The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged archive
History for the people

A flyer from the committee to document the January 25 Revolution, found on the website

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new committee led by historian Khaled Fahmy in collaboration with Egypt's National Archives to create a digital, accessible archive of the January 25 Revolution. To understand how groundbreaking this could be you have to realize to what an extent all official archives in Arab countries are treated like secrets of state, accessible only to specialists (if and when they pass an endless security clearance process). And that official documents about the most important decisions and events of the 20th century have simply never been made available: 

The country's modern rulers have created a near-total information vacuum about their decision-making.

By law, documents are supposed to be stored in the relevant ministries for 15 years, then held at the National Archives for another 15 years before being made public. In practice, however, only the most mundane administrative papers are ever deposited in the archives. Official documents dealing with wars or policy decisions of any import are simply never made available. "At this point," says Mr. Fahmy, "we don't even know if they exist."

Egyptians are rarely if ever afforded a glimpse into the deliberations of their presidents, ministers, and military commanders. And that is the case across the autocratic regimes of the Arab world. The Arab-Israeli wars, for example, have been documented almost entirely on the basis of Israeli archives.

That's one reason the committee will "try to gather as much as possible for future generations," says Mr. Fahmy, "to make available to them what hasn't been available to us."

A shift towards greater openness -- a move away from a police state's paranoid, bureaucratic and hierarchical attitude to information -- could be an important part of the intellectual legacy of the revolution. But as Fahmy notes, in these uncertain times, it is hard to persuade people that their security will be enhanced by being more transparent and less guarded about official documents. (When the Chronicle's photographer went to take portraits of Fahmy at the National Archives last week, with the permission of the archives' director, security guards there hovered nervously and one of them caused a scene when he thought the photographer had taken a shot of the building's entrance.)

Egyptian nationalism is tinged with paranoia. But it is precisely the lack of information and of serious research that fosters the proliferation of so many conspiracy theories and so much kalaam fadi. And prevents Egyptians from finding out the details of the actual conspiracies being perpetrated against them. 

There is still so much we don't know about how the revolution took place. I cannot wait to see the material this archive gathers. If you are interested in volunteering or learning more, you should visit their official website

The US Army Pocket Guide to Iran (1943)

Above is the cover of a guide for US military troops posted to Iran during the Second World War. The book explains that Iran was the only place in the whole war where British, US and Soviet troops were based side-to-side, and one detects that there might be as much competition between these as against Axis spies.


The table of contents shows the priority of the mission in Iran: the first chapter is "Oil - The World's Lifeblood" and continues to explain that

... more than anything else, Iran is one of the great power reservoirs of the world. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach. Today armies march on oil. Were all supplies of oil suddenly vanish, every large industrial nation in the world would collapse almost overnight. Oil is the lifeblood of the modern world.

Also illuminating is the "Getting along in Iran," which offers these pearls of wisdom:

Getting along in Iran is pretty much like getting along at home, except that the people are more formal. Use ordinary decency, politeness, and consideration, and you won't have trouble. Be a little restrained, though friendly. And remember always that you aren't going to Iran to change or reform the Iranis or tell them how much better we do things at home. Their ways of doing things have been good enough for them for some thousands of years, and they aren't likely to change because you think they should.

It makes you nostalgic for early American imperialism. And another chapter, on "The Moslem Religion," might make you nostalgic for the Reza dynasty:


UNTIL a few years ago, if a foreigner had attempted to enter a mosque (Moslem church) in Iran, he would probably have been beaten to death, and even today it is safest to keep strictly away from mosques unless you are invited there by a responsible person. At that time the Iranis were among the most fanatical of all Moslems, and the mullahs (priests) were the men who really ran the country.

Further along a "Check List of Do's and Don'ts" offers advice such as:

  • Don't try to tell Iranis how much better everything is in the United States. They think most things are better in Iran.

  • Don't touch a respectable Irani woman, or even look at one unnecessarily.

  • Don't mistake courtesy for friendship; an Irani is always polite, but he is fundamentally suspicious of foreigners.

And there are some nice etchings:


It's unfortunate that the scanning quality of the document is quite poor, because this guide offers an interesting insight into the minds of the US military during one of its first forays into the Gulf (previously mostly a British colonial playground). It's available in PDF format here.

I wonder if they will be updating these anytime soon?