Taming an Iron Horse: Capital, Politics, and Rail Infrastructure in Egypt


ACLS Fellowship Program




In modern Egypt, the sprawling railway network not only magnetized global capital, but also kindled a divergent and sometimes clashing set of aspirations and practices. This book project examines the multiple, contingent, and fluid shades of meaning cast by a singular railway infrastructure from 1854 to 1933. It focuses on a diverse array of figures amidst Egypt’s mounting debt crisis—from colonial dignitaries, social critics, and environmental savants to intrepid female travelers, nomadic bandits, and displaced refugees. While powerful agents sought to tame the railways with vexing narratives of modernization, stringent governance, or nationalistic fervor, marginalized individuals danced on the fringes of legal boundaries, destabilizing the dictates set by the former. In every subversive act, they echoed heterogenous desires for redistributing social wealth and popular engagement with Egypt’s top-down modernization. Taking an infrastructural approach to revisit the modern Middle East, this project accentuates the multilayered politics in motion at an empire’s frontier that oscillated between modernity and indigeneity, capitalization and decolonization, autocratic reality and democratic ethos.