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Egypt’s National Archives Documenting the Egyptian Uprising

September 7, 2011

Banner of martyr's photographs in Tahrir Square

Historian Khaled Fahmy has a difficult task: to document the Egyptian revolution for the National Archives–a branch of the Egyptian state–while avoiding the appearance that the government is trying to write–and hence control–the master narrative of the revolution.

Fahmy’s efforts are documented in an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper

Anthropologist like myself usually engage in open-ended ethnography: we plant ourselves in a space filled with people doing interesting everyday things. To this space we bring our own culturally-shaped subjectivities, which forces encounters between our expectations and those of the people around us. These encounters with difference comprise rich points, occasions of engagement with culture. If we can avoid the easy answers offered by ethnocentrism, we can use these rich points as ways to explore what different views, values and practices create these differences, and generalize these into the high-level descriptions we call culture.

As we engage in these practices of encountering difference, we record everything we can. We describe our encounters,  detail the contexts in which they occur, ask people questions.

Historians work from records. They bring their own historically-shaped subjectivities into an encounter with multiple records from th past, of many different kinds, which they sift, and sort, and analyze, and interpret.

Traditionally, historians worked with whatever is available. They seek it out. My colleague Carla Pestana, for example, working on a book about 17th century Caribbean history, has been traveling around the country for the past couple of years visiting libraries and archives where, through the vagaries of history, records have ended up, far from the port towns where they originated centuries ago.

What data historians have, and how they use it to construct a narrative is thus a result of both their interpretation and analysis, but also of what historical data is available.

That’s why the idea of historian Khaled Fahmy, formerly of New York University and now chair of history at the American University in Cairo. archiving contemporary materials for the Egyptian National Archives is so interesting; it’s a kind of pre-determining what sorts of thing future historians will have available. Regardless of intentions, the very process of selection will affect who gets to speak for the uprisings, and whose voices might be lost to posterity.

It is also fraught because national institutions are notoriously given to the production of nationalistic narratives. Not long after Sadat replaced Nasser as leader of Egypt, newly minted vice-president Mubarak was himself on a committee charged with writing the official history of the 1952 revolution to suit the changed political purposes of the 1970s.

According to The Guardian

“I was initially very reluctant,” says Fahmy. “I didn’t want people to think we were producing one definitive narrative of the revolution. But then I started thinking about the possibilities, and suddenly I got excited.” And so the Committee to Document the 25th January Revolution was born. Staffed by volunteers and drawing on everything from official records and insurrectionary pamphlets to multimedia footage and updates on Twitter and Facebook, the project aims, in Fahmy’s words, “to gather as much primary data on the revolution as possible and deposit it in the archives so that Egyptians now and in the future can construct their own narratives about this pivotal period.”

So far, there is no mention of the project on the Egyptian National Archives web site

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