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Thursday, 22 October 2020

INTERVIEW: Diwan Al-Ahram - What archives are really about

The quarterly finds material and photos from the archives of one of the oldest newspapers in the Arab world and makes them accessible to an audience that is curious about the early decades of the 20th century

Dina Ezzat , Friday 28 Aug 2020
Zeinab Abdel-Razik
Zeinab Abdel-Razik, editor of Diwan Al-Ahram Quarterly
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Zeinab Abdel-Razik, editor of Diwan Al-Ahram’ quarterly, says that her publication has been getting stories from the past to help make sense of the events of present times.

Diwan Al-Ahram (literally meaning “the registrar of Al-Ahram”), which is a decade old, finds material and photos from the archives of one of the oldest newspapers in the Arab world and makes them accessible to an audience that is curious about the early decades of the 20th century.

The launch took place under the head of Al-Ahram’s libraries and archives at the time, Bahiya Halawa, who noticed the growing demand from several of Al-Ahram’s publication for old photos and articles for re-publication.

However, ten years down the road, the magazine has developed a purpose well beyond the elementary wish to satisfy the nostalgia of readers, providing a fuller picture of things that are happening today or a fuller narrative of things that happened in the past.

“It was the dean of Arab literature, Taha Hussein, who once said that Al-Ahram is the registrar of Egypt’s contemporary life; I think this is what we have in mind when we produce this magazine four times a year, because what we want to do is tell the full story -- and we try to explain how the stories of today started yesterday,” Abdel-Razik said.

Alternatively, she added, the interest is in shedding light on a previously unseen element of some stories of the past.

“On our tenth anniversary I think we could easily credit Diwan with having revealed a lot of things; some of them relate to stories that continue to unfold around us and some relate more to unknown aspects of stories or people of the past,” she said.

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For the January 2019 issue, Abdel-Razik was keen to dedicate a full issue to celebrating the centenary of the 1919 Revolution, with some exclusive cuttings from coverage of the time, and of the centenary of prominent novelist and journalist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous.

Going beyond sharing some previously unpublished articles and a unique set of archival photos that she got from the dossiers of Al-Ahram and from family albums, Abdel-Razik accessed and published a set of letters that Abdel-Quddous had sent to prominent literary and political figures at the time, sharing thoughts on some concerning cultural and political developments during the crucial period of the 1940s and 1950s.

In an earlier issue which celebrated the memory of iconic Egyptian film star Hind Rostom, Abdel-Razik accessed and published a rare interview that Rostom had conducted over 50 years ago with none other than Abbas El-Akkad, a prominent writer and critic who was known for a certain reserved attitude towards women.

For the issues of April and July, that came as the world was facing up to the pandemic of COVID-19, Abdel-Razik dug out accounts on the management of the pandemic of the last century -- the Spanish flu.

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For the next issue in October, Diwan will remain faithful to a standard practice in the Egyptian press and media for close to 50 years by celebrating the memory of the 1973 war. However, to avoid falling in the trap of déjà vu, the publication is opting to run previously unpublished memoires and testimonies of the war, which has already been so talked about so much for half a century.

“I think it would be fair to say that we go the extra mile to avoid using photos that people have seen before or material that does not have a new take, and I think this relates to our realisation that we are not here just to feed the appetite for loving things past but to explain those things and to contextualise them,” she said.

While the archives of Al-Ahram continue to offer inspiration to the editorial team of Diwan, the team often goes to other archives for material and photos.

This includes the archives of other old newspapers and magazines, the archives of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, those of some state establishments, and the private collections of families and friends of public figures.

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Unfortunately, Abdel-Razik said, the limited archiving skills of some institutions has led to the waste of a wealth of material. “So by printing this material today we are, in a sense, giving it a new lease on life,” she argued.

“I think that one of the purposes that we have in mind at Diwan is to remind people of the value and need of digging in the archives and to tell them that when we do so we can always find something new and interesting; Archives are a very significant part of any nation’s history and present,” she said.

And, in the definition of Diwan, archives are not just about documents and photos that are filed or collected, but also about the nation’s treasures in art and culture.

“When we say we are trying to reflect on contemporary life in Egypt we cannot overlook art and cinema, for example,” she said.

To look at the rich history of art and cinema in Egypt, Abdel-Razik has a set of regular prominent artists and historians as commentators.

“Ultimately when we take it as one of our missions to shed light on the history of incredible talents that this country has had for years,” she said.

Diwan’s readers, according to its editor, are mostly interested researchers. However, ultimately Diwan’s targeted audience, especially as it moves into its 11th year, includes young Egyptian men and women.

“I think we can offer them an in-depth look at the history of their country, which might help them decipher or at least better understand so many things that are happening today,” Abdel-Razik said.

As part of its commitment to offering its readers as many diverse perspectives as possible, Ahram Online will publish a translated article from Diwan Al-Ahram every month, starting in October.

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