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Access For Whom? On Gaining Permission to Narrate Egypt’s Past

Alan Mikhail Navigates Bureaucracy and Identity in the Egyptian National Archives

In the beginning was the permit, and the permit was not with me. Only with it in hand could one map and inhabit the space of the archive. The process of gaining permission to enter and use the archive immediately threw one into the teeth of Egyptian National Security (Amn al-Dawla or another of the security agencies, which one was never clear). After the staff of the archive vetted an application for research, it moved up to be assessed by an office of the national security apparatus.

The same logic that erected barricades and put guns in the hands of police on Cairo’s streets seeped into the construction of Egypt’s history. For the historian, security, access, and permission stood as the requisite first steps into the craft. If one could not see documents, one could not write history. So much of the historical enterprise revolves around who can see what. The permit bluntly structured the potentials of the histories that could be written. Who had permission to narrate Egypt’s past?

Nowhere was there a clear articulation of who would gain access to the archive and who would not. Vagueness functioned as a deliberate and effective strategy across Egypt. The ambiguous notion of an Islamist terrorist threat or an imminent attack by Israel, for example, justified the maintenance of emergency rule for the whole of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. A generalized sense of Egyptian amity meant that no one purchased car insurance because, in a nondescript way, Egyptians always did the right thing.

In the archive, with no clear guidelines in place, the state could do what it liked, no questions asked, leaving one only to guess as to why a particular person received a permit and someone else not. Certain research areas were clearly off limits: topics related to foreign policy or Egypt’s wars and most anything from the 1940s on—the period after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and the expansion of the state’s machinery of security.

If one could not see documents, one could not write history.

The best strategy for a researcher applying to work in the archive was to meet vagueness with vagueness. The more general a topic, the more innocuous it sounded. In this way, even from the moment of applying to access the archive, security concerns entered into the calculus of a historian’s research. At the time I applied for my permit, I wanted to work on the history of medicine in eighteenth-century Egypt and so was instructed to write as my research topic “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social history.”

Not only would this fuzziness seem ignorable but it would, in theory at least, not limit the kinds of sources I would be able to see in the archive, if I was allowed in at all. From California, I sent to a professor I knew in Cairo my application for a permit along with two passport-size photos, an official letter in Arabic and English from my thesis adviser (the more official-looking, the better) stating the purpose and title of my research project, and a copy of my Egyptian ID card. My professor friend wrote to tell me that all had been delivered and that we should inquire in six weeks or so.

When I arrived in Cairo six months later, my research permit was not yet ready. I landed in early summer, keen to begin my forays in the archive after years of preparation. I felt like a bucking bronco in the chute before the gate is flung open. I was ready to leap and smash my way through the archive. Beyond taking years of courses, reading everything I could about Egyptian history and the Egyptian National Archives, and preparing the documents I needed for my application, I had built my life around spending years in Cairo.

I had left my university and department, moved out of my apartment, and said goodbye to my social network. My plan to be gone for at least two years precipitated a breakup with my girlfriend. I had come to graduate school to become a historian. Historians went to archives. However high the price of admission to the guild, I was, for better or worse, committed and ready to pay.

Having expected delay, bureaucracy’s norm everywhere, I remained unperturbed that first summer. I concentrated on doing other things to prepare for my research. I reconnected with colleagues in Egypt, bought books, readjusted to life in the city, saw friends and family, and generally got my bearings. It was all thoroughly enjoyable. The archive loomed; I waited. In mid-July, nearly seven months after I had sent the application materials to my friend in Cairo, I learned my permit was ready.

Elated by this news and relieved that the national security authorities found me unremarkable, I was facing a moment of truth. I found myself growing apprehensive. Retrieving the permit would mark the first time I entered the archive. I knew—well, at that point, hoped—I would be spending a lot of time in that building over the coming years. But what if I hated it? What if the people there hated me? Added to this general anxiety was the realization that I now had no excuse not to be in the archive. It was the reason I had come to Cairo, and it stood open. Being in Cairo for research but not being in the archive would eat at me.

