Letters to the Editor 1906

Immediately upon first glance of the Monday issue of my week in “The Egyptian Gazette,” I was intrigued by the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. As a history major, I am constantly learning about different time periods and cultures, while desperately trying to grasp the true interests of the people living in these different time periods and cultures. So, when I saw the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section, I imagined the potential for greater understanding of what people were interested in Egypt during the early 20th century. With that being said, when it came time to analyze an aspect of “The Egyptian Gazette,” I knew immediately the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section was what I wished to know more about.

When beginning my research, I first looked at the ‘Analysis Directory’ on our class website, where I noticed a student in a previous semester had already looked into the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. Since they focused primarily on 1905, I decided that I would look into 1906, and after gathering my data and making my analysis, I would compare our findings to see if public concern had shifted between the two years.

After constructing my analysis question, I began formulating an XPath query. I looked to my predecessor who relied on the query, //div[@type="item"][contains(., 'LETTERS TO THE EDITOR')], and decided to use this as a preliminary search. I also searched //div [contains(., ‘LETTER TO THE EDITOR’)] to account for any differences in the way the heading may have varied between issues, as did she. However, I felt that this query was far too basic. Yes, it returned all instances of the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section within “The Egyptian Gazette” but, it did not give me much else.

So, I decided to build on this query and tried to pinpoint the titles of each individual letter within the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. In order to do this, I started with the XPath query //div[@type="section"][@feature="letters"]. When encoding the digital Egyptian Gazette, each student should have included the ‘@feature=“letters”’ for the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. Thus, when querying this, I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the section. Obviously this returned essentially the same results as my initial query, however, I ran it again and I added //head to the end, allowing it to pick up each individual headline within that section.

I had quite a few results after this query, but I felt that I needed to take into consideration students different styles of coding, while keeping in mind that not everyone would make the title of the letter a headline. Therefore, I decided to then query, //div[@type ="section"][@feature="letters"]/div[@type="item"]/p[1]. With this query, I was going into the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section, then into each item within each division and finally looking at the first paragraph in each division. This did not return nearly as many results as the previous query, but it served its purpose by looking for any differences in encoding which may have caused my previous query to miss a title.

Finally, in order to procure as many titles as possible I ran my previous query again, but changed the ending to /head[1] to compare these results with my first search of the headlines in the section to again make sure that I did not miss any.

After I finished gathering my data through these queries, I needed to clean up my results which I did in Atom using regular expressions. Once I had a cleaned up version of my results, I was able to cross-check the dates of the occurrences of ‘Letters to the Editor’ throughout the year of 1906 from my predecessor’s query, with the titles of the letters I had acquired with my own query. These were the number of letters I ended up with in 1906:

Upon looking over my data it occurred to me that querying the digital Egyptian Gazette for the authors of the individual letters to the editor may be useful in determining not only who was writing, but why they were writing—i.e. what interests did they have in a particular topic. However, this immediately posed to be an almost insurmountable obstacle due to the varying ways people encoded their individual weeks of the newspaper. When querying the titles, I had a similar experience figuring out where in the code the title could be; but, the title only had a couple possible locations, while the authors had more than I could count. Every time I felt I had figured out the proper query, or queries, there was always another issue I had not accounted for. The name of the author could be located in any paragraph within the section, all depending on how many letters were in that issue and how many paragraphs the student encoding allotted those letters. The more letters there were, the more authors I needed to find.

Obviously I could have gone through every paragraph in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section picking out each individual author but, I began to think about patterns and the way in which each author signed-off. It usually was some variation of this: yours-comma-space-word-word. Now in a perfect world where people always corrected their OCR down to the comma or the space this pattern, when expressed with regular expressions and an X-Path query like this, //div[@type="section"][@feature="letters"]/div[@type="item"]/p, could have potentially returned most of the authors names. Unfortunately, it did not.

So, I compiled the names of the authors that I could with various queries, but I only had a limited number or authors. Ultimately I moved forward and began categorizing the headlines into more broad topics, beginning to think about what people were interested in when writing to the editor of “The Egyptian Gazette.” Now once I got to this step, the budding historian within me abandoned looking solely at the titles and authors I had complied, and instead opened almost every issue containing letters in 1906 to see for myself what they consisted of. This took much longer than if I looked a title and arbitrarily decided what the letter meant. I was able to create much more accurate categories by taking the time to do this, while also compiling the names of the authors I couldn’t find through querying. It also allowed me to remove any errors in my data that otherwise I would have missed. I still utilized a query to make this process quicker, querying the issues to bring me directly to the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section with, //div[@feature"letters"].

