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Chronicling Egypt’s ‘Ordinary’ History

An article by Mohammed Shoair published in al-Akhbar on November 7, 2011.

After twenty years of teaching around the world, historian Khaled Fahmy decided to disregard advice from friends and colleagues and return to Cairo to watch as history itself unfolds in the lives and acts of ordinary people.

At a time when a succession of power was anticipated, accompanied by an intensification of state repression, many advised historian Khaled Fahmy to re-evaluate his decision to return to Egypt. Nevertheless, the esteemed scholar had an alternative view.

“There is something different happening in Egypt right now,” he says. “I felt that this year was going to be a decisive one. The elections were to be held at the end of the year, and I had an intuition that Mubarak will not run for office; I needed to witness this significant transitional moment.”

In all his previous visits, Khaled felt that there was “an infant, alive and kicking in Egypt’s womb, waiting to be born.”

In his last visit, his sister was adamant, saying, “Egypt is ours; it’s being slipped away from under our feet and we must act now to salvage it.” In following other debates and discussions, including those among the youth of society, he sensed that something would happen.

Author of All the Pashas Men, Fahmy did not study history at university, but economics. He does not see that his migration to the discipline of history is tantamount to a “transformation” because “the nature of academia in the American university allows for inter-disciplinarity within the social sciences. So, my Masters thesis was on the Open-Door Policy in Egypt.”

One of his professors suggested that he should write his doctoral dissertation on “why the Arabs regressed while the West progressed.” During that period, Fahmy was accepted at Oxford University, where he went and met his teacher and academic mentor Roger Owen. Owen thought that Fahmy approached the question of modernity from the wrong angle. He said, “you measure the progress of the West with the backwardness of the East and this is certainly a misguided comparison.”

It was at Oxford where Fahmy began reading extensively. He felt that education is not merely a matter of attending lectures, but about reading and researching.

“At the end of the day, nothing compensates for a good library,” Fahmy says.

He says he favors public or university libraries because they make a better connection between readers and their studies. He worked at a libary as a student and after graduation.

“It’s like a steeple, or a niche; you also see people around you, so you experience the full enchantment of the library,” he said.

During this period, he was introduced to his intellectual inspirations: Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, and Timothy Mitchell. In one way or the other, what united these iconic figures was their take on the relationship between authority and power.

In the meantime, Fahmy had started his research on documents from Mohammad Ali Pasha’s era. He decided that his doctoral dissertation should be on the “Pasha’s men” or the Pasha’s soldiers, as opposed to the Pasha himself. His dissertation was published under the title All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali Pasha, His Army and the Founding of Modern Egypt, which was translated into Arabic by Sherif Younis and published by the Dar Al-Shorouk publishing house.

Khaled’s central thesis was largely concerned with answering the question: Is it possible to write the history of Mohammad Ali’s reign from the perspective of the soldiers, and not their leaders?

His aim was to “cast light on the ordinary individual – who does not belong to the elite – in the making of history.”
With that, he provided a fundamental critique of mainstream history writing. History for him was about ordinary people, their sufferings and their struggles, a perspective that is often overlooked by the traditional historical narrative.

He also followed this approach in his second book, The Body and Modernity: Essays in the History of Medicine and Law in Modern Egypt. He was not interested in the opinions of doctors, pharmacists or researchers on the nature of disease and the methods of treatment, nor was he interested in reading the works of jurists, judges, and lawyers. He was, on the other hand, concerned with public attitudes of the people towards the great transformations that society had witnessed throughout history. He was particularly concerned with the body as a subject of violations and encroachments by the modern state.

His soon to be complete new project addresses law and medicine as the “two main professions that saw the largest modernization process during the nineteenth century.” He says that medicine and law intersect in different controversial spaces, mainly in forensic science and torture. He submits that “historians who were interested in the Enlightenment and Renaissance, or with norms, customs and heritage, addressed the topic as an ‘intellectual history’.”

These historians argue that the reasons for the failure of the Arab Enlightenment was due to either a rebellion amongst the enlightenment intellectuals; the Wahhabi influence from the Gulf; the process of Westernization; or even as a result of the state’s failure to play its role. All these interpretations have a notable cause.

“However, I still find this approach to be elitist,” he says. “I want to know to what degree did this project resonate among ordinary people? Are the Islamists right in saying that the elite is disconnected from the masses and that it’s like mixing oil with water or did the enlightenment and the renaissance projects resonate among ordinary people? This is the question I’m trying to answer.”

Khaled does not discuss an ‘idea’ but a ‘practice’ that reflects people’s lives. Through this practice, he attempts to measure the degree to which it resonated among the people. The first of such practices is forensic science.

“Forensics was a new practice that the state often resorted to, which was naturally rejected by society, especially because since Cain killed Abel, there was a special respect for the sanctity of the dead. It was difficult to accept the idea of autopsy across the world. And as they say, the dead are honored by burial. So, imagine the state departing from this tradition in the name of enlightenment and renaissance” he says.

Khaled cites numerous examples that confirm his point of view, gathered from hundreds of documents in Dar Al-Kutub. What happened to Khaled Said before the outbreak of the recent Egyptian uprising was a recurrence of what used to take place in the nineteenth century.

“The victim’s family insisted on an autopsy to regain the rights of their son,” he said.

Torture was one of the primary motivations behind the Egyptian revolution, which Khaled Fahmy was wholly part of. Incidentally, this time, the historian became part of the event, following its every detail while recognizing its historical significance.

How will history remember the period of Hosni Mubarak?

“A black era; history will not remember anything of Mubarak except that he ruled for thirty years,” Fahmy said.

“The Mubarak regime was not merely a repressive regime; it was a despicable regime. History will not pause at Mubarak’s successes and accomplishments. Mubarak was not able to inspire the people,” he said.

Fahmy remains optimistic about all that has happened in Egypt despite some setbacks that face the revolution. His work on the history of the Egyptian modern army makes him convinced that “the presence of the army in political life is a significant danger to the revolution and to the army itself; therefore, the army should go back to its barracks.”

Khaled now oversees the commission for documenting the January 25 Revolution, which attempts to collect and preserve all the relevant documents for future generations. He points out that “significant historical events, such as the 1952 revolution and the wars of Egypt and the Arabs remained undocumented for all sorts of alleged security considerations. And when we want to write the histories of our wars, we resort to the British, American and Israeli documents. The inaccessibility of the documents on the grounds of security jeopardizes security itself.”

The role of the commission is not to write history.

“We are working to provide the necessary historical material for those who wish to write the history in the future. Therefore, we are striving for transparency, accuracy, consistency and detail as much as possible,” he says.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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