Dutifully, I went to the archive to retrieve my permit without delay. I was scolded for entering the wrong way, through the workers’ entrance—long before my bad joke—and then directed to the door at the top of the black stone steps. At the front desk, Ahmed (this was our first meeting) looked me up and down—though it was the peak of summer, I was wearing a sport coat and dress shoes to try to make a good first impression—and asked me what I wanted. With pride, I said I had a permit waiting for me. Ahmed made a phone call and then told me to go upstairs to the reading room. All extremely promising, I thought. I thanked him profusely and, pretending to know where to go, headed confidently for the stairs I saw beyond his desk. At the top, I scanned the scene in front of me, hoping for some direction.

To my surprise, I saw a set of double doors on the far side of the café with a plaque next to them saying “reading room” (qā‘at al-bahth). There it was. Having crossed North America, the Atlantic,˙and the Mediterranean, I had arrived at this corner of Africa. After years of fetishization, preparation, mythology, anticipation, hope, and anxiety, I finally stood on the cusp of entering that place—the archive. I wanted to speed through this ominous portal to the other side as quickly as possible.

I pushed through the double doors for the first of what would become hundreds of times. I veered left, past the sagging computer tables, taking in the new terrain, and glimpsed the head bureaucrat sitting at her desk. Even at this first glance, it was obvious that she was the person who held my research permit, and hence my professional future, in her hands. I would come to know her very well over the years.

I walked over, mulling the most appropriate way to greet her, asking myself how I could possibly not have thought about what I was going to say at this critical moment. Having reached her with no strategy, I smiled and greeted her very normally. I wanted nothing more than for her to like me. Intimidated, my pulse racing, I tried to engage her warmly, but she barely looked up, waving me to a broken metal chair with black upholstery. She shuffled through some papers underneath her desk, found my permit, and handed it to me, saying nothing. I am not sure what I imagined for this moment, but certainly something more than this. An anointing of historian’s oil, perhaps? A ceremonial oath? A handshake? Finally being let in on the secrets all the other historians seemed to know? I looked at the permit for a few moments. Next to my picture, it listed my name, address, citizenship, and research topic. The topic read “the history of society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” This pleased me with its broadness and encouraged my hope that I would be able to see the documents I wanted.

The overriding logic of the archive was a bureaucratic and organizational one, laced through with security concerns.

After a few moments perusing my new research permit, I looked up expectantly at my god incarnate. I smiled again nervously; she stared back at me blankly. As part of the ceremony, admittedly still unformed in my mind, of retrieving my permit and entering the archive for the first time, I imagined a welcome, a tour of the space, an explanation of research tools, or an official primer to the reading room. The eyes looking back at me seemed to say merely, “You are free to go.” I gathered that if I wanted an introduction to the archive I would have to instigate it myself, and so, overly eager and against my better judgment, I asked her if there were catalogs I might consult or if she had any suggestions as to where I should begin.

She looked at my permit again, to see what my topic was. She hesitated and then said that I probably would not find much in the archive. My heart sank. This remark did not bode well for my future in the reading room, as she alone determined what materials qualified as relevant to “my” topic. She suggested I go to the Egyptian National Library, which housed manuscripts and printed books. I would find much more there, she said. But in my still-forming historian’s mind, archives—not manuscripts or books—represented the sine qua non of the stuff of history.

Although I did not know it at the time, my questions on that first day were sorely misplaced. The archive and, by extension, the government employees who worked there did not think in terms of research topics. The overriding logic of the archive was a bureaucratic and organizational one, laced through with security concerns. On that first day, I did not grasp how the institution of the archive worked and, more significantly, what this meant for the writing of history in Egypt.

Instead of beginning with certain topics, problematics, people, or events, history in Egypt was most often written about archival units. The archive shaped history in direct ways. Historians wrote about the court records of a certain city or the administration of a government department. Theses and dissertations have titles like “The Court of Mansura” or “The Department of Housing.” Given that the archive itself has no index to most of its collection, these works organizing and summarizing the records in an archival unit proved extremely useful as the sorts of research guides I had naïvely expected to exist.

The question of where to look for sources on eighteenth-century medicine, or even eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social history, was therefore the wrong question to ask. As soon as I asked it, the head of the reading room likely began riffling through all of the archive’s various collections and units in her head. Given that no archival heading was an obvious match for my stated interest, she told me I would find nothing on the topic. (Perhaps an additional factor was that fewer historians meant less work.) Most researchers in the Egyptian National Archives grabbed onto one archival unit like a vein of gold and mined it until it tapped out.

