The “Backwardness” of the Literate

“Illiteracy is a hot topic in Egypt but the time has come for another conversation, the backwardness of the literate, those international school and university administrators who are always just one slip of the tongue away from advocating the genocide or the expulsion of people who just happen to be among society’s most marginalized and oppressed.”

There is a lot of talk about illiteracy in Egypt and in the Third World in general. Illiteracy is blamed for a whole host of problems in Egypt, from why “ordinary” Egyptians can’t really participate in electoral politics to why conservatism and close-mindedness seem to be on the rise. (I’m sure you heard it before Egyptians or [insert name of any developing country here] are just not ready for democracy). Illiteracy is primarily associated with Egypt’s poor who make up the majority of its population. Conversations on the “backwardness” of any particular country tend to point a finger at its poor and illiterate… but of late I’m seeing a need for another conversation… indeed one that ought to come sooner than it has and it should be the “backwardness” of the literate.

I’m talking about the high literate, those international school and university administrators who are always just one slip of the tongue away from advocating the genocide or the expulsion of people who just happen to be among society’s most marginalized and oppressed.

I’m talking about the literate ones in posh international schools, where I met one leading administrator who basically advocated for “euthanasia” on a mass scale for Egypt’s sick and poor.

“I mean, yes, during Ramadan and Christmas we should give them some charity,” she said dryly. “But the truth is there is just too many sick and poor people here and we can’t take care of them… I don’t think we should help them and they should just be left to die… and truthfully I think this is the way it should be…”

“Yes, who needs them! They don’t do us any good anyway,” another one chirped in cheerfully but somewhat nervously.

I’m talking about people who say these things while smiling and shrugging.

Sample File -- blockquotes-1Those who characterize Egyptian poor in this manner are, to be frank, calling for another dictatorship. They imply a brutal hand is needed to control, to intervene, and to subdue.”

And this incident makes me revisit another.

For a while I found myself regularly going to the house of one of the deans of Cairo University. He was also one of the Egyptian government’s advisers for their food and sanitation department and often went as a representative for them to U.N conferences. Once a week he and his wife would sit with me to improve their English.

After being handed a lavish dessert from one of their at-home servants, our discussion gravitated to the state of Egypt’s economy.  “إقطاعية” said his wife enthusiastically. “How do I translate this for her? What we want is إقطاعية.”

“Ok,” I replied encouragingly “why don’t you try to explain what that means to mean in English.”

“Well…” said his wife smiling “it’s when you have a king, one person at the top, and all the poor people work for him and he owns all the land and the poor people just work on it…everyone knew his place.”

“Wait a second, you mean feudalism?” I said, mouth agape.

“Yes! Feudalism! This was the best economy for Egypt. Everyone knew their place!”

Another time I went, the Dean told me he knew the exact cause of traffic in Egypt. Of course it was those “street people.” He even was kind enough to draw me a map. “You see here, my dear, are where the civilized people live. This is us right here, civilized part, like here in Dokki, but you have these other parts surrounding, these are the areas with the savages, the uncivilized areas I mean. The government needs to remove them, they are all illegal. They are always causing trouble and crime.”

Many of the other times I went, they spent their time lamenting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood while simultaneously chuckling at their dumb servants who voted for candidate Morsy and who they thought was going to “give them money!”

The business of razing down the houses of the have-nots, exploiting their labor, and violently policing them usually comes with a set of vocabulary and terms that make the job a lot easier. One needn’t look very far to see how easily words like “savages” and “uncivilized” accompany the destruction of homes of others and the degrading of their humanity. For Egypt’s literate elite this is no different.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve heard some members of the middle and upper classes openly advocate for the removal or the cleansing of the Egyptian poor. Sometimes I would hope that my dark face would prevent people or at least have them question themselves before divulging to me their fantasies of getting rid of the oppressed and marginalized of their societies… but alas I hear all the same…

Driving me home in her SUV to drop me off at my apartment in Sayeda Zeinab as she made her way on to Maadi, my German-Egyptian colleague and veteran ESL educator explained to me why so many Egyptians were really just “thugs” to her… “These people,” she started “are just not like us. They are not civilized.” I questioned her more about it. You’re Egyptian too I reminded her. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I was raised over there but this is just how I feel I can’t help it. Germans have order! They know the way things should be done. Egyptians don’t! You look at these people on the streets and you don’t see anything but thugs! Look at them!!”

