EUME Berliner Seminar
Mi 15 Feb 2017 | 16:00–17:30

Popular Historiographic Practices: Documenting War, Loss and Sacrifice (in Song) in the 50s and 60s in Egypt

Alia Mossallam (Cairo / EUME Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung 2017-19), Chair: Michael Allan (University of Oregon / EUME-CNMS Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung 2017)

Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

“The simsimiyya (1) gives voice to those whom history forgets” - Ibrahim al-Mursi - Poet, Port Said.

The 1950s-60s in Egypt were a period of heightened popular mobilization that have since been neatly packaged and presented in the framework of the period’s many wars and nationalist projects. The Aswan High Dam alone attracted tens of thousands of peasants from all over the country and displaced at least 40,000 Nubians in its wake. While the wars in the canal area displaced a million civilians in the period between 1967 and 1974.

Mossallam's work explores the struggles of the people behind these nationalist projects; such as the civilian resistance in the wars in Port Said (1956) and Suez (1967-1974) and the builders who insisted on working on the High Dam despite the perilous working conditions. These are stories and experiences that had drowned in the din of the larger battles.

How did these communities interpret their struggles? What drove their sacrifices? How did these nationalist projects become common grounds for the strategics of state building and the dreams and aspirations of ordinary people? Through this study she has explored the experiences of these communities through songs and popular historiographic practices. She explores these intimate struggles, through intimate languages - languages that preserve and articulate their own accounts of these events.
Mossallam argues that songs and forms of intimate discourse provide us with a different understanding of the politics of the period; the popular politics that drove these struggles and the world-view they strove to realize. They provide us with a different geography of struggle, through the different understandings of the parameters of home and belonging that these struggles were waged for. Finally, they provide us with a new language for struggle. A language for why sacrifices are made, why losses are endured; why people agree to leave, and in the most difficult moments, why they decide to stay.

Through this presentation, she hopes to engage with the questions of how - as academics - we can reproduce these poetic narratives of struggle (exported to us through songs, poetry, photographs and diary experts) in ways that are faithful to their sources; and expansive to our imaginations and understanding of popular movements.

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.
Her publications include an article on youth activism in the volume Democratic Transition in the Middle East, a workers’ history of the Aswan High dam in the Journal of Water History, and a forthcoming article on history workshops in Egypt in the History Workshop Journal. She also writes for Mada Masr.
(1) Traditional string instrument of Port Said

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