Define your generation here. Generation What

Who told you history is an open buffet? On facts, fiction and absence in the archives

The chronoscope in Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short science-fiction novel The Dead Past is a device that projects the dead past. Through the manipulation of sub-atomic particles, its viewer is able to gaze precisely at any time or place in history. The protagonist, Arnold Potterley, a professor of ancient history who is an expert on Carthage, wants to overturn the biased history written by that civilization’s bitter enemies, but cannot get past the bureaucrats’ siege prohibiting access to the chronoscope. The chronoscope is exclusively controlled by the government. And chronoscopy, the science behind it, is denied all forms of grants and funding. In a battle against monopoly, bureaucracy and repression, the protagonist spends some good pages of the novella trying to get permission to access the chronoscope. He fails. Eventually, Araman, the paragon of bureaucracy, reveals why the state is so paranoid.

“Well,” said Araman, “when did it begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one- hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present? Does it begin to sink in?” [1]

The living present

“No one,” Walter Benjamin quotes philosopher Blaise Pascal, “dies so impoverished that he does not leave something behind.”[2] Pascal puts it simply — the act of living creates material consequences. We should not worry because no one, not even the most dispossessed, not even the most defeated, leave life without leaving a physical trace, an archive that points to the experience of an event.

Almost 300 years later, Benjamin adds: “Surely it is the same with memories too, although these do not always find an heir.”[3] In this move from Pascal’s focus on objects and their origins to Benjamin’s focus on memory as a process, a passage which stumbles in inconsistency, we realize a similar movement that has affected our understanding of what creates a historical subject. It is not so much the capabilities of a material world to inscribe an event, but the intangible processes that make such a material world possible. The years which separate Benjamin and Pascal show how writing history has been transformed. It goes through acts that sanitize and contaminate, through filters that condemn events to be neglected and others recollected. For Benjamin, the concern is not “what the dead leave behind,” or to claim that all those alive will leave a trace, but rather, what the living end up recalling. It is about the living and the present. [4]

Two summers ago, I went to see the theater performance Zig Zig, based on archival material explored by the play’s director, Laila Soliman. It was a performance about a British military court established to investigate claims of a violent raid on the village of Nazlet al-Shobak. Among those who testified were a dozen women who had been raped by British soldiers. The performers reenacted the testimonial moment in which these women braved the oppressor’s court; their stances, their words and gestures. But in English. In a tense space between empathy and alienation, the English language stood as a barricade between us — the Egyptian audience — and the female actors. We knew these testimonies were in Arabic. We knew they spoke Arabic. Whose translation was this? And why were we hearing it this way? In a cynical voice, a performer interrupts the show and, in Arabic, explains that due to the absence or inaccessibility of Egyptian sources archiving this incident, the only transcripts available of the investigation were extracted from the British Foreign Office records, written by English military officials, in the English language.

I left the show asking the same question that I still ask myself today: What does it mean to hear these testimonies in the voice, language and rationale of the oppressor, excavated from an archive entirely created by him?

“Living without history,” historian Yoav Di-Capua says, “ultimately leads to living without rights.”[5] But which came first? Because in our current times, it seems that living without rights certainly leads to living without history. Or rather, a slapstick kind of history, written by protesters carrying photos of policemen and inflated teddy bears celebrating a NewLeaderNewCanalNewCapital. A history where helicopters rained little flags of Egypt, chauvinism ripened, and no one was around to harvest.

Zig Zig urged me to think about the power of the archivist and how it relates to the history we understand. What has come to be known academically as “the archival turn” has transformed how we understand the archive. Guided by skepticism of a modern telos of rationalism, Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Ann Stoler and others have urged us to shift our gaze from understanding the archive as an object of truth extraction to a site of inquiry. Stoler terms this shift as being from “archive as source” to “archive as subject.”[6] What was interesting in the Zig Zig performance was that the process of integrating the archive, namely the British Foreign Office records, allowed us to see a mediation between these two modes. The archive was both source and subject. It was first appropriated as a source for the performers to retell the event, and in turn, by inspecting its modes of inscription and creation, became the play’s very core subject. Without treating the British Foreign Office as the only source for us to learn about the village raid, we would have not been able to speak about the inaccessibility of the National Archives, and the distance drawn between us and our past, as a political subject. And it is in this strained space, between dependence and subversion, of narrative and its opposite, of oppressor and oppressed, that we often find ourselves challenged to act.