Yes this is the backwardness of the literate.

A backwardness which promotes a vision of hierarchy, class, and Eurocentrism at the expense of any other view that can imagine that the economically marginalized in this country can too live lives of dignity if they weren’t robbed of opportunities. They have a “backward” view of the poor in this country as anything but seething masses of unruly subhuman thugs…

But ta3ban, these are what we can call the class of “Fulool”, they are the “remnants” of a time and a regime where autocracy was preferred so all this shouldn’t be at all unexpected.

The unfortunate thing is that it’s not just the expected literate, the fulool, who believe in the demarcation of the “civilized” and “uncivilized.”

Because it’s not uncommon to hear such things even from those Egyptian and foreign literate who call themselves liberal or revolutionary or socialist or leftist. Catch one off-guard in an informal conversation and you’ll see what I mean. The open disdain and contempt for anyone who doesn’t fit within their model of an “open-minded” or “modern” person (i.e. the “close-minded” and “traditional/religious” and poor) are treated as inept and unthinking pawns of a major power or the government if not demonized completely as “uneducated fools”.

Or take when they quote their favorite European or Western philosopher or ideologue, without even ever thinking to question the shades of orientalist and classist Eurocentric thought that is often present in the various philosophies, this situation occurs regularly.

What we see here is that despite our differing ideologies we all have the same degraded starting point… that says the masses of oppressed and poor illiterate in the “developing world” are the main problem all the while our eyes look away from the literate governing class…

But the cause for alarm here should not be the discovery itself that the literate in this country retain “backwards” notions about class and hierarchy but that it is these “backward” literate who will and are teaching the next generation of Egyptians.

It is with these administrators and educators that we are entrusting with the minds of Egypt’s youth… who despite however well-intentioned and earnest they are, are determined to preserve a paradigm of hierarchy that was passed down from colonialism and monarchy and sharpened under successive years of repression and dictatorship…

One searing example of this that will never quite leave my mind was a discussion I had with a class of fifth graders on what it meant to be “respectful.”

Now, my fifth grade class is extremely bright. They conquer readings that could easily be given to classes two years ahead of them and they speak two languages phenomenally better than most students their age in the United States could ever dream of. I actually have a lot of admiration for them.

Yet, during this particular day, being the hardass teacher I am to this class, I refused to give them a recess until they stopped screaming, hitting, and pulling each other as they usually do and stop treating each other and me with disrespect.

Instead, in a half-hearted Paulo Friero–esque way I urged us to sit down and discuss our dilemma. What I heard next lead me into a translation quandary that propelled me into a discussion of family and class that I’d never imagine I’d have with ten and eleven year-olds.

Here is the thing, generally contemporary English speakers use the word “respectful” to indicate whether someone is treating others with respect, treating others the way you want to be treated, the whole golden rule routine. But when I told them they weren’t being respectful to one another they took this in an entirely different direction.

Staring at me in disbelief they say:  “Teacher, are you calling us ‘mish mahtrum’?”

I paused not knowing quite what to respond.

Egyptian street children who are not "respectable"

Egyptian street children who are not “respectable”

Now the word ‘mahtrum’ in Arabic could be argued to mean “respectful” but it also carries many other connotations that the word “respectful” (in the context that I was using) doesn’t mean.

So I asked them define it themselves. I asked some of my brightest and talented students what they thought “respectful” meant and what “mish mahtrum” meant in Arabic they stated to me point blank: “In Arabic, Ms., ‘mish mahtrum’ means a street kid. It means people who don’t have two parents. The dirty people living in the streets. ”

Looking back, I think these words made my heart fall. But one shouldn’t be surprised we are all products of our surroundings…

So in this context “mish mahtrum” is closer to the English translation “not respectable” dealing more with the concept of “respectability” or the dominant society’s views of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and acceptance…

In this case, once again the poor, the “street people” are branded the only possible ones who can be “disrespectful” or “unrespectable.” My class was incredulous when I called their actions “disrespectful” because this was not a word to be attributed to people like them who lived in houses and were clean.


