North Africa, West Asia

The criminal, the victim, the policeman, the judge

“I do not know if Carlo Ginzburg would agree, but I came to evaluate fear as a precious tool for fieldwork in authoritarian contexts.”

Mona Abaza Elena Chiti
28 June 2017

Piazza Santi Apostoli demonstration demanding justice for Giulio Regeni and other victims of the Al Sisi government in Egypt. Rome, Italy, February 13, 2016. Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press/press association. All rights reserved.This is another interview in a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers encounter in undertaking research in the Middle East. The idea of interviewing social scientists on the processes of the production of knowledge has been inspired from Michael Burawoy’s concept of  ‘public sociology’, which he initiated and was followed by other sociologists who carried out further interviews with social scientists in ‘Global Dialogue’.

These interviews will attempt to focus on questions of methodology, equally, on the obstacles encountered by researchers when undertaking fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. It will also attempt to highlight the multiple and varied trajectories and voices which a younger generation of social scientists in the Middle East have been confronting.

Mona Abaza (MA): Tell us about your current research topic and your recent experience in Egypt as a researcher?

Elena Chiti (EC): For my post-doctoral fellowship, which I started at the end of 2015, I switched from the late nineteenth and the twentieth century to the present. At the same time, I kept Egypt as my research field and cultural history as my main discipline.

I wanted to study Egyptian popular culture through crime stories, both fictional and non-fictional, in order to reconstruct – through the images of the criminal, the victim, the policeman, the judge – the way they contribute to both revealing and shaping public morality.

This interest in crime narratives as markers of social and cultural norms, has a long historical tradition for Europe and probably a shorter one, none the less stimulating, for the Middle East. In this framework, I devoted 2016 to fieldwork.

It was neither the first time I was faced with Egypt as a researcher, nor the first time I found it extremely difficult. Yet, the abduction and the murder of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni between January 25 and February 3, 2016, were so painfully, so terribly close to my topic, that I found myself incapable of doing my job. Not simply as a historian, by the way. As a translator from the Arabic, I was dealing at that time with prison poetry: a beautiful collection by Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar.

As a translator from the Arabic, I was dealing at that time with prison poetry: a beautiful collection by Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar, the first one he wrote in jail under Hafez al Assad, between 1987 and 1993. It is both a delicate and a strong book, exploring life in prison, physical torture and psychological suffering, as well as the contradictory feelings they arouse. I kept promoting it in Italy for five years and when I finally got a contract with a good publisher, I was too shocked to do my job. I needed time and silence before I was able to go back to it and achieve it (cf. Faraj Bayrakdar, Il luogo stretto, Rome, Nottetempo, 2016).

Mona Abaza (MA): How did these circumstances affect your relationship to your research topic? Did you try to put yourself at distance? 

Elena Chiti (EC): For months on end, I tried to see things from the outside. I tried to read the works of historians working on crime or judiciary cases in different ways, in different historical, cultural and political contexts: Arlette Farge, Carlo Ginzburg, Dominique Kalifa, Philippe Artières, Yvan Jablonka, the papers published in the journal Crime, History and Society. Working on a crime that shook France in 2011 – namely the murder of young Laëtitia Perrais, who was abducted, killed and dismembered by her murderer – Yvan Jablonka reconstructed the cultural atmosphere in France at that time, as well as the way the case was politically exploited under Nicolas Sarkozy (cf. Yvan Jablonka, Laëtitia ou la Fin des Hommes, Paris, Seuil, 2016). Jablonka gathered and analyzed the points of view of family members, journalists, policemen, lawyers that were involved in the case. He read their written testimonies. Then, at a certain point, he simply said: “Laetitia, c’est moi” (I myself am Laetitia).

This is more a programmatic assertion, than an emotional claim. In order to do his historical job, Jablonka decided to play with distance. After acting as an external observer, he made the effort to bridge the social, cultural and generational gap that separated him from the victim: an eighteen year-old girl living in a foster family in a poor district of northern France, attending a technical school, and watching a TV series he would never watch. “He himself was Laëtitia” because, as a historian, and in order to come to a better understanding of Laëtitia as a person, with her hopes and dreams and fears, he wanted to have a deeper insight into her cultural world. I really appreciated this book, but that did not help me face up to Giulio Regeni’s case.

Mona Abaza (MA): Why not?

Elena Chiti (EC): To put it another way - if it did, it was from a reversed perspective. “Giulio sono io” (I myself am Giulio): not as a historian, or even as a historian, yet primarily as a person, and not because my human empathy is deeper than Jablonka’s, but simply because of the circumstances.

