Times of historical ruptures are moments of “crisis” and, simultaneously, moments of deep transformations at the social, political, economic, and cultural levels. Archives are not left untouched by these radical changes, be they revolts and revolutions, economic and ecological crises, wars and struggles against colonial powers to name but a few. These changes are imprinted in the archives and their artefacts redefining, throughout time, the connections between people, relations, and histories they contain.
These critical times punctuating the broader SWANA region led to the loss and destruction of archives, their dislocation and fragmentation, but also to their reimagination and recreation. These constant mutations have a spatial as well as a temporal dimension tying together different geographies and scales within the region and beyond. Drawing on insights from anthropology, history and cultural analysis, this interdisciplinary panel seeks to address how times of historical ruptures mutate regimes of production, circulation and use of archives and their objects. Through case-studies from the borders of Turkey, Libya, Syria and Europe, the papers in the panel will examine ruins, maps, court files, legal documents, urban space and monuments among other things, as mutating archives of the broader region that reconstrue its longstanding historical legacies in response to sudden political shifts. Focusing on the spatial and temporal reverberations of these critical times in the archive, we ask: Which kinds of histories do the mutating archives of the SWANA region contain or silence? To what extent are these histories disarticulated from state and (post)colonial forms of knowledge-power? And how, and by adopting which approaches, can we retrieve these histories?
Engaging these questions in light of different approaches and the histories they unveil, this interdisciplinary panel interrogates what constitutes “the archive” as the object of the Middle Eastern scholarly critique and as a dominant structuring imaginary that excludes a priori the ever-shifting nature of analytical categories and their ties to different spatial and temporal scales within and beyond the SWANA region.
Contemporary Syria, characterised by political upheaval, questions the idea of an archive as a physical repository of documents and a set of institutional practices safeguarding the past and present. Since 2011, Syrian state archives and legal documents have fallen victim to evacuation, destruction and plundering. As some edifices containing these archives and their documents are destroyed, others are subject to an upsurge of new documents produced by Syrian state authorities in response to the return and ‘reintegration’ of Syrians from displacement. Simultaneously, Syrians in the diaspora have been saving and retrieving copies of mundane legal papers originally stored in state archives as these documents are official proof of legal identities, education and relations to kin and land. These papers are fundamental in any migratory project, from displacement in Lebanon to asylum in Europe, where they are needed for numerous procedures. These documents are also central in preserving a connection to family members in Syria and in the diaspora becoming a form of care from a distance. Thus, the fragmentation and remaking of these archives reconfigure their usage and archival logic mutating the significance of these archives too. As old state archives are now dislocated and scattered in private, domestic archives, these documents articulate different histories and forms of knowledge about the Syrian predicament.
Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork amongst Syrian families in Lebanon and Germany (2014-2022), this paper examines how families’ mundane documents are ingrained in the complex transnational circuits of people, objects, memories and relations within Syrian families. Indeed, families’ archival practices can be re-read as a form of care aiming at sustaining life worth, personhood and relatedness in times of war and migration. While these documents become a mode of care, their journey across borders bears traces of the violent and ordinary events characterizing wartime in Syria and the discriminatory features of bureaucracy in Europe. The scattering and remaking of these archives sheds a light on the entanglement of moral economies with legal and bureaucratic regimes to reconstruct different histories of wartime Syria and a different political history of the archive partly disarticulated from state and (post)colonial forms of knowledge-power.
The conditions of social cohabitation in the Middle East have been widely debated in recent years, especially in the context of popular uprisings for democracy, civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and the rise of state and communal violence against the region’s non-Muslim populations. In the context of twenty-first century Turkey, such debates concern both the rise of democratization efforts making formerly excluded minority citizens more visible in public life and an authoritarian nationalism that has bolstered the country’s longstanding racial, religious, and political divides. What role does historical legacy play in structuring the material sites and artefacts of social cohabitation that emerge for the minoritized from the interplay between these seemingly opposite political developments? How does it endure or adapt to the times of historical rupture and recursive temporality of the region’s never ending “crises”?
My paper engages these questions by drawing on extended fieldwork from the early to late 2010s in Antakya (Antioch) near Turkey’s border with Syria where the country’s dual forces of democratization and polarization crystallize. I bring together historical narratives with ethnographic vignettes to trace the legacy of Antakya’s interfaith history in concrete material forms such as monumentalized religious symbols and architectures that collectively serve as mutating archives of social cohabitation even after being destroyed in the earthquake of early 2023. Often spatializing or objectifying religious differences, these material forms register the distinct historical experiences of minority subjection and the shared memories of connectivity under Ottoman, French, and Turkish regimes of governance, shaping the context in which minority citizens interact with one another and different state actors in public life. These citizens, my ethnography reveals, do not merely inhabit religious differences that governance regimes have historically produced in a uniform manner. Rather, they actively make and imagine social worlds with others by selectively remembering Antakya’s past and charting the times of various historical ruptures onto their fragmented material traces. In studying the unfolding of this process in public life as well as the silences and absences that it indexes, the paper rethinks minority lives beyond the dominant tropes of religious tolerance and political violence and as part of an extended temporality that binds centuries-long traditions within the everyday lives and collective memories of coexisting communities.
