Kyle J. Anderson, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Kyle J. Anderson (KA): While taking a long train ride from Cairo to Aswan in 2008, I was reading Albert Hourani’s book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, and was struck by how the people I was seeing through the windows of the train were left out of the history I was reading. After that, I became interested in studying and writing about the unique historical experiences of rural Egyptians. So often, when we talk about Egypt’s modern history, we focus on big cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and very little attention is left over for the countryside. When I decided to pursue doctoral work, my goal was to contribute to rebalancing this historiography.

My advisor had mentioned to me that many rural Egyptians were recruited to serve in the First World War, but it was not until I first visited the British archives in 2014 that I realized this would be a viable topic for a whole book. In London, I discovered a variety of sources on the Egyptian Labor Corps (ELC), including Foreign Office correspondence, war diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts written by British officers who oversaw Egyptians during the war, and even a short-lived newspaper, called The ELC News, that circulated in Qantara for a few months in 1919. In Egypt, I was less successful at getting access to official archives, but was still able to supplement these sources with publicly available newspapers and songs, and I did manage to find one short memoir written in Arabic from an ELC veteran. My research ultimately took me to Paris and Minneapolis as well, and through this multi-sited research process, I was able to cobble together a variety of perspectives on the story.

The most important inspiration, however, took place during the writing process. I got a job at SUNY Old Westbury, where many of my colleagues were US historians with a particular focus on issues of race. Teaching at a majority-minority institution brought the racial disparities in higher education into sharp relief. I began focusing on race as the major theoretical framework for understanding the ELC. Then, George Floyd was murdered by police and the Black Lives Matter movement undertook a number of street actions that briefly took over my Brooklyn neighborhood. Energized by participating in the demonstrations, I threw myself into the theoretical literature on race, as well as the historical literature on African Americans. The most important part of this book as I see it now is about bringing the lessons of African American studies to bear on the history of modern Egypt.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KA: The Brooklyn hipster in me wants to say “I was into critical race theory before it was cool.” I borrowed the main framework for one chapter of my dissertation from Keith Aoki, the Asian American critical race theorist who wrote in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. That is where the subtitle of the book comes from. Aoki’s argument is that ideas about race do not, in the first instance, reflect any sort of biological reality, but that they come to be socially meaningful as mediated through their influence on spatial change. I cite a number of scholars working at the intersection of critical race theory and critical geography, including Ronald Bayor, Tyler Stovall, and Stephanie Camp. Deborah Cowen’s book The Deadly Life of Logistics helped sharpen my thoughts on geography, while literature from the field of African American studies helped me think about oral/aural methodologies (Graham White and Shane White), as well as racial “passing” (Elaine K. Ginsberg and Catherine Rottenberg).

Bringing critical race theory into conversation with Egyptian history would never have made sense to me if not for the excellent research that has been done in the past twenty years or so on the history of race in Egypt and the broader Ottoman world. I am particularly indebted to the work of Eve Troutt-Powell, Omnia El Shakry, Marwa Elshakry, Elise K. Burton, Cemil Aydin, and Bob Vitalis. In many parts of the book, I am simply synthesizing what these other pioneering scholars have already said and trying to apply it to the lived experiences of rural Egyptians during the war.

Finally, I cannot talk about this book without mentioning the 1919 Egyptian revolution, which immediately followed the war and is remembered by many as the founding moment of the modern Egyptian nation-state. I follow the lead of scholars like Ellis Goldberg and Reinhard Schülze by situating the revolution in the context of the war and the British empire, but I would like to think I have also internalized some of Aaron Jakes’ critique that we cannot ignore the diverse political imaginaries of the rural Egyptians who participated in the revolution by reducing their actions to a mechanistic response to material deprivation. What I try to emphasize is how solidarity with exiled ELC workers, as well as a unique diagnosis of the colonial condition that was arrived at through extended engagement with ELC recruitment, animated rural protests in 1919.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

KA: My best-known previous work is probably my 2017 IJMES article, in which I tried to chart a course between British imperial understandings of ELC recruitment as “voluntary” and Egyptian nationalist representations of the same phenomenon as akin to “slavery.” I argued that both voluntary and coerced labor could coexist, and that even those who were coerced attempted to exercise their agency and were actually effective in getting the colonial government to change policy.

