In prize-winning ‘My Egypt Archive,’ Mikhail charts the making of history

In the book, which won the 2023 Victor Turner Prize, Yale’s Alan Mikhail offers an inside look at the state bureaucracy of Egypt on the eve of revolution.
Alan Mikhail and book cover of My Egypt Archive

From 2001 to 2010, Yale historian Alan Mikhail lived in Cairo where he conducted research within the massive, state-run Egyptian National Archives. From his perch in the archive’s reading room, Mikhail took careful note of the myriad, maddening bureaucratic quirks of the place, the rigid social hierarchy, the archive's community, the randomly enforced rules, and the rhythms of archival research.

The journal he kept over that decade is the basis for his book “My Egypt Archive” (Yale University Press, 2023), in which Mikhail uses the politics and culture of the archive as a window on Egyptian society as a whole.

The national mood in Egypt grew ever more discontent during Mikhail’s time there. In 2011, after he had returned to the U.S., hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the repressive president who had ruled the country since 1981.

Living and working inside a state institution before the revolution,” Mikhail writes, “I experienced how the state cultivated its own demise.”

Each chapter addresses a different aspect of archival culture, from the vagueness around why some researchers were granted permits for access and others weren’t, to the gleeful wielding of power by bureaucrats, to the problem of near-constant noise.

The book was recently awarded the first prize of the 2023 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, named for the late British anthropologist and ethnographer. The prize is awarded for “graceful, accessible ethnographic writing which deeply explores its subject and contributes in innovative and engaging ways to the genre(s) of ethnography and the field of humanistic (and/or post-humanistic) anthropology.” More than 100 books were considered for the prize.

Mikhail, the Chace Family Professor of History in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, spoke to Yale News about his experiences working in Egypt’s national archive at a critical moment in the nation’s history, an irrepressible archivist who embodied the machinations of the authoritative state, and the joy of nurturing his own “inner” anthropologist.

The Victor Turner Prize is awarded by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. Do you, as a historian, consider this book to be an anthropological work?

Alan Mikhail: I've always thought of myself as a historian who is very much inspired by anthropology. I studied with anthropologists, have long read and learned from them, and have always been drawn to the field's methodological rigor. Academic fields are always in crisis. Anthropology is better at being in crisis than most other fields. Generative thought comes from the field's handwringing. This is something I think historians could learn from anthropologists. We need to stress more about our methods.

I didn't in the end write this book explicitly as anthropology or ethnography, but I channeled what I learned from the field. Anthropology allowed me, a historian, to write a different kind of history, an anthropology of archival research.

Part of what you’re doing in the book is exploring how the politics within and around the Egyptian National Archives can impact the history that gets told. Did you come away from your time there feeling like you’d negotiated those politics well enough to achieve your aims?

Mikhail: There are always frustrations in archival research. If you ask any historian working in any archive, there are things they wanted to see that they couldn’t, or things they thought they would find that they didn’t. There’s also the matter of not knowing what you don’t know. That’s one of the joys of archival research — the serendipity, the surprise. I’ve always found working in an archive to be the most generative phase of thinking for me. Ideas just come very quickly as you’re encountering sources, not knowing what might come next.

The head of the archive’s reading room, Madame Amal, looms large in the book. You describe in great detail how she relentlessly reinforced her authority and maintained a social hierarchy in the archive. She’s essentially the embodiment of Egypt’s broader machine of social politics.

Mikhail: She’s such an interesting figure, a person I came to like very much. She is, as you say, the embodiment, the representative of the state in this very small space of the archival reading room. She is a government bureaucrat and so she's very much part of the state apparatus. And she imbibes that politics of authority that the Egyptian state, perhaps society as a whole, runs on.

At the same time, she’s a victim of those politics, as someone who has a very low salary, as a woman in a very patriarchal society, as someone who is not very high up in the administrative hierarchy. Within the state bureaucracy, you are nothing to the people above you, everything to the people below you. She is always exercising her power over the lackeys who bring materials to the reading room, and I think takes great glee in doing that.

Global politics is in many ways reversed in the reading room. There are few places on Earth where an at-best middling Egyptian bureaucrat can dominate an American from a by-contrast privileged background and elite university. I am interested in how that power works and want to support it, even as it might cause me, albeit mild, suffering.

There’s an almost comical scene where you totally lose your cool. After you’ve had a very long, frustrating day at the archive, you have a run-in with a worker.  The two of you end up chasing each other back and forth. You write, “This is a very Egyptian experience. Egypt regularly pushes people over the edge.” Would you elaborate on that?

Mikhail: It's a highly unequal society in which economic disparities are vast. There are a very small number of people at the top, and then a large number of people who have very little. That obviously creates feelings of resentment and frustration and anger, and rightfully so.

At the same time, the Egyptian state bureaucracy is a hulking behemoth, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy of paperwork, permissions, roadblocks. It is an illogical, at times absurdist, system that doesn’t really work, but we all kind of have to pretend it works.

Living in Egypt, I regularly saw friends and associates being frustrated to the point of breaking in various kinds of ways. I wanted to understand this too as a political project. If the state wants little information about itself out there, then frustrating an archival researcher to the point of saying, “You know what? I'm done with the archive. Forget it. It’s not worth it,” is highly productive. Mining my own experience of such frustration tipping over into anger was a way for me to explore this politics. I think we historians need to be better about bringing out everything that happens as we do archival work, good, bad, and ugly. This is in some ways the overall point of the book.

At one point, rumors circulate that Suzanne Mubarak, then the first lady of Egypt, is going to visit the archive to announce a major initiative. All the bureaucrats spring into action, arranging upgrades and beautification efforts. They even tear up the marble floor. Everyone waits and waits for months. And Mubarak never shows up. You cite this as an example of the power of the “politics of delay,” which you argue factored into the popular uprising in 2011. What are the politics of delay?

Mikhail: All it takes is a rumor that she, the country's number two, is coming. We have no way of knowing when or even if she will come. She creates anticipation, expectation, keeping us on edge. The promise of the sovereign coming helps to structure our time and the physical space of the archive. Egyptians are constantly being forced to wait. Delay gives space to power. It does real things in the world. It paints walls and tears up floors. It transforms what is supposed to be a space for archival research into a performance space to please the first lady. This happened hundreds of times in hundreds of ways in Egypt.

Obviously, Suzanne Mubarak visiting the archive was just one small version of this. But this is a fractal phenomenon. The smallest part, when analyzed, reveals the entire system because it’s a replication throughout the arrangement.

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