When the Syrian Revolution showed first signs of engulfing the whole region into a transnational war fought among multiple states and all the more brigades in mid-2012, maps that represented the traffic in territory among these actors, proliferated. Often accompanying UN, NGO and media reporting on Syrian state’s attacks on areas and populations under self-declared “rebel control,” the real-time mapping of this traffic through names of an ever-increasing number of brigades countering those attacks, doubled as evidence, rather than remaining a claim, for the Balkanization of Syria, and later Iraq.
With the advent of the so-called Islamic State as a territorial polity spanning Syria and Iraq, these real-time “situation” maps intent on capturing that entity broke with political mapping conventions (of representing nation-state territories in single and uniform color blocks). Instead, a population density overlay as a proxy to mark the amoebic territoriality of the Islamic State onto that of Syria and Iraq (2014 and 2015) itself quickly became a convention. through an anthropological analysis of maps that I have collected between 2012 and 2022, this presentation examines how these mutated maps that constructed visual cues for territory through population density in Syria, opened up for a multi-party renegotiation the country’s territorial integrity. While a variety of actors ranging from the UN to Syrian Observatory for Human rights, Al-Jazeera to Noria Research laid claims to this new modality of territorial representation, they sped up the economies of sovereignty that continue to define the traffic in territory in post-revolutionary Syria.
This paper probes how Kurdish citizens and their lawyers use the criminal courts to record injustices committed by state authorities, turning court files into archives of rights violations in Turkey. It specifically looks at two types of cases processed at Turkish criminal courts: cases regarding smuggler killings from Van borderlands and “terrorist propaganda” cases. In the first set of cases, Kurdish complainants, the families of the murdered smugglers, and their lawyers pursued criminal prosecutions regarding the incidents in which state security forces attacked and killed Kurdish smugglers who crossed the mountainous borderlands across Turkey and Iran. The complaints and lawyers re-utilized state forensics and improvised their own evidence-collection practices to identify the perpetrators and the unlawfulness of the killings. In the second set of cases, the criminal courts prosecuted citizens who made social media statements critical of state security forces and the government under the allegations of “terrorist propaganda.” In these cases, the defendants and their lawyers strived to contest such allegations and reverse the prosecutorial gaze back to the state authorities and courts. In doing so, they re-purposed court documents to critique state violence and biased evidence collection (or non-collection) by the judiciary. Analyzing and comparing these two case categories allows me to ask how different roles that citizens assumed during criminal prosecution (i.e., complainants and eyewitnesses in killing cases and defendants in propaganda cases) shape the use of these courts as alternative archives. As the cases include different types of legal evidence, such as ballistic evidence and digital statements, I also ask how different legal materialities (physical, paper-based and digital) fashion the political uses of courts. The paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork among human rights lawyers and families of the murdered smugglers in Van province between 2012 and 2014, semi-structured interviews with Kurdish dissidents who faced terrorism propaganda allegations in the diaspora (Canada), and textual analysis of court files. The paper argues that the Kurdish citizens and lawyers utilized the court files to record the state-committed crimes and the legal authorities’ non-collection or selective collection of legal evidence. In doing so, the citizens and lawyers aimed to expose the judiciary’s complicity in these crimes and refuse Turkish courts as the legitimate interlocutor of justice. The paper theorizes a novel way of rights advocacy and engagement with state courts that aims to undermine (rather than reinforce and reproduce) the legitimacy of state law.
On August 30, 2008, The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation was signed between Italy and Libya. This treaty constitutes the first case of a European nation-state paying reparations to one of its former colonies. A $5 billion investment plan and until very recently the first and only treaty of apology and reparations to be signed between a sovereign postcolonial nation-state and its former colonial occupier, the Treaty stipulates that over a period of twenty years Italy would spend $5 billion on infrastructural projects, aid for landmine victims, and other assistance, and repatriate stolen archeological artifacts and manuscripts to atone for the plunder and terror waged on its former colony between 1911 and 1943 under liberal and fascist colonial rule. This restitution was however contingent upon the externalization of the Italian border onto the Libyan shore, charging the aggrieved Libyan party with policing the outer borders of the European Union against crossings from the African continent. The paradox that couples colonial reparations with the externalization of border policing crystallizes the contradictions of postcolonial capitalism with its partial inclusions, shifting of the color line, and morphing forms of subjugation.
This paper highlights the colonial archives and postcolonial counter-archives that preceded and enabled the signing of this treaty, beginning with the creation in 1978 of a Libyan historical research center tasked with amassing evidence of colonial and fascist violence to be mobilized toward articulating and make legible the claim for reparation and restitution. By tracking the circulation of archival documents from one shore of the Mediterranean to the other, and foregrounding the transformation of these documents—be it through decay, re-interpretation, re-organization, or translation—this paper argues that one can read mutations of sovereignty and momentous conjunctural shifts within the materiality of the archive.