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Espionage and historical research

Published in Ahram Online on May 9, 2013

Researchers in Egypt face suspicion and a misguided obsession with security concerns, which is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s cultural backwardness

On a trip to London last week, I visited the Royal College of Surgeons, which houses an impressive museum about the history of medicine and surgery from the 18th century to the present. As I have an interest in the modern history of medicine in Egypt, I spent an entire day at the museum and the College’s archives.

I was intrigued at how the museum told the story of anatomy in England and Scotland, and how anatomy eventually occupied centre stage in the education of physicians and surgeons. The traditional tale of this important process focused on the resistance of the Church to physicians’ heroic efforts to open the cadaver, and highlighted the objections of priests to dissecting corpses for the purpose of medical instruction. The common version was: persistent scientific efforts by “enlightened” physicians versus the backwardness of the Church and its rigid dogma.

Compared to this “heroic” tale and relying on recent research in the history of medicine, the museum tells the tale of history of anatomy in a more nuanced manner. According to the new version, religion neither obstructed nor encouraged scientific research. The main obstacle standing in the way of dissecting the human body was not the Church but the members of faculty of the leading schools of medicine in Europe.

These doctors had learned medicine from classical, Latin texts and the last thing they wanted was to be challenged by an upstart doctor to declare that what he sees with his own eye in a body is more accurate and authentic than what the ancients said in their tomes. Thus, prominent physicians opposed the new surgeons whom they described as “butchers”, and tried to block their progress in the profession, denying them any recognition of their expertise and professionalism.

In a similar manner, I believe that the biggest problem facing scientific research in Egypt is not religious dogma or lack of funds or a paltry budget for scientific research, as much as it is the tight grip of security agencies that killed our cultural and educational  institutions, whether universities, libraries or museums. This is coupled with a conservative, backward mentality of those in charge of these facilities.

To give you a clearer picture, I share here some of what I and many of my students have been suffering from while trying to conduct scientific research in our field, history.

When I began preparing my doctoral thesis at Oxford University about Egypt’s history under the reign of Mohamed Ali, my adviser, Roger Owen, suggested I go to the British National Archives, which was then called the Public Record Office (PRO), that houses reports by the British consuls to Egypt, reports which are considered an indispensable source for anyone studying that period. Given that I had no prior experience with archival research, and that I was deeply intimidated by the prospective encounter, I kept postponing this visit.

Then one day I found myself stuck in traffic close to the PRO so I finally mustered my courage and decided to go in and ask about the process of obtaining a permit for access. A staff member met me at the reception desk and asked for my ID. As I only had a university student ID, she photocopied it then began filling some forms and asked me to sit down and look into a camera in front of me. A few minutes later, she gave me a permit and informed me apologetically that the permit was valid for “only” three years.

Stunned at the ease with which I was inducted into that bastion of historical knowledge, I went in and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I came out a different person for I had my first taste of historical research, something that I still deeply cherish and treasure.

After spending six months at this amazing institution, it was time to return to Egypt to begin dissertation research in earnest. For despite the rich content of the consular reports that I consulted at the PRO, my supervisor reminded me that it would be a pity to repeat the mistake of earlier researchers and write a dissertation on Egypt’s history by relying on foreign records. He insisted I focus on the Egyptian records found in Egypt.

I returned to my country to follow his advice and given that I had chosen the history of Mohamed Ali’s army as the topic of my dissertation, I went to the National Archives to consult the letters of Mohamed Ali to his son and commander in chief of his army, Ibrahim Pasha.

At the archives, I was overwhelmed by the amount of forms, official stamps and letters of introduction the staff member there asked of me. After I gave them everything they asked for, they asked me to return several weeks later without being more specific. I found out later that access to historic records at the National Archives requires a security screening of my topic and my person. And like everything else that has to do with the notorious “amn” i.e. security, no one could really guess how long it would take for a permit to be issued.

To save time – I had a deadline to submit the draft of the first chapter – I decided to go to the Military Museum at the Citadel where I heard there was a small library. I, of course, quickly found that if receiving a permit at the National Archives was difficult then a permit for the museum library is almost impossible. A major general in the army put in a good word for me and we both went to the headquarters of military intelligence in Heliopolis where we found ourselves subjected to a serious interrogation.

Q: Why do you want a permit to the Military Museum?
A: Because I am writing a doctoral dissertation on Mohamed Ali’s army.
Q: Why the army specifically?
A: Because then I can conduct a social history of Egypt 150 years ago.
Q: The library does contain old texts about Mohamed Ali’s army; however, most of them are old training manuals that are worthless.
A: But these manuals are exactly what I am looking for because they are priceless primary sources.
Q: These books are written in Ottoman and difficult to read.
A: I learnt some Turkish and think I will be able to decipher them.
Q: When and where did you learn Turkish?

At this, the officer I went with lost his patience and shouted: “Do you think he is an Ottoman spy?!”

Months later, I finally received the good news that my permit to the National Archives has arrived. I began my research in disbelief at the immense volume of unique and fascinating records that few previous researchers had consulted even after all these years. Then I was faced by another avalanche of questions by archive staff and, interestingly, other researchers preparing their dissertations at local universities.

Q: Your supervisor is foreign, right? Is he the one who prompted you to study the army?
A: No, I chose the topic myself as I believe it can allow me to study the condition of Egyptian society 150 years ago.
Q: But the topic of the army has been researched before. Didn’t your supervisor tell you that?
A: I know Dr. Serougi had written a book on Mohamed Ali’s army in the 1960s, but this does not mean that that topic is off limits. Maybe one can still say something new about a topic that has been researched before.

This all happened more than 20 years ago. Since then, I have finished my dissertation, and published it in English and Arabic, and I think I proved that I was never an Ottoman spy or a young student misled by his supervisor.

I have tried as best as I can to continue visiting the National Archives, and as much as I am fascinated by its contents of more than 100 million documents, I am very dismayed at the very few visitors who go there — no more than a handful on any given day. I am even more saddened when I realise the hardship my students face while doing research there, and how deep security concerns have penetrated the mentality of the staff or even the students working at the National Archives.

The state of the National Archives is similar to all our research facilities, including universities, libraries and museums. These institutions are mostly obsessed with the security, not research. The success of any official at these institutions is measured by his or her success at protecting and safeguarding the contents, not attracting researchers and transforming the facility into a place for generating knowledge.

This obsession with security matters, coupled with a conservative mindset that is suspicious of researchers, is not only a sign of the cultural backwardness we are suffering from but also a key cause of it. If ever this nation is to see a revival of the arts and science, we must work hard to defeat this security mentality.

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