Sherene Seikaly, “How I Met My Great-Grandfather: Archives and the Writing of History,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2018) 38 (1): 6-20.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article/compile this special issue?
SS: On a hot summer day in June 2016, in a small city near Los Angeles, I visited my maternal aunt, Lamia. She had been living in California for two decades, having survived the civil war in Lebanon and joining her siblings and mother in diaspora in the late 1990s. We began plotting our weekend when she turned to me and said, “I have an Ottoman civil status record of my grandfather, Naim Cotran. Will you take it to Aaron Brothers for framing?” Gasping, I responded, “You have an Ottoman record of my great grandfather?” “Yes,” she proceeded, taking out a manila folder. What unfolded was an unlikely séance, in which my great grandfather brought to life the accountants and colonial officials, the banks and business firms, and the experience of class and dispossession that I had documented in my first book Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine, published six months earlier.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
SS: This article reflects on a decade of research, contingent, accidental, and unconsciously autobiographical, to explore archival practices and the writing of history. I recount my experience of stumbling across family papers that carried the story of Naim Cotran as a “man of capital.” I detail Naim’s consumerism, his financial investments and property, his land dispute with his brother, and then trace his experience of dispossession after the Nakba, as a refugee in Lebanon. What happened to a man of capital who survived the catastrophe of 1948? What allows an archive to survive that event? What stories does it record, and what does it render invisible?
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: This article touches on my book Men of Capital at the same time that it begins my new book project, From Baltimore to Beirut: On the Question of Palestine. Naim’s status as a Palestinian elite was the source of a bureaucratic letter writing practice that allowed me to discover and recover his history. But what did these family papers and in turn my recovery of the history they narrated erase? After all, the silences of the papers Naim and later my aunt, Lamia, preserved are bottomless. My next book project follows Naim and the people and places of his life that did not make into the family records. Sa‘da, the family’s enslaved woman/domestic servant does not appear in the records; she has no voice. The voice of Aniseh, Naim’s wife, is faint, filtered through Naim’s mediation. Naim’s life in Baltimore and Sudan are nowhere to be found. These silences are an irresistible invitation to explore an international life that reveals otherwise foreclosed spaces, times, and historical possibilities. From Baltimore to Beirut brings together fields of inquiry that are otherwise separate. It begins by tracing Naim as “a man of capital” who survived what Palestinians call the Nakba, or the catastrophe, of 1948. It details the acts, events, and processes that archive records. The book then attends to what the family papers leave out: nineteenth-century Baltimore, World War I Sudan, the story of Sa‘da, and finally, refugee life in Lebanon.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: I hope that this article will speak to historians of Palestine and Israel as well as historians more broadly. I hope the piece will contribute to engagements with the meanings of archives, the role of autobiography, and the writing of history.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: As I mentioned above, I am currently working on my next book project, From Baltimore to Beirut.
J: What are some concepts you introduce with this piece?
SS: I discuss an epistemology of shame, that is, how nationalism and our ideas about patriotism versus collaboration influence the stories we erase in our historical writing. My great grandfather left me many gifts. One of them was an invitation to begin dismantling how shame works to erase everyday complexity.