From underfoot records to seat of power

There is a story told in Egypt concerning a visit by King Fu’ad to the Citadel, where the early records of his dynasty had been thrown underfoot. Upon seeing these papers scattered about and covered with dust, one of the men in the king’s party exclaimed: “Your highness, is it not unfitting that we should be treading on the records that deal with reigns of your illustrious ancestors!” According to the story, the king then ordered that all records bearing on the history of the ruling dynasty should at once be moved to ‘Abdīn Palace and safeguarded there.[7]

Thus goes the myth about Egypt’s first centralized archive — the Abdeen archive was put together in the 1920s from a collection of random, as the tale recalls, underfoot documents. It was basically a hidden wing in the royal palace, which functioned as both an archive and a writing workshop space created to contain the tides of the national movement opposing the monarchy. For 30 years, it wrote prime royal history. It was a prime Nahdawi (Renaissance) project which rested on an articulated and synchronized unity of middle-class modernization fantasies: Egypt will transition to a modern nation-state and the focus now is on real stuff — administration, military, public works and education, Europe is the home of reason, the Ottoman Empire is bad, ordinary Egyptians are not to be seen, and history will be written from outside and above.[8] Documents that did not fit this political template would be buried in basements, sealed houses and forgotten chambers, or, even better, destroyed.

For a long time, the Abdeen archive held the reputation of being an accessible public archive. The assumption was that it was immune to counternarratives, and that regardless of a researcher’s political or social background, her experience between those perfectly curated documents would surely compel her to write a disciplined history. However, after extensive research in the archives, nationalist-popular historian Abd al-Rahman al-Rafai concluded that Muhammad Ali was not, after all, the founder of Egypt — that it was the people! He was never allowed in again. [9]

Every new political moment heralded a new archival impulse. After the 1952 revolution, the archival reality of Abdeen had to be disregarded, or to be more accurate, incorporated whole stock, like an undigested morsel, into the newly established and current Dar al-Wathaiq, currently known as the Egyptian National Archives. The national archive and library were the hallmark of national sovereignty, and to make clear that the state is now in full control of its past. During the 1950s, a new law was issued to determine what kinds of documents, personal or public, were considered “historical heritage.”[10] It forced people, institutions and ministries to hand in their records to the archive, but it isn’t clear if the Ministry of Interior ever did.

At these times, archivists were faced with similar challenges to those encountered in other post-colonial states. Add to the task of countering colonial and elitist historiography spatial and technical challenges. The archives of post-colonial nation-states have often been shipped to the imperial core. The Cuban archive, for instance, is in Madrid, and Haiti’s is in France.[11] In order to reconstruct the National Archives, Egyptian officials were sent to roam European centers and hunt down material dispatched 40 years earlier by King Fuad. These were the times when academic researchers first voiced their concern for the main principles of archival theory: respect des fonds (the principle of provenance) and respect pour l’ordre primitif (the maintenance of original order).[12] It became clearer that the power of gatekeepers not only manifested in physical control over the material, but in logical control over how this material was, and continues to be, interpreted and ordered.  

The archive as hallmark of the modern state is by no means exceptional to Egypt’s history. In The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth-Century South Africa, anthropologist Adam Ashforth states that “the real seat of power” in the modern state is “the bureau, the locus of writing.”[13] The creation of the first national archives followed the worldly interest in identity formation created by the modern state, with its invention of modern bureaucracy. Both the first place to house governmental documents, where national memory was unified, and the institution where populations were subjected to calculation, surveillance and discipline,[14] its conceptualization emerged after population expansions in the 18th century and the formation of European states, with a need to systematically keep track of people.[15] France established its National Archives in 1790, and England created its Public Record Office in 1838.[16] Although the concept of an archive as a depository of documents first originated in ancient Greece, which Derrida writes about at length, and there were recognizable archives in China, India and to some extent Mesopotamia, the French and English archives are considered the first modern archive institutions as we currently understand them. During these times, administrative archives were created by European colonial powers to ease the communication between colony and center, which often became the reference template of the national archives in post-independence states.[17] The archive, as Stoler says, was “the supreme technology” of the late 19th-century imperial state,[18] and has become consequently the official mark for subject formation.[19]

