Writing the Histories of Death and Empire in Alexandria: A Conversation

By Hala Auji and Shana Minkin

Shana Minkin,Imperial Bodies: Empire and Death in Alexandria, Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2019).

After giving a talk on her book during the EUME Berliner Seminar in December 2021, Shana Minkin sat down with Hala Auji to chat about Imperial Bodies: Empire and Death in Alexandria, Egypt, which was published by Stanford University Press in 2019.

Hala Auji: Your EUME talk gave attendees a great overview of Imperial Bodies’ main objectives and various contributions to the field of Egyptian history and Middle Eastern studies. Can you share a little about the book’s premise and what inspired you to work on this topic?

Shana Minkin: My study looks at the rituals and bureaucracies surrounding death – such as the building of hospitals to care for the sick and dying, funerals, cemeteries, autopsies and death certification – to ask questions about belonging and empire in Alexandria. Ultimately, my book argues that it was through these rituals and bureaucracies that European imperial powers were able to claim space and resources in Egypt. I tell the story both on an individual level – looking at the dead subject of empires or the “imperial bodies” of Egypt – and on a broader governmental level, considering how the maintenance and processing of the dead was a key element of empire building in Egypt, as well as a key moment where we can see a rising Egyptian national governance.

Imperial Bodies is a book of death studies. I was inspired to write it as I did when I realized, over and over again, that the most interesting and telling elements of my archives were the ways in which death mattered, the ways in which people and governments used death to make claims on and about the living. I was immersed in the theoretical and historical literature that talked about how people played with nationalities and looked at how empire, and personal and government conceptions of belonging and affiliations changed in the late nineteenth century. But the more I read into my own archives, the more I realized that all of the flexibility and movement between national and imperial categories had a – pun intended – deadline. It ended in death, when the imperial subjects of Alexandria had to be claimed by a specific community or consulate. Trying to piece this together was, in many ways, my inspiration and my starting point for what this book became.

One can say that it was only upon these community members’ deaths that additional documents and records about their lives were produced or made available. You turned to a variety of source material, in different languages, to develop this work. Can you tell us a little about your research process and your journey through the different types of archives?

The book is based on a radical reworking of my dissertation. The first chunk of research was done in the Egyptian National Archives, Dar al-Watha’iq (DWQ), in 2005–2006. I was interested in questions of space, and I stumbled onto a file about the institutions of foreign colonies and minoritized religious communities. It quickly became evident to me that the juxtaposition of life and death in the various foreign institutions – such as the difference between a hospital that worked to preserve life and a cemetery whose function was to bury the dead – was a key clue into the building of empire. Death, in many ways, provided the categories that were then imposed upon the living. I went from the Egyptian DWQ, to the British National Archives in Kew Gardens, where I looked at how the British colonial state worked in Alexandria; my dissertation combined British and Egyptian archives.

When it came time to revise my dissertation into a book, Egypt was in the throes of political turmoil following the 2011 revolution, and my reapplication to the Egyptian DWQ was rejected without any reason given; I was told not to reapply. This turned out to be a very good thing for me. I had planned to return to the DWQ to try to get more details on some of the specific foreign communities and spaces I highlighted in my dissertation. But, by this point, I knew that the key to my story was actually death practices and bureaucracies. I was forced to be creative. Instead of heading to Cairo, I decided to go to the French Diplomatic Archives in Nantes (France) and read French consulate records on Alexandria’s European Catholic cemetery and hospital. While there, I found the birth, marriage, and death certification ledgers from which I collected all of the death certificates I used in my book, as well as piles of detailed archives of the European and Deaconess Hospitals in Alexandria, including annual reports. Dozens of estate cases from the period I was concerned with and all sorts of files on funerals, including one file dedicated to the funeral of the Archbishop Bonfigli that features prominently in my second chapter, rounded out my research.

In sum, it was because I could not go to Egypt and continue on the path that I began in my dissertation that my book became a book of death studies. It took me much longer. I had to make multiple trips to France and England, but it was well worth it. Ultimately, I told the history that most intrigued me, one that is much more creative and revealing: the core role of death in organizing the imperials living in Alexandria.

Turning to the French and British presence in Egypt, can you talk about the roles that their, and other foreign, hospitals played in Alexandria vis-à-vis members of both “foreign” and local communities? And how did this relate to the broader history of modern medicine in Egypt?

