This article is co-published with Egypt Migrations and the Orfalea Center at UC Santa Barbara
We miss visiting the archives. Little compares to the simple act of walking up the steps to the main entrance, the air cool and crisp as dew shimmers on bright green leaves. Bags heavy with notebooks and printouts of collection listings, the familiar sensation of hopeful discovery makes every visit a fresh experience. Like many researchers around the world, our humble homes have become all things. The kitchen table is where we eat, read, research, and plan schedules. The living room rings with laughter and drama, whether watching television, scrolling social media, playing games, or connecting with distant friends and family.
Covid-19 still ravages parts of the world as it abates in others and necessary lockdowns robbed us of physical exploration, and the tactile sensation of flipping through pages few had touched before. Oddly enough, we recently shared a laugh over a statement neither anticipated: “I miss my cat friends at dar al kotob!” Those furry little creatures lounging on chairs or by open windows who stare at every human invading their space quickly became companions and allies as we scrounged the records in Cairo.
Despite this loss of the physical archive, every morning is filled with new discoveries. Indeed, it seems that although we were limited in our capacities to travel, we have learned more about the past through digital exploration. In the 16 months since the world shut down, we were compelled to look inward and online to continue our personal and professional work. This time in quarantine calls on us to reflect on the archive, take stock of the plethora of online resources available, and to turn a more critical eye to archival and funding institutions. Archives do not just ‘happen’ or come into being in a ‘natural’ unmediated way – they are collected, curated, and created entities.
The digital repositories, collections, and archives we enjoy and consult are the result of intent, funding, labor, laws, institutions, and resources. The uneven distribution of these factors, as well as historic events and actors, shape the construction of the archive and our relationship to it. It is quite easy to visit archives in certain parts of the world and more difficult in others. Likewise, it is also easy for those of us in the Global North to critique the systems and practices of archival management in the Global South and play into neo-orientalist valuations of its lack of ‘order’ or ‘professional standards.’ At times, we fail to recognize that the origins of archival science in the Global North emerged out of an impetus for categorization that privileged collecting priorities to showcase and further imperial or national knowledge and expertise.
Not all stories are given space or due worth in the institutional archive. As historians, we are taught to critically assess the how and why of archival preservation. Often it is governments, influential figures, and large organizations that see value in preserving their records. Numbered and pre-arranged files are later transported to the archives so that archivists may classify and code volumes for researchers to examine. The archivist catalogues donated materials and may restrict access to this material as required by law. Yet limited finances and access to marginalized communities structure the process of collecting, arranging, describing, and storing such material in accordance with archival procedure. Further, the archivist decides what material has archival value, redacts others, and rejects material that will no longer be maintained by the archives.
The acts of archiving, curation, and exhibition expose the limitations of institutional archives and the necessary role of underfunded community archives. The latter has the power to deliver diverse perspectives by capturing a multiplicity of underrepresented stories. A community archival organization like Egypt Migrations works with established institutional archives to define the ways donations are preserved, presented, and accessed; performs necessary educational outreach to encourage community participation; and produces new archival sources like oral histories. In this process, archiving occurs from within the community and, at the same time, also shapes how national histories are studied and celebrated. History is routinely told and exhibited through western structures. Yet this may not always serve the needs of every community. Community archival structures (such as the way Egyptian migrants organize, transmit, and reproduce knowledge) should be respected, and this cannot happen without community involvement and support.
Acquisition, curation, and cataloguing require community involvement and opportunities for underrepresented researchers – Indigenous, Latinx, Black, Arab, among others – to have a say in how knowledge is mediated through the structures that archive, transmit, and make grants available. This process requires transparency and greater emphasis on education, outreach, and investment to thrive.
New digital resources have surfaced since the lockdowns first began, and existing organizations have expanded their digitized collections. With eager yearning we search out the latest historical news articles from Raph Cormack on Twitter or delve into a community’s art, food, and worship practices curated by Coptic Culture on Instagram. From nostalgic historic photographs like Picturing Palestine to Egyptian or Assyrian Archive to digitization projects like Translatio and Akkasah, a myriad of preservation, education, and community outreach initiatives exist in the field of Middle East Studies. Government documents, historic newspapers, family photographs, and a cocktail of ephemera on Middle East Archive or Cairo Observer keep research exciting and going. This process also brings into sharp relief that many online resources are underutilized, underfunded, and the labor of family, community, and public scholars continues unrecognized. The past year has underscored the importance of recognizing and amplifying these efforts.
Social media platforms provide a space for communities to insist on the variety and complexity of the “Middle East,” its peoples, and cultures. Just as the Global South cannot be understood independently from what is exterior to it, so too is no migrant group complete and unchanging. Any rigid adherence to boundaries falsifies the situation. The necessary work of community archives and digital initiatives bring this transnational, panoramic view into sharp relief. However, while social media offers opportunities to bypass structural barriers for the global exhibition of underrepresented stories, their very nature and purpose as tools for ephemeral virtual social interaction hinder our ability to curate, source, and catalogue records.
Just as we should heed the call to resist going back to the old ‘normal’ of our pre-pandemic lives, so too should we advocate for a more equitable and social-justice oriented approach to the archives. We should examine the positionalities, assumptions, and desires undergirding our research as we begin to slowly re-enter the reading rooms of repositories across the globe. We should be mindful about how our location and passports enable us to even claim a ‘post-pandemic’ reality when much of the Global South continues to bear the burdens of inequitable access to resources. It is in solidarity, not extraction, that we should embark on our work now and into the future.
Michael Akladios is the Founder and Executive Director of Egypt Migrations, a non-profit archival, educational, and community outreach organization in Canada. An historian of 20th century Egyptian migrations, his research critically reflects on the mundane transnationalism of middle-class professionals from Egypt in Cold War North American cities. A public facing scholar, he is published with Active History, Mada Masr, Public Orthodoxy, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, among others.
Amy Fallas is a writer and editor from Washington D.C. She holds an MA in History from Yale University and is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara. Her dissertation examines how the development of philanthropy in Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mediated sectarian divisions. She serves as Assistant Editor at the Arab Studies Journal and her work is published in the Washington Post, Jadaliyya, Palestine Square, The Revealer, Sojourners, and more.