To think in terms of topics rather than archival units ran counter to this logic, and I, therefore, had to learn how to translate my interests into an Egyptian archival language that would get me the documents I wanted. Only after working in the archive for a few months and after many conversations did I realize that I had to think in terms of local courts and governmental departments—to work with the bureaucratic designations of the archive itself.

What I did learn on my first day were some of the many rules. No pens, only pencils. No cell phone usage in the reading room. No notebooks, only loose sheets of paper. No food. No cameras. Research permits had to be renewed every year. I would also quickly grasp that the archive’s rules about everything applied to nothing. Such exacting detail acted as a corollary to vagueness in Egypt.

Both were mechanisms of state power. Rules existed for every detail of life (perhaps even put down in writing somewhere) and governed nearly every institution, business, restaurant, agency, household, and school. Egyptians like to joke that their bureaucracy is the world’s oldest, at five thousand years. Yet ubiquitous as they were, most of Egypt’s rules lay dormant, unknown, unenforced. The threat of enforcement, though, loomed at every moment. After years of smoking on the bus, one might suddenly be informed that smoking on the bus is illegal. But what about the previous five years when I smoked on the bus and no one seemed to care? Irrelevant.

Many of the codified-though-never-enforced rules aimed at quite reasonable and important matters. One should indeed refrain from using a pen in an archive. Yet when you see most people using pens, you acclimate to the culture of pen usage (why them and not me?), only to be chastised later for using a pen in the archive. Egyptians overcame the crushing avalanche of rules primarily by ignoring them. The rules slowed society and one’s life. Bypassing them was one of the most efficient and productive means of greasing the wheels of social and economic relationships.

Ubiquitous as they were, most of Egypt’s rules lay dormant, unknown, unenforced.

One day, a policeman stopped me for talking on my cell phone while driving—technically a violation, though rarely enforced. Why uphold this rule on this day on this road? The officer asked to see both of my licenses—my individual driver’s license and the car’s operating license (equivalent to its registration). I handed them to him and he put them in his pocket, informing me that I would have to go to a police station the following morning to pay a fine of one hundred pounds before I could retrieve them. I grew agitated and annoyed and told him that I was very busy the next day—I wasn’t—and would not be able to go to the station.

Despite knowing the futility of the question, I asked why he had stopped me out of all the other millions of drivers talking on their phones. Why selectively enforce the rules with me, I asked in my head. Pick someone else! His blank stare clearly signaled what I already knew I was to do in this situation. I gave him twenty pounds, took back my licenses, and drove away.

Egyptian law clearly states that talking on the phone while driving is a violation, and, for the good of society, it should be. The penalty for this infraction is one hundred pounds and the seizure of one’s licenses until the fine is paid. The officer who took my licenses and I both knew why he had stopped me. Such policemen made six hundred pounds a month, about one hundred US dollars—not enough to support a single person, let alone a family. Quite reasonably, they supplemented their government income by collecting money from motorists as they could.

Some might call it a bribe, but it functioned more as a means of economic redistribution in a corrupt system that stole from the citizenry. From my perspective, the choice was obvious. I was happy to give this poor man who stood in traffic all day twenty pounds rather than giving the Egyptian government one hundred pounds (and spending a few hours at a police station in the bargain). Bypassing the law benefited us both, though it did little to prevent people from using their phones while driving.

The same principle held in the archive. The nonenforcement of rules benefited both parties—worker and researcher. Renewing a permit every year proved a hassle for the researcher and a great deal of work for the archive’s staff. What really was the big deal about using pens? Easier to let this go. Rules produced delay, hardship, and tedium. No one wants any of that. Moreover, the power to choose when rules apply, and to whom, represented a means of control for the authorities. Uncertainty about the timing and context of the application of existing laws kept everyone off balance, especially, of course, the weakest in society, who are always the most common targets of state power.

The ethos of Egyptian security embodied by endless selective rules, applications, permits, guards, locked doors, and security procedures manifested as well in the ways many Egyptians thought about history and its place in society. A conversation in the archive’s small café years into my research made this very clear. A group of Egyptian researchers and another American graduate student and I were enjoying coffee around one of the glass-topped tables.

