Their Archives, Our History

In Moroccan author Muhammad Barradah’s The Game of Forgetting (1998, Luʿbat al-Nisyān, 1987), there is a disagreement between a figure referred to as the author and another described as the narrator’s narrator, who objects to the author’s attempt to write history. As the narrator’s narrator points out:

“You still live in a society that has not yet written its ancient history, let alone the fact that its modern history is surrounded with secrecy and its documents are hidden in sealed vaults” (128).

In a context where history is not written and the archives are unavailable, attempting to have a dialogue with history in order to come to terms with the past or reinvent a cultural identity for the future is problematic.

In Al Jazeera’s documentary series, Their Archives, Our History, as the title suggests, the history of the region is narrated using the archives of European powers that colonized the area. One of the most popular episodes of the series is on the loss of Andalusia, an indication of the extent to which it functions as a shared point of reference.  As Edward Said put it in Journey to  Anadalucia, “Andalusia is idealized as a kind of lost paradise, which fell from the brilliance of its medieval apex into terrible squabbles and petty jealousies,” and this provides an apt analogy for the current situation for those who look back on better times.

Rasha Salti mentions Al Jazeera’s episode on Andalusia in this talk, where she explores how to construct a chronology for the Arab world after 1989.

FORMER WEST: Documents, Constellations, Prospects – Lecture, Rasha Salti: Sketches for an Alternative Arab Almanac 1989-2013 from FormerWest on Vimeo.

Another series by Al Jazeera, advertised under the title The Arabs: A People’s History promises the viewer that it “will reveal the rich and often tragic experience that has shaped what it means to be an Arab – from the time of Muhammad Ali and Abd el-Kader to life under the modern kings, emirs and presidents” (Al Jazeera).

The website advertising the series invites the viewer to “get involved”: “Tell us how history has changed your family, your village, your town, your land. Every family has stories, songs, poems, photographs, letters, documents…Share yours with us.”

In declaring “a people’s history is your history,” the series promises to humanize history through its repercussions on lived experiences, through “your” family narratives and memorabilia.

The series shares its title with a number of history books, from Philip Hitti’s History of the Arabs (1937) to Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History (2009) but seeks to narrate historical events as the collective memory of a people.

This memorial approach is evident again in the joint UNESCO and Arab League project, “The memory of the Arab world,” which is concerned with developing an internet portal as “bilingual gateway meant to connect the younger generations of Arabs with their cultural identity” as a way to “maintain the comprehensive memory of the people of the Arab World” (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, ”Projects: Digtial Library”, 4).

As part of the museum boom in the Gulf, the last decade has seen the construction of museums such as the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization,  The Museum of Islamic Art and The Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. There have been a number of studies of this phenomenon, most recently Sonja Mejcher-Atassi’s Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World (2012) and Pamela Erskine-Loftus’s Reimagining Museums: Practice in the Arabian Peninsula (2013).

This phenomenon might be a manifestation of the ongoing effort to gain cultural capital in the “Cities of Salt” as the novelist ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf describes the Gulf states in his novel of the same title. However, in contrast to the Louvre Abu Dhabi which presents itself in terms of globalization, the rising interest in collections of Islamic crafts and works by Arab artists involves a broader countermovement towards “rescuing” local identity. Hans Belting describes this movement in these terms:

Western culture, which once felt up to the task of representing all ethnic cultures via exploitation as collection, is now proclaiming the future of a world culture in which it again claims the leading position. Non-western cultures, on the other hand are retreating in a kind of countermovement into their own histories in order to rescue a part of their identity. To Western eyes, such moves make them look nationalistic—a telling misconception (70).

In a context where memorialization through public institutions such as museums has until the last two decades been relatively rare, and where it is often hindered by the political and social climate, the political dynamics of these kinds of memory-work need to be foregrounded in order to understand the construction of cultural memory as involving socio-political, institutional and ideological agendas  and  having political objectives and effects.  At the same time, these trends reveal a recognition of the need to create a sense of historical continuity both as a way to reinvent a cultural identity for the future and to account for the present.

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