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September 29, 2011

Edward William Lane tells us in his An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians about an interesting play[i] that was acted before the enlightened Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha[ii] (1805 -1848); and which Lane watched during one of his two visits to Egypt (1825 – 1828; 1833 – 1835). The play was part of a festival that was celebrated in honour of the circumcision of one of the Pasha’s sons, as he tells us. This son was most probably Muhammad Said Pasha who was born to Muhammad Ali in 1822, and later ruled Egypt (1854 – 1863).[iii] I suspect that the play was performed in either 1827 or 1828, at the end of Lane’s first visit to Egypt.[iv] About circumcision itself and the festivities attached to it, the reader is referred to Lane’s monumental work.[v] As usual, several sons of the ruling class (Lane calls them ‘grandees’) were also circumcised at the same time.

Lane tells us that the Egyptians were often amused by players of low and ridiculous farces, who are called ‘Mohabbazeen’ – “These frequently perform at the festivals prior to weddings and circumcisions, at the houses of the great; and sometimes attract rings of auditors and spectators in the public places in Cairo. Their performances are scarcely worthy of description: it is chiefly by vulgar jests and indecent actions, that they amuse, and obtain applause. The actors are only men and boys: the part of a woman being always performed by a man or a boy in female attire.”[vi] The play which Lane gives a short account of, as a specimen of the Egyptians’ plays, was certainly one of their best at the time, since it was acted before Muhammad Ali Pasha himself. Besides the intention to entertain family members, including the circumcised, and the guests (many of them were Europeans, undoubtedly) at the circumcision festivities, the play was also meant to educate and inform, not least the Pasha himself – as Lane says, “This farce was played before the Basha with the view of opening his eyes to the conduct of those persons to whom was committed the office of collecting the taxes.”[vii]

A 19th Century drawing showing a fellah being bastinadoed in Egypt, most probably for failing to pay his taxes. You can see the Turkish governor seated on a divan; the Sheykh el-Beled sitting beside him; and, most interestingly, a Coptic clerk standing by, wearing black dress, a belt and black turban (the attire that is meant to distinguish Christians from Muslims). The Coptic clerk seems to be reading from a tax register showing how much the kneeling fellah owed. Another fellah is being bastinadoed using a kurbaj. [The source of this interesting drawing is unknown to me; it is definitely not from Lane’s work].

The play, a jest really, has several characters (dramatis personoi, as Lane calls them); whom I give below (with added comment in italic):




– NAZIR (or Governor of a District) (from the ruling Turkish class)[viii]

– SHEYKH EL-BELED (or Chief of a Village) (an Arab usually)[ix]

– M’ALLIM HANNA, a Coptic clerk[x]

– ‘AWAD THE SON OF REGEB, a simple peasant indebted to the government (a poor Muslim fellah. Most fellahin were native Egyptians – and most were converted Copts to Islam in the 14th Century, following the severe persecutions then)

– WIFE of the fellah

– SERVANT of Sheykh-Beled

– FIVE OTHER PERSONS, of whom two made their appearance first in the character of drummers, one as a hautboy-player, and the two others as dancers

Lane gives the play in a story-like style, which the reader can get from his book.[xi] I will take the liberty to put it in a play format, and I will bravely, though undoubtedly inadequately, try to put it in the format of Anton Chekov’s jests:[xii]


[After a little drumming and piping and dancing by the five persons, the Nazir and the rest of the performers enter the ring.]

THE NAZIR. How much does ‘Awad[xiii] the son of Regeb owe?

THE MUSCICIANS AND DANCERS [acting as simple fellaheen]. Desire the Christian[xiv] to look in the register.

SHEYKH EL-BELED [addressing the Coptic clerk]. How much is written against ‘Awad the son of Regeb?

THE COPTIC CLERK. [The Christian clerk has a large dawayeh (or receptacle for pens and ink) in his girdle; and is dressed as a Copt, with a black turban] A thousand piasters.

SHEYKH EL-BELED. How much has he paid?

THE COPTIC CLERK. Five piasters.

