Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices – Interview with Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh and Alia Mossallam

The exploratory workshop “Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces” is convened by Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh and Alia Mossallam and organized in the framework of the joint initiative of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung. It will be held 12–14 July 2018 at Archive Kabinett, Müllerstr. 133, 13349 Berlin (with registration only: initiatives@trafo-berlin.de). We have interviewed the conveners about how their idea of the workshop came about.

Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh, Alia Mossalam (from left to right)

You four are organizing the workshop “Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces”. How did you come to approach this topic together?

PG: I started working in/with archives in the 1990s, when I was researching my master’s thesis on guilds in Cairo. This meant thinking about how and why the archives were constituted, and for whom. Later, my experience trying to regain access to the archives confronted me with the question of who controls them and to what ends. But throughout, I approached them from a fairly conventional perspective, as texts that informed knowledge of the past. For me, the collective effort of conceptualising this workshop has been very enlightening, because the others have such different ways of understanding the archives. I am learning a lot from them.

LM: I feel like we all have different approaches with the archives. My experience is new, I arrived there as a psychologist and anthropologist, trying to mix both ways of reading when approaching the archival records of the Lebanon hospital for mental and nervous disorders. And to write an ethnography of the archives themselves.

AM: I also come to ‘the archives’ as a bit of an anthropological historian. I started working with people’s archives ‒ how people archive fliers from lesser known wars or moments of resistance in the 20th century, how they keep legal documents that archive their struggle against the state etc. Lately I’ve also started looking for traces of ‘oral expressions of resistance’ (songs, chants and slogans) through colonial intelligence archives.

RC: As a literary and cultural studies scholar, I have not had much experience with the archives since my work tended to focus mostly on textual analysis. I have, however, always been interested in the question of ‘alternative’ archives, of looking for ‘non-conventional’ traces and sources, in musical and visual oralities, which perhaps lie more in the realm of collective and cultural memory. And I also am intrigued by the ways archives are used in fiction or art (such as comics) and what this achieves. Alia’s, Pascale’s, and Lamia’s respective research projects represent the kind of cutting-edge work that is emerging surrounding the question of the archives and we thought it would be a great opportunity to tackle the key questions from multiple perspectives and disciplines.

The workshop approaches the topic of archives from a rather uncommon angle: Apart from the questioning of the definition of an archive, you ask who owns and who is granted access to archives and to what purpose. Less than being historical or historiographical, these questions are highly political. Why is it important to speak about archives now?

LM: I feel that there are pressing questions regarding the sources, access and uses of archives in the Middle East today. We see artists, civil society organizers and scholars engaging with the archives for various reasons: to recount a forgotten history of contested public spaces, to reconstruct lost or absent archival records, etc.  There is an interest in historicizing beyond academia, which is bringing out new questions on methodology, access and dissemination.

AM: It is important because we see conflicts unravel around us – and sometimes, even when we are in the same city where the conflict takes place, we can’t tell for sure what exactly is going on. This raises lots of questions as to the archive ‒ and also as to the politics of how certain events are historicized. We’d like to bring those issues to light.

PG: It is crucial at any time, but I think that in the current moment it is particularly vital because of the ongoing battles over history and ownership of narratives, about the present and the future but particularly about the past. Who is allowed to be part of these narratives, who is allowed to speak about the past ‒ these questions determine membership and belonging in the present, access to resources, an understanding of how power is constituted … This is especially urgent, as well, because in many parts of the Middle East today archives are under physical threat or have actually been destroyed.

RC: It’s true such work is always necessarily political, especially as it points to the urgency with which we need to rethink the archives as they are embedded in their diverse social realities and away from the institutionalised and official forms of memory which are largely at this point state-controlled.

The workshop is a combination of scholarly talks and discussions on the one hand and several ‘practicums’ by artists who offer the participants to work with different archival materials (sound, visual etc.) on the other. What do you expect of this twofold format?

LM: We hope for a stimulating engagement between scholars and artists in the panels and the practicum, where artists will share and teach their own readings and uses of the archive. This format serves to create a collective and common conversation and methodology on the archives that is not restricted to academic practice.

AM: The idea is to discuss the methods behind our work: How do we deal with these archives, what do we do with the people we find inside them, how do we deal with absence. Moreover, how do we deal with archives coming from different disciplines? For instance how does an artist working with visual archives, see them in a different way a historian who writes about the images does? The idea of the practicums is to get us to engage physically with the archives. To touch them, to cut them out, to listen to them and to re-draw them ‒ historicizing in a different way.

PG: I think this format is extremely innovative and has huge potential for generating new understandings of archives: Who can use them, and how? One problem with working on and with archives has been that they are intimidating ‒ they require expertise, knowledge of paleography and language, understanding of the historical contexts in which they were produced. This workshop proposes an approach that could break down the barrier between non-specialists and archives. Different people can approach them, consume them, and understand them in different ways. Alia’s work is revolutionary in that respect: She has been working to bring archives out of the archives, as it were, for years.

RC: One of the highlights of this workshop is indeed the inclusion of practicums, which offer a hands-on experience and an immediate sense of the materiality of what constitutes archivable objects. A further aspect of the innovative design of the workshop is that each panel includes not only academics and scholars, but also artists and practitioners whose experience, I think, can tell us a lot about questions of agency and ownership. It will be interesting to see what emerges out of the dialogues and interactions between scholars and artists.

Do you think your approach may influence historical, political and social debates?

LM: We hope so! Right now it is an explorative workshop so we are still in the preliminary phase. We are excited to have conversations on the politics of archiving, public history and uncovering non-archivable stories and others during the workshop

PG: It’s difficult to know, of course, what impact work like this will have on broader debates. I do think it partakes of a growing desire to democratise access to history, to the production and consumption of historical narratives. Just as there was a strong reaction, a few decades ago, against Great Man history, I think now we are witnessing (and participating in) an effort to destroy the elitism that has informed historiography in the academy. This doesn’t mean doing away with knowledge or training or the transfer of specialised methodologies; but it does mean acknowledging that there have been many different ways of participating in, producing, documenting, and interpreting historical events.

 

Questions: Alix Winter


Citation: Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices – Interview with Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh and Alia Mossallam, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.07.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10723


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