Sometimes our only access to a source of revolutionary struggle is through voices incarcerated in an archive. Our sense of their politics is informed through conversations under surveillance, and our understanding of their whereabouts through police reports, court records, or even voice recordings in which they appear to us in a flash, framed and limited. Sometimes their absence in the archive of surveillance and incarceration is a sign of their escape, or their release; their final triumph. The history of anti-colonial struggle is thus often the art of building stories out of the contours of absence, or forging struggles out of the silhouettes of information gleaned from official records – such as reading reports of criminality or violence against the police as insurgency.
In this conversation, Alia and Adam will reflect on the importance and challenges of using colonial archives, particularly acoustic sources, in tracing revolutionary struggle in early twentieth century Egypt and North Africa. Ranging from Egypt to the Maghreb in the early 20th century, we will delve into the Berliner Lautarchiv, where we encountered Maghrebi prisoners doubly incarcerated: prisoners of war whose voices were recorded under duress and preserved on shellac records over 100 years ago. How much of their actual experiences of war could they have actually related under these conditions? How possible is it to infer or assign agency to stories or songs that prisoners of war were forced to record, while surrounded by their captors? On the one hand is the possibility that these stories are structures for what Britta Lange calls “messages in a bottle”, encoded stories told through fables and folk-songs in the hope that a hundred years later someone could decipher them. On the other, is the danger of romanticizing resistance in a situation where none could have been possible. In both instances the question remains, of what they leave us with, as their traces vanish with the trailing off of their voices.
Alia Mossallam is a cultural historian, pedagogue and writer interested in songs that tell stories and stories that tell of popular struggles behind the better-known events that shape world history. Her current project at EUME (2021-23), “Tracing Emancipation Under Rubbles of War”, retrieves the physical and political journeys of Egyptian and North African workers on the various fronts of World War I through the songs and memoires that recount their struggles. Some of her writing can be found in The Journal of Water History, The History Workshop Journal, the LSE Middle East Paper Series, Ma’azif, Bidayat, Mada Masr, Jadaliyya and 60 Pages. An experimentative pedagogue, she founded the site-specific public history project “Ihky ya Tarikh”, as well as having taught at the American University in Cairo, the Freie Universität in Berlin, the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts, and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.
Adam Benkato an Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Before going to California, he held positions at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. His research investigates a wide variety of textual and audio sources through the lenses of material philology, sociolinguistics, and archive studies, particularly focusing on sources in modern Arabic and medieval Iranian languages. He is co-editor of Lamma: A Journal of Libyan Studies.