Tips for Your First Visit to the Archives

I offered some unsolicited advice on Twitter (he says, as if there is any other kind of advice to be found there) about the first trip to the archives which was, for my not all that popular account, kind of a popular post. So, I’m going to expand on it here!

Believe it or don’t, this was the best piece of advice I got before my first trip to the archives.

A lot of the advice I got was practical: dress comfortably, make sure you read the rules and regulations of the archive before you get there (especially the documentation you need to gain access), check what you can actually bring in with you so that you don’t bring too much.

This was the one I heard and thought, Oh yeah, right.

It’s also the one that I remember the best now. Because it’s true. That first day never goes quite as expected. If you don’t believe me, take it from Randy:

You’ve compiled a massive list of documents you want to see, files you want to read — it never goes quite the way you expected.

Especially if you’re working with material that was generated in the pre-typewriter era.

Or it’s in a foreign language, and you discover that your ability to speak rapid, native sounding Spanish is not matched by your ability to skim Spanish.

Or you discover that your productivity is interrupted by mandatory tea time. Or that you have to leave the reading room for an hour.

Or maybe they will let you handle one document at a time.

Or, in my case, you weren’t thinking literally enough when you discovered a series of files called “Summary of Intelligence Reports Received,” and sat down, expecting to find a treasure trove and instead finding a ledger detailed how many intelligence reports were received every day.

Womp womp.

There’s always setbacks.

But somehow, the first day is always the worst. It’s the day your expectations and hopes collide head-on with reality. If you know that’s part of the process, and you’re prepared for it, it really makes a difference.

I thought about this a lot my first few days in the archive. It’s not a race. You’ll find what you need, and you’ll get there.

And if it doesn’t lead where you were hoping, you’ll adapt. Very, very few people actually come out of the archives with the same project they had when they went into the archives.

When I posted this, Melissa Johnson (@Lady_Historian) offered a tip in response:

Here’s some more that came up in response:

I would add to this, photocopy (or photograph) things you’re not sure you’ll want to use later. Your project will evolve over time, and you never know …

Definitely true. Especially if you’re far away from home, in a country where you’re working in a second language you’re almost-but-not-quite fluent in. The excitement wears off and suddenly you realize you don’t know anyone, and you’re going to be here for how long?

Check out Paula’s blog post for more advice!

And @pearcele is quite the optimist:

Keep them coming!

What are the tips for archival work you’d offer your past self? Let me know in the comments below!

Why It’s Important for My Classroom to be a Safe Space

No, not that kind of safe space. Well, maybe not that kind of safe space.

Let me begin at the beginning. Hello! I teach classes about the Middle East to undergraduates who often have taken few, if any courses on the region.

For the last two years, I’ve taught a required junior-level elective (the course number is required; my particular course is one of around 16 offered under said course number), and on the first day of class, I’ve asked the students to tell me why they’ve enrolled (“because I have to in order to graduate” not being an option). Most of them tell me that they know little to nothing about the region, and that’s whey they’re there. (The second time I offered this course, I also took that explanation off the table, although it was not as satisfactory an exercise as I wanted it to be).

Then I go into my rules for class, and the first thing I say is, simply this: this is a safe space.

What do I mean by that?

I did public scholarship–the term we used was “outreach” but nowadays we’d call it public scholarship–for 18 years as a full time job, based out of a university, traveling around the state of Texas, working with teachers who wanted to know more about the Middle East — usually so that they felt smarter than their students. The textbooks that the state assigns are pretty bad, and when it comes to describing the browner, non-Christian parts of the world, some of them are downright awful.

I’d been doing this for a couple of years when I noticed that, at these sessions, there was always a group of people who would prevent me from running to the bathroom at breaks because they had lots of questions. Questions are good.

As any professor, lecturer, TA, teacher, trainer, or educator of any variety quickly learns, the questions are what keeps the job interesting. I have literally found myself compiling grocery lists and writing emails in my head while talking out loud, so checked out am I from the content I’m giving. The questions are what change every time, what keeps me on my toes. What keeps it interesting for me after I have delivered the joke about taking the water buffalo out for a walk for what seems like the four hundredth time in a given week (from a lecture about the geography of Egypt).

And, honestly, a lot of these inter-session questions were good. Insightful. Well thought out.

“Why,” I asked one day, “didn’t you ask this in front of everyone? In fact, when we come back to session, I’d like you to ask it and then we can talk about it.”

“Well,” came the sheepish response, “I didn’t know if it was an offensive question.”

Aha. There it is.

I didn’t ask because I was afraid my question would be offensive.

I get it. No one wants to have a room full of people turn to them with hot eyes and tight lips and facial expressions that ask, How dare you?

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that people who aren’t concerned about being offensive have no such qualms. Like the day I asked a group if they knew what defines someone as an Arab, and one participant responded, “They’re ragheads.” (For the record: the answer I was looking for is their first language is Arabic because Arab as an ethnicity is actually defined culturo-linguistically).

That one…took me a moment to recover from.