Revolutions have often left societies with an “archival impulse,” an urge to document and keep the moment in order to retell the event.[20] After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union created an archive that would become both a narrative center and the place of centralized state power. These times saw the rise of paranoia in the totalitarian state, and the power of secrecy was to become a separating blockade between people and their past. As Stoler states, state sovereignty depended on the power “to designate arbitrary social facts of the world as matters of security and concerns of state.”[21] And because of these concerns, what was deposited inside the archive — the concept of the ‘official secret,” the “specific invention of bureaucracy” — became, as Max Weber, wrote “fanatically defended.”[22]

In June, irrigation is suspect

Down the winding corridor, first room to your left, you’ll find a bureaucrat who is surely always right. It’s not up to him, to be honest with you, it’s not the right building, or the right time. Come tomorrow.

But they came early. It’s summer 2009 and they are both familiar with the exhaustion that comes with the trail down Egypt’s bureaucratic temporality. And so they had filled out permission forms to access the Egyptian National Archives three months before their intended visit. Andrew is a PhD student at New York University interested in the history of agricultural science and the ways it affected people’s everyday lives in the countryside in Egypt and parts of North India. His work was triggered by laws passed during the early 1900s which conscripted hundreds of thousands of children to work in cotton fields. Amr, his friend, also a PhD student, is attuned to food and markets, with a focus in environmental history and Cairo’s relationship with the countryside. In April, their supervisor historian Khaled Fahmy had dropped the forms off at the National Archives. In June, both students arrive in Cairo. But there has been no response — and no possibility of getting into the archives.

In a game of substitutes, with eight weeks of a summer stretching out before them, they stake out an alternative research plan. The Egyptian National Agricultural Library, the Egyptian Geographic Society, the Agricultural Research Center and some experimental farms. Meanwhile, Fahmy attempts to find out the fortune of their applications. He is able to get a meeting with Refaat Hilal, the director of the archives. The chemist and document preservation expert whose term has expired but who still maintains his position unveils what has been responsible for the months-long firewalling of the students’ applications: Irrigation. It was the word irrigation, written in both proposals, that had clogged the bureaucrats’ vetting filters. What was impossible to forecast, when Andrew submitted his application in April, was that Egypt would be renegotiating its Nile water share with Ethiopia during the summer of 2009. Add “irrigation,” “research” and “foreign” and you get a no response. For research in Egypt follows a formula: the value of research multiplied by geopolitics and national anxiety divided by researchers and network relations all directly proportional to suspicion and equal to permanent deferral. For the Egyptian state, the archive is always a threat. And irrigation is mostly suspect.

Andrew’s research saviors are some printed words — an op-ed piece and a stack of books. Fahmy arranges both students an audience with Gamal al-Ghitani, the editor in chief of literary periodical Akhbar al-Adab, in a quest to have him influence decisions through his public persona. In sincere, cerebral terms, the students explain how they want to write a history of Egypt under foreign rule, using Egyptian sources to unearth subaltern voices. The editor in chief is convinced, and responds with a powerful op-ed in Akhbar al-Adab. In the meantime, Fahmy gets himself invited to give a lecture in the National Archives. Accompanied by a stack of books written by foreign historians, he performs to his attendees. “Here is the history written in the English language. These are the books skewing the racist ideology of the colonizers! And they are written by foreigners! This is all in the interest of Egypt’s National security! This is for Egypt! Who is standing in the way of Egypt’s National security?” The director of the archives, knowing that this is directed at him, storms out. Later, Fahmy is summoned to a meeting with him. “You need to tell me what is going on with my students,” Fahmy asks. “Look, you see, the problem lies in the title and descriptions of their projects,” Hilal responds. “I would suggest that they change their topics, just slightly, and then I think they might be able to get through.” Andrew receives a phone call from Fahmy spelling out his new dissertation title: Economic Policies of the British Occupation in Egypt 1882-1922. Suppressed by a performance, an op-ed and a stack of books, suspicion is out of the way, and in six months, he receives the permit.

