Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg on Wikimedia Commons.

The Archive’s Main Entrance

Alan Mikhail—

Between the street and the building was a large black wrought-iron fence. On the inside of this one of Egypt’s millions of border markers, two paths led into the archive. To the left, three steps led down to a small door. This rather nondescript opening served as the entrance for the archive’s bureaucrats. To the right, up a large flight of black stone steps, researchers, visitors, and higher-ups in the archive’s administration entered the building. Above the doors hung a large metal sign with the name of the archive in Arabic calligraphy. Before entering, one enjoyed a view of the Nile and the island of Zamalek. Looking down over the low walls of this elevated platform, one saw a small green space where lemon trees, tulips, and gardenia bushes rose up between empty chip bags, bits of newspaper, and a regular group of street cats fighting and playing. Between the two entrances was a driveway reserved for high administrators to park their cars. A group of government workers patrolled this courtyard, almost as police, waiting to open the black iron fence’s large gate upon the arrival of an important person, so that he—or rather, his chauffeur—might drive in and park.

The spatial casting of these separate entrances reinforced Egypt’s social and economic hierarchy, concretizing the segregation of classes in the archive, as in all government institutions. Everyone knew his or her place in the system. If the impossible occurred and somehow one forgot one’s station, or, even more shockingly, if someone resisted, the world around wrenched the proper order back into place. Government bureaucrats, who earned a measly two to four hundred pounds a month, found themselves literally looking up at those using the main entrance, a threshold they could never cross. Upward mobility proved impossible.

The double doors of the archive’s main entrance usually stayed open to the street. Although it made the building noisy, this routine allowed Cairo’s generally comfortable temperatures to pass inside and facilitated a free flow of arrivals and exits. As a researcher, I almost always entered through these doors. One time, though, I used the workers’ doorway on purpose, just to see what it was all about. Bucking standard procedure—by definition a problem, but especially so in Egypt—I was met at the door and asked what I was doing there. Given the camaraderie I had built up with many of the workers over my years in the archive, I felt comfortable enough to joke around. I told them I was tired of being a historian and wanted to be a bureaucrat instead. They laughed and, to their credit, played along, showing me where to sign and clock in for the day. Government workers, who represented the majority of the people entering and working in the building each day, were the most surveilled group in the archive, as they are across Egypt’s countless bureaucratic structures. Nasser had guaranteed every Egyptian a government job, but it came with no guarantee of respect. In the age of Mubarak, these assurances of employment had eroded. Now one generally needed connections to secure government employment, and contracts were often temporary and easily terminated. Higher-ups closely monitored the lower ranks, in part because they received wages from the state but mostly because Egypt’s stratified class system had etched in stone a reputation for this still-majority of Egypt’s workforce: they were seen as lazy, inefficient, dishonest, or even possibly thieving, if the opportunity presented itself. As a researcher, I could pretend to use their entrance; they could never pretend to use mine.

From My Egypt Archive by Alan Mikhail. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

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

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