In this book, I have tried to think more critically about what representations of ELC laborers as “slaves” in the writings of Egyptian nationalist activists and intellectuals really meant, what kind of work they were doing. I connect these metaphors to Egypt’s long history of slavery, and the well-documented link between trans-Saharan African origins, enslavement, and Blackness in Egyptian culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, I think representations of ELC workers as “slaves” generate a politically mobilizing force by asserting a mischaracterization of Egyptian race on the part of British authorities who grouped Egyptians alongside Black Africans in the so-called Coloured Labour Corps during the war. I use the term “racial nationalism” to identify efforts to construct a unique Egyptian race, partly motivated by shock and disgust at the treatment of Egyptians during the war, that is superior to Black Africans, heir to an ancient civilization, and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy. The concept of racial nationalism has been studied in a variety of contexts, but as far as I know, this book is the first effort to apply this term to modern Egypt. I think there are cognate movements in nearby countries, too, including Phoenicianism in Lebanon, Revisionist Zionism in Israel, and Aryanism in Iran. However, because it is outside the scope of the story I am trying to tell, I do not discuss the broader implications of racial nationalism at length in the book. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

KA: I have a few audiences in mind. First is scholars of the modern Middle East or modern Egypt. I hope that this book will contribute to what seems like an increasing effort to talk about race and the afterlives of slavery in the region. In particular, I hope Middle East studies folks are convinced by the parallels between African American and Egyptian history that I try to point out in this book, and are inspired to read some of the Black studies literature themselves to see if it is relevant to their own work.

The second audience would be scholars of the First World War. Military historians are notoriously uncritical in their methodologies, and tend to center the experiences of white officers or soldiers rather than racialized laborers working behind the front lines. The ELC in particular has long been ignored by scholars of the First World War, even in comparison to other similar groups like Indian sepoys, the Chinese Labor Corps, or the tiralleurs Sénégalais.

Finally, the book is in the process of being translated into Arabic, and has already received some press coverage in Egyptian Arabic-language newspapers. I think people in Egypt will connect most with the story, as many do not know that Egyptians even participated in the war, let alone in such vast numbers (I estimate half a million in the book). I hope the book will lead some to question official narratives about the 1919 revolution, Egyptian service in the First World War, and the legacy of Pharaonism.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

I have a book chapter and an article both coming out soon where I try to extend this project of bringing Black Studies and modern Egyptian history together. I have also started critically reading the oeuvre of the little-known Egyptian colloquial poet and folklorist, Mustafa Ibrahim ‘Ajaj, in an attempt to tease out the struggles and resistances that were attendant to the establishment of nationalist hegemony in Egypt. This summer, I will be heading back to the British archives to see if I can find something that piques my interest. In particular, I will be looking for documentation on the relationship between Egypt and Palestine during the interwar period, as well as the Egyptian war against Ethiopia in the 1870s. Hopefully one of these lines of investigation can yield another book project. 


Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, pp. 1-4)

The Adinkerke Military Cemetery lies between France and Belgium, nestled in a patch of farmland that has, in recent years, seen the construction of a busy highway cutting through it. The cemetery can only be reached on foot by a fifty-meter-long grassy path, which passes through the farmland facing the highway. The cars whizzing by this small cluster of headstones obscure the fact that this was once the site of a casualty clearing station during the First World War. At this place, thousands of young men from nearby fronts were triaged and cared for. The unfortunate ones who never recovered are commemorated by headstones all made from Portland stone, a kind of smooth limestone used to build Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Roughly speaking, the space of the cemetery is organized the same way as the map of the globe today: by nation. The entrance to the cemetery is in the southwest corner of the site. Taking an immediate left-hand turn, you can peruse long columns of headstones running north to south that commemorate the deaths of 222 men from Great Britain, the nations of the British Empire, and their allies. Further to the north of the site, you will find 142 graves of German forces and their allies, including a large subgroup of Czech soldiers, all arranged in rows running from east to west, perpendicular to the British graves.

But if you go straight ahead instead of turning left, you may notice one solitary headstone tucked away in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Hidden under the shade of a tall tree and oriented eastward, so that you have to circle around facing toward the front entrance with your back to the highway to read it, is the headstone of Sabit Harun Mohamed. While the other graves in the site are adorned with crosses or national insignia, Mohamed’s is decorated with finely detailed Arabic calligraphy, signifying his status as the lone Muslim buried at Adinkerke: “We are of God and to Him we shall return.” Who was Sabit Harun Mohamed? How did he travel to the northern shores of Belgium? And why does his headstone seem so out of place in this space organized by nationality?

