Lucie Ryzova

University of Birmingham, UK


Free floating words: the social landscapes of print in colonial Egypt


At the turn of the nineteenth century Egypt witnessed an era of unprecedented social and cultural change. Within the short span of a few decades, the medium of print became widely established among broad segments of the urban (and to some degree, rural) middle strata. New reading and writing practices emerged, and with them, entirely novel perceptions of what texts are for, who can write, and what they could write. On the broadest level, this talk will address the question of what was at stake socially and culturally in the emergence of print capitalism in Egypt (and very likely throughout the region). In sharp contrast to how texts used to be understood in the context of oral society, print capitalism meant that words were no longer invested in persons (linked to memory and oral performance) but rather became carried by objects such as books and magazines in a market environment. Seeing print capitalism and the rapid emergence of new reading publics within a wider framework of local formations of modernity and its technologies, this talk will address the changes in social authority which print capitalism enabled and even necessitated. As young people represented the bulk of the new producers as well as consumers of the emerging print culture, I will argue that printing encouraged the redistribution of power in society and the emergence of new social and textual hierarchies, which were often deeply generational. I will also pay attention to the material aspects of this emerging local modern print culture, with particular attention to the ways in which people engaged with the medium of print that cannot be understood through a neat separation between ‘the written’ and ‘the printed’.


Lucie Ryzova is Senior Lecturer in Middle East History at the Department of History, University of Birmingham. She is a social and cultural historian of modern Egypt, with particular interest in Egyptian popular culture and vernacular modernity. Her research interests include the ethnography of reading and writing in late colonial Egypt, the production and consumption of print, and the history of print design (magazines, posters, ephemera).