By Hussein Omar
It has sometimes been claimed that, like human rights and democracy, the protection of Egypt’s cultural heritage cannot be left to the Egyptians. Corruption, poverty, and ignorance, Egypt’s critics maintain, pose a serious threat to the preservation of artefacts of “global importance”.
Egypt’s own Antiquities Council, of course, claims otherwise. Attempting to demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding “national heritage,” erstwhile director Zahi Hawas waged a mildly successful international campaign to repatriate what “rightly belongs” to Egypt. In one case, a mummy returned from Atlanta, Georgia was given a farcical state-funeral, serenaded by singing schoolchildren and marching military bagpipers. Hawas, obsessed with ancient showpieces like the bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta stone, has long overlooked the theft of Egypt’s non-ancient heritage. Ottoman deeds and Khedivial records that have mysteriously appeared in both private and public collections in the Gulf, for example, fell entirely outside the remit of his campaign.
Appealing to the tastes of package tourists and neglecting the interest of ordinary Egyptians, the Antiquities Council has long scorned what cannot be displayed in expensive vitrines and hastily photographed. Egypt’s post-“Islamic”— and particularly its 19th and 20th century— culture has therefore been ignored, if not actively denigrated, by the Council.
Most recently, the furore over the alleged smuggling and sale of Naguib Mahfouz’s archives has made more visible than ever the state’s failure to safeguard its “modern” heritage. Although Sotheby’s would eventually call the auction off, the patriotic Egyptian public was infuriated. It provoked the country’s preeminent newspapers to ask how the manuscripts of Egypt’s Nobel Laureate could be sold in the chambers of a foreign auction house, and why the state had not intervened to protect them. And yet, the Mahfouz sale further prompts the more important question: where and with whom should the private papers of public personalities be deposited?
For example, at his death earlier this month, Egypt’s celebrated novelist Ibrahim Aslan left behind a number of unpublished manuscripts. How could his heirs, should they so wish, make this material accessible to an interested public?
In theory, the answer is easy— either the National Archives of Egypt or the adjacent “Dar al-Kutub”. But in practice the logic by which both institutions operate makes this issue a lot more complicated than it first appears to be.
Essentially, the current National Archive is descended from a series of disparate document repositories cobbled together in the 1920s. This new centralized archive was designed to provide the infrastructure behind professional history writing, which aimed to forge a monolithic national (and more importantly monarchical) identity for the country. During this state-building period, documents that did not promote a certain view of Egyptian history, and the reigning monarchy of the time, were either discarded or destroyed.
True to its etymological origins, the National Archive of Egypt continues to be held within the state’s coercive grip. State security (amn al-qawmi, formerly amn al-dawla) plays arbiter. Despite the efforts of Egypt’s preeminent historian, Khaled Fahmy, it continues to viciously restrict access to the documents to all but a privileged few: These tend to be professional historians whose research is perceived as non-subversive to the state and its narratives, which are overwhelmingly nationalist.
These self-proclaimed gatekeepers of Egypt’s past are thus able to determine and drive most of the research conducted on the country’s modern history. Moreover, the Egyptian archive is notoriously unreliable; its self-proclaimed mission — to preserve documents pertaining to the history of modern Egypt — is consistently undermined by cataloguing problems, disorganization, and theft.
Elsewhere in the region, civil war, lack of funding, and often lack of interest, have resulted in the eradication of large and important collections of documents, both public and private. Research agendas, instead of being problem-driven, have often been determined by what material was available for study.
In a creative attempt to circumvent the difficulties posed by the “gatekeepers of the Egyptian past,” a younger generation of scholars has shifted the focus of its enquiry from the state to its subjects. The most important recent works of Egyptian history written in the West have thus relied heavily on periodicals or print material found in European or American research institutes, or in personal collections.
There is, after all, a wealth of material in private hands. Yet since 1963, when a precedent-setting court decision forced the family of Egypt’s nationalist icon, Sa’ad Zaghlul, to “gift” his diaries to the state, private collectors have tended to keep their troves hidden from view. That same year, the Ministry of Culture formed a new Committee for the Writing of Egyptian History, which was tasked with identifying documents of ‘national importance’. Those deemed worthy of the honour were confiscated from their owners and deposited in the National Archive. Rather than having the desired effect of bringing new resources out into the public, the Committee has encouraged owners— be it through inheritance or purchase— to hide away their collections and restrict access to them.
Between the restrictions imposed by the state and the precautions taken by paranoid collectors, the exchange of archival material has reached an impasse. With the exception of blind patriots and irascible polemicists, few have faith in the state as custodian of the nation’s (particularly modern) heritage. Only days after the Mahfouz affair, thousands of invaluable books were set aflame in the 19th c. Institut d’Egypte during an altercation between protestors and the Army. It was only by the intervention of ordinary citizens that the material was salvaged.
As its cultural identity is re-imagined in this time of revolution, intellectuals and the “public” alike are reckoning with what Egypt has been in the past, what it will become in the future, and the dreams and disappointments that the nation’s upheaval has unearthed. Egypt’s cultural and historical inheritance can no longer be treated as an accessory, a dispensable demonstration of an autocrat’s civility, to be paraded around the world in “blockbuster” exhibitions. Rather it will have to become a crucial component of the revolutionary process. As elected parliamentarians vie over Egypt’s post-Mubarak identity, independent intellectuals must continue to raise the battle cry that they have long sounded. More than ever, a deep engagement with Egypt’s heritage will allow them to engage in the important and political role of questioning the totalising narratives that the Egyptian state has long attempted to impose.
If the new Egyptian state is to become un-autocratic, it will have to relinquish the monopoly it has long held over all “culture”. No longer can “Literature”, “History”, and “Art” be cast as matters of National Security. Attempts to interrogate their meaning outside the framework of nationalism can no longer be viewed as heretical. Independent intellectuals and their audiences will have to turn away from the state, not towards it.
Egypt’s cultural heritage can really be left to the Egyptians. And if this heritage is to take the place it rightfully should in Egypt’s post-revolution landscape, it is imperative to encourage the efforts of “ordinary Egyptians”, those who have all along looked to build strong independent institutions outside the clutches of the ministries of culture and education. Only in this way will reassessments be possible — of the past two hundred years of literary, historical and artistic production — that will break the state’s cartel.
Hussein Omar is a history PhD candidate at Merton College, Oxford and the co-founder of the “Downtown Memory and History Project.”