SHEYKH EL-BELED [addressing the fellah]. Man, why don’t you bring the money?

THE FELLAH. I have not any.

SHEYKH EL-BELED. You have not any?” [addressing his servant] Throw him down.

[An inflated piece of an intestine, resembling a large kurbag,[xv] is brought; and with this the fellah is beaten.]

THE FELLAH [roaring to the Nazir]. By the honour of thy horse’s tail, O Bey! By the honour of thy wife’s trowsers,[xvi] O Bey! By the honour of thy wife’s head-band, O Bey!

[After twenty such absurd appeals, his beating is finished, and he is taken away, and imprisoned. His wife comes to him.]


THE FELLAH. Do me a kindness, my wife: take a little kishk[xvii] and some eggs and some sha’eereeyeh,[xviii] and go with them to the house of the Christian clerk, and appeal to his generosity to get me set at liberty.

[She takes these, in three baskets, to the Christian’s house.]

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH [asking the people there]. Where is the M’allim Hanna, the clerk?


THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. O M’allim Hanna, do me the favour to receive these, and obtain the liberation of my husband.

THE COPTIC CLERK. Who is thy husband?

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. The fellah who owes a thousand piasters.

THE COPTIC CLERK. Bring twenty or thirty piasters to bribe the Sheykh el-Beled.

[She goes away, and soon returns, with the money in her hand, and gives it to the Sheykh el-Beled.]

SHEYKH EL-BELED. What is this?

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. Take it as a bribe, and liberate my husband.

SHEYKH EL-BELED. Very well: go to the Nazir.

[She retires for a while; blackens the edges of her eyelids with kohl;[xix] applies fresh red dye of the henna[xx] to her hands and feet, and repairs to the Nazir.]

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. Good evening, my master.

THE NAZIR. What dost thou want?

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. I am the wife of ‘Awad, who owes a thousand piasters.

SHEYKH EL-BELED. But what dost thou want?

THE WIFE OF THE FELLAH. My husband is imprisoned; and I appeal to thy generosity to liberate him. [as she urges this request, she smiles, and shows him that she does not ask this favour without being willing to grant him a recompense.]

[He obtains this; takes the husband’s part; and liberates him.]


 WHAT DOES THIS PLAY TELL US? I find this play very interesting – it may be crude, but it is certainly entertaining and educating. The Egyptians have undoubtedly preceded all peoples in the region in the art of drama.[xxi] Lane says that the play was acted to open the eyes of Muhammad Ali Pasha to the conduct of those people responsible for collecting taxes for the state. Egypt was plagued with mismanagement, injustice and oppression of the fellahin, who were demanded to pay their taxes whether the crop yield for the year had been good or poor. For those who failed to pay their taxes, the bastinado awaited them. This was a cudgel used to give a beating on the soles of the feet of the person who had upset the powers that be. The Egyptian was usually laid on the ground on his abdomen; his legs raised; his heels tied up to a long wooden beam; and his soles beaten, usually using a kurbag[xxii] – a whip, especially of hippopotamus hide. Many fellahin died of the cruel and demeaning corporal punishment. The bastinado, however, was not particular to Egypt – it was widespread in the East, including other countries occupied by the Ottoman Empire and also Persia. There are drawings from Ancient Egypt which show that corporal punishment was used then, but it was different in the way it was meted out.[xxiii]

But the play wasn’t really about the bastinado, its cruelty and humiliation – all that was accepted as the norm then and wasn’t abolished until late in the 19th Century, by the British in 1883.[xxiv] Least of all, it wasn’t about the excessive and unjust taxation that weighed heavily on the backs of the poor fellahin, both Muslims and Copts, and was meant to feed Muhammad Ali’s increasing greed and expansionist projects.[xxv] It was, however, about the corruption of the tax-collecting officials who exploited the fellah, and his family, and affected the state’s revenues.  But was the Coptic clerk as bad – if he was bad at all – as the Arab Sheykh el-Beled and the Turkish Nazir? Let us study the play and see.  We have in the play a fellah who failed to pay his taxes – he gets beaten in an inhumane way and then put in prison. His subservient and humiliating shouts (roaring) to the Turkish Governor to have mercy on him were received with deaf ears. When the fellah’s wife visits him in prison, they think of the best way to get him set free. The only, and immediate, person they think of soliciting his help was the Christian clerk.

