Egyptians race to capture the spirit of Tahrir Square

EgyptNational GovernmentPoliticsColleges and UniversitiesArts and CultureDemonstrationUnrest, Conflicts and War

The questioner reads evenly from a script.

"Please give me your name and your age."

"My name is Sameh Eldesoky and I am 21 years old."

Eldesoky sits back, hands on his knees, trying to relax, trying to forget that a tiny microphone is clamped to the front of his shirt.


FOR THE RECORD:
Egypt archiving: An article in the July 7 Section A about archiving Egypt's revolution misspelled the last name of American University in Cairo anthropologist Hania Sholkamy as Sholkawy. —


"When and how did you first hear about the demonstrations of Jan. 25?"

"Through Facebook and friends."

"Had you been involved in demonstrations before or political organizing?" asks the interviewer, a young woman with a soft, soothing voice.

Eldesoky pauses.

"I tried to do, but all my trying failed," he says, giving a quick, nervous laugh. "I always saw demonstrations in Tahrir Square. But for me to join it was so hard — they always have these soldiers around them and they always push you out or take you to jail."

He rushes to add, "That never happened — they never took me to jail before."

The young woman scrutinizes him, her face impassive.

"Tell me more about your involvement in the January events — how it started, what you have been doing, what you have witnessed. Tell me more," she says.

Had the revolution not succeeded, this might be a police interrogation. But President Hosni Mubarak has been ousted and his police state is gone, at least for now, and protesters like Eldesoky are voluntarily recounting their stories to help document the uprising.

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

Some have discovered that the act of recording history as it unfolds in a country where the future is still a question mark is as fraught with tension and risk as the revolution itself.

Eldesoky gestures for his interviewer, recreating the now famous scenes in Tahrir Square: police encircling protesters, beating them with batons, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. After police struck him repeatedly on the right shoulder, he says, he fashioned a makeshift torch out of a lighter and bug spray to defend himself.

"There were so many and they don't talk, they just hit," he says as he sits in a glass recording booth, rubbing his shoulder and wrestling with a recent memory that already seems long ago.

Archivists at American University in Cairo, the Library of Alexandria and the Egyptian National Library and Archives have separately rushed to chronicle Egypt's revolution, preserving not just memories and artifacts but the digital ephemera that set this uprising apart: videos, photographs, Facebook and Twitter posts. American University students have started a separate project to translate documents related to the revolution and post them online.

"The old method was to wait awhile after something occurs and to document the event with what is left behind," said Stephen Urgola, American University's archivist. "The idea here is we need things quickly, in case they get deleted from a mobile phone or students leave the country with photos on their digital cameras."

Urgola did not seek government support for his project, relying instead on a $50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create "University on the Square: Documenting Egypt's 21st Century Revolution," an archive accessible online that includes both physical and digital records of the revolution.

But private funding didn't stop the country's transitional military government from intervening. In April, officials confiscated many of the rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters that American University students had collected from Tahrir for the archives. It was not clear why they took them, or whether the university would get them back, Urgola said.

The rest of the archive, which is indexed, so far includes protest fliers, banners, blogs, photographs and about 60 oral histories. Interviewees vary, from prominent activists to campus security guards and scions of Mubarak's regime. Some were sought out by archive organizers while others were referred or volunteered.

Participants are asked to provide their full names, birth dates and addresses and to sign an agreement making their information available online. Some, concerned about the government tracking them down, provide only the neighborhood where they live. A few, all of them student activists, have refused to be identified by name.

"Their rationale was they still didn't know where the revolution will go and they didn't feel comfortable using their full name to tell stories about the security forces," Urgola said. "They were concerned they could be identified by the authorities in case there was some sort of retribution."

Given that a new government has yet to take shape, Urgola said he agreed to publish only their first names and last initials.

"It's still fairly unsettled ground," he said.

Eldesoky, a business student at Ain Shams University, said he was more concerned about describing events accurately for the archives than about the implications for his future.

At the end of his interview, Eldesoky signed the agreement and left without asking when his story would be posted.

His interviewer, volunteer Mona Nasser, 26, has questioned half a dozen people. Few were concerned about the government using their stories against them, she said. Many saw the interview as cathartic after years of repression. Some cried. Some cursed the old regime. Some reminisced for hours. Others who didn't initially support the revolution discussed their change of heart.

Archivists have consulted with peers in South Africa, Eastern Europe and South America about how to chronicle the fall of a repressive regime and ensure that those who speak out will be protected, regardless of their political bent.

"This is a project that I care a lot about not being tampered with," said Hania Sholkawy, an American University anthropologist working with another revolution project at the National Archive. The specter of government intervention "detracts from the sanctity of giving voice," she said.

There is no way to immediately verify what interviewers gather about the revolution, or whether it is complete. But archivists say that even incomplete accounts provide valuable context for posterity.

"We can never really know what happened in the past, but we have this wonderful fascination with documenting it, like the diary of Anne Frank," Sholkawy said. "The diary is what it is; we don't know if Anne Frank was writing everything she wanted to write."

Egypt's historical records have not always been accessible to the public.

During the last century, despite laws opening documents to the public after 30 years, Egyptian bureaucrats restricted access to the national archives, researchers say, particularly classified Defense Ministry records. Consequently, there are fewer records available to the public about the revolutions of 1919 and 1952 — which led to the overthrow of the monarchy and British colonial rule — than there are of earlier military campaigns.

"Security trumps everything else," said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at American University who is leading the National Archive project.

Until a new government guarantees free speech and access to public records, Fahmy said, archivists must forward the cause of the revolution by gathering the fullest possible accounts and making them accessible to all Egyptians.

"It's an exercise in democracy," Fahmy said. "It shows people history is theirs."

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EgyptNational GovernmentPoliticsColleges and UniversitiesArts and CultureDemonstrationUnrest, Conflicts and War
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