For a while I have been collecting stories that relate to the connections between historians, history-writing and the involvement of the security apparatus in the Egyptian National Archives, which will come together in the form of video and print work. By now I know that to be permitted to enter the archives is not the entire story. In a manner reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s Circumlocution Office, or Frantz Kafka’s Klamm in The Castle (1926), or José Saramago’s All The Names (1997), over 100 years ago Mohamed al-Muwaylihi wrote a story portraying the prolonged and chaotic entanglement of bureaucracy and emotion in the process of recordkeeping. His protagonist, Isa, spends countless days in Daftarkhane, Egypt’s largest reservoir of state documents, looking for a record to present in court.

“After a while we got hold of him [the record clerk], but realized that the wretch was dragging his feet so that we would try to ingratiate ourselves by offering him money. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said, “and nothing but the truth. Knowing only the date and name of its owner, we cannot possibly expect to find the text of the endowment in this case. We also need to know the name of the scribe and secretary who wrote it out. One just cannot envisage the Record Clerk coming across it amongst all these piles of paper. He would need to be inspired.”[23]

The friction generated between chance, accident, threat, laptops and arbitrary decisions still puts researchers in the messiest of positions. Outside tales written over 100 years ago, Madame Nadia, the record clerk of the archives during Andrew’s visits, is known to be the perfect embodiment of power and bureaucracy. A researcher is only allowed a limited number of units. “You know, maybe if things go well, you might be able to add other ones later,” she tells Andrew. He asks whether one of his archival units can be the Mixed Courts, a unit that keeps records regarding legal issues between foreigners and Egyptians, to which she responds, “Absolutely not.” Later, she suggests he speak to the director of the archives.

In spring 2012, the security forces announce: researchers are not allowed to bring in laptops.

I got there, they told me you can not bring in your laptop.

I went to my desk and just started crying.[24]

But the decision lasts for one day. And it is Madame Nadia who overturns the laptop ban — researchers hear her shout to the security people over the phone that they don’t have the authority to make up such arbitrary rules in the research room. Her rules are user-centered in some cases, and institution-centered in others. Through her complex exercise of power, she serves different masters. Sometimes she can be an ally.

Three months pass and Andrew still cannot access the Mixed Courts unit. While I transcribe my interview with Andrew about this experience, I read that the power of the state, as Achille Mbembe says, “rests on its ability to consume time” [25] — to side-step time, exhaust it and diffuse its value. The students request yet another meeting with the director, grieving that research becomes impossible when restricted from an entire archival unit. The director responds, “Well, you know, the archive is not an open buffet, where you can just come eat whatever you want.”

Time passes, things happen, and Andrew is allowed access to the Mixed Courts, but then, for two months, he is told “they are not ready yet.” He gives up on the topic, and his interest shifts to village administration and the reconfiguration of the lower ranks of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior under the British. He encounters a torrent of petitions, many with graphic descriptions, written by peasants to the higher administrators. To read the muddled Arabic handwriting, he collaborates with Egyptian colleagues. They help him with Arabic and he helps with French, English and Italian. One day, a researcher asks him to translate a massive register. “Wait,” he says, “this is from the Mixed Courts!” He returns to Madame Nadia. “What is going on? You have been telling me that I cannot access these things, and here this thing is!” Ten minutes later, he has access. The Mixed Courts cataloguing, originally written in French, was transcribed by someone who did not speak French. There are 25 unique spellings for the word agricultre agricalture agricalture agriculture agricultuer. Andrew calls for documents to look at their content and the archivists respond, “They do not exist.” They are not ready. They do not exist. “We are talking about 30,000 records entered in the database and you are telling me they do not exist?”

This is not only a Kafkaesque world; it is also the world of Star Wars. In the Jedi Archives in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan cannot find planet Kamino in the charts. He reaches out to Madame Jocasta Nu, the self-assured chief librarian who controls access to restricted units.