So, my question then became How do I get these questions out in front of anyone? Even the “Ragheads” comment had its value. Okay, now we have a base level of understanding in the group … in this case, one that’s fairly low … that we can begin to build on. If I had blathered on about cultural-linguistic identities and not engaged with the remark (“Where do stereotypes come from?”) I would have lost the audience entirely because I was operating on a completely different level than they were. (And, yes, for the record, the fact that I was in a room full of teachers who are educating the next generation was not lost on me. Some things you just can’t let bother you in the moment or you’ll freeze up, or at least that’s what my therapist told me at our following session).

This is why I decided that, when I went into the college classroom and found myself on the other side of the podium, that I had to encourage such questions. The painful ones. The ones that students are struggling to address. The ones that they don’t want to ask because they’re not sure if it might be offensive, or that they’re using the right word, or name, or whatever else. This sets the pace for me as an educator. Where do I need to start? What expectations or stereotypes do I need to address? If the question isn’t asked, I assume they know. And experience has shown me I’m usually wrong.

So, I start off by explaining that the classroom is a safe space. I ask students not to rush to judgement when questions are asked. Let’s hear our colleagues out. A question asked from a place of honesty needs to be addressed in a like fashion–without fear that classmates are going to jump on you if you don’t phrase it in just the right way.

This extends to me as well. I admit, I’ve had a couple of students whose English is weak who have made comments in class and actually been saying the opposite of what I thought. This happened just last semester, and, when I realized I was having a negative reaction to a comment from a student that I had misunderstood, I actually stopped myself and told the class what was happening.

“I’m having a strong reaction because I misunderstood what [x] was saying. Remember when I said this class was a safe space? Well, that applies to me, too.” And I took a beat, refocused, and continued by addressing what the student had actually said.

Part of this arrangement, I tell students, is that if they are offended by something a classmate says, is that I want them to bring it to my attention – it doesn’t have to be in front of everyone, they can stop me after class, or send me an e-mail.

Every campus has an office that exists to deal with student concerns–and I’m certainly not trying to circumvent that established process if the situation calls for it.

I think here of a colleague who taught a course on Modern Egypt, who assigned as one of his texts The Yacoubian Building, an Egyptian novel by Alaa Al-Aswany that became the Peyton Place of early 2000s Egypt. The book is notable in that it was a bestseller in Egypt–and it includes a gay character. The characterization is clunky (al-Aswany was a dentist before taking up writing; the novel isn’t exactly fine literature), and he meets a bad end at the end of the book – but the point is that even this was revolutionary for Egypt, something my colleague wanted to discuss. However, a student, on reading the novel, reported my colleague for assigning homophobic material.

Hence, my plea was: if there is an issue about the suitability of course material or course discussion, please bring it to my attention first. After all, I do occasionally assign problematic material because I want students to appreciate why it’s problematic.

My first actual test of this policy was, perhaps not unpredictably, during one of our discussions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. One student was a bit uncomfortable because he felt that another student–of Arab descent–was using the word “Jew” just a little too broadly in some of their comments, when they should have been using “Israeli,” or, even more accurately, “Israeli military forces.”

In this case, the student making the observation did have a point. Rather than singling out the other student, I made an announcement at the beginning of the next class, not as a reprimand, but just a clarification that terms are important, and, now that we were discussing post-1948 Israel, when discussing Israeli actions and policies, students should distinguish between “Israeli” and “Jewish” in order to clarify their meaning. This worked: in class that day the student corrected themself in mid sentence, and that was that.

As an educator, I can’t help students learn or grow if they don’t trust me. And I have to learn to trust them (which, believe me, is harder than I expected). It’s a work in progress that I refine a little bit each semester.

After all, even though I’m (probably) months away from having those coveted initials after my name … I’m still learning, too.

Wrong About Everything

I know, not the best title for my first blog entry, right?

A couple of months back, I presented some of initial findings on epidemic and epizootic disease in Egypt during the first World War at a symposium. (Ok, I’ll tell you the symposium was at Oxford. Yes, you may touch me.) I was flattered to be asked, especially since, as an ABD candidate, I got to be part of a two-panel session with speakers like Khaled Fahmy and Marilyn Booth (I’m still not entirely convinced I didn’t embarrass myself and everyone else, but that’s impostor syndrome for you).

The paper–which you can read here–is a short synopsis of human suffering during the war, especially among the poor, rural classes in Egypt, which are largely undocumented. It’s a works-in-progress presentation, very much based in preliminary findings, as one does at this stage in writing.

My dissertation focuses on breakdowns in public health during the war–the topic sentence could be summed up as “1918 was a deadly year for the Egyptian populace.” Even if one heeds Roger Cooter’s warning about reifying a positivist relationship between war and disease[1] –and I’ve compiled statistics for nearly a decade before and after the war–the demographic anomalies in Egypt between 1914 and 1918 are unmistakable. Four times as many Egyptians died of disease during the war than from military actions.

1918 also saw the birth rate decline to its lowest rate in a quarter century.

BirthDeath
source: Annual Reports of the Department of Public Health, Ministry of the Interior, 1911-1919.

