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My Egypt Archive: A Conversation with Alan Mikhail

In My Egypt Archive, Alan Mikhail provides an engaging on-the-ground account of the everyday authoritarianism that produced the Arab Spring in Egypt. Here, Mikhail talks to us about his continued interest in the history of bureaucracies and the importance of sound in the archive.

You describe the Egyptian National Archives as a place of becoming, a controlled arena of interpersonal growth and nation building. Could you explain how you see the personal, the national, and the archival working together?

AM: My Egypt Archive is very clearly my experience. My hope though is that I have brought to the fore some of the common questions, insecurities, aspirations, and experiences all historians face when they approach the archive. In many ways, I wrote the book I wish I could have read in graduate school before entering an archive. Even for seasoned historians, there is so much mystery and anxiety around the archive. It is our holy of holies, possessing the power of possibility and destruction. I hope that this book will help to break some of this down. At the same time, this is a book about Egypt in a particular moment in its history. This moment has passed, and Egypt, like the archive, is now a different place. The 2011 uprising changed many things in Egypt, even if its aftermath has hardened certain ideas about security and society that had precipitated this social movement in the first place. In my view, the best history writing offers particular stories about places now changed to deepen our understanding of universal ideas and practices. This is what I set out to do in this book. One does not need to be me or to care about Egypt or to be a historian to take something from the book.

You have written about the environmental history of the Middle East and the place of the Ottoman Empire and Islam in world history. How did this work contribute to your vision of the archive?

AM: In the first instance, My Egypt Archive is an account of some of my experiences in the archive as I did the research for those previous books. More conceptually, a theme threading through all my work is an interest in bureaucracy: the bureaucracies built out of the exigencies of environmental management or those demanded by imperial expansion. My Egypt Archive approaches this topic from a different angle, writing about a bureaucratic state from the inside in real time. I am embedded in the churning machinery of the Egyptian administrative state as a historian attempting to understand something about the past of this state. I keep both of these timescales in play in the book.

Could you explain the important role sound plays in your description of the Egyptian archive?

AM: History is a relentlessly textual discipline. There are many good reasons for this. There is a technological story to tell about the preservation of text over the auditory or olfactory or what have you. Against what is fleeting, text more easily stays. Alternatively, we might explain the textual bias among historians by noting that humans are overwhelmingly visual animals. There are of course other explanations too. Whatever the case, the archive is nearly always considered a space of reading and writing, of visually consuming texts to produce more text for publication. My experience of working in the Egyptian National Archives was anything but one of quietly contemplating the written word. Indeed, it was an extremely loud one, a boisterous form of social engagement. However, in my work, as in nearly all historical scholarship, this noise quickly and forever disappears as the historian metabolizes his or her archival research into historical accounts and arguments and the references supporting them. Where does the noise go? What happens to the visceral experiences of the archive? What is lost in tuning out the noise? Might staying with the noise reveal something of the historical craft? I think it does, and so in bringing the elusiveness of sound back in, my goal is to think with, rather than to ignore, the noise of the archive.

You consider how historians can benefit from the critical work of anthropologists in creating reflexive methods and research. What can historians learn from anthropologists and why is this important?

AM: Anthropology has always appealed to me as a historian. The constant grappling with method and the very deliberate placing of the anthropologist herself in the writing of anthropology are instructive for us historians. Rarely do we robustly center and wrestle with archival research as our central methodological task as historians. We offer the reference, but give no indication of what lies behind it. We tend to hide ourselves as the neutral makers of histories, thinking our subjectivities and experiences irrelevant to the historical act, almost as if we are inert reagents in the chemical transformations that produce histories from archives. Granted, very few historians today would argue for objectivity. Nevertheless, my own sense of what history is and my experiences in Egypt suggested to me that there would be value in piercing the fourth wall to dwell on both sides of the archival reference in thinking about historical method as an ethical and intellectual practice, as a process of self-making, as a way of being in the world. Anthropology is generative in thinking through how one might begin to do this.

Can this book be read as an Egyptian American book?

AM: It was only after the United States changed its immigration policies with the Hart-Celler Act in the mid-1960s that people from countries like Egypt began arriving in major numbers. Those immigrants’ children born in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s are now in their forties and fifties. A very few of them are writers who grapple with their identities and relationships to the places where their parents were born, whether that be India, Nigeria, South Korea, or, in my case, Egypt. At one level then, as the child of Egyptians who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, I would of course consider myself very much one of these writers, even as My Egypt Archive is the first time I have focused on questions related to personal identity. At another level, the book asks a much broader question about what the historian’s positionality means for the histories he writes, what any thinker’s place in the world means for the thoughts he thinks. I use myself and my own particular subjectivity and positionality as an example in this regard to acknowledge, analyze, and critique what it might mean to be Egyptian American in Egypt and America and an Egyptian American historian of Egypt.

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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