- Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: History and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt
In the mid-1980s I attended regularly the Thursday night history seminar at Ayn Shams University in Cairo. I sat dutifully in the outer circle along with the Egyptian graduate students and junior professors and adopted their deferential manner before the senior scholars. When it came time for me to present my preliminary work, I set forth what I knew would be a challenging methodological postulate. I was working on the early 1950s, a still recent era for which there were no Egyptian archival records. My sources were published memoirs, the contemporary press, and oral interviews. Afterward a lively discussion ensued as to what constituted "real" history. I had a few defenders that night; many of them would be later confounded by my turn toward movies, songs, and television docudramas as primary textual sources.
Reading Yoav Di-Capua's captivating study of "the thought and practice of modern Egyptian historiography" (5)—the ways in which Egyptian scholars have understood and endeavored to make sense of their modern history—I can far better appreciate both the communication and, at times, lack of communication between scholarly traditions within our field.
Gatekeepers of the Arab Past is a provocative excursion into not only the forces driving the production of modern Egyptian history but also the organization and selective collection of Egypt's national archives. Di-Capua takes a long look at the profession, from the late nineteenth century to the near present. He starts his narrative in the 1890s, when "a series of conceptual changes occurred in three central dimensions of reality: time, space, and subjectivity" that "led to the gradual historicization of the Egyptian worldview" (11). He follows the development of the field into the twenty-first century, when, amid the "rise and stall" of a new generation of academics, prominent scholars bemoaned the "decline of professional authority in the eyes of the public" (332).
It is an engaging march, even if the ending is not, at least for now, a happy one. Di-Capua follows the foundation and administration of new repositories of Egypt's material culture—here the documents that were deemed appropriate for preservation (from neglect as well as mice)—the mind-set of those who fashioned a national narrative, all too frequently driven by the prevailing ideological winds and, not least, the printed words and public debates of those who set out to tell Egypt's modern story. As in any academic realm, professional rivalries founded on a mixture of personality, ego, and ideology all come into play as much as, if not at times more than, objective readings of texts and the search for objective truths.
In the 1890s, the second decade of British occupation, a "literary shift" replaced the chronicle with "modern history" (30)—the engagement with the past to understand the present and envision the future. Di-Capua highlights controversy over the centennial celebration, in 1902, of Muhammad Ali's installation as viceroy of Egypt. Egypt's "first significant celebration of a national holiday" sparked the "first historiographical debate" of the twentieth century (31, 32). The instigator was Muhammad Abduh, the leading Islamic modernist of his day, who denounced the founder of modern Egypt as a foreign conqueror. He goes on to explore popular histories written by Jurji Zaydan and Mustafa Kamil, the former's historical fiction, and the widening gaze that now considered an Egypt in "new spatiotemporal fashion" that, however "arbitrarily marked" a geographic space, extended well beyond "greater Cairo" (51).
The flogging and execution of Egyptian peasants following the violent encounter with British soldiers at Dinshaway in 1906 ushered in a new phase of nationalist politics marked by "public speechmaking and a compatible form of vociferous journalism" (68). This was a transitional phase in which the country slowly defined itself relative to both European occupier and still-nominal Ottoman overlord, in which a new political vocabulary emerged, and in which the last great chroniclers persisted...