Jocasta Nu: Did you call for assistance?

Obi-Wan: Yes, yes, I did.

Jocasta Nu: Are you having a problem, Master Kenobi?

Obi-Wan: Yes, I’m looking for a planetary system called Kamino.

Jocasta Nu: Kamino.

Obi-Wan: It doesn’t show up on the archive charts.

Jocasta Nu: Kamino. It’s not a system I’m familiar with. Are you sure you have the right coordinates?

Obi-Wan: According to my information, it should appear in this quadrant here, just south of the Rishi Maze.

Jocasta Nu [shaking her head]: I hate to say it, but it looks like the system you’re searching for doesn’t exist.

Obi-Wan: Impossible. Perhaps the archives are incomplete.

Jocasta Nu: If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.[26]

Andrew shares with me a 3,500-word personal document he wrote in 2010 called List of Archive Grievances. It had nothing to do with his dissertation, just grievance. The document is divided into six main categories: database issues, browsing issues, access issues, photocopying, care of documents and feedback issues. Archival problems are detailed, examples are explained and solutions are offered. Some solutions are four words:

Please restore photocopying privileges.

Reading this document, I am reminded of Archive Stories, a collection of essays edited by Antoinette Burton about historians’ encounters in archives. Historians rarely mention their archival encounters, but when asked they are more than eager to tell them. These encounters constitute a significant part of a researcher’s interpretative framework and directly affect the knowledge and history produced. If we were to understand how archives are figured, how scholarship and knowledge are accumulated toward an abstract understanding of history, we will have to understand the dynamic relationships not just to time, or to the document, but to the “physical environment, the serendipity of bureaucrats, and the care and neglect of archivists as well.”[27] The fact that historians in Egypt alter their dissertation proposals at the instruction of officials to overcome accessibility challenges, that they design their own local databases to systematize the chaos and write personal documents to voice their grievances has complicated my understanding of what it means to write history in such spaces. These encounters make visible forms of subversion and contingency that ought to be integral components of the histories we write. One cannot contest that historians tell important stories, but what is that history that is cleansed from the conditions of its telling, purified from all which is so present?

Widely present in the philosophical discussions of both archives and archival work is the concept of opposition. From the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, to Derrida’s pharmakon, to Stoler’s archive field, the conception of an archive has been thought of as something in constant tension[28] — that in the very act of attracting, unifying and centralizing lies the inertia to exclude, repel and marginalize, that in preserving one story lies the force of canceling another. The archive has long been understood as the home of of dialectics, of selectivity and exclusion, of pairing oppositions, of preservation and cancellation. But we are reminded by Ariella Azoulay, a theorist of visual culture, that those who have encountered the physical, real archive understand another complexity beyond the philosopher’s archive. Patrons of the archive know it is not a mere concept of figurative opposition. That it is only when we are denied access that we end up seeing it as a distant fortress “operating by itself.”[29] We are unaware of its administrative intricacies, its codes of conduct and are unable to bargain with its fortification.

Azoulay brings in the patron of the archive as a decisive component of understanding the material archive. This is something that Mbembe has also spoken about. That however we aim to define the archive, we will not be able to understand its complexity without the “subjective experiences” of the those who visit it.[30] It is through their encounters that borders are identified, through their requests that protocols are created, and through their negotiations that the past is recollected. The limits of what is inside is created by those left outside. If we were not so detached from our archives, no one would have bothered to provide us with application forms, reading desks, indices and white gloves. It is in our negotiations, our encounters and stories, that we are able to assess the distance created between us and our past. And it is particularly in this distance that we can understand what knowledge or history is being written.

The absent archive

Alongside the question of opening up the past, the 2011 revolution created the new question of archiving — and narrating — the present. Nothing has gained more ground in Egyptian cultural and political spheres as the urge to write one’s own history. While universities held conferences to address the “expanding void” and theater performances enacted unattainable histories, many practices were to speak about narrative, collective memory and archiving. Projects such as A Dictionary of the Revolution, Vox-Populi, 18 Days in Egypt, U-shahid, R-shief, UCLA’s HyperCitiesEgypt, Tahrir Documents, Wiki Thawra and, more recently, Ihky ya Tarikh, the Manshurat and the 858Archive launched, but few have survived.

