“Bismillah,” the reading room monitor announces loudly, holding a glass bottle of Coke to her lips. “In God’s name.” She downs the Coke.
I am the only person in the reading room of the Egyptian Geographical Society today, and for some reason the lights have been turned off. I am huddled in my coat and scarf (no heating in Cairo) at one of the long tables, partitioned with bookcases from the grand assembly hall with its rows of unoccupied wooden seats, high ceilings with arabesque geometries, and crescent crest of the Egyptian monarchy.
The monitor pulls a notebook from her desk drawer and comes over to my table. She asks me if I want to buy it for 10 pounds, about 50 cents. The cover image is of an indeterminate cartoon animal, captioned “DOGHY” in capital letters. At first I demur, but later buy it anyway.
Meanwhile, the copy guy, Hassan, comes to sit with me. We start by stapling my copies together, but within a few minutes he has taken a seat and we have addressed the topics of familial relationships in America, the frequency of my communications with my parents, my PhD stipend, and rent in Boston. There is nothing unusual about discussing these things with strangers in Egypt.
Not long after, another employee, Intisar, comes around to tell me that the director of the Society is in his office today, and asks if I’d like to meet him. (We’ve bonded already because she has a fake “Chloe” handbag, as do I. We may well have bought them from the same string of knockoff shops off Talaat Harb.) As it happens, I had emailed and sent His Eminence a WhatsApp message a few days earlier, but received no response: again, this was no surprise. I know well by now that attempting to communicate in advance with someone you’d like to meet is likely to be met with silence: but show up in person, and anything is possible. Never has anyone said “I’m sorry, you should have called ahead.”
It’s my third day in the Geographical Society, and I’ve now been offered a 15-day permit I didn’t know existed. I’m a little sad, however, because this means less time with my new friends, the security guards at the entrance. The Geographical Society is inside the Parliament complex, and therefore anyone who wants to use the library there or visit its Ethnographic Museum has to go through the same screening as someone with business in the Parliament. (Not surprisingly, the museum doesn’t get many visitors.) In any event, by Day 3, after quite a long time perched on the movie-theater seats strung along one side of the gatehouse, I know the names of the guards, where they live, their work and travel histories, their opinions about Donald Trump (not Egyptian politics, of course – wrong time, wrong place), one guard’s difficulty in renting an apartment amid the inflation crisis, and whether or not they want to leave Egypt. I have built rapport with one guy by speaking French: he was in diplomatic security and traveled around Europe. They are all thrilled that I attended my friend’s wedding four years ago in Shubra, a distant part of Cairo. When one of the Geographical Society guards comes through, he scolds them for holding me too long: “She’s our friend! Why are you giving her a hard time?!”
These are the moments that make working in Egypt rewarding. Every success is built on personal relationships. They require time and a willingness to discuss one’s personal life, not paperwork and planning. This is the bright side of wasta, “connection.” Wasta can be extremely useful or horribly infuriating, depending on whether you have one or not. If others have wasta and you do not, life feels very unfair. But if you have the wasta, or can create it by shooting the breeze with whoever needs to issue you permit X — that’s another story. The edifices of the state seem impenetrable – until you drink tea with the people who make it run.
I had not intended to spend my trip at the Geographical Society, though I was quickly becoming fond of it. When at first I planned this trip, it was to work in the National Archives, Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya. I soon discovered, however, that the three-month waiting period for an official permit from State Security had lengthened to nine months. I had to look elsewhere.
Finding documents is not easy. The state speaks mostly in silences, and these are hard to hear, harder still to trace. I cannot write a paper in which I state: “I could not answer these fundamental questions because it takes 9 months to (maybe) get a permit and, well, who can wait that long?” In the absence of documents, it is tempting to sew up an argument around the holes created by bureaucratic hurdles, because they do not tell an exciting story. But it is critical to expose silences, even when they seem the result of routine procedure. We should excavate the reasons for their existence, how they came to be and why. What are the casualties of these silences? The gaps in knowledge they have obscured?
In working on my current project, a study of the relationship between scientific exploration and the state as seen through Egypt’s vast Western Desert from the 19th century into the early 20th, I have encountered two kinds of silences. The first is the general silence of the official archive, created by the difficult conditions for accessing documents. The second is generated by special sensitivities about the place about which I have chosen to write and about certain key types of knowledge – most notably, maps – to which it is linked.
I had no intention to write something sensitive – my characters are long dead, the scientific texts I reference long outdated. But the more people are suspicious and secretive, the more I begin to feel suspicious myself. I am afraid to ask outright, except among friends, about the issues I have now learned are – often inexplicably – sensitive. So I poke around them, hoping for clues that will explain the purposeful silences. I want nothing more than to be straightforward in my questions, and I can be with good friends. But with others, I fear their suspicion shapes me into exactly what they imagine me to be: not a spy, maybe, but a dissimulator.
The question of spying haunts my work in the Middle East. The word has stalked me since I first came to do research in Egypt in 2012. It seems hard, sometimes, to reconcile this deep mistrust with the easy warmth of the guards at the Geographical Society or public officials at other institutions I have visited. The term “research” is itself a linguistic hot potato, a synonym for “report to the CIA.” Announcing oneself in any way related to “Middle Eastern Studies” is tantamount to declaring “Hi, I’m a clandestine agent of the USA, come to bring your country down.” History is less threatening, because it is for silly, boring people who read old things and are irrelevant.
Often the fear of spies cloaks itself in humor. I have been told by a friend that he had a friend in Egyptian security “check out my background.” I am frequently asked how my “reports” are going, and am called “ya gasosa.” How much credence should I place in these remarks? I feel a flicker of anxiety, and laugh. Or I used to, until an Italian PhD student was murdered and a close friend deported. In truth, the spy jokes are not funny. They are deeply distressing. I have tried to point out how many years I have devoted to studying the language, to living in the country and learning the culture. This, I have been told many times over, makes me only more suspicious. “We don’t understand why you like it so much,” friends tell me. “We’re so unhappy with it ourselves.” The only reason someone would spend so long in this country, the reasoning goes, is to exploit it, to lend our knowledge to a vast conspiracy to bring Egypt to its knees.
People like me, or Giulio Regeni who was killed, are oddities. We have money from foreign institutions to travel across the world to study societies that are not our own. There are no Egyptian counterparts sent with ample funds to study American society. The suspicion of students is also only one part of a much larger crackdown on foreign influence: thanks to restrictive new laws, most foreign-funded NGOs have shuttered. These days, few foreigners of the harmless kind are left: tourists in cargo shorts with deep pockets, headed for a camel ride at the Pyramids.
I have little sympathy for spy-mania that is founded in xenophobia or that cultivates hysteria. But a “spy,” at least in the eyes of some, need not be a government operative. Last month, a friend explained to me that “spy” can mean something more, a voyeuristic or instrumental way of obtaining knowledge about other people. Anxieties about making a country look bad are one thing, but anxieties about exposing people’s private lives – even unintentionally – are another. Those who have lived long years under dictatorships where invasive internal surveillance regimes are the norm are all too familiar with the possibility of compromising another’s safety, freedom, or life. The fear of spies can be rooted in intimate familiarity with the collection and abuse of information about people’s everyday lives. Where people fear the state, they fear it even in their own homes, from their own children. A child might hear her parents say something at dinner and repeat it the next day at school; her friend’s father could report it. People could fear me as they fear a child informant: innocent in principle, but dangerous.
Pure intentions are one thing, unintended consequences another. I take comfort in the knowledge that the people about whom I write are long dead, but even the dead have secrets. It is our responsibility to expose most secrets, but to keep others.