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Loss, Recovery, and Community Engagement: Archiving the MENA

RoundTable III-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable is a collective reflection on the emergence of multi-sited curation, exhibition, and preservation initiatives of national and communal histories of Egypt amid a contemporary context of various forms of heritage and memory erasure. The roundtable gathers leading researchers, archivists, and advocates committed to democratizing access to material and archival records from the Global South and its diaspora in ways that acknowledge and listen to diverse and community-based voices. We address the ethical considerations of our research practices, collaborative projects with local communities, and archival and historical site preservation initiatives. We are interested in questions of accessibility and sustainability of these endeavors and seek to nurture practical conversations about recovering and maintaining repositories and spaces of historical significance. Some of the questions we address include, but are not limited to, 1) Where to start and how to find the right home for documents? 2) Navigating consent and communicating value with community groups and donors? 3) Why does it matter that we do this work and how pertinent it appears in light of the profound loss of physical and ephemeral heritage across the MENA region? 4) How to animate the archives through collaborative exhibition? We must ensure, as these questions communicate, the enduring shared authority of our archival and preservation practices and prioritize building community partnerships in a transnational perspective to narrativize and display curated collections.
  • In a January 2021 editorial for the American Historical Association's newsmagazine, archivist and scholar Brian M. Watson pleaded with historians: “Please Stop Calling Things Archives.” Watson observed how the ‘archival turn’ in the humanities and social sciences had diluted the meaning of what constitutes an archive as the term has come to describe any amalgamation of objects or documents. More importantly, this tendency to uncritically name an ‘archive’ oftentimes overlooks the actors, labor, intent, organization, funding, and other mechanisms of power or resistance central to the formation and maintenance of archives. For this roundtable session, I want to consider Watson’s invitation in both theoretical and practical terms within the context of conducting archival research in Egypt. Researchers interested in consulting sources in Egyptian archives commonly note the difficulties in accessing state archives while dozens of other small, institutional, ecclesiastical, family, and private collections remain underexamined. Even when researchers consult smaller repositories, sometimes they claim ‘discovery’ of a ‘hidden archive’ that overlooks the role local individuals and communities played in forging the archive the researcher claims they uncovered. In both instances, a pervasive fetishization of archives characterizes the approach to research in Egypt– especially by foreign scholars. While access to certain archives in Egypt can be difficult, I pose a series of alternate considerations to conceptually reorient ourselves and our methodological approaches to research in order to generate ethically informed and community engaged scholarship. I invite members and attendees of the roundtable to consider three aspects of the archive including how (1) the archive is infrastructure, (2) a mediated institution, and (3) should be consulted in conversation and engagement with local communities. I also offer my own experiences of working with religious leaders, librarians, archival specialists, and volunteers in neighborhood and ecclesiastical archives in Cairo.
  • How do we communicate the value of archival preservation to Egyptian immigrant families? How do we ensure that physical and digital collections of endangered histories survive in perpetuity? These questions will animate a presentation on Egypt Migrations, a Canada federal non-profit that works to identify, acquire, digitize, and exhibit very large collections of historical materials – including photographs, papers, diaries, books, oral histories, and other audio-visual multimedia – that illuminate the stories of individuals and groups that make up our collective memory. Engaging in enriching dialogue with collaborators in this roundtable conversation, I reflect on a recent collaborative exhibition at the American University in Cairo that included source materials preserved in the first, and only, Egyptian immigrant archival collection housed at the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) at York University, Canada. With over 200,000 Canadians of Egyptian background and almost two million migrants from Egypt around the world, ours is a long history of migration. The stories of Egypt’s migrants are a vital part of the anthology of global histories, and a vast compendium of knowledge with incredible potential to influence our future. Drawing on insights from cultural theorist Stuart Hall on the necessity of counter-narratives for social action and intervention, I focus on the promise of community archives for preservation and conservation across borders, as well as the production and circulations of new work in different media, which has for too long taken a very definite second place. With nearly 75 recorded oral histories and thousands of textual and photographic records, Egypt Migrations has developed close bonds with families and institutions in Egypt and across the Americas (Canada, the United States, and Brazil). This initiative emerged in response to the ongoing loss of physical artifacts in the sending society and the closure of independent associations in receiving societies. It works to collect and produce source materials for future research. Focusing primarily on Egypt Migrations’ growing oral history collection, from curation to exhibition, I engage the ethical practice of our shared dialogue with everyday migrants and the intentional move beyond the standard practice of single-sited curation to produce ground-breaking deliverables across multiple geographies in connection with innovative digital humanities virtual collection and presentation.
  • This contribution to the panel will look into online and exhibition practices that challenge conventions of what is an archive and how it can be circulated. A variety of users of platforms such as Youtube, Instagram and others disrupt the scroll through content largely aimed at promoting commercial products or services by uploading newly scanned images and recently digitized films and other material, sometimes accompanied by data or commentary, that comprise missing components of non-existent archives or museums accessible to the public focusing particularly on the contemporary and recent history. Photography, magazine culture, film posters, newspaper clippings and other ephemera are continuously digitized and uploaded by individuals, comprising an ambitious archive. Such practices promote community engagement, however it comes with challenges such as lost or incorrect information, misidentification, and a flourishing of amateur historiography. By focusing on specific examples of my archiving interventions online, the challenges and reception, potentials and the impact on “recovery” of collective memory such interventions propose. In addition to online activities, this contribution will also discuss a recent exhibition on the modern architecture of Cairo as an effort to respond to the current condition of research in the absence of conventional archives and archival material. In the absence of functional archiving institutions for fields concerning modern life such as architecture, photography, cinema, and other creative declines which reflect the culture, politics, and economy of place. The tumultuous century since WWI saw the loss and scattering of official and private archives and collections across the Arab region by way of sudden political change, arson, corruption and other means. In this context, online unconventional archiving efforts by individuals, which fraught with issues, such as copyrights, raise fundamental questions about accepted definitions of the archive.
  • Cairo, the city as we know it, is disappearing. Since 2015, the city has gradually lost historic neighbourhoods, a significant chunk of its green space, and free public access to the Nile. Multi-lane highways are emerging in the heart of the city’s traditional neighbourhoods and the destruction of homes in the name of progress has become commonplace. Not a single neighbourhood has been left unscathed as the government frantically adopts a “development” (tatwir) policy that has pushed residents out and has turned the city into an even more unliveable mess lacking in proper infrastructure, walkable pavements, public transport and recreational spaces. Such developments are fuelled by a combination of failed government policies, economic greed and an obsession with the real-estate sector and new cities. Instead of investing in the city’s traditional neighbourhoods, money is channelled outwards towards the new compound developments in 6th of October city, New Cairo, and most recently the New Capital. This presentation seeks to examine community and neighbourhood-level efforts to save Greater Cairo. It explores a number of initiatives, including some that I have personally been involved with, which are scattered across the city and the multiple tools and tactics they employ to stand up to development projects, tree-cutting escapades, and the demolition of historic homes. These tactics range from documentation to policy proposals, archiving, careful negotiation with the designated authorities, networking, collaboration with unlikely allies, and activism. They are often used simultaneously in what appears to be a mammoth battle over the right to the city. The presentation will also shed light on the multiple actors involved in such initiatives and their long-term vision for the preservation of their neighbourhoods. It will blend personal anecdotes and interviews with involved actors to provide an account that tries to do justice to the many residents attempting to save their homes and their city.