Around a week after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Wahed al-Nabawy, back then the head of the Egyptian National Archives and later minister of culture in the June 30, 2013 government, named Fahmy to lead a committee to document the revolution.[31] Fahmy accepted on two main conditions: full control over the composition of the committee, and immediate public access to the archive, without permit procedures or security trails. The Committee to Archive the Revolution, initiated under a Ministerial Decree 155/2011, was to amass a body of digital and physical material as an open, accessible and inclusive archive to keep the revolutionary moment. Digital-native files of Twitter hashtags; pamphlets distributed in Tahrir stained with tea and inscribed with conspiracy theories, poetry and future visions; objects snatched from confrontations with security forces; battle spoils of boots, shields, helmets and truncheons, tear-gas canisters, fired bullets; single-note songs — fragments of a material world for future generations to read this feverish moment, and to know that those who made it, as Fahmy told me, were “ordinary people.”[32]

The committee held its first public conference at the National Archives. The plan was to have volunteers roam the streets with audio recorders and laptops to capture, file, preserve and index testimonies of the revolution. As Ahmad Gharbeia, knowledge advocate and committee member, told me, “It did not aim to tell the story of the revolution, but to preserve the material world in order for it to be told.”[33] Gharbeia told me that the dream was to have mobile kiosks built as transportable recording stations, placed around iconic landmarks known for their revolutionary significance, such as Mohamed Mahmoud Street.[34] They also planned to address the US Library of Congress,[35] which hosts the Twitter archive, to request the tweets of renowned activists.

On a normal day, an ordinary individual can never get past the smirking men sitting next to the metal detectors of the National Archives, so the committee planned to create a recording booth inside the building, so people would know of this incognito building on Cairo’s Corniche, unknown to many, and in a way, to destabilize the borders the state has built between the people and their past.

Decisions had to be made regarding time and identity, from categories for the data-entry fields to defining the revolution timeframe. When did the revolution start and when did it end — a question that reroutes to good old is this a revolution? And what is a revolutionary act? Should we talk about violence? Right, then we discuss security measures. They finally agreed that the timeframe would be from Tunisia’s Zein al-Abedine Ben Ali’s disposal to Mubarak’s ousting, and there is a lot to be said by looking at such a decision. Marking a timeline with a point that originates from an event in another country, outside Egyptian national borders, was an evident recognition of supranational powers, how they penetrated institutional logic and altered spatial and temporal dimensions — not only crossing those clearly defined borders, but refiguring what it meant to construct the national at such times.[36]

Borders were blurred externally and re-marked internally. The committee intended to maintain a clear separation between the revolutionary archive and the broader National Archive. Their reasoning not only related to the nature of indexing, metadata and categorization, but the infamous reputation of inaccessibility. Indeed, the committee was able to collect high-resolution original printer copies from two well-known Egyptian daily newspapers, but by some misjudgment the collection entered the archives and the committee never saw it again. I hear the same words repeated in many interviews I have made: The National Archives is a black hole, what goes inside does not come out. Gharbeia told me in disbelief how the head of the archives boasted about the unknowns of the world inside. Skulls from the Fatimid period, miraculous things. “Inside, we not only have papers, we have skulls too.”[37]

We were working with two minds at the same time, how to use their capabilities and how to reserve the data. We knew that if these records were to go in, they would never go out again.[38]

Hard-won public access to the minutes of the committee’s meetings make for difficult reading. Written by an employee at the archives, they were altered to fit an orchestrated discussion, where the loudest ideas came from established figures and entire debates were subsumed. Only a couple of floors below, researchers were spending years interpreting memos, meeting minutes and reports written hundreds of years ago. Meanwhile, some employees at the archives thought that entire revolutionary archive would be able to fit on a CD. A CD with some multimedia animation. Dissolve In, Wipe, Wheel, Peek In, and Checkerboard.