Quickly I realized that there was no simple way of categorizing the letters. As I read over the titles, and later the letters themselves, the complexities of the ‘Letters for the Editor’ section revealed themselves. I ended up with a variety of different categories to label, or describe, what exactly the letters focused on. I initially hoped to simply categorize them under single terms, however, many overlapped. Some for example, were a response to another letter or to something published in an issue of the newspaper, while also focusing heavily on public concerns. Thus, I felt compelled to try and be as specific as possible to avoid misrepresenting the letters contents. So, instead of labeling it only as a response or only as public concern, I decided to label it as ‘response/public concern,’ to be as accurate as possible. Below I have included a visualization that explores the categories I utilized and their number of occurrences:

As for my overall results, I have a greater understanding of what the purpose of the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section was. Beyond its use for free discourse, where people could write into the Editor to share an idea or opinion, the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section provided a place for public discussion without actually having to be in public. For instance, ‘XENOS’ wrote to the editor a total of eleven times, beginning and contributing to many debates under this alias. The ‘Financial Advisors Note,’ ‘Purification of Alexandria,’ and ‘Officials and Civilians’ were all topics dissected over multiple issues of the newspaper, with many contributors and opinions shared to a broad audience, many of whom used alias. The fear of judgment over thoughts and opinions was eliminated to some degree by sharing them through the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. It reminded me of social media in the modern day, giving many the opportunity to speak freely without being criticized face-to-face over their beliefs.

The ‘Letters to the Editor’ section was of interest, as people stood to benefit from being included in this section. There was clearly the possibility for financial gain as seen in the various financial pleas to the public through the section. More importantly however, the section stood as a medium for change. On various occasions, people wrote to the editor in hopes of being published to enact change. For example on May 8th, after a letter on the ‘Cairo Water Supply’ was published the needed increase in water was granted. Further, the writer of ‘Alexandria-Ramleh Railway’ on August 21st, spoke of the “medium of your valuable paper,” implying that the paper, and particularly this section, allowed for average people to reach a larger audience.

Now, it is important to note that ‘The Egyptian Gazette’ was written for and read by the British inhabitant of Egypt. The topics of the ‘Letters of the Editor’ section are those that were of interest to the British. This was clearly evident in talks about the future for the natives, or the Egyptians, without them being involved in the discussion. Yet, that does not deny that the section meant something for the people who interacted with it.

Furthermore, after reviewing my data, I returned to my predecessors work and reviewed their results. Although we had categorized our results differently, it was still possible for me to compare the two. While I looked more at the individual topics more specifically, she focused on a broader representation if interests, dividing her results into national, international and financial. If I too divided my results into those very categories, developing percentages like hers, I feel confidently that we would have similar results. I agree with her conclusion that national affairs, meaning the happenings within Egypt, were of greater importance than both international and financial. It seems that between 1905-1906, little changed in terms of public interest.

Moving now to scholarship, there has been ample work done on newspapers and how people have interacted with them. Yet, even before I began my search, it occurred to me that the letters supported the argument made by both Hanan Hammad, and Nefertiti Takla in their articles regarding sex work. As the purification of Alexandria debate spanning several issues began, there were multiple references to the concerning work women were partaking in. Their words were selected carefully, however, after reading these articles I was able to understand what the public was actually concerned about when writing to the editor.

Furthermore, according to “The Content of Political Participation: Letters to the Editor and the People Who Write Them,” the authors, Christopher Cooper, H. Gibbs Knotts, Moshe Haspel, looked at letters to the editor to understand political participation similarly to how I looked at the letters in “The Egyptian Gazette” to understand people’s interest in 1906 Egypt. I found their description of the letters to the editor to be interesting, as they wrote “letters to the editor represent a unique place in the public sphere where a diversity of opinions should be represented.” (131) In my research that is exactly what I found. The ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the newspaper provided me with a look at diversity in thought.

More importantly however, the letters provide me with the opportunity to research multiple topics at a later date, as any of the categories I designated to the letters in 1906, could be used to build a separate analysis project. It would be interesting to see if the letters actually led to changes within the community favoring any particular opinion and if these changes were reported about later in the newspaper as well.

All in all, my analysis project gave me insight into what people were interested in Egypt in 1906 as I had hoped. I feel I understand the people who wrote these letters more completely, as they were actual people, with actual opinions, thoughts and ideas that they readily shared and spread through the most accessible medium at their disposal. Below are my results, showing the number of occurrences of each category, combined with the date, title and author of each letter:

Chloe Majonica
Chloe Majonica

The author, a student at Florida State University, was enrolled in the digital microhistory lab in spring 2018.