized workers, who were used in various ways as displays of colonial power in the everyday and small-scale context of elite colonial sociability. In addition to doing the hard labor of preparing, accommodating and cleaning at social occasions, I will argue that the colonized were occasionally employed at such events to demonstrate to both themselves and elite colonial spectators that they were not only docile workers but also docile colonial subjects, who had been neatly integrated into the powerful and smoothly functioning colonial political body. On such occasions, the colonized workers were to represent the colonial success story of not only making people work, but making them move or perform in orderly formations. Such performances reassured spectators that the colonized were no longer dangerous, irrational, or worse, criminal beings, but instead had internalized a modern order. I argue that minutely orchestrated movements and performances of the colonized served a fundamentally important purpose. They illustrated colonial success as the colonized worked as told, wore uniforms that obliterated their bodies, cultural origins and contexts, and moved in clearly circumscribed formations. Thus, the performing individual became an impersonation or manifestation of the superior ordering power of the colonizers. Such shows of orderly movement were not mere entertainment for colonial spectators. They underlined the subordinate status of the colonized for leisurely consumption and, very importantly, served the daily maintenance of the colonial elites’ subjectivities and confidence. In this context the question arises as to why, in early 20th century Egypt, when British rule was relatively firmly established, and a nationalist or anti-colonial movement was only emerging, the colonizers needed such everyday reassurances that they had successfully pacified colonized bodies? This question needs to be discussed in the context of larger debates about the making and maintenance of colonial subjectivities with their specific mindsets, identities and confidences (or lack thereof) in a larger imperial context. This question transcends Egyptian and English borders, and poses further questions about how colonial subjectivities were constructed, and most importantly for the current context, how were they maintained in the context of mundane everyday life?

In the first part of this paper I will examine debates about colonial subjectivities, and combine those with discussions about colonial displays or exhibitions of humans, in order to situate the everyday small performances/displays of pacified bodies in a broader context. Second, for a better understanding of the daily maintenance of colonial subjectivities and confidence, and their sense of mission and superiority, it will be necessary to briefly introduce elite colonial social life and entertainment in Cairo as the setting of these moments of maintenance of subjectivities. Finally I will examine a few instances of orchestrated colonized movements that served the clear purpose of maintaining colonial subjectivities and confidence, and assured the colonizers of their everyday safety in the colony.