Employees of the archives imagined that we are going to collect this material from people and produce some kind of a CD, with a little bit of good-looking multimedia animation, like some of the stuff they showed us on the computer of the head of the archives. That this will be the main achievement of the archive! They did not imagine the depth and size of the project, and that we hoped to collect testimonies from hundreds of thousands of people, narrating the details of a historical event.[39]

Another member of the committee wanted to include a data field to register the witness’s national identification number, Gharbeia said in disbelief. “We wanted to record things people might feel would incriminate and criminalize them,” he said, “and so we were not going to tell them, report yourself!” Endless negotiations ended that the choice would be left to each witness’s preferred form of identification, be it official, anonymous or pseudonymous. Fahmy reminded me that before the 19th century and the construction of the modern state, people did not have ID cards. “This is what history teaches us, that nothing is stable and secure about this present moment, things could have looked differently, and they did look differently.”[40]

Shortly afterwards, the committee was dissolved. Audio equipment was bought, certificates designed and recording booths planned, but the archival attempt never took place. Stories stop at the same point. Activists feared that their testimonies would end up in the hands of the security services, to which the committee came up with two suggestions, one technical and another legal. The technical proposal was that the material deposited would be filtered and encrypted, according to witnesses’ requests, for five, 10 or 20 years. And the legal proposal was to write a contract — by way of holding the state accountable — between the witness and the National Archives under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. It would state the responsibility of the National Archives to protect the material deposited from the reach of security forces. In sum, the witness would testify at a recording booth, then sign the contract and, in an official ceremony, be gifted a certificate for participating.

Fourteen certificates were designed by Ihab Al-Akad.

All 14 certificate variations received from Ahmad Gharbeia.

Fahmy picked up one of the certificates I brought to our meeting recently and studied it in combined familiarity and disbelief. He hadn’t seen one in years. Separated by metal detectors, security men, permissions forms and raised eyebrows, the flow of information in the archives is uni-directional, moving from outside to inside. “It actually had to do with this, precisely this,” he said without looking up. He told me how these certificates marked the tipping point, the materialization of failure, before the committee was completely dissolved. The moment was framed — the moment when it became clear that such institutions had no tolerance for any of this. I wanted to ask him how come we had been so naïve, but I didn’t. Why ask a question when you know the answer has already been written? He told me the legal council for the National Archives had categorically, and without reservation, refused that any government employee sign any contract to protect any citizen under any circumstance. Months of negotiations, energy and time to exhaust the same story, to realize the same thing. Security forces remain above all.

Perhaps there is something to gain, now that the Archive to Document the Revolution project never took place. We can take our time to look at this typeface in magenta, this flower bouquet in the center, and this logo of red, of white, of black, a flag, flapping. Flapping over an absent testimony, framed and centered. Perhaps there is something to find in these moments we thought of narration, of representation and dictation. Of grabbing history. Of not only what it meant to frame an event and draw its contours, but of exhaustion with time, exhaustion from the idea of archiving a revolution that was turning messy, shapeless and sour. I look at these certificates and think, “Look! We were so close!” And a question hits me back: Close to what? To officialdom? To rusting drawers and white gloves? To institutions that have for years separated us from our past? What is this distance we thought we would cross?

We can now take our time to understand how history gets written. Now we know so well that it will never be written that way. At least not past these metal detectors and inside these walls. Nothing could have better explained what it meant to write and rewrite history, to see truth molding and folding, to witness interruptions, gaps and differences, than the void left by the lived experience of these past years. Perhaps it is not that bad that we were left with these empty certificates. Perhaps this absent archive, with its ephemera of unfilled forms, unsigned contracts and uncelebrated witnesses is the sincerest form of history writing. Absence is presence.

Haytham al-Wardany writes that the place of a writer is the place of death and absence, the bare place which allows for movement and transformation.[41] This place of writing lies in this uninhabited void, where new forms permeate the present to preclude it from repetition, from farce, from cynicism. It is a discontinuity which should not be reconnected, and a void not to be filled. This failure lends speech to this void, it materializes silence and allows us to see the contours and threshold of our writing. A threshold constantly moving, opening and closing, transforming and changing shape and form.

