Writer Naira Antoun participated in the “Archiving the Revolution” session at this year’s Summer Academy.
By Naira Antoun
Two projects to archive the revolution, both made up of participants in the events they are documenting, one associated with the state, the other not so. The first is headed by historian Khaled Fahmy, who accepted an invitation from the Egyptian National Archives to head a committee documenting the revolution. The other, over 1000 hours of footage either filmed or gathered by the revolutionary film collective Mosireen.
In a sense, Mosireen members refute the term archive, with its association simply of storing the past. They seek to create not a repository for the future, but something that serves the present. The material they have is ‘living material;’ the question is how to use and deploy it, to give it a continuous life.
In a project that is associated with the National Archives, and thus with the state, there is the question of how to archive a revolution that opposed that very state (for the revolution was of course not only aimed at Hosni Mubarak as an individual). A state body has, in a sense, subcontracted the archiving to a group of revolutionaries, who are themselves opposed to the modus operandi of that very state body. The archiving of the revolution then is a part of the revolution against the hegemony of a security mindset that has dominated much more than the management of the state archives.
On a panel alongside Khaled Fahmy and member of Mosireen Sharif Gaber, was former minister of culture Emad Abu Ghazi who also specializes in the field of archives. The discussion on archiving the revolution was one of the public events that formed part of AUC’s Aesthetics and Politics summer academy.
AN ARCHIVING OF THE PRESENT
Researchers and historians who seek to uncover popular memory often have to read not only the archive, but beyond the archive, to learn to read its gaps and silences. With a keen consciousness of the silencing of popular memory, the revolution archiving project sets to record popular contemporary memory at a moment when that memory itself is in a moment of flux and contestation.
An archive, like a document, bears traces of the conditions of its production; it is a documentation of itself. This is not a case of a victorious revolution writing the story of its victory and purging the inconvenient. As other powers, both national and international, seek to sideline the demands and actors of the revolution, too often it acts from a position of relative weakness – it is a revolution seeking to document itself while in struggle. The archive is itself shaped by the moment; the silences of those who will not speak for fear of incriminating themselves or others bear the trace of the fear of a resilient regime of security. The shapes of the silences make the archive itself a document of that fear. The despondency of the moment are reflected in the silences, as those who once called themselves revolutionaries are not motivated to tell their own stories. And the existence of the project itself, is a document – testament – to hope and determination.
Popular memory is never simply about remembering. The songs people sung in the past, for instance in Port Said during the resistance against Tripartite Aggression, are repositories of living popular memory. They acted to raise morale, to communicate, to build an identity, and to commit to memory what may otherwise have been forgotten. So they are ways of remembering, while serving a multiple of other functions.
Here too, with Mosireen’s repository of contemporary popular memory; it must be archived to remember, but also it is is used to raise morale, as material for other revolutionaries, and as means of communication with those who have become despondent over the past year and a half.
Indeed, events say from last year, are still part of the present moment, or what Gaber calls a ‘present continuous,’ not simply past events that influence and impact on the present. Meanings of old footage change as new events happen; the ways they can be deployed and read changes.
STORIES: HOW TO TELL; TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL
Mosireen is simply swamped with material, material that itself does not tell a story. So part of the task becomes, for this revolutionary video collective, “how to make it tell the stories we want to tell,” as Gaber puts it. The video footage does not express inescapable truths. There is nothing intrinsic, he says, even to scenes of violence. But recalling Susan Sontag’s discussion of war photography, perhaps it is especially scenes of suffering and violence that can be read in multiple ways. She discusses a photograph used to spur on the civil resistance in Spain, being used and ‘read’ as an indictment of that very war.
One of the major differences between the archiving project and previous archives, Abu Ghazi says, is quite simply the vast amounts of material. With so many people able to video on their phones, there is a huge volume of footage. As the current digital technology becomes obsolete, how to digitally migrate the material, possibly several times, in a cost-effective way? The issue of how to organize the material is a challenge both for the archive project and for Mosireen. How best to index and catalogue the video and the rest of the material? How to ensure not storage, but accessibility; can the material be easily searched, easily cross-referenced? A database system then is both a technical and a political challenge, and to find people fully cognizant of both is itself a challenge.
The archiving project stands apart from the state archives not only in its content, but also in its methodology and its very notion of what an archive is and who it must serve. In the interests of transparency – and creating a model of archiving that stands opposed to that which has dominated in Egypt – the group seeks to record the very process of archiving. The meetings, the decisions taken, the disagreements, how information was gathered. Any future researcher will know whether an interviewee was actively sought out or was a respondent to the project’s open calls.
In contrast to Mosireen, the archive project does not seek to tell stories. It is an exercise of history but not of history-writing. The committee seeks to collect and organize – to archive – such that future generations can tell and write history. The question then is not what story to tell, but how to enable the telling of multiple stories and narratives. What to collect, how to organize the material are, of course deeply political questions, for they will shape, limit, enable what stories it will be possible to tell.
To take some basic and essential examples with which, Fahmy explains, the committee has grappled: What is the revolution? When did it begin? Is it ongoing or did it end? If it ended, when? Which events and happenings should be recorded? Is every demonstration part of the revolution?
As Abou Ghazi argues, some events since the fall of Mubarak may be more important and significant for the revolution than those that occurred during the 18 days. Some of these, he points out, are events for which no-one has yet been punished such as Maspero when a Christian rights demonstration was attacked and Port Said when over 70 football fans were killed. Indeed, depending on what happens, these may be particularly significant. Future historians may be particularly interested, for instance, in Port Said as a key moment in the emergence of a key political actor – young people with dissident subcultures, the youth of Egypt beyond twitter and blackberries.
Who are revolutionary actors? Are the Islamists part of the revolution, or against it, or both? Is the memory of the police officer who directs the killings of revolutionaries part of the memory of the revolution? And what about those in parts of the country untouched by the revolution?
The committee did not arrive at answers to these questions. Or where it did, it treats these very answers as provisional. Knowing that it is a political question to decide when the revolution begins or ends, it is not about discovering the one right answer. The answer to the question of when it to go back to, when to start documenting from has itself already changed a number of times. As it currently stands, they are going back to the killing of Khaled Said, with the understanding that not only may this change, but that people’s own narratives and testimonies may stretch back to encompass times much earlier than this.
The walls of AUC on Mohamed Mahmoud Street are being painted, sprayed, written on, since the murals of the martyrs of Port Said was whitewashed a few days before, itself a part of the popular memory that is being documented. Towards the bottom an anonymous message in green paint: “Cleanliness is not in whitewashing, but in protecting history.”*
*Editor’s note: See photo at top.
Naira Antoun is a freelance writer, editor and youth worker. You can read more of her writings on her blog, naira’s as if: http://nairaantoun.wordpress.com