History hurts, disturbs, inspires, revives The battle for history from below

History hurts, disturbs and frightens. History cures, inspires and revives

  • “Gone are the good old days when the world was a better place.”
  • “I swear the days of Abu Ala [meaning Hosni Mubarak] were the best. We were tired, but alive.”
  • “I am a driver. My father and my grandfather before him were both directors of the department of transport in a public sector company.”
  • “There were angels wearing white gowns fighting in the 6th of October War. Tons of people saw them.”
  • “Egypt is neither Muslim nor Coptic. Egypt is Pharaonic.”

These are a few examples of historical statements I’ve heard in Egypt recently.

History is omnipresent and active in the lives of people around me. There is a fierce battle over history, some of which takes place in the open, but some of which is also concealed. For example, there is a narrative that implies certain events in Egypt over the past half decade are the result of a conspiracy between Hamas and Hezbollah, carried out via locally paid agents — and not the result of struggles against injustice, or catastrophic socio-economic conditions.

What does this imply? It denotes that we, as a people, are easily influenced, manipulated and pandered to, that our contemporary history is up for grabs, or, even worse, that an authority is reordering our history for us, in our name. But what is perhaps more insidious about such narratives is blaming foreign intervention rather than internal affairs, which suits the interests of the authority, as it reinforces its position as protector— imported from the era of national wars between the 1950s and 1970s— and supports the state’s solution for everything being necessarily security based.

Why do Egypt’s authorities care so much about history and its telling?

History hurts

“History hurts,” according to American literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson. It hurts and exhausts because it is the basis for political theory, literary production and cultural visions. History is excavated and reformulated in the dark, in order to protect us from its wounds. The wheels of history, its machines and factories, produce and distribute. Its consumer protection agency prohibits archiving, historicizing and documentation, for fear they may harm the consumer.

The results of state-led fact-finding missions into violent incidents in Egypt over the past five years have mostly been kept under wraps. And, as documented by Osama al-Sayed in his report, “Fi zikraha al-khamisa: man yaktub tarikh thawrat Yanayir?” (On its fifth anniversary: Who will write the history of the January revolution?), there have been attempts to “veil the most important official documentation of events that unfolded during this period, including the minutes of official meetings, audio and video recordings of security officials, and an entire archive of documents.” The report reminds us that this is not just limited to the families of victims of state violence in recent years, but extends to the process of documenting our collective memory.

History hurts and disturbs

It disturbs, because of the ways in which authorities and the media seek to piece together a coherent narrative that offers a particular perspective. Many Egyptian media productions, especially drama series and talk shows that are produced by state-owned and pro-state media channels frequently do this. In a piece tackling the absurdity and sycophancy of talk shows in Egyptian media, the Economist describes the hosts as the epitome of absurdity and engaging in conspiratorial stories under commands from authority figures above them.

Ustadh wa Rais Qism” (A Professor and Department Head) — starring the iconic Adel Emam and created by Yousif Ma’ati — is an example of a series that attempts to glue together scattered pieces of contemporary history in an arranged narrative. In his review titled “Limadha la yastati` “al-za`im tagawuz `alqat al-shiuyui`iyya (Why the chief can’t get over being beaten by communism), Mohamed Hamama argues that the patriarchal Egyptian state (represented by chief Emam) bestowed a symbolic dose of adulation and sympathy on a younger, ignorant generation. But despite the prevalence of narratives hostile to the January revolution in television, Mohamed Abdelsalam, author of Shaqat al-Tahan (Tahan’s Apartment), thinks novels are still largely free of such rhetoric, as they demand an alternative way of thinking that does not support incoherent state narratives.

Ahmad Samir addresses the disturbing level of state intervention in the school curriculum in his article, “Aswa’ 50 kitab qara’tuha fi hayati” (The worst 50 books I read in my life). “The mistake is not what is written in the curriculum,” he argues, “but in the existence of a curriculum that we consider to be what is correct, while what we are discussing is an interpretation of social phenomena or history, which is entirely subject to schools of thought and perspectives.”

History hurts, disturbs and frightens

Both historicization and historical analysis — especially the kind that engages with the socio-economic context — frighten, and if you attempt to investigate further, frighten more so. It is worse if you study the historical elements of a major phenomenon, such as terrorism, as researcher Ismail Alexandrani has done with his efforts to explore the depths of Sinai. Alexandrani has had to pay the price for unburying the history of Sinai tribes and for highlighting the intervention of intelligence agencies and the exploitation of Bedouin tribes. He attempted to detail the corruption of individuals affiliated with the government and to recount the history of the smuggling tunnels in Gaza. He exposed the torture and persecution of innocent individuals and elucidated the mistreatment of three generations of Palestinians in Egypt, as well as documented the history of the emergence of the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai.