Note: Some names have been changed in this article.

Photos from the exhibition The Ceremony has Been Cancelled. Courtesy of the author.


[1] Isaac Asimov, The Complete Stories (UK: Collins), 1994. Online:

[2] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 2007), 84.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter Fritzsche, “The Archive and the Case of the German Nation,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette Burton (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2005), 184-188.

[5] Yoav Di-Capua, “Egypt’s fight for historical memory…,” Al-Jazeera, February 21, 2011.

[6] Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2, 87–109 (2002): 93. Online:

[7] Helen Rivlin, The Dar al-wathaiq in Abdin Palace at Cairo as a Source for the Study of the Modernization of Egypt in the Nineteenth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970):1.

[8] Di-Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, 92.

[9] Di Capua, page 134

[10] Di-Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, 294.

[11] Mike Featherstone, “Archive,” Theory, Culture & Society 23:2-3 (2006): 591-596.

[12] Di-Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, 297.

[13] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009), 29.

[14] Featherstone, “Archive”: 591-596.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggot, Barbara Reed, Archives: Recordkeeping in Society Australia: Centre for Information Studies, (Australia: Charles Sturt University, 2005), 32.

[18] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance”: 87-109.

[19] Brent Harris, “The Archive, Public History and the Essential Truth: The TRC Reading the Past,” in Refiguring The Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton et al. (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002), 161-177. See also the detailed exploration of the relationship between history and archives in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

[20] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” in The Archive Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), 143-148.

[21] Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 26.

[22] Max Weber, “Bureaucracy,” in From Max Weber Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 233.

[23] Roger Allen (trans.), “The Record Office in the Literary Tales of Hadith Isa ibn Hisham,” in A Period of Time: A Study and Translation of Hadith Isa ibn Hisam by Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (Oxford: Middle East Centre, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, by Ithica Press, 1992), p.182.

[24] Historian, personal interview, October 2016, New York. Audio recording available.

[25] Achille Mbembe,”The Power of the Archive and its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton et al. (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002).

[26] “Reel-librarians,” online:

[27] Antoinette Burton, introduction to Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2005), 1-24.

[28] Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 22-53.

[29] Ariella Azoulay, “Archive,”, online:

[30] Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and its Limits,” 19-26.

[31] The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was quick to state that they would create an archive of the uprising, though little came of the project.

[32] The Ministry of Interior decree, No. 155 of 2011, decree announced Khaled Fahmy (Historian) as head of committee along four academics, Ahmed Zakaria Al-Sheleq (Professor of Egyptian Contemporary History), Nevine Abd-ElMoneim Mosaad (Professor of Economics and Political Science), Iman Michelle Farag (Professor of Economics and Political Science), Iman Michelle Farag (Professor of Economics and Political Science), Sherif Ismail Younes (Professor at Helwan University), Ahmed Hossam El-Din Gharbeia (knowledge and accessibility advocate) and two government officials, Abdel Wahed El Nabawy (Head of National Archives) and Mahmoud Fouda (Head of Collections in the Archives).

[33] Ahmad Gharbeia, knowledge advocate and committee member, personal interview, January 12, 2017. Audio recording available.

[34] Places like Tahrir square, Mostafa Mahmoud and Giza Square, to name a few.

[35] The committee also planned to ask the Internet Archive to host either their primary copies, if they were not able to find resources to do so, or a secondary backup. In addition, it planned to collaborate with archiving initiatives such as the Mosireen Media Collective and R-Shief, created by VJ Umm Amal.

[36] Other questions included: How were they going to record, and what would the folders saved look like? What kind of laptops? Where would they get the servers? Who would be the point of contact in the National Archives? What kind of metadata would they keep? From technical to philosophical, the question was not just how to document the revolution but what was the revolution.

[37] Ahmad Gharbeia interview.

[38] Ahmad Gharbeia interview.

[39] ibid.

[40] Khaled Fahmy, historian and committee member, personal interview, February 19, 2017. Audio recording available.

[41] Haytham Al-Wardany, “The Place of the Writer,” rommanmag, 28 August 2017, online:

Salma Shamel