“I have remained ambivalent towards polished narratives” – 5in10 with Pascale Ghazaleh

Pascale Ghazaleh. Picture: private.

Pascale Ghazaleh is an Associate Professor of History at the American University in Cairo. She specializes in Ottoman history and 19th-century Egypt. She received her PhD in History from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. She has published research on the social organization of craft guilds in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Egypt, and on the material culture and social networks of merchants in Cairo during the same period. During her time as a EUME Fellow, she will be working on a project about ownership practices and their relation to the constitution of national resources in late nineteenth-century Egypt. In the academic year 2017-18 she is a EUME-FU 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?

As a child, I was keenly interested in how people came to belong to or fit in different groups. My family were outsiders in many ways – as one of Robert Solé’s characters says of Syrians in Egypt, “toujours les fesses entre deux chaises” – and my parents made a virtue of being different (some might say eccentric). My mother was half Egyptian, half Austro-Hungarian; my father was a Syrian Christian who had converted to Islam. We had no ready-made community. We spoke French at home, not Arabic; yet I was clearly different from my “metropolitan French” classmates at school; we were Muslim but celebrated Christmas with determination every December; and my father occasionally convinced people he was an impoverished member of the lesser French aristocracy. So I tried persistently to understand what it might take to be part of some larger entity, to feel as though I had found my tribe. I think my failure to do so eventually resulted in my fascination with movements like nationalism, which on a visceral level I find quite incomprehensible. Until now, I want to know how people come to identify with a group, a way of thinking, a set of practices. These questions inform much of my work as a historian.

I was also continually perplexed by the stories I heard and the relation they bore to the world around me. My mother was a particularly gifted storyteller, with a propensity for embellishing the truth, and our earliest arguments revolved around my indignant response to her creative reinterpretations of events. “But it didn’t happen that way!” I would exclaim; to which she would reply: “But it should have.” As a writer and a historian, I have remained ambivalent towards polished narratives. I compulsively strip bare the thought processes that lead me to my conclusions; I want to show readers step by step the link between the sources and what can be said about them.

Peasants protesting the suppression of a land law, in: Le Flutiste/Abu Saffara, 3 (1880), p. 169. Image: Abou Naddara Collection, Cluster Asia and Europe in a Global Context.

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

When I was trying to explain my current project to a friend, it immediately reminded her of an Egyptian film titled “Ayez Haqqi” (I Want My Right), about a man trying to sell his portion of the Suez Canal, which – he argues – belongs to him as an Egyptian citizen. Reasoning that he needs money, and the Suez Canal belongs to all Egyptians, he concludes that he can monetize his share in this property. This is in fact related to what I am looking at in my current project: how people outside the ruling class, people who did not belong to the political, economic, or intellectual elite, understood their entitlement to certain resources – not as members of a family or as inhabitants of a certain village, but as Egyptians, in the late nineteenth century. I’m trying to understand how ordinary people viewed their role in digging the Suez Canal, for example, and how they translated that into a sense of political agency, a practice of citizenship that was not necessarily related to the way the state or the press articulated citizenship. In other words, I’m working against the tradition that sees citizenship practices as imported or diffused from above, through intellectual currents that originated in Europe or within the ruling class.

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

There were many formative moments, some of which go back to high school – the first time I encountered philosophy, or the history teacher who explained the importance of writing a rigorous, clear outline before starting an essay. But the first experience that got me hooked on historical investigation was an Ottoman history class I was fortunate enough to take as an undergraduate at AUC with Nelly Hanna. I remember being in an almost unbearable state of intellectual excitement at each of her lectures, discovering Timothy Mitchell’s work, really having my mind blown on an almost daily basis. This adrenalin rush never completely dissipated, and it’s why I continue to love what I do.

Another formative moment occurred when I read Bourdieu’s La Distinction and Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge – those two books marked perhaps my most memorable reading experiences. In both cases, I had to put down the book periodically and walk around because I felt like I was having a heart attack.

My encounter with the archives was the next formative “station.” In Cairo, when I started doing primary source research, the Ottoman court registers were kept in the property registration bureau on Ramses Street, downtown. You could pretty much walk in and look at anything off the shelves. The first time I saw one of these registers, I went home and sobbed. I couldn’t read a single word. The script and the language were utterly hermetic to me. It took me a long time, and the generous help of several fellow historians, but eventually I was able to decipher documents, and even read them quite competently. The sheer persistence it took to become a tiny bit better than mediocre, rather than a total failure, made me more resilient. Even though I was not a native speaker of Arabic, I undertook to study documents in Arabic as a form of political engagement, a statement about what I wanted my research to be. And spending a lot of time with those documents strengthened my empiricist inclinations. Until now, I can’t really start a new project or develop an idea without looking at primary sources.

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

I recently started reading Will Hanley’s wonderful book, Identifying with Nationality. Every page is inspiring and full of ideas that are totally relevant to what I’m currently working on. Will has great empathy for the people he writes about, and is skilled in types of data analysis I know nothing about, so this is a mind-opening read. At EUME, too, every talk has made my brain snap to attention. I am really lucky to be here at this moment, surrounded by such talented and generous scholars, several of whom are historians. At a writing group organized by some of the fellows, I was awed by the caliber and sensitivity of the incisive remarks they were making about a colleague’s research in progress. Even casual conversation with these friends is inspiring and enriching. Taking time off teaching can be inspiring, but sometimes a sabbatical or similar leave can be very solitary. In contrast, it is a wonderful luxury to be able to think about my work and hear about other people’s research in a structured, intellectually stimulating environment. Another source of inspiration is the Global History Center, with which I am affiliated as a Humboldt fellow. The talks I’ve heard at the weekly colloquium have been on topics I would not have encountered otherwise, and they’ve been consistently thought-provoking.

How is it to do research in Germany?

I don’t know how it is outside Berlin, but in this city, at least, research is a delight. My visit to the Staatsbibliothek in particular was very impressive. I am planning to spend a sustained period of time discovering the Middle East collection. On a more prosaic level, coming from Cairo, it is wonderful to be in a city full of wide-open spaces. What strikes me most here is the freedom one has to move, by public transport or on a bike or just by running down the street. In contrast, Cairo can be a daily obstacle course – sometimes maddening, occasionally exhilarating, usually exhausting. Being in Germany has given me peace of mind and intellectual space to think, whereas I think that in Cairo a lot of the energy I would have devoted to that would be spent on getting around. Another wonderful gift for those doing research in my field is the ease with which one can access libraries, information, books or manuscripts. The layers of security and secrecy to which I am accustomed elsewhere simply do not seem to exist here. Of course it helps that I work on something relatively uncontroversial, but it seems almost miraculous to walk into a library and, in a few minutes, have a reader’s card that gives me almost unlimited access to the research materials I might need. There is also the quality of public space, the attention lavished on museums and theater and opera, which contribute to a very enjoyable and fruitful intellectual environment. And again, because it is easy to move around, I go to events or exhibitions that I might not otherwise have attended, and these push my thought processes in new directions.


Citation: “I have remained ambivalent towards polished narratives” – 5in10 with Pascale Ghazaleh, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.02.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9006.

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