Appealing to the tastes of package tourists and neglecting the interest of ordinary Egyptians, the Antiquities Council has long scorned what cannot be displayed in expensive vitrines and hastily photographed. Egypt’s post-“Islamic” – and particularly its 19th and 20th century – culture has therefore been ignored, if not actively denigrated, by the Council.
Most recently, the furore over the alleged smuggling and sale of Naguib Mahfouz’s archives has made more visible than ever the state’s failure to safeguard its “modern” heritage. Although Sotheby’s would eventually call the auction off, the patriotic Egyptian public was infuriated. It provoked the country’s preeminent newspapers to ask how the manuscripts of Egypt’s Nobel Laureate could be sold in the chambers of a foreign auction house, and why the state had not intervened to protect them. And yet, the Mahfouz sale further prompts the more important question: where and with whom should the private papers of public personalities be deposited?
For example, at his death earlier this month, Egypt’s celebrated novelist Ibrahim Aslan left behind a number of unpublished manuscripts. How could his heirs, should they so wish, make this material accessible to an interested public?
In theory, the answer is easy – either the National Archives of Egypt or the adjacent “Dar al-Kutub”. But in practice, the logic by which both institutions operate makes this issue a lot more complicated than it first appears to be.
Essentially, the current National Archive is descended from a series of disparate document repositories cobbled together in the 1920s. This new centralised archive was designed to provide the infrastructure behind professional history writing, which aimed to forge a monolithic national (and more importantly monarchical) identity for the country. During this state-building period, documents that did not promote a certain view of Egyptian history, and the reigning monarchy of the time, were either discarded or destroyed.
True to its etymological origins, the National Archive of Egypt continues to be held within the state’s coercive grip. State security plays arbiter. Despite the efforts of Egypt’s preeminent historian, Khaled Fahmy, it continues to viciously restrict access to the documents to all but a privileged few: These tend to be professional historians whose research is perceived as non-subversive to the state and its narratives, which are overwhelmingly nationalist.