Date of Degree


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Degree Name





Talal Asad

Committee Members

Vincent Crapanzano

Jane Schneider

Subject Categories



This dissertation is an ethnography of private law in contemporary Port Said, Egypt. Based on extensive fieldwork in 2005 and 2007, it considers how Port Saidians come to possess economic and social entitlements vis-à-vis one another and how concomitant obligations get construed and actualized. As an analysis of quotidian practices of private law and surety, this dissertation is intended to contribute to broader scholarly debates about legal subjectivity and legal consciousness, and to reconsider the intersections between law, custom and morality.

The analysis of contemporary transactional and surety practices is rooted in a discussion of both Egyptian legal reform and the history and economic context of the research locale, Port Said. Legal reform in the 19th and 20th century in Egypt radically altered the scope of law and carved out a separate space for moral personhood in the private sphere. This shift to a secular modern law, in conjunction with processes of urbanization and the penetration of European capital in Egypt, can be seen as productive of new strategies by which the tenuousness of private law agreements could be mediated.

In order to better understand practices of private law as both reflective and constitutive of moral and legal personhood, this dissertation concentrates on innovative uses of customary/commercial documents. These documentary technologies, including honesty receipts, checks, and contracts, are ubiquitous in transactions and dispute resolution processes. Port Saidians deploy them to radically enhance guarantees, and to fictionalize and obscure the true subject of a dispute or agreement. This allows them to make determinations about how the law shall adjudicate their problems, to limit law's intervention, and to reinsert moral normative values into exchanges. In order to make such processes visible I analyze three important nodes through which documents and cases travel: the police, the courts, and lawyers. I argue that attention to both moments of customary/commercial document production and the circulation of these documents between people and institutions is critical. These moments of production and circulations are the processes by which documents not only determine rights and make obligations effective but also forge and redefine relationality and moral personhood.


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