Mu’allim Hanna could not have possessed much authority. He was one of the oppressed and persecuted 150,000 Copts then.[xxvi] Lane tells us that he was dressed as a Copt with a girdle and a black turban. An English army officer in Egypt in 1801 observed: “They (the Christian Copts) always wear a turban of dark-brown, the badge of slavery, (for it approaches very near that,) and their clothes must be of dark colours, nothing brilliant or rich; they must seem poor, or are certain of persecution; nor dare they wear shawls or yellow slippers in the streets: in their houses, when in turn they act grandees, they put these, and rich clothes on.”[xxvii]  This distinctive attire was part of the Islamic ‘ghiyar’;[xxviii] and had one purpose in mind – perfecting discrimination. It goes back in history to early Islam,[xxix] and Muslim scholars tell us that it was meant to be humiliating in itself; but, most importantly, it was a visible and ready way of identifying non-Muslims so that they didn’t receive any by chance dignified treatment from Muslims or escaped any persecution or degrading order imposed on them by Sharia. And so, it was used in Egypt throughout the history of Islamic Egypt[xxx] until it was officially abolished, together with other discriminatory injunctions, by the Hamayouni Decree in 1856 under pressure by the European Powers on the Ottoman Empire of which Egypt was part of then.[xxxi]  The Christian Copts (and the 5,000 Jews then) had little power; and they did not enjoy any sense of security in life or possession. Mu’allim Hanna, and other Coptic clerks, were included in the tax-collecting administration because of the Copts’ acknowledged skills in maths, accounting and record-keeping. The humblest fellah, even though he himself was oppressed by both Arabs and Turks, had more rights. No, Mu’allim Hanna wasn’t part of that exploitive apparatus – he was at the bottom of that whole oppressive system; and he was merely a reluctant servant of a hateful ruler – a ruler who was oppressing fellah and Copt alike.

And the fellah and his wife knew that. It wasn’t the Turk Nazir or the Arab Sheykh el-Beled but the Coptic clerk he asked for help. The Copt was the closest of all the three to him. His wife takes a little kishk, some eggs and some sha’eereeyeh – all cheap and common Egyptian food – and visits him at his home; she addresses him by his name, “O Mu’allim Hanna”; and appeals to his generosity to “obtain the liberation” of her husband. He obliges and directs her to the corrupt Sheykh el-Balad, who has some power, but will not move to help unless bribed; and his price is twenty or thirty piasters. There is no hint that the Coptic clerk thought of exploiting the situation or the woman’s vulnerability – had he wanted to do so he could have asked her to go and bring him the money, promising that he would take it all to Sheykh el-Beled while secretly planning to pocket part of it. Instead he asks her to take it to the Sheykh herself, which she did. When she meets the Sheykh, she does not ask him for a favour or appeal to his generosity – there was no beating round the bush here: it was a deal. She says to him, “take (the money) as a bribe, and liberate my husband.” He surely takes it and sends her to the Turkish Nazir. The reputation of the womaniser Nazir must have been common knowledge in the village: he would not do anything unless he is paid in sex; so she do whatever she can to make herself attractive (kohl, henna and all), and goes to him. She knew exactly what he wanted – and she gave him it; and he, unashamedly, took it and freed her husband in return. And such was the corrupt, exploitive tax-collecting system then that oppressed the poor fellahin and took both their money and honour away.

Out of all these men, the Coptic clerk (the Christian ‘Nuss’rani’)[xxxii] clerk as the fellah and his wife call him) stands separate – he is the closest, the kindest, the best friend of the fellah compared with the Arab and the Turk. This is not surprising for many reasons – one such reason is the same blood that runs in the veins of both fellah and Copt. Though separated by religion, mostly in the 14th Century, under severe persecutions by the Mamluks, they both empathise with each other. Unless the fellahin are alienated from us by the Islamists and Arabists, they form the natural nexus between us, the Copts, and the rest of the Egyptians. The Coptic nationalists will not get tired from repeating this fact.