Teaching in an international school was certainly one of the most curious experiences – I found it was the little things that I encountered that showed the values and certainly the atmosphere which influenced my students… indeed, from the crazed almost orgasmic happiness exuded by any of the teachers or administrators when they acquired a new possession from some European country to the strange but the “it’s-not-racist-or-anything” policy which dissuades the hijabi teachers from showing their faces in the garden when the parents come by. (Because you know if we had hijabi teachers we wouldn’t be an international school duh!) Or else to the unusual weight that a Western passport carries in hiring decisions despite qualifications, to the yearbook that just happens to have the lightest of children’s faces plastered on the cover to represent this very brown skinned school…

On my side of the aisle, I am aware that when teaching, especially the English language, I am also teaching a set of political and social mores, transferring the prejudices, stereotypes and racism that come embedded in the language and bound with its history and doing my best to subvert them every now and then.

So for me these views of the Egyptian poor by Egyptian and foreign middle and upper classes are so disturbing not only because they are offensive, but also because I know they are implicitly (and explicitly) calling for something… Those who characterize Egyptian poor in this manner are, to be frank, calling for another dictatorship. They imply a brutal hand is needed to control, to intervene, and to subdue and they reject any vision that does not include the intellectual and rhetorical debasement of “ordinary” Egyptians.

I know some people will raise an eyebrow at me… don’t you think the honor-killing, the female genital mutilation, and the rampant sexual abuse, which are all facts of life in Egypt, are horrid enough that we can call “these people” thugs, savages, uncivilized etc…?

But the truth is words like these choke our imaginations. They limit our ability to relate to the most disenfranchised and oppressed in our communities and help blind us to the suffering of others. They placate and soothe our suspicions of economic injustice, suspicions that should very well not be placated, suspicions that should not be soothed.

Working here and in education for almost a year, I find it strange that it’s I who is doing a lot of the learning. It’s easy to say that it is the illiterate, with their sticks and their dirty clothes, who are the major causes of Egypt’s problems. It’s easy to say that the problem in Egypt is ignorance and that if we just “educate” people these issues will be resolved.  But the fact remains that ignorance and dissonance are also spread with literacy and high income rates not just poverty… and a lot of the problems that Egypt has lie with the educated and literate among us.

* Note: “Backwardness – Is itself a really discriminatory term. Of course I use it here in jest and to redefine it. But the general history of this word shows it tends to be attributed to countries and peoples that are not “Western” or are primarily the former colonies of Europe. Its use implies that while all Western countries are symbols of modernity or “forward” all non-western cultures and peoples are not… For example, Germany during the 1930s was still considered an “advanced” country at the time because of the military and technology it possessed. It generally wasn’t considered “backward” despite the fact that they it was in the process of systematically killing millions of people.

We can even use more contemporary examples where say a country like the United States that is famous for dropping bombs and drones on innocent civilians including children and imprisoning a mass amount of its population, is still considered “advanced” and would hardly ever find the adjective “backward” in a sentence with itself. However, Egypt, or say any other country on the continent of Africa, would be much more likely to receive the label “backward” because a percentage of the population continues to cut the genitals of women… The unequal distribution of the term should raise suspicions.

Picture source:

  1. Rosalinda said:

    Dear Agitator, one note: “Mu7taram/Muhtaram” means “respectABLE”,not “respectFUL” in English.Keep up the good work!

    • diasporica said:

      Hi Rosalinda,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I was hoping someone would comment on this. The difficulty in translation was the point I was trying to convey. When I was speaking with my students I told them they were “disrespectful”. But they immediately translated this into “mish mu7htaram” they did not know the difference between “mish mu7htaram” and “disrespectful.” Honestly, this left me at a point of confusion because I did not know how to say “disrespectful” in Arabic to clarify the meaning for them. In English we have specific connotations for the words (respectful, disrespectful, and respectable). They all mean something dramatically different. And unlike in Egypt, many English-speakers have lessened their usage of the word “respectable” because it has classist and Victorian connotations. To be respectful or disrespectful towards someone would usually infer that one is courteous and kind to others. To be “respectable,” on the other hand infers that one comes from a “dignified” class or background with a good social reputation. It’s a word that is more focused on what the others THINK of you, then on how you actually TREAT others. My students could not understand this difference therefore when I told them they were “disrespectful” towards others, they immediately thought I was insulting the social standing of them and their families by liking them to “street children” rather than criticizing their behavior towards others. So what I would love to know in Arabic is how to convey this difference. What is the appropriate Arabic translation of these words?

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