In the circumstances that led to Giulio Regeni’s death, and although we never met in person, there was no distance between us. I myself am an Italian researcher who was mainly trained abroad, with a passion for Arabic and Arab dialects, interested in contemporary Egypt and its popular culture, sharing some friends and acquaintances with him, spending time in Egypt doing fieldwork in January 2016, at the time when Giulio was abducted by the Egyptian security forces and tortured to death.

I myself am Giulio, since I was deeply shocked and scared, incapable of avoiding thinking “it could have been me” and then feeling ashamed for this thought that I found disrespectful: towards Giulio’s memory (it was not me, it was him) and towards my Egyptian friends and colleagues and even the Egyptian people in general (Giulio was far from being the first one; why is it that I was suddenly so shocked?).

The lack of distance I experienced towards Giulio made me aware of the distance I implicitly put between myself and the Egyptians. As a foreign researcher, I was afraid of being harassed by the police or denied access to the country, while I knew (and implicitly accepted?) that the Egyptians could, and still can, be exposed to torture and death. Isabel Esterman, in MadaMasr, has talked about the sudden awareness of this distance and the subsequent feeling of shame, which I do share (cf. Isabel Esterman, “On Giulio and the cost of doing business in Egypt”).

Mona Abaza (MA): How did these feelings change your way of doing research?

Elena Chiti (EC): I think I have today more respect for fear and shame as human feelings and try, as a historian, not to neglect their presence in personal trajectories or their impact on professional lives.

As researchers, we tend sometimes to overestimate the conscious aspects of individual and collective choices. Yet, the fear-and-shame is there, often as a taboo, especially in a state that relies on its silent presence to keep control over its citizens. Working on fear, awe and terror as political tools, Carlo Ginzburg clearly shows this aspect: from Hobbes’ Leviathan to modern times, authoritarian powers try to generate a religious-like awe to inspire obedience (cf. Carlo Ginzburg Paura, reverenza, terrore, Milano, Adelphi, 2015).

During my fieldwork as when I write, I try now to distinguish between fear, awe and terror. I generally obey my fear and let it guide me. If I feel the police presence in front of an archive or a library or a cultural center is too scary, I avoid entering and try another day or even let it go. I do not know if Ginzburg would agree, but I came to evaluate fear as a precious tool for fieldwork in authoritarian contexts. After Giulio Regeni’s death, for long days, I had to convince myself to go out in Cairo and was afraid of every shadow, every noise on the stairs.

Fear is not unreasonable. It may lead to unreasonable behaviors, but it is simply an emotional, physical warning that reason would take too much time to elaborate. As for terror, I try to oppose it as much as I can. It is very different from fear. It may sound like a sophisticated distinction, but it is very concrete. Fear is precise, always pointing to its source. Terror manifests itself in a vague, general, unlimited way, convincing you that everything – yet nothing in particular – is too scary to keep on doing research. It is not a shift in the feeling’s intensity, but a lack of focus in its scale. It is the sign that the Leviathan succeeded and you experience a sense of awe in the face of its terroristic methods.

After Giulio Regeni’s death, for long days, I had to convince myself to go out in Cairo and was afraid of every shadow, every noise on the stairs. This was not the best way of doing fieldwork; still, it was an aspect of it and, as such, it should not be silenced. I much appreciated a colleague’s article, which explores it in details (cf. Helena Nassif, “On punishability: Researching in Egypt after Regeni”)

Mona Abaza (MA): Did this change anything in the way you choose your research topics, or deal with them?

Elena Chiti (EC): Last spring, during a conference, a colleague criticized the way I approached political intervention in the Egyptian cultural field without showing the other side of the matter, i.e. talking in detail about cultural actors, analyzing their networks, alliances, relationships to power. Theoretically, methodologically, he was perfectly right. Personally, and practically, I am not ready to close the gap. Before and after this conference, every time I started analyzing the way Egyptian cultural actors group nowadays, as Gisèle Sapiro did for the French literary field during the Second World War and in the following years (cf. Gisèle Sapiro, La guerre des écrivains, 1940-1953, Paris, Fayard, 1999), I felt as if I were gathering proofs to reveal anti-institutional activities or, at the opposite extreme, compiling a blacklist of cultural actors who did collaborate with the institutions. I stopped working on cultural actors, since I felt I could not work with them any more.

However, some Egyptian friends and colleagues tell me that I risk acting in a patronising way, taking it upon myself to censor them or push them to a form of self-censorship, while inviting them to avoid taking public stands or being too explicit or too sharp. I even realized I tend not to use the interviews I made, turning instead to secondary sources, even when the topics are not immediately sensitive or when the actors have already publicly said the same things. Even in this interview, I have not mentioned any Egyptian name, or any precise quote.

This is certainly another manifestation of terror, more than a reasonable fear, but I still have to explore it and face it. Yet, its link to an unsolved feeling of shame – I was shocked by this Italian death, more than by a thousand Egyptian deaths – that does complicate the task. 

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