“It was storytelling that intrigued me” – 5in10 with Alia Mossallam
Alia Mossallam holds a PhD in Political Science. Her dissertation explores a popular history of Nasserist Egypt through stories told and songs sung by people behind the 1952 revolution. She has taught at the American University in Cairo (AUC), the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS), and holds the series of workshops ‘Reclaiming Revolutionary Histories’ with students, activists and artists in governorates all over Egypt, an experiment in history-telling. In the spirit of making histories more accessible, she also worked – e.g. in the case of the play Hawwa al-Hureyya (Whims of Freedom) – with a number of theatre practitioners to document revolutionary experiences of the present, explore alternative histories of the past, and recreate them on the stage. She continues to look for these stories and songs in an attempt to recover and document a lost history of popular movement in Egypt. She is currently a EUME Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I was always excited about the future, and the idea of changing something, or saving, or fighting evil. I had a very vivid imagination, and always thought I would be part of something big, some sort of adventure, like a revolution, or a resistance group. I didn’t know what it was but I always felt I should be prepared for that. When I was younger, I was mostly concerned about things related to the environment, like conserving nature or animals or saving animals on the verge of extinction. And I was excited about the prospects of going to/living in different countries. Later, my focus became more political. Even as preteens we were told a lot about what was happening in Palestine. Through that, the idea of changing the world became more concrete. I saw myself as doing something to contribute to the Palestinian cause, whether through writing, other ways of articulating my ideas or physically going there myself.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
In brief, I would say that I am interested in looking at history through songs. If there is more time, then I talk about the history of everyday people, giving examples of how I look at political movements or big moments in world history, like the 1952 Coup d’etat in Egypt or World War I for example. Though, what intrigues me here is not the war itself, but rather the experiences of the people who had to fight in the war. Similarly, in my research on the building of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt in the 1960s, I give specific examples of the building of the Dam, but I put the focus on the people who built it. My aim is to investigate history through their songs and, through that, to look at the experience of ordinary people behind world history, and gain a better understanding of their motivation/drive or politics.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
The formative experiences include different stations that aren’t necessarily connected. There are specific teachers that I remember very well and who had a strong effect on me. In kindergarten, we were asked to tell stories before we couldn’t even write. So I remember on Thursdays the teacher would produce a big piece of paper for everyone and we had to draw a story. Even if we were hardly able to, we drew a story to a certain extent and then told it. I was under 4 years old and I liked it. I can still remember that very well.
In school, there were my literature teachers who taught us the analysis of stories and poetry, which was one of my favorite subjects until High School. I also enjoyed writing essays, and here again it was storytelling that intrigued me.
Later at university, the theater and seminar classes, and then two psychology courses were actually very formative to me. One of them was a social-psychology course where we visited different institutions. Once we went to a women’s prison in Cairo and we interviewed women who were imprisoned for different reasons. The idea behind this was to blur the lines between good and bad; right and wrong; state and society. Many of these women were in prison because of murder or, in some cases, because of killing someone who had raped their daughter for instance. One time we visited a mental institution and spoke with the people there, or another time, we visited a very poor informal area and spoke to NGOs there. This was formative because of seeing all these places that you would usually think of as inaccessible and also invisible to you in your everyday life. It made me even more conscious of all the things around me that I couldn’t see. I became more interested in people’s stories and how they completely change your perception of concepts you think you understood.
After that, my Master and my PhD were very much about looking for people’s stories behind political events that had an effect on my ideological upringing, and I always felt it was a blessing to work in this field. It gives me a legitimate excuse to go somewhere, to walk into these housing estates of workers who built the Aswan High Dam or land in a Nubian village. If anyone asks me who I am, I say I am an academic who is interested in your stories, curious about your experiences, trying to understand. Then, people are willing to tell them, because their stories are going to be documented, listened to and maybe told in the for of a book or otherwise. So I could be interested about any moment in time and then, in order to break the ice, ask people what it was like to fall in love for the first time or where they met. This starts the conversation and keeps it going, and it creates a special relationship. I guess all the formative moments are moments that have to do with stories, collecting stories and learning to listen.
How is it to do research in Germany?
I have very high hopes and a lot of aims. First of all, me and my husband are very engaged politically in Cairo, and so our lives are very full. In Egypt, you are constantly engaged with the question how important your work is compared to everything happening around you. It always seems more pressing if there is a protest for instance, and it surely is more important than something you are writing. So I had the idea that we were coming to focus on writing and spending time together as a family. And then it is an opportunity to learn German, since my children will probably go to a German school when we go back to Cairo. Moreover, I’d like to learn the piano and go back to roller blading which is something I loved a lot when I was younger. After all, I perceive my residence in Germany as a break from engagement with the external world and an opportunity to reflect on my work and everything that has happened over the last few years. This is what I am looking forward to in Germany, feeling that my work is relevant and important.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I have a lot of wishes for the further development of my subject. I am already transitioning to new research projects, and so I am ready to write up my project on Egypt in the 50s and 60s. More importantly, I am reflecting on ways to present my research. Collecting stories, particularly in oral and musical forms, and then transforming them into a written text seems very limiting to what these forms are. I would like to make these sources accessible in an interactive way; like in an installation or an exhibition where people can not only read my analysis, but also hear these stories, touch them, see pictures, and be emotionally moved. I hope this works out, and I wish that all of my research work would have those two sides. I will try to take this up in my new project on the experience of Egyptian labor corps in World War I. There’s a lot of interesting sources like stories, songs, photos and short videos that I found in British, Egyptian archives and some oral history. What I intend is not only writing a popular history of political events, but making these histories accessible to the experience of wider publics.
Further readings on TRAFO:
Alia Mossallam and Nermin El-Sherif (2017): Mapping the Counter-Histories of Port Said: A Critical Reading Into a Communal Mapping Project
Citation: Alia Mossallam, “It was storytelling that intrigued me” – 5in10 with Alia Mossallam, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.06.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7028