The brutal murder of Giulio Regeni can also teach us something about history and how it frightens. Although it has not been confirmed why or how Regeni died, there have been widespread speculations that Egyptian security forces were involved in some way. In his article for the Washington Post, PhD candidate Jean Lachapelle, who, like Regeni, has studied labor movements in Egypt, suggests a couple of reasons why security forces may have seen Regeni as a threat. Notably, he writes that Egyptian authorities fear the politicization of the labor movement and its potential for fueling another uprising. They also consider the Egyptian populace to be easily influenced, as though they do not have the agency to consider revolting of their own accord.

But history also cures

History cures and warms our hearts by reminding us of the pain and victories of others. It reminds us that our struggles will surely end, one way or another. History cures because its door is always open to other visions, from various perspectives, even concerning the same event.

History has witnessed quests for justice, education and reconciliation in many places, from South Africa, Lebanon, Bosnia and Rwanda, to the United States.

It has the ability to heal the next generation if we teach our children to think critically, beyond the state’s control of the narratives in their textbooks — something I’m trying to do as I take my daughter through her social studies textbook for the fourth grade, along with the supplementary study book Silah al-Tilmidh, which forces us to think together about the realities and meanings of history.

The obstacles to writing a meaningful history in Egypt are political and institutional, as Khaled Fahmy asserts in his long blog post, “Azmit al-kitaba al-tarikhiyya fi misr” (The problem of writing history in Egypt). Social histories, or history from below, has the ability to cure us, because it talks about us, to us, and, more importantly, through us, rather than through the interests of elites. We identify with it and see ourselves in it. It has the ability to remind us of the struggles of others, such as the efforts of Daftar Ahwal in creating an archive and visual presentation of prison facilities in Egypt from 2011 until August 2015.

There are many examples of the writing of contemporary history from a social perspective, from below, like the histories of doctors, nurses, journalists, photographers, civil society workers, the families of martyrs, those imprisoned, unionists and the ultras.

The concept of history from below is an old one, and we should not forget the efforts of Arab historians from the Mamluk and Ayyubid periods in this regard. But it was English Marxist historians dealing with the history of the labor movements who theorized the notion of history from below. Among them is Edward Thompson, and of course the efforts of Clifford Geertz and his concept of “thick description,” which attempt to provide wider contextual interpretations, and remind us that there are many histories and we come from a particular perspective in our understanding and recounting of them.

History cures and inspires

It does not only cure, but it also inspires, as it is our story. The history of human thought is a history that descended from higher authorities, centered around transcendent gods, to one God, and a reading imposed by religious priests, to what is known as the centrality of man, and psychological awareness, then the material world, and language — according to a post-modern perspective.

If pre-modern periods are periods of the thought and history of the higher classes, the monarchs, feudal lords and clergymen, with all their wars, and the modern period is the period of the thought and history of the middle classes or bourgeoisie and their struggles, then history is surely moving in our direction. I heard a sheikh recently mention a prophetic tradition, “Are not you given victory and substance because of the weakest among you?” and I stopped to contemplate this.

I find the book Kaifa naqr’a al-`alam al-arabi al-youm (How to read the Arab World today), translated by Sherif Younis, inspiring, as it offers alternative points of departure for researchers in the social sciences. It addresses the power of grand narratives in forming history and reasserts the importance of memory and personal stories.

History cures, inspires, and revives

Amina Elbendary’s book, Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria, which reads as a history from below, demonstrates the significance of the role of the ruled in negotiating and battling with their political leaders, as well as the role of historians and their interests in historicizing the daily lives of the marginalized. I often think about comparing our contemporary moment with the end of the Mamluk era, in terms of the relation between the ruler and the ruled, the frequency of crushing crises, the prevalence of public resentment and the reoccurrence of catastrophic conditions.

History inspires works from the present that value the individual, his or her influence, pain and inspiration. Is it not true that every time the works of composer Sheikh Imam are resurrected, a rebellious moment is born?

Historicization highlights the struggles of particular groups among us, like the Women and Memory initiative. It also revives things like the “Ihki ya tarikh (Narrate O History) project, and its workshop “Bayn al-Kanal wa al-Bahr” (Between the Canal and the Sea), which piqued my daughter’s interest more than her school textbooks.

Translated by the author Tarek Ghanem

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Tarek Ghanem