I described a number of issues: food shortages that were documented as early as 1916. As residents complained about shortages of soap, eggs, cheese, and meat the Anglo-Egyptian administration, concerned with keeping the protectorate profitable, maintained a positive trade balance, exporting goods that were dearly needed at home. The cost of some basic household items rose over 200% between 1914 and 1918.

Likewise, relapsing fever and typhus cases increased substantially — both are louse-borne diseases, which can likely be tied to the increased movement of troops and support staff (including the men of the Egyptian Labour Corps). The war ended with the “Spanish flu” outbreak, which killed almost 140,000 Egyptians in just under three months.

There were also epizootics of both cattle plague (rinderpest) and foot-and-mouth disease that lasted over 18 months in large swaths of the country. Is there a relation between this and the soaring price of meat? It’s almost certainly the source of much of the protein that was sold on the black market in major cities.

As I said. Cheerful stuff.

During the break that followed my panel, a member of the audience approached me, identifying himself as a member of the landholding class from the Sharqiyya province in the Nile Delta (for the record, he is not an academic).

He insisted that I was completely wrong about nearly everything that I had said.

“We had hygiene!” he declared. “People didn’t die from these diseases in the 20th century!”

He suggested that I extend the dates of my study by decades in each direction; for example, he inquired if I had I looked at the number of deaths incurred through the construction work on the Suez Canal (1863-69), or knew how many more people died of disease in Egypt in the 18th century.

I won’t lie. This was my first outing with this material, and this was … not the sort of feedback I had hoped to get. The more I tried to explain the nuance of my argument, the more pushback I got. Having spent 3 months mapping the country from cataract to Delta, I tried to change the subject and ask where he was from–meaning where, specifically, in Sharqiyya. He looked at me as if I might just be the stupidest man on earth and responded, “Egypt?!”

As you can tell, I’ve let this episode roll right off my back.

However, I think there is something significant in the greater picture about his defensiveness, one that pushed me to think about the puzzling collective silence in nearly every history book about what I’m looking at. Even the Spanish flu is described in only two medical reports from the time; I’ve seen it mentioned nowhere else.

The notion of Egyptians dying in elevated numbers from disease was clearly distasteful to him–largely, I suspect, for the reason that it was undignified. People—at least not those of his class—did not die from disease in high numbers in the early 20th century.

In short, Egypt was modern. If it had not ascended, as the Khedive Ismāᶜīl had optimistically pronounced in 1869, to being among the ranks of countries which should be considered European, it had developed more rapidly than much of the Arab east, which languished in such a state that one scholar discussing the “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic in the Arabian peninsula (1919) could legitimately wonder whether medical officials in central Arabia were capable of distinguishing the influenza apart from other diseases with similar symptoms, such as typhoid.[2]

Indeed, my interlocutor is correct about that hygiene and medical care had been introduced under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the mid-19th century as part of a national campaign to improve public health. This has been described by LaVerne Kuhnke and Hibba Abuguideri (although the project had peaked in the 1850s and all but vanished under British administration).[3]

I struggled to explain in my response that afternoon that my interest was the significance of the war’s anomalous blip in the statistical record. The public health scheme in Egypt had, to a certain degree, brought epidemic disease under control, which is why the fact that infection and death rates soared during the war comprise a factor of interest. So, too, do the numbers of registered prostitutes in Egyptian cities, as well as the number of reported cases of venereal diseases, both of which increased substantially during the war and comprised their own crises in both medical and social health

During the first world war, Egypt was a nation at war. Its citizens were recruited into the war effort, and many of those citizens faced bodily harm and death fighting for the Union Jack in far-off lands. Those who remained at home suffered from shortages of basic supplies–although production rates decreased slightly, they dropped nowhere near as much as consumption rates. They were forced to eat tainted meat that they purchased at high prices. They died of disease whose effects were exacerbated by malnutrition. Some turned to prostitution or other illicit activity to make ends meet.

There is nothing heroic about the fight against a virus, perhaps. As the first World War and the 1919 uprising became enmeshed together in the national historiographic project celebrating the nationalist movement and Egypt’s strive for self-determination, there was no space for sympathetic portrayal of poor women desperate to feed starving children and elderly relatives, and those who, in sheer desperation, turned to extreme measures to support themselves.

The commemorations held in Egypt from 2013 onward to celebrate the nation’s contribution to the First World War recognize only one of these groups.

I’m hoping to recognize the second.


[1] Roger Cooter. “Of War and Epidemics: Unnatural Couplings, Problematic Conceptions.” The Journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine 16, no. 2 (2003): 283–302

[2] LaVerne Kuhnke. Lives at Risk. Vol. no. 24. Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990; Hibba Abugideiri. Gender and the Making of Modern Medicine in Colonial Egypt. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.

[3] Guido Steinberg. “The Commemoration of the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-1919 in the Arab East.” In The First World War as Remembered in the Countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Olaf Farschid, Manfred Kropp, and Stephan Dähne. Beiruter Texte Und Studien 99. Würzburg: Ergon-Verl, 2006, 159–60.