Managing Egypt’s Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 1800-1952 By Mine Ener (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. 195 pages.)

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Gregory Starrett



In Egypt and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, the social safety net represented
by the extended family branched off in many directions. By Mamluk
times, it encompassed the patronage of wealthy and noble families who distributed
food to the poor on religious festivals and during times of hardship,
and who sponsored the construction of bridges, waterworks, and public
fountains. In addition, mosques sometimes housed schools, soup kitchens,
and hospitals; merchants regularly fed beggars; Sufi lodges housed travelers;
and waqf endowments sponsored various religious and charitable activities.
Ruling dynasties, including their women, created funds that sponsored
orphans’ homes, paid the dowries of poor women, and provided pensions for
the widows and children of soldiers killed in battle.
As Ener shows in her valuable and carefully researched book, the values
of ihsan (generosity) and sadaqah (almsgiving) have been applied according
to ideas about charity’s legitimate beneficiaries (e.g., clerics, the poor,
orphans, and women without family support). Ener traces the fortunes of the
poor, the changing constellation of institutions available for their relief, and
the transformation in Egyptian understanding of those entitled to such care.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the traditional “mixed economy”
of relief (p. 9), which incorporated countless donors and institutions,
operated alongside a more centralized set of interests and practices intended
to control poor people’s movement and activities. Such practices had not
been common previously (p. 15) and appear to have been unique in the
Middle East (p. 29). Authorities began to distinguish between the deserving
and the undesirable poor and sought to prevent able-bodied men from
encroaching on urban space as beggars or “fake” mendicants and from using
publicly available forms of assistance. In nineteenth-century Cairo and
Alexandria, such men and peasants “absconding” from the countryside
were often arrested, sent back to their home regions, and pressed into involuntary
agricultural, industrial, or military service. The growing modern state
was increasingly interested in controlling crime, immigration, and the flow
of disease through internationalized urban spaces ...

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