Foreign hospitals were open spaces. What I mean by this is that they were purposefully and intentionally open to people of all nationalities and religions, as well as open to patients who could pay and those who were charity cases. For the European and Deaconess Hospitals, the majority of the patients were Arabs (although how they were classified – as Arab or as Egyptian – differed between the hospitals). The Jewish Hospital had a majority of charity patients. The European Hospital had an eye clinic that specialized in local eye disease. In other words, they served the broad population. But their role as public health institutions was to more than simply their patients or their stated creed; they were funded by the Egyptian national government to be public health hospitals. They were both colonial and local institutions, illustrating the space in imperial Alexandria to be both of the city and of empire. Historiography of medicine in Egypt has largely ignored the very central role of the hospitals to Alexandria’s public health system, and histories that focus on the foreign populations of the city have long supposed that these hospitals were a separate system, tools of controlling foreign populations, and off limits to the local Muslim population. This simply is not an accurate history of the role of these hospitals.

Section of a map of cemetery plots in Alexandria from the British National Archives, Kew Gardens. Photograph by Shana Minkin.

You mentioned another important aspect of the history of Alexandria’s public health system: the city’s many cemeteries. While these public spaces are obvious sources for a study of death, one might mistakenly assume that they were timeless or unaltered beyond additions in plots and grave markers. However, cemeteries, like other contexts involved in personal affairs at the time, were undergoing changes under empire and during this era of modernization. Can you share an example of this from your book?

Absolutely. Perhaps my favorite story of cemeteries is that of the Free Thinkers/Catholic cemetery debacle (discussed in my book, and which I referenced in my talk), when both groups petitioned the Egyptian national government for new cemetery space in the 1870s and 1880s. For the Catholic cemetery, which was also known by many to be the European cemetery, it was an issue of space; the cemetery was overcrowded with bodies and no longer able to abide by the public health laws of spacing, amongst other things. For the Free Thinkers, who wanted to be recognized as a civil – specifically non-religious – community, they used the cemetery request to ask for recognition as a unique community in Alexandria. Their only cemetery options at that point were to be a part of a religiously-affiliated cemetery such as the Catholic one. Both groups petitioned the Egyptian national government, which, in turn, involved several different ministries in trying to figure out what to do. The story is a jumble and a mess – it took me quite some time to piece together what was going on from the archives. In short, the government offered both communities land that a private family claimed as theirs, and everyone ended up tied up in negotiations and maneuverings for said land until all involved were entirely confused, and the process was completely muddled. An archival trail that ultimately included the various peoples asking for cemetery space, the various ministries of the Egyptian government, the Egyptian military, the Alexandrian government, the French consulate, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic community members, and more ended with a declaration of defeat and a proposal to begin anew. We only know that the cemeteries were eventually created because of later cemetery maps and because you can walk around the cemeteries today. I know this short summary of the story may seem confusing – I promise I explain it in more depth in my book – but what I want to say here is that what comes through clearly in the archives is that the request of the Free Thinkers was prioritized by the Egyptian government – they were more concerned that this new group be recognized as such with a private burial space than they were that the Catholic cemetery was overcrowded with bodies and in violation of public health regulations. It is a really instructive tale of how the dead – and in this case burial of the dead – were used to signify the presence of the living in Alexandria. It is also a clear tale wherein the Egyptian national government held the cards and controlled the outcome, despite the European connections of the communities.

Page from a record on Alexandria’s cemeteries and affiliated religious communities from the British National Archives, Kew Gardens. Photograph by Shana Minkin.

What I think is so fascinating about this, with regard to your question, is how these negotiations show the expansion of government, the overlapping possibilities of governance, and the need for the communities to have that cemetery space to be counted as a community amongst the living (and hence the privileging of the Free Thinkers over the Catholics). It also shows us how the bodies of individual dead become symbolic of the living. Once someone is dead, arguably it doesn’t matter where they are buried as long as it is in accordance with public health needs. But, here, we see just how important the right type of burial, in the right type of space, within the right type of graves is. We see how important these aspects are for the living, for recognition of the living and for the government’s relationship with the living. This, to me, really highlights why death is important for understanding the living.

I could go on and on about cemeteries. But to make one last point, as I write in my conclusion, the clearest indication of the political nature of these cemeteries does not come during the time period covered in my book, it comes after, when empire is ending and has ended, yet the cemeteries remain. What happens to the dead when the living population whom they in some sense served is gone? What becomes of imperial cemeteries at the end of empire? It is in seeing how the Egyptian state tries to reclaim imperial cemetery land for its living population, and how the British consulates try to keep the British government in London interested in cemetery upkeep despite the lack of a living population, that you really see how much a cemetery is ultimately for the living.