[i] Edward William Lane: An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians, written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835. London. 1842. Pages 357-359. You can access the book here:

[ii] Lane refers to him just as ‘Basha’.

[iii] Said Pasha was the one who built the Suez Canal.

[iv] Lane tells us in his book that circumcision was commonly performed at the age of five or six; however, among the peasants, not infrequently at the age of 12, 13, or 14 years (p. 47). Since Said Pasha was born in 1822, he would have been 5 and 6 in 1827 and 1828, respectively.

[v] Lane; pp. 47-8.

[vi] Lane; p. 357.

[vii] Lane; p. 359.

[viii] The Turkish class at that time included Turks proper, Albanians (from which Muhammad Ali Pasha was), remnants of the Circassian Mamluks after the massacre of 1811; etc.

[ix] Lane speaks about the Sheykhs in page 120 of his work. A Sheykh had often received some religious education (including memorisation of some Koranic verses) and could write and read to some extent. He reached a position of some power, above the fellahin (who were mainly native Egyptians) and below the Turkish class. They mostly came from the fold of the domesticated Arabs.

[x] Lane calls him, a Copt clerk.

[xi] See note no. i.

[xii] I am using Chekov Plays; translated and with an introduction by Elisaveta Fen (Penguin Books; London; 1971). I am using The Bear as a standard format (pp. 399-416).

[xiii] Thus vulgarly pronounced for “’Ewad.” (Lane’s footnote)

[xiv] The word was “the Nuss’rani”, which is reserved for the Christians. It originates from the Koran but its root is unknown, and cannot be the Palestinian town, Al-Nassira (Nazereth).

[xv] A whip, particularly from a hippopotamus hind.

[xvi] As in Lane’s book.

[xvii] Kishk, as Lane tells us in a note in p. 452, is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it. What remains in the sieve is thrown away; what passes through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire. Some leaves of white beet, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

[xviii] A kind of paste, resembling vermicelli. (Lane’s footnote)

[xix] See Lane’s book; Chapter 1 (Personal Characteristics and Dress of the Muslim Egyptians); 21-42.

[xx] See previous note.

[xxi] See: M. M. Badawi in his Early Arabic Drama (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; 1988); pp. 11-2.

[xxii] Also kurbaj, kurbash and kourbash.

[xxiii] See History of Egypt, Chaldea, Babylonia, and Assyria by G. Maspero; Vol. 2; Part A (The Grolier Society Publishers; London; 1971). Review the Illustration: Levying the Tax: The Bastinado

[xxiv] See: Policing Islam: the British occupation of Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian struggle over control of the police, 1882-1914; by Harold Tollefson (Greenwood Publishing Group; London; 1999); p. 1.

[xxv] Read Lane’s Appendix III (Late Innovations) where he assessed Muhammad Ali’s rule and the burden he put on the fellahin; pp. 515-518.

[xxvi] Lane; p. 19. He gives the Muslim Egyptians population (fellahin and townspeople) as 1,750,000

[xxvii] A Non-Military Journal, or Observations Made in Egypt by An Officer upon the Staff of the British Army; describing the country, its inhabitants, their manners and customs; with anecdotes, illustrative of them (Printed by A. Wilson, Wild-Court; London; 1803); Letter II; p. 16. The italics are those of the author of the book.

[xxviii] The Arabic word ‘غيار’, used in the Islamic tradition, describes the process of making non-Muslims, Christians, Jews and others, distinct from the Muslims.

[xxix] The Pact of Umar, believed to be Umar I, the second Caliph (634 – 644 AD). Some attribute it to Umar II (717 – 720 AD).

[xxx] There were short periods of relieve from them; however.

[xxxi] Lane writes in p. 491 of his book about the dress of the Copts when he was in Egypt in the 1820s and 1830s.

[xxxii] See note no. xiv.

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