We came to Alexandria looking for …

This was the third round of a series of workshops on oral and peripheral history, organized by cultural historian Alia Mossallam and titled, “Ihki ya tarikh” (Speak history).

In the first meeting of the workshop, held in Alexandria in April, each participant was given this statement to answer: “We came to Alexandria looking for …..

In previous workshops over the last couple of years, Mossallam would choose a time frame in a particular geographic area of Egypt and find relevant primary sources: oral histories, newspaper articles, court documents, songs and other artistic creations that were prevalent in that moment and place.

The materials were given to a group of participants, who were selected on the basis of their interest and commitment to the workshops — no academic background was required, as the objective was to make the materials on local histories accessible to everyone and provide them with the opportunity to critically read historical sources, form their own opinions and question established discourses.

The Alexandria workshop engaged with the city’s history between 1880 and 1920, a period of total destruction followed by the rebuilding of the city and major changes to its borders and size. In 1882, the British Mediterranean Fleet bombarded Alexandria to support Khedive Tawfiq (ruler of Egypt and Sudan between 1879 and 1892) against Ahmed Urabi’s uprising. The city also witnessed major social changes during this period of mass migration. People came from the Levant in large numbers, either making Alexandria their final destination, or stopping in the port city on the way to the United States and Latin America — many of them never completing the journey. Greeks, Italians and Maltese all settled in Alexandria. “Nationality” was still an ambiguous term, as it preceded the rise of modern nation-states.

My interest in the workshop was largely personal — I have a curiosity towards social history and am particularly fascinated by the correspondence of both public figures and ordinary people. But there were two other reasons why I attended: The first was that I am myself a product of migration in the 19th century. My ancestors came from places as varied as Lebanon, Palestine, Chechnya and Albania. The second was a need to re-explore a city I have chosen to call home for over ten years from a historical distance.

The sources provided by the workshop helped us excavate buried layers of information. For example, Egyptian Jewish journalist Yaqub Sanu (1839-1912) now appears to me to have been way more revolutionary than Abdalla al-Nadim (1842-1896) — a leading Egyptian journalist, long regarded as a revolutionary leader and orator of the 1882 Urabi Revolt. With no more than a cursory glance at the newspapers produced by Sanu and Nadim, one can easily see that the former was the more courageous of the two in defending Urabi and expressing contempt for the Khedive. It may have been Nadim’s ten years as a fugitive that gave him this edge. Sanu’s newspapers are unapologetically revolutionary in terms of content, particularly his use of satire, women narrators and his pioneering use of cartoons. He developed fully-fledged comic strips as early as 1888.

It is often the difficulty of accessing such primary sources that solidifies an official version of events in people’s minds. Egypt’s archives are not open to the public, with the pretext of guarding national security. Even historical documents that do not have any direct security related content are restricted from access. The state’s security mentality regarding primary sources constitutes a stark attempt at monopolizing the recounting of history, accompanied by the suspicion of researchers and anyone who dares to question the dominant historical discourse. This is another important benefit of the workshops, in which historical sources are shared and discussed openly with the public.

We had fun digging through futuristic scientific journals, letters of complaint and love ballads by iconic writer Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914). We listened to songs denouncing racism against Nubians by Nesma Hamed, crude satirical dialogue by performer Sayed Kishta, and a book of instructions for actors (no copy of which exists in the Arab world anymore). One of the aims of examining such material was to challenge deeply held nostalgia. The past in these materials is not well-mannered, beautiful or grand, it is rife with racism and classism — an era in which borders were being drafted, passports and permissions for travel were being negotiated and political movements were suspicious. Some participants produced graphics inspired by these archival materials and others staged a performance.

It is a crime that documents, books and photographs require security permits to access, and that researchers are often considered suspect. Non-commercial access to archives should be a right and should be facilitated by the state.

Our history is extremely relevant to our present. The similarities between the era studied during the workshop and the present day are striking. But, since we have a long battle over freedom of information ahead of us, more history workshops like this should be made available to the public.

Nermin Nizar 

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