At a certain point, one of the Egyptians turned to my American colleague and asked her why she worked on the history of Egypt. I could see that the question took her aback. Our Egyptian colleague meant nothing challenging or malicious by the question; she was genuinely curious: Why not study the history of America? After all, our Egyptian friend said, she was an American and America was her country. Was she not interested in writing the history of her own country? Why would she be drawn to a place so far away and different from America, a nation of which she was not even a part? Why care about the history of a country that was not your own?

The sentiments expressed in these questions reveal some of the ways Egyptians conceive of history and their responsibilities toward the past—their past. For most, Egypt had to be protected and cast in a positive light. The vagueness of the threats against Egypt demanded its defense. As in all national historiographies, some Egyptians wrote as crude nationalists; however, most did not. Nearly all, though, held on to some notion of Egyptian distinction, the idea that the specialness of Egypt required care and protection. With an air of suspicion, the Egyptian historian of Egypt wondered whether an American historian of Egypt could be trusted to understand and contribute to the project of the Egyptian nation. Did she subscribe to the same notion of history that most Egyptians did? Would she make Egypt look good or bad? At base, this was the question for most Egyptian historians.

To be accepted as a legitimate historian in Egypt, one had to prove one’s allegiance.

And until it was answered, the non-Egyptian historian had to be treated with caution. If she ultimately proved to be a friend of the nation, she would be lauded and admired, as Egyptian historians greatly prized those non-Egyptian historians who expressed intellectual sentiments supportive of a nationalist conception of Egypt’s past. Non-Egyptians offering proof of Egypt’s greatness strengthened the nation’s case, allowing Egyptian historians to claim exoneration from the accusation of blind nationalism, which they understood some took as negative. The recognition of Egypt’s glory by non-Egyptians, who had been born without any obligation toward Egypt, strengthened its standing as truth.

As an Egyptian American, I posed a challenge for the assessing of loyalties. In the archive, I was clearly a foreigner. I myself felt more American in Egypt than I ever did in the United States. I had been born, educated, and inculcated in the United States, yet I felt culturally very Egyptian, was legally an Egyptian citizen, had family in Egypt, and knew the country well. Where did this place me in the eyes of my fellow researchers? Did my heritage mean I recognized the grandeur of Egypt more than other Americans did? Did I love Egypt? Was I writing Egyptian history as “my own” or not? Did the “Egyptian” blood coursing through my veins reveal to me things non-Egyptians could never understand? Or did the facts of my dual citizenship, American upbringing, and accent disqualify me from Egyptianness? What made one an Egyptian, anyway? To be accepted as a legitimate historian in Egypt, one had to prove one’s allegiance. Being identifiably Egyptian, whatever that meant, helped. Evidencing fealty and love sealed it.

Partly in and partly out, I proved suspect. I viscerally reacted, and acted, against the game of nationalist history, no matter the nation. As best I could, I rejected the imposition on me of any unearned privileges that came from being whatever amount of Egyptian I was. I did not believe that one needed to be Egyptian—let alone an Egyptian nationalist—to be a historian of Egypt, any more than one needed to be American to be a historian of America or Thai to be a historian of Thailand. I fancied I could, in my naïve and small way, change how Egyptians, and others, viewed history.

But who was I? Even as I felt myself the impostor Egyptian—never mind the impostor historian—oscillating between trying to be more Egyptian than American, more Egyptian than Egyptians, I strove to move beyond the frame of national history. This more than anything else made me a non-Egyptian historian in and of Egypt.

On my first day in the archive, I did not spend much time fretting about any of this. That would come later. For now, I had received my permit. I held it tight. I marked and celebrated this victory. As I left the archive for the first time, I profusely and deferentially thanked the reading room staff and all the bureaucrats I encountered as I collected my belongings and exited the building.

On my way down the steps, I impatiently called my aunts to tell them I had secured my permit. I also called to thank the professor who had helped me get it. Excited and daunted, I began to think about how I would organize my research time. As archival researchers query themselves daily, I asked myself for the first time that day, “Will I go back tomorrow?”

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Excerpted from My Egypt Archive by Alan Mikhail. Copyright © 2023. Available from Yale University Press.

Alan Mikhail
Alan Mikhail
Alan Mikhail is the Chace Family Professor of History and chair of the Department of History at Yale University. He is the author of four previous books and editor of another.





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