Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt

Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt

Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt

Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt

Synopsis

This groundbreaking study illuminates the Egyptian experience of modernity by critically analyzing the foremost medium through which it was articulated: history. The first comprehensive analysis of a Middle Eastern intellectual tradition, Gatekeepers of the Past examines a system of knowledge that replaced the intellectual and methodological conventions of Islamic historiography only at the very end of the nineteenth century. Covering more than one hundred years of mostly unexamined historucal literature in Arabic, Yoav Di-Capua explores Egyptian historical thought, examines the careers of numerous critical historians, and traces this tradition's uneasy relationship with colonial forms of knowledge as well as with the post-colonial state.



Excerpt

In 2004, Raʾūf ʿAbbās, one of Egypt’s leading historians, published his autobiography. This memoir, ostensibly a pedestrian intellectual autobiography of a retired history professor, proved instead to be a frontal assault on Egypt’s entire historiographical establishment. the author spared no one: neither the stars of Egypt’s academic elite nor the lowliest graduate student escaped the lashing of his pen. Over the course of 336 crowded pages, he accused his colleagues of poor academic standards, plagiarism, intellectual shallowness, ethical violations, political partisanship, and collaboration with the state’s security services. His many anecdotes ranged from the selling of academic degrees to rich Saudi students to the plagiarizing of foreign books by Egyptian professors. the state, which for the past half century had refused to deposit its records in the public archive, was to blame as well. Yet, scandalous as his memoir was, ʿAbbās revealed nothing new. in fact, he merely scratched the surface of a seemingly chronic debate that had begun soon after World War I and had already exploded one hot summer two decades previously.

Cairo, August 1987. After a long process of preparation, the conference “Commitment and Objectivity in Contemporary Egyptian Historiography” was ready to begin. in Egypt, history writing had long been a sensitive issue, but the organizers’ plan to engage directly with questions of politicization, censorship, and official state-guided projects of history rewriting charged this event with the

1. Raʾūf ʿAbbās, Mashaynāhā khutān: Sīra dhātiya (Cairo: Dār al-hilāl, 2004), pp. 133, 146, 205, 221–247, 236, 253, 257–258, 265, 270–272.

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