“I have always been intrigued by questions of norm and difference, majority and minority.” – 5in10 with Malak Labib

Malak Labib received her doctorate from Aix-Marseille University / Institut de Recherche sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman (2015) and her MA from Sciences Po Paris (2005). Her background is in History and Political Science. Her research interests cover the history of knowledge and science, political economy and the history of development. In 2018, she was a CEDEJ/CNRS postdoctoral fellow. She taught at Aix-Marseille University, the American University in Cairo, and Cairo University. She has also been active in a number of alternative teaching initiatives in Egypt. From 2008 to 2010, she was a research fellow at the Economic and Business History Research Center of the American University in Cairo. During the academic year 2018/2019, she is a EUME Fellow funded by a research fellowship of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and associated with the Center for Global History at Freie Universität Berlin.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I have always been intrigued by questions of norm and difference, majority and minority. I was raised in an Egyptian upper-class Coptic family, where religion was not prominent. Yet, I understood the significance of religious difference early on, in primary school to be more precise. I was the only Christian student in class and I was always asked to go out of the classroom during the religion class, there was the “us” and the “they”. At the same time, in terms of social class, although I also belonged to a minority –  in numerical terms –  the power dynamics were clearly different. Basically, I think my socio-economic as well as cultural background (I come from a leftist family) made the questions of difference and the production of difference important for me.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

When I try to explain my research project to students or friends in Egypt, I start with the present day. For many Egyptians, the 2011 revolution was not only an uprising against Mubarak, but also against the postcolonial state as it emerged since 1952. At the same time, the Nasserist “social contract” and model of state interventionism have occupied a central place in the people’s political and economic imaginary. Some have even seen in the policies of the current regime – for instance in the launching of large projects and in the extension of the army’s role in the economy –, they have seen this as an attempt to rebuild a developmental state. This analysis is highly debatable, I think. But my point here is that despite these constant references, our knowledge of the history of economic institutions, policy debates and social practices of the era of state-led development is quite incomplete. Much of the current common understanding of the 1950s and 1960s is based on the idea of a monolithic and centralized system, that supposedly contrasts with the free market economy that preceded it and succeeded it. I think there is a need to question such dichotomies, and I am not the first to do so. There is also a need to reflect on the complex ways in which the forms of economic management and social engineering of this era have shaped our present.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

I can think of many formative moments. My undergraduate studies in France marked me in important ways. I think in particular of the year I spent at the “Ecole préparatoire”, which offered an academic immersion in the Humanities (Literature, Philsophy, History). It was during this year that I read Michel Foucault for the first time. It was Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish) and this book was a revelation to me. It was also during these years that I acquired the skills of academic writing.

My dissertation years were also very formative, although in a different way. When I started a PhD in Middle Eastern History at Aix-en-Provence University, after a B.A. and an M.A. in Political Science, I had no specific training in History, and in the French system, there is no coursework as part of PhD programs. This was quite challenging, and at times difficult, but it left me with a large margin of autonomy and personal choice in terms of how to carry out my research.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

I am currently reading Hanan Hammad’s fascinating book Industrial Sexuality: Gender, Urbanization and Social Transformation inEgypt, which focuses on the daily lives of men and women workers in the Delta city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, in the first half of the Twentieth century. The book analyzes the transformation of gender identities and sexualities, in a context of rapid industrialization and urbanization. It also provides insights into the social relations in and around the factory: the dynamics on the shop floor, the tensions between rural migrants and urban dwellers, the forms of state surveillance of labor, etc. In that sense, it is really innovative among works of labor history on Egypt.

Part of what I try to do in my current research project is to examine economic planning “in practice”, and this has led me to look into the history of the Egyptian Iron and Steel company. So, in this regard, Hammad’s book is particularly relevant for my current work, although my research perspective is quite different from hers.

How is it to do research in Germany?

I find this experience extremely enriching. I am currently affiliated both with EUME and the Center for Global History of the Freie Universität. And as someone who was mainly trained as a Middle East historian, I am benefiting a lot from discussions around global history and from exchanges with colleagues working on other geographical areas. Berlin is also very rich in academic and cultural events, and in the past six month, I have attended some very exciting conferences and workshops, like for instance the symposium “Revisiting Archive in the Aftermath of Revolution”, or the workshop “Africa in Global Intellectual History.” Finally, I am lucky to be surrounded by a fantastic group of EUME Fellows, from whom I have a lot to learn.

Citation: “I have always been intrigued by questions of norm and difference, majority and minority.” – 5in10 with Malak Labib, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18141

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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