How did you get started in your discipline? What drew you to your research topic?
It was not a straightforward journey – which I am grateful for – but rather coming full circle, and in a sense, a homecoming. My father’s family is Jewish Egyptian, and I grew up with that strong heritage. Stories about life in Egypt, including – though not focusing on – the family’s emigration from Egypt, captivated my imagination growing up. That was enough to get me interested in Egyptian history and culture, and in the Jewish community in Egypt. I wrote a high school thesis about its history. But when I got to my university undergraduate studies, I was told by a prominent historian in the field that good scholars do not research anything remotely close to their personal background, in order to keep their objectivity. So, I studied the general history and culture of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa as a whole. How times have changed: nowadays one can affirm a strong personal connection to one’s field of research, and indeed, I have come full circle to study, first Egypt, and then its Jews. Today, I find myself contemplating whether, and how, to bring my own family story into my scholarly research.
What is your book project about? What is its broader significance?
The book that has grown out of my PhD dissertation explores the history of Cairo’s coffeehouses in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th one. It is based on archival research of Egyptian and British spy reports, Egyptian newspapers in Arabic and several other languages, Arabic fiction and memoirs, census data, travel accounts, photographs, interviews, and more. It looks at issues such as social hierarchy and social mobility, adaptation of, or resistance to, European cultural models in a colonial setting, leisure and material cultures, and gender dynamics around a public urban space. It also examines the pivotal role that Cairo’s coffeehouses played in forming the Egyptian public sphere, and especially their role in organizing the anti-colonial 1919 Revolution.
In many significant ways, the history of Cairo’s coffeehouses encapsulates a history of migrations, not only of people, but also of the cultures and the social practices that they brought with them. Moreover, these were not only migrations out of Egypt, but also migrations into Egypt. Coffeehouses emerged in Egypt around the turn of the 16th century, and they were probably brought to Egypt by students, travelers, and/or merchants from the Arabian Peninsula. Within a few decades, such migrants from Egypt spread this new phenomenon of coffeehouses to Damascus and Aleppo, and from there to Istanbul and to the rest of the Ottoman Empire. From there, coffeehouses spread to Europe in the following centuries. The economic boom that Egypt experienced from the mid-19th century onward attracted an influx of new migrants from the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. They brought with them new styles of coffeehouses, and my book delves into the social and cultural history of that encounter between the new and the older. So first, we nowadays tend to focus on emigration from Egypt, but there was a time, and not in the distance past, that Egypt attracted immigration. Second, we should not forget that migration is not only of people, but also of all that they carry with them, including their cultures and social practices.
Recently, I have turned this interest in social class, performance of social identities, and public urban spaces, to a research agenda that looks at the place of Cairo’s Jews in this context. This research tackles issues such as migration, embourgeoisement, minority-majority relations, and the practical, everyday, meanings of Jewish identity for Jewish Egyptians. I have written two forthcoming articles on these topics: one article surveys the urban history of Cairo’s Jews in the 20th century, and traces the migration of Jews across neighborhoods in the city, as well as the migration of Jews from outside the city, from the countryside or from abroad. The other article is a historical anthropology of one Jewish-owned coffeehouse in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Cairo. In these studies, I show how important it was for Jewish Egyptians to perform their newly achieved middle-class status, because they were often immigrants from a humble socio-economic background. I argue that urban public spaces such as coffeehouses and others are an important lens through which we can examine how different Egyptian communities interacted: looking at coffeehouses, for example, writes Jews back into the history of the Egyptian middle-class (known in Arabic as the effendiyyah), and writes Egyptian Muslims and Christians back into the history of Egyptian cosmopolitanism, from which they have largely been excluded. After all, Muslims and Christians comprised the majority of the regulars in that Jewish-owned little coffeehouse in Cairo.
In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?
Coming full circle to study Egypt’s Jewish history, I am indeed grappling with my own position as a historian working on this topic. Anthropologists are very adept, as a core consideration of their discipline, in thinking through their positionality, but this is something new for most historians: remember my old history teacher and his insistence on keeping a distant objectivity. On the one hand, I do see a responsibility, as a second or third generation of that Egyptian diasporic community, to tell their story, which is greatly understudied: it has many important things to teach us about Egyptian history and society, lessons that are still highly relevant today. On the other hand, I also do not consider myself to be a mouthpiece for anyone or anything: I do not intend to be any kind of a “court historian.” There is, after all, a merit and a value in my old teacher’s old-fashioned notions of distance and objectivity, in the sense that it is a professional duty of any scholar to keep their ability to be critical, even of their own communities. As for my own family’s history, I have so far used it in a very measured way, only to the extent that it typifies the history of the Jewish community in Egypt.
As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate?
Studying migrations, diasporic communities, and minorities is a highly effective way to dismantle xenophobia and nationalism. Our research on the homo migrans, that is, on migration as a basic human condition, easily exposes the cruel politics, arbitrariness, and fundamental folly of modern nationalistic borders, as well as the pain and the suffering that they have caused. Understanding and teaching about migrations and diasporas also easily show how brittle these manmade borders are, how they have and can be challenged, and that there is nothing natural or pre-ordained about them. Historians of the late Ottoman Empire and its transition to the nation-state system we know today have long demonstrated how the Middle East was particularly afflicted by the bane of nationalism, and this is a lesson that I believe we should keep on teaching.
Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt and religious communities more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?
I am very excited to be part of a burgeoning scholarly interest in the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, one that studies them as part of the societies in which they lived, and not in isolation. I would like to see that scholarship acknowledged and incorporated into Middle East Studies, it should not be isolated solely in Jewish Studies. Research on Jews of the Middle East should feature in Middle East Studies conferences, publications, and classes. The experiences of Jewish Egyptians contribute to our understanding of Egypt, not only of Jews in the world.
Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?
I am indeed pursuing an academic career: so far, I have been fortunate enough to win postdoctoral fellowships at Penn, Columbia, and UCLA, which have allowed me to continue my research and teaching on Jewish Egyptian history. I hope to continue my research on Egypt and the Middle East in general, and on the place of Jews in their societies, tackling issues such as social hierarchy, urban history, everyday life, and especially migration. I think it will be fascinating to study Jewish Egyptians as an Egyptian diasporic community, together with other Egyptian diasporic communities; it will be equally fascinating to study the history of Jewish Egyptians together with the history of other migrant communities and minorities in Egypt, such as Shāmis and Maghrebis. It will place Egypt in a wider context of human movement and settlement across the Middle East and North Africa, and destabilize the common understanding of Egypt as an isolated and largely homogenous society that has historically lacked diversity.
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Dr. Alon Tam is a social and cultural historian of modern Egypt, and of its Jewish community. He has written about the social and political history of Cairo’s coffeehouses, about Cairo’s Jews and their place in its urban history, as well as on other topics in Egyptian history, such as Blackface in Egyptian theater and film. Dr. Tam received his PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, and he has held postdoctoral fellowships at Penn, Columbia University, and the University of California in Los Angeles.