|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
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Places of memoryAmina Elbendary sifts through the stuff of history
For a nation that practically invented bureaucracy, Egypt's state archives are in a mess. In trying to disentangle the meshed threads of Egyptian historical sources, even the experts get lost in a maze of filing chaos that defies both reason and intuition.
Part of the problem comes from the sheer wealth of material that the modern discipline of history deems relevant. The very notion that old papers can be "historical documents" is modern. That papers which were produced for a specific purpose can now be used for a totally different function, namely to write history, is new. But the most recent developments in historiography have wrought far greater changes on our understanding of what constitutes a "document." A bewildering variety of sources are now considered documents: newspapers, photographs, films, and, inevitably, digital sources are all included.
Dar Al-Watha'iq Al-Qawmiya, by law, houses Egypt's national archives. It is the theoretical final destination of every document, register, report, every letter, memorandum, form, indeed every scrap of paper produced by the Egyptian bureaucracy that is of value to Egyptian social, economic and political history. And that abundance is difficult to handle.
But sheer unmanageable mass is not the only peril threatening recorded history. Connoisseurs tell horror stories of precious documents destroyed and of documents about to perish that were rescued by seeming miracles, or sheer coincidence.
Many of the Abdin palace documents were on the verge of ruin before renowned historian Mohamed Anis, by sheer chance, discovered the danger and saved them. Other documents were less lucky. As recently as the early 1990s, the documents of the Damanhour Shari'a court were moved to the archives in an open truck, in winter. Of course it had to rain that day.
Unlocking the past: Egypt's archival documents have gone a long way, with thousands moved from Dar Al-Mahfouzat to Dar Al-Watha'iq
photos: Antoun Albert
Organisational chaos also confronts the hapless researcher. Despite laws that have been passed setting up national archives, national documents remain scattered over several institutions. Dar Al-Mahfouzat, which houses some of the paper trail of the Ministry of Finance, includes registers relating to estate taxes, civil registers and land surveys used for taxing. Certain state institutions, including the ministries of defence, interior, the foreign ministry and the presidency, also keep their own archives. While Dar Al-Mahfouzat is theoretically open to the public, unlike the national institutions, it is not intended as a research facility. Yet it includes documents dating back to the Mohamed Ali period which the Treasury almost certainly no longer needs.
All these difficulties have consequences. Many chapters of Egyptian history remain unwritten because historians cannot begin to identify where the available sources may be found. Every now and then newspapers wage campaigns, asking for verification of points of history, wondering where the documents of the Suez Canal Company are; where the documents of the Wafd Party are; where those of a leading politician in pre- revolutionary Egypt are; and, for that matter, where the records of the Revolutionary Command Council are. How can anyone embark on writing the history of Egypt in the 20th century without studying the July 1952 Revolution? And how can anyone begin to study the revolution when almost all the documents remain unavailable to historians? In his books on the Nasser and early Sadat eras, political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal repeatedly refers to official documents which he himself has copies of; he even reproduces some of them. But when asked by reporters and commentators whether he is willing to deposit them in public archives he says he will gladly do so when he knows they will be safely housed.
It is ironic that in writing their national history, Egyptians often have recourse only to colonial archives. Britain's Public Records Office remains the most accessible source of documents on Egypt during the period of British rule. The French and American National Archives are also important sources. And modern history documents are not the only expatriates. The Cairo Geniza documents are an important source on mediaeval Egypt. Discovered in Cairo synagogues in the early 20th century, these have all been moved outside Egypt and are now in Western universities. These include a variety of documents that deal with Egypt's mediaeval Jewish population, such as bills, marriage contracts, letters and copies of official papers.
The organisation of documents at Dar Al-Watha'iq, the national archive, sums up many of the frustrations that distress researchers. All the young scholars interviewed agreed that the indices are often extremely confusing: especially as the Dar administrators repeatedly change the system. A register referred to by a particular number 20 years ago will have had two or three different numbers by now and the registers that concord those sets together aren't always accurate. What's more, certain documents, the mufradat (single documents), that are not obvious parts of larger registers or collections, are often not even indexed. These sources include the not insignificant documents of the Caisse de la Dette, the Anglo-French fund which managed Egypt's public debt in the late 19th century. This all makes it fiendishly difficult to build on existing scholarship and cross reference other scholars' work.
There is a silver lining. Historians who work at the Dar often happen on their most interesting discoveries by chance; having asked for a certain register, they are given something totally different which turns out to be infinitely more interesting and which the index didn't even record as existing. Mohamed Hakim, a sociologist with the National Centre for Sociological Research and a historian closely familiar with the archives, aptly describes the predicament of historians working at the Dar: "It is like digging at an archaeological site. It depends on your luck, you never know what you're going to come up with. It could be a pot, it could be a mummy, or it could be a room full of treasures!" But for every treasure historians stumble on, they waste hundreds and hundreds of hours wading through the archival equivalent of landfill, thanks to the labyrinthine system of classification.
