The comment above, made by Ibrahim Shawkat to his brother-in-law Yasin, sons of the most famous family in Arabic literature, cuts to the heart of Lucie Ryzova's exploration of effendi identity formation in interwar Egypt. It also raises a plethora of questions, some of which she answers, others that she leaves dangling—no crime in that, to be sure—about the formative decades of a “liberal experiment” that has been sidetracked and sabotaged now for nearly a century, but that continues to exert a profound influence on the Egyptian self-image.

Effendi, as Ryzova notes, originally signified an administrative rank, third in line in the Ottoman schema after Pasha and Bey, and was reserved almost exclusively for Egypt's Turkic elite. Over time, as more native Egyptians gained access to a blossoming “modern” school system and entered government service the title lost its official status and became instead a marker of an upwardly...

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