Archives and Transitional Justice in the Arab World

This is a proof of an article I recently wrote for a special issue of the Postcolonial Studies Association newsletter on the Arab World:

In the midst of a revolution, we do not always expect documents, records and archives to be at the forefront of people’s minds. And yet, the destruction of documents and seizure of records, and the compilation of web-based archives has been critical to the uprisings that have taken place across the Arab World.

In Egypt, a month after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, people acted en masse to rescue files from the state security headquarters in Alexandria where officers were burning, shredding and removing thousands of documents. Protesters refused to allow the secret police to destroy evidence of their systematic oppression. These documents, collected under Mubarak’s rule, contained information on the protesters and their families, and evidence of torture. In the words of Ahdaf Soueif, the people ‘found enough files to show the enormity of the operation that had been in place against the Egyptian people’: for example, files indicating ‘that the bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, which killed 21 worshippers, was planned in the ministry of the interior’ (The Guardian 8 March 2011). During the revolution, Egyptian people linked arms to form a human chain around the National Museum to prevent looting, whilst young people did the same to protect the library of Alexandria.

In Tunisia, Hedi Jallab, the General Director of Tunisia’s National Archives, recently confirmed that the archives of the ATCE (Agence tunisienne de communication extérieure), the Ministry charged with targeting propaganda to foreign media, were largely destroyed soon after the revolution. Although it is widely thought that the Interior Ministry archives were also strategically cleaned, Jallab claims that these archives are still rich, and 1800 boxes of files from the dissolved Ministry of Information were recently transferred to the National Archives.

In Iraq, years of state censorship and the fires and looting of April 2003 led to the Iraq National Library and Archive losing approximately 60% of its archival materials, 25% of its ordinary book collections and 95% of its rare books.

Archival materials, records, documents and books clearly play a critical role in coming to terms with the past and working towards transitional justice. But who is responsible for compiling and preserving such archives, and how do archives relate to nation-building? More fundamentally, who is narrated and who is excluded? As postcolonial scholars, we have a responsibility to support the drive by ordinary people, across the Arab world, to record their experiences, collect documents, build archives, preserve ancient and rare documents and access the information that has been written about them. But how might we do this within the context of the colonial legacy of exploiting, looting and exporting documents and antiquities?

All of these urgent questions are at the heart of the transitional process in the Arab world. Whilst we must remain alert to the vast heterogeneity of the Arab world, and the important differences between nations, it is also clear that national archives and museums can serve oppressive state-building agendas, but can equally be seized, opened and made to tell other stories, towards imagining alternative post-revolutionary futures. The obvious and immediate threat to documents at moments of extreme conflict makes this task even more daunting. This threat ranges from the furious destruction of modern records by former regimes, to the vigilante looting of antiquities and the systematic foreign export of collections: such as the ‘acquisition’ and export of millions of documents by the Hoover Institution in the United States, or the recent appearance of Ottoman deeds and Khedival records from Egypt in private collections in the Gulf.

We need only look to the nineteenth century sacking of Egypt’s antiquities directed by the French Jacques de Morgan, or the influential British Museum’s Director of Antiquities, E. A. Willis Budge (who also edited the 1905 edition of the Cook Tourist Handbook), to find historical precedents for the looting, export and sale of valuable archives and antiquities. Likewise, there are clear parallels between the removal of the Geniza archive from Egypt in the late nineteenth century, meticulously documented in Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land (1992), and the recent mysterious export and intended auction of Naguib Mahfouz’s archive by Sotheby’s, which caused outrage in Egypt.

Exactly whose responsibility is it to ensure that these documents are preserved and made accessible, so that regimes can become accountable and truths from the past exposed? Dr Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, offers us an answer. In a recent lecture at the University of Cambridge, Dr Eskander powerfully described the devastating effects of the 2003 US-led Invasion of Iraq on the former regime’s records and described the looting of archives by Iraqis and foreigners. The looters included ‘bounty hunters’ looking for valuable items to sell on the black market, journalists seeking stories, supporters and officials of the former Baathist regime who wanted to destroy incriminating evidence, and the occupying and ruling powers, seeking material for various purposes: to prosecute members of the former regime, to investigate human rights crimes, to justify the occupation of Iraq, to ‘preserve’ the documents and to learn how to control the Iraqi population.

At the centre of Dr Eskander’s talk was the importance of recovering the looted records for the implementation of transitional justice. He implores us to campaign for the return of these documents in the interests of truth and justice, and continues to urge the US Government to return documents seized by the US military.  His relentless work to reconstruct the Iraq Archive goes on, in the face of unlawful deaths, kidnapping, death-threats and displacements of staff and their relatives. As an Iraqi citizen, a Kurd and the leader of a national institution, Dr Eskander knows that the recovery of documents is not simply an academic issue. People cannot begin to imagine a different future whilst access to their past is barred. These people do not have the luxury of reading ‘along the archival grain’, as Ann Stoler asks us to do, but have a burning need for basic personal and political facts, in order to be able to live.

Across the Arab world, people are taking this task into their own hands. Egyptian blogger and investigative journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy’s photographic ‘naming and shaming’ archive in his ‘piggipedia’ Flickr collection aims to make police and state security officers visible to the public and accountable for their actions. His website is a self-proclaimed archive, designed to be used against state oppression. Similar electronic archives are appearing across the Arab world. From the ‘Arab Revolutions Archive’ hosted by the Arab Democracy Foundation, which consists of photos, videos and articles relating to Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen Syria, Bahrain and Iraq, to ‘Archive-it’ Tunisia and Archives de la Révolution Tunisienne on Facebook, the internet is providing a repository that circumnavigates some of the practical challenges of physical archives, which require buildings, money, staff and security. Projects such as the Cairo Downtown Memory and History project, which collects and researches documents found in any building bought by a company in downtown Cairo, also provide evidence of the drive to foster people’s histories and unofficial archives, of the type at the heart of Soueif’s fictional work, The Map of Love (1999). Hussein Omar, a co-founder of the Downtown project, implores us to recognise and encourage ‘the efforts of ordinary Egyptians’ to ensure that Egypt’s cultural heritage takes the place it rightfully should in the post-revolution landscape (Arabic Literature, 20 January 2012).

And yet, as Mischa Benoit-Lavelle points out in a recent blogpost on the Tunisian National Archives, the ‘mere existence’ of files ‘is not enough to guarantee a clear and complete record for the process of transitional justice’ (tunisialive 9 June 2012). The fierce efforts of ordinary people in storming a highly secured building, or the commitment to using new medias to build new archives of evidence, speak to the desire, urgently felt across the Arab world, for accessible, open and independent archives and institutions, towards forging a post-revolutionary vision for the future. As postcolonial scholars we must maintain an acute awareness of Eurocentricism, whilst thinking very seriously about our role and responsibilities in supporting this unfolding process.

All photographs are the property of Dr Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archives. Please do not use without permission.

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