You have a way of bringing this material to life. I really felt that in how each of your book’s chapters opens with an illuminating micro-biography of the life/death of one of Alexandria’s residents. These moments in your book allow for a glimpse of such individuals’ complex lives, despite how they may have appeared in institutional records, in which people are often reduced to numbers and are typically categorized according to religious affiliation. Was there a tension between biographic information and quantitative data that you needed to consolidate in your research and/or writing process?

Page from a post-mortem dossier on Jessie Brown held at the British National Archives, Kew Gardens. Photograph by Shana Minkin.

I don’t know if I would say there was a tension. Although I definitely had to rein myself in from the desire to tell all of the stories in the archives. I was definitely first hooked into thinking about death and empire from the individual stories. Imagining the lives people led – and the deaths they died – and how that all tied together is fascinating for me. I am constantly intrigued by questions of belonging and its opposite, of finding ourselves somewhere we would not inherently be thought to belong. I found that within these stories. So, yes, you can say that the tension was in making sure that the quantitative data supported the stories I wanted to highlight, the lives people led.

Individual lives were really important to me in my research. I never wanted to lose sight of the fact that I was talking about people who had once lived, people who had families and loved ones who missed them, people who were settled in Alexandria and those who were traveling through it, and so many more. I opened each chapter with a micro-biography because I wanted to keep focus on the fact that these were real people, that their lives mattered, that their deaths – ordinary, everyday people’s deaths – mattered to history.

Ultimately, in studying their deaths, your book not only brings to light some of the lives of everyday “foreign” residents of Alexandria, but it also problematizes notions of fixed religious, political, and/or cultural identity amongst individuals in Egypt’s multi-confessional and diverse communities. What were some exemplars that stood out for you in your research on residents whose identities at death (in the records) diverged from those of their lived experiences in Alexandria?

Pages in the post-mortem dossier on Jessie Brown held at the British National Archives, Kew Gardens. Photograph by Shana Minkin.

When I first read the archives, Jessie Brown was definitely a favorite. Although I mention her briefly in my book, I made her case the focus of an essay I wrote for The Immanent Frame series “Ecologies of the Dead and Living: Mourning out of Place.” I also referenced her in my EUME talk because I find her case to be extraordinarily interesting.

In rereading my book in preparation for our conversation, and in light of my current research on two Egyptian Jewish sisters who remained in Egypt after the dispersion of most of the Jewish community, I found myself really drawn to the several other examples. Specifically, ones of how members of the Jewish community, under French or British protection, balanced their religious minority status and national protections. It was striking to me how many of their concerns seem similar to those of these two sisters who would talk about being fully Egyptian, yet feeling different as Jews. When I was thinking further about Algerian Jewish history and how it impacted the French population of Alexandria (the focus of my fourth chapter), much of the concerns seemed familiar. With regard to the micro stories, I remain intrigued by how many people in the turn of the twentieth century were intermarried. I had not expected there to be nearly as much intermarriage at that time as I found in my research. In my rereading this time, I refound people like Moses Abeasis, a Jewish man with British protection whom I discuss in my second chapter, which is my funeral chapter, who married a much younger “local” whose name suggests she may have actually been Maltese or Italian. His sisters, one in Portugal and one in Alexandria with Austrian protection, tried to challenge his will and the payment for his funeral. Stories like his, and others, continue to intrigue and amaze me: the choices people make, the ways families guide and diverge, all of it.

At a time when there are calls to decolonize scholarship, using imperial and colonial archives, or even turning to a history of European communities whose presence in Egypt was only possible due to colonial rule, might seem to be opposing the current trend. But your book complicates this reductionist understanding of Egyptian history under the British presence. Can you share more about your approach to imperial history, which you argue is “built on the ground”, and how the lives of foreign residents were integral to Egyptian history?