Unfortunately, documentary evidence does not provide enough information to reconstruct Sabit Harun Mohamed’s life in much detail. He may have succumbed to injuries sustained in an air strike on the docks of nearby Dunkirk or Calais, where the German air force bombed a group of migrant laborers a few months before he died on September 6, 1917. Or he may have been working in the Fourth Army area, salvaging scrap metal and munitions behind the lines during the Third Battle of Ypres. It is hard to say, because the grave registration reports–which contain many lines, if not full paragraphs, on the white soldiers buried at Adinkerke–tell us only his rank, the date of his death, and, in place of specifics, the name of the organization with which he served: the Egyptian Labor Corps (ELC).

Commemoration of deceased forces attached to the British Empire in the two World Wars was the responsibility of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC, renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960). The commission’s founder, Fabian Ware, established the principles that were to guide it going forward. “In death,” he wrote, “all, from General to Private, of whatever race or creed, should receive equal honour under a memorial.” Ware saw himself as a pioneer creating “a new respect for the common soldier” in a British army that had, only a century before, buried infantry troops and animals alike in open pits. Thomas Laquer calls Ware’s style of remembrance “commemorative hyper-nominalism,” referring to the memorials he designed at the Western Front that include long lists of the names of British and Indian soldiers.

But outside of Europe, the IWGC did not attach as much importance to the names of the dead. Memorials to the men of the ELC who died in Palestine contain only tablets inscribed in English and Arabic that state the total numbers of casualties buried nearby. One tablet in Haifa reads: “ONE HUNDRED AND SIX MEN OF THE EGYPTIAN LABOUR CORPS ARE BURIED NEAR THIS SPOT.” In her research on colonial war graves in British East Africa, Michèle Barret has found that the so-called principle of equal treatment espoused in the literature on the IWGC was violated consistently in the distinction between what IWGC officials called “white graves” and those of African “natives.” Similarly, for the ELC, more than ten thousand are estimated to have died in service to the British Empire in Palestine, but according to IWGC records, only twenty-two hundred are buried in cemeteries there today. Most of the ELC men who died during the war remain unidentified in unmarked graves. Sabit Harun Mohamed is, in this sense, one of the lucky ones; at least his body received a burial and commemoration. When it operated in spaces on the other side of the global color line, the IWGC, and the British Empire as whole, worked according to a different set of rules.

This book tells the forgotten story of the ELC. During the First World War, the British imposed martial law in Egypt and recruited approximately half a million young men like Sabit Harun Mohamed–mostly from the countryside, and many by force–to serve as military laborers in Europe and the Middle East. They worked as stevedores on the docks of France and Italy, dug trenches in Gallipoli, and drove camels laden with supplies in the deserts of Libya, Sudan, and the Sinai; they policed the inhabitants of occupied Baghdad, and in the advance through Palestine into Syria, which was the second-largest theater of the war, they provided the bulk of the military labor force. The ELC laid hundreds of miles of railroad and water pipeline connecting Egypt and Palestine, which became the infrastructural foundations of the British Empire in the Middle East for a generation thereafter.

The Egyptian Labor Corps documents the experiences of these men in the war and follows them through the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Most importantly, it analyzes how they influenced, and were influenced by, contemporary ideas about the racial identity of Egyptians. Race was a crucial lens through which both British and Egyptian authorities viewed the men of the ELC. For the British and their allies, the ELC was just one part of the so-called Coloured Labor Corps, and workers from Egypt served alongside others from places as far-flung as China, South Africa, India, Vietnam, the West Indies, and Fiji. This was the clearest example for the world to see what African-Americans had recognized for at least a generation as the “color line.” In 1881, Frederick Douglass used the term to refer to the system of racial segregation in the American South after the failure of reconstruction. It was first reformulated on a global scale by W. E. B. Du Bois in a 1900 address to the American Negro Academy in which he insisted “the color line belts the world and … the social problem of the twentieth century is to be the relation of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind.” The global problem identified by Du Bois was made acute less than two decades later by the massive movements of racialized laborers during the First World War, and as the war ground on, millions of people on the other side of the global color line resisted this unprecedented imposition.

For people living in Egypt at the time, the sight of young men being sent away from their villages to work abroad–often bound together by a thick rope–was reminiscent of nothing if not slavery. By the second half of the nineteenth century, most enslaved people in Egypt, especially if they were young men engaged in hard labor, were Black Africans (sudani). Even after slavery was officially abolished in 1877, it persisted surreptitiously, along with a link between Blackness, African origins, and enslavement in Egyptian popular culture. So when urbane, educated Egyptians saw farmers from the countryside–whom they had come to perceive as the repository of Egyptian national authenticity–in a condition akin to slavery, they understood how Egyptians had been racialized as “people of colour” during the war. I argue that the 1919 revolution should be seen partly as an attempt to articulate an alternative conception of Egyptian racial identity, which I call racial nationalism, in response.