Over the last five years, the Dar Al- Watha'iq has improved, with its separation from the General Egyptian Book Organisation. Its current director, Mohamed Saber Arab, has been a prime mover in modernising the Dar. The building has now been reorganised and cleaned and a new study hall has been set up for researchers to quarantine them from the bustle of the Corniche in a comfortable and quiet working environment. Many of the document store rooms have also been reorganised and cleaned. The horror stories reported in the past of documents succumbing to sewage and rodents are supposedly now a thing of the past.
Yet the clean-up is a matter of exteriors. What about the inner functioning of the Dar? What about what is in the archives? What about restoring old documents and saving those on the verge of total destruction? A document need not be treated as an artefact in and of itself. Most are paper documents -- with varying qualities of paper used -- and are bound to disintegrate some day even if they are stored according to the best available methods. For historians the value of a document is largely in the information it provides. New technological media could be used to save documents, either on microfilm, or by scanning them. Everyone familiar with the archives also agrees on the need for specialised archivists at the Dar who are well- acquainted with the documents and the means of preserving and classifying them. But "the employees at the Dar are not archivists, really" laments Hakim. "Many documents are placed together haphazardly; by luck they look similar so they are simply filed together as a group. The organisation of a national archive should mirror the original administrative divisions. Ours is organised like a public library, which it is not," he argues. Emad Abu-Ghazi, professor of archival studies at Cairo University and a member of Dar Al- Watha'iq's scientific committee, concedes that the existing staff at the national archives are not capable of drafting proper indices. "The Dar needs three times as many archivists in addition to temporary employees to set up proper indices," he said.
There is some hope. The Ministry of Telecommunications has a project in association with the national archives to set up digital indices for the documents of the Dar. If implemented properly, this project could revolutionise the writing of history in Egypt. At the very least, it would spare researchers painstaking hours of fruitless work.
But just as this news arrived to cheer historians, other developments threatened to frustrate them. Dar Al-Watha'iq was at the centre of parliament's spring debate about the Protection of Documents bill. The proposed law gladdened historians as it would toughen the penalties against individuals and official institutions which kept government documents from the archives. If implemented, the law would guarantee that ministries and government offices hand over their documents once the need for them at their original locations was satisfied. But fervent debates in the house and in the press led to the bill being postponed until the next parliamentary session.
Journalists and in particular the daily Al- Wafd, mouthpiece of the liberal Wafd opposition party, led the fight against the bill. The journalists objected to articles relating to documents which could be classified as secret, barring access to them and introducing stern punishments for transgressors. The journalists complained that the law did not make clear that documents would be classified and that it would be used as another excuse to deny journalists access to information. According to the draft, documents could be classified as either "secret," specifying 30 years of restricted access, or "top secret" which specified 50 years. Historians recognise that some documents must be classified: that is a necessity of statecraft all over the world. Researchers say they don't mind the secrecy of some documents if only they would trust that they would be kept safe, not destroyed whether by malevolence or neglect, and would eventually be made public.
Raouf Abbas, professor emeritus of modern history at Cairo University, president of the Egyptian Historical Society and chair of the scientific committee at the Dar, clarified the remit of the proposed secrecy articles and identified a particularly worrying problem with the bill. When it finally reached parliament, the bill gave authority to specify classification to the institution that originally produced the document. This, Abbas argued, gave public officials room to unnecessarily deny access to documents that might implicate those in charge at a certain moment in time. If any officials had behaved corruptly, they could restrict access to the documentary proof. To curtail any room for corruption the amended bill (it was sent back to the committee after postponement by parliament and was amended in consultation with legal advisers from the State Council) states that after a period of five, 10 or 15 years, depending on the nature of the document, a joint committee made up of representatives of the archives as well as officials from the institution should meet to decide whether to move it to the archives and, if so, what degree of secrecy it requires, if any. That decision should not be in the hands of the producing authorities alone, insists Abbas.
Abbas lamented that over the years all senior state officials, including ministers and prime ministers, have left their posts with boxes and suitcases of documents, records that are not theirs but belong to the nation. The new law specifies that individuals in possession of government documents must release them to the archives or face harsh penalties.
Also, as Emad Abu-Ghazi points out, the proposed bill is far-reaching: it also covers private non-government documents, such as documents produced by political parties, syndicates or banks. It also specifically mentions the documents of the Committee for Recording the History of the July 1952 Revolution, which was set up in the 1970s and specifies that these should be handed over to the national archives. This is of fundamental importance as next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the revolution and should also mark the beginning of the declassification of some of the documents hitherto considered top secret.
The Protection of Documents Bill is also revolutionary in that it specifies harsh penalties for stealing, smuggling or destroying national documents. It is thus perceived as a cornerstone in combating the Mafia dealing in national documents which many say has been thriving for decades.
"A lot of documents have been irredeemably lost. This law tries to save what is left," said Abu-Ghazi.
The proposed bill tries to seal many of the legal holes through which documents have been seeping over the years, whether through neglect, theft, or incompetence. And even though the original draft of 28 articles had shrunk to 11 articles by the time it left the prime minister's office, it is still a step towards regulating the chaos. At the very least, it indicates an increased interest in the past and an understanding of how scholars approach that past.
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