I am far more comfortable in histories than history. What I mean by this is that any assumption of one history, of one primary story that will teach us what we need to know about Egypt, about empire, about whatever topic, never rang quite true to me. Within this, while I understand that there is a desire to reclaim Egyptian history as a national story, I have never fully understood calls to leave out imperial subjects or imperial archives from the study of Egyptian history. It happened; it is a part of the history. I believe that we have to be able to say that empire existed (and still exists in many ways), that the power dynamics are real, that prejudice and injustice is real, and that any history that does not acknowledge those realities is irresponsible history. At the same time, I think it is also irresponsible to write empire out of history, to write a history of Egypt without acknowledging the thousands of imperial subjects of Alexandria. These subjects were also caught up in the web of empire and its power hierarchies. It is vital to our understanding of history to remember that empire does not only mean wealthy European officials; it is the thousands of people who migrated around the world and were often destitute and lost. Power dynamics existed, and uneven power balances existed. Yet, we still have to take imperial subjects for all of their nuances, understanding them within their own power dimensions, and understand that they are a part of history. This does not mean that they are more important than Egyptians in Alexandria – that is not remotely what I am saying here – just that they were there, too, and they had an impact on the city as well.

While Imperial Bodies addresses how foreign powers categorized and utilized the deaths of everyday Alexandrians, in what ways do you think your book also speaks to scholarship on local death-related practices (like funerary and other mourning rituals) beyond the question of empire?

I used death as a lens to think about empire and the notion of belonging. But these questions definitely move beyond empire. Death rituals like those you mention tell us so much about what is important to the living. They tell us about how a society is structured, about what kinship and community looks like, about how we conceptualize life, nature, and god. I think COVID-19 and the focus around zoom funerals and dying alone has driven home the importance of death rituals for all of us these past two years. But to return to my book, I would say that a key aspect of my research was the ways in which empire was local. I don’t think we can delineate between imperial death practices in Egypt and local death-related practices. To take the most obvious example from my book, when Father Bonfigli, the Latin Archbishop of Alexandria, died in 1904, his funeral was both an imperial moment and very specifically local. The French consul general, who took over the planning of the funeral, worked very hard to use his funeral to claim French presence locally, to make Bonfigli, who was Italian by nationality, both French and Alexandrian in his death. Funerals created ephemeral community, bringing people together in a specific space and time. They were inherently rooted to local place.  

While I focused on imperial power dynamics and death rituals, the lessons about how the power dynamics worked are relevant beyond empire alone. We have seen the ways in which claiming the dead, mourning the dead, and turning the dead into examples, serves relationships and power on every level, from the structure of a family to a city or country. I believe that the strength and power of the dead, and rituals of death, in organizing the living is universal. The rituals and meanings may vary, but the idea that they matter does not.  

Perhaps a good place to end would be your thoughts on how this book is not only an important contribution to death studies, but how its findings are also significant to modern Egyptian history.

My book is important for Egyptian history because this is an Egyptian history. It is also important for one of its specific historiographic findings, which is the strength of the Egyptian national government with regard to issues of day-to-day rituals and bureaucracies of death. What I found, over and over again, was that the Egyptian government held the reins when it came to land and subventions for hospitals and cemeteries. They determined who would have the ability to build their hospitals, who might be allowed a private cemetery space, and who might be given discounted land or money to help pay for operating costs.  The Egyptian government negotiated with and forced the French to turn over death certifications and other civil records. They turned down British consular requests in the middle of British rule of Egypt. Actually, here might be a good place for me to mention and thank Hussein Omar (at University College Dublin) for having a conversation with me about my book for EUME. Hussein and I ended up talking about the robustness of the Egyptian state in my book, and how this twist surprised me while I was doing my research. This is so true. I was not expecting to find the state strong, functioning, and working its way through the questions of land and resources. The agency and strength of the Egyptian government in the face of empire was a happy revelation for me. It turned out that by writing a history of empire in Egypt, I was writing a story of Egyptian national strength.

Shana Minkin (PhD, NYU) is Associate Professor of International and Global Studies at Sewanee: the University of the South and author of Imperial Bodies: Empire and Death in Alexandria, Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2019). On leave in Berlin this year, Shana is affiliated with the ZMO’s Representations of the Past research unit. Her current book project, tentatively titled “Vera-fying History: Memories of an Egyptian Jewish Life”, is based on an oral history of two Egyptian Jewish sisters who remained in Cairo after the dispersion.

Hala Auji (PhD, SUNY Binghamton) is Associate Professor of Art History at the American University of Beirut and author of Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and the American Press in Beirut (Brill, 2016. Find a review on this blog here). Currently a 2021/22 EUME Fellow with the Forum Transregionale Studien, she is working on her new book project, “Pictorial Impressions: Printed Portraiture in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Recently, she has also contributed to the TRAFO series The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany.

Citation: Hala Auji and Shana Minkin, Writing the Histories of Death and Empire in Alexandria: A Conversation, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33296

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