"Our Family Histories are the Real Museums of the Region": Interview with Darah Ghanem about Middle East Archive Project
MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT is a crowd-sourced digital archive from the MENA. It takes the accessibility of instagram, a space typically used for self-promotion and the ‘archives’ of contemporary life, to bring to the forefront personal Arab and MENA generational narratives that are brushed over and rarely seen all in one place.
Rama: As interdisciplinary artists, you and I are constantly looking for nuanced ways in which to explore identity. But I think we’ve spoken extensively about this delicate balance between identity politics and the real personal narrative that transcends any kind of surface level ID politics. What I love about how you started MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT is that it turns the discourse back to personal narratives that are complex and layered, that provide substance whilst still giving the stage to MENA individuals.
Darah: Yes exactly. Also I think personal narrative says a lot more about identity politics than historical narrative does. We all know the supposed history of the region, but it’s what happens in our personal lives - collectively - that truly tells the story of a community, place, geography.
R: As your sister I know that you have always had an interest and personal endeavour in uncovering old photographs like the ones that our parents have kept in old 80’s style albums and in Kodak envelopes among letters and poems and family records that we rarely get to see; because of the sheer volume of archival material they are difficult to sift through but they’re also endlessly fascinating. What prompted you to start this project? and in collecting material from others in the region as well?
D: I think what prompted me is the realization that every home in the region (and it’s diaspora) is a kind of museum. It’s not just our home that has these huge volumes of records. I know for a fact that records exist in every home in the Global South. But unfortunately, due to a long history of colonialism, most of our family records are just that: at home, in private. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but because the history of the region has always been written FOR it, by outsiders who don’t truly understand it, our family records become an alternative story to what history has written about the region. Family records provide nuance, showcase diversity, spirit, and a narrative closer to the “truth”. I’ve always been jealous of how in most Western cultures, they have museums dedicated to every strata of society and aspect of life. They have a holistic narrative. Their history is written by them and for them. With us, our true history lies inside our homes, suitcases, briefcases, jewelry boxes, envelopes, notebooks etc. I think this project is my way of saying: I want to reclaim our history and the narrative around it.
R: I feel like theres a lot to say here about how our understanding of history and what counts as such is rigid and informed by a scientific methodology of recording or “explaining” that makes personal/oral histories subservient and conditional to those traditional methods that are held in higher regard. How do you think people seeing their own photographs among other people’s personal histories impacts them?
D: It’s been so interesting seeing how people react. This actually didn’t even cross my mind before I started the project, but I noticed that once someone makes a submission and their history is kind of out there for the public to see, they become more invested in the history of others. They start following the project more closely, seeing what others are sharing about their families. I think for a lot of people they share their history because they are proud of it, and then once it’s out there, they wait in anticipation to see what others will share. It’s kind of like they suddenly become aware that others have a history that’s meaningful too.
R: I have definitely felt that way after you had images of our family posted up! I follow the archive very closely. Its amazing because it’s like these strangers' stories truly become ours too in the process. You’ve cornered quite a niche here- in a sense you’re saying that the personal is political, in that it is necessary to see the intimate lives of MENA families reflected in what history we are writing as the “internet generation.” Why is it important to you to archive our private family histories in particular?
D: As I said, our family histories are the REAL museums of the region. The diversity of the stories shared with me so far, if pieced together, show a very different overall political, social, and economic dynamic than what our current written history shows. These personal histories are a reflection of the climate of the region at different points in time, and the many nuanced layers of the MENA that current orientalist and imperial narratives will never be able to capture.
R: What I love in particular about this is that you’ve nonchalantly launched it on Instagram. You’re making something consequential and meaningful and its disrupting the usual Instagram flow. Where would you like to see this project going?
D: I started it on Instagram because I thought it would be the easiest and simplest way to get people’s family archives and showcase them. Ideally what I would like is for this project to become a sort of open and public digital library that is accessible to everyone. Especially to people invested in the history of the region, because it will help to challenge mainstream narratives.
R: It might seem somewhat Pan-Arabist but I think it’s far more inclusive than that- it would do a disservice to your project to reduce it to that. It recognises the differences and provides nuanced untold stories. It is the Middle East that we really know within ourselves but that is scarcely reflected back at us in both the media that we consume and the history that we read. And on that note do you feel that such a collection deserves a formal physical space beyond Instagram that is widely accessible to the public? What would be your thoughts about this collection displayed in an archive among the ‘public’ histories of MENA in a library or somewhere of that sort?
D: That is the dream! I think if this becomes some sort of on-going public library that anyone from around the world can just add to, and anyone from around the world can access, and where maybe researchers can come to find the answers they’re looking for, or maybe a missing link to a story they can turn to this project. As a person who does visual research, I know how hard it is to find records when you’re working on a story. This can totally change things, make it easier for journalists, researchers, historians, storytellers, writers and anyone invested in understanding the region to tell our history differently. The way it deserves to be told.
Also you’re right - I think Pan-Arabist is a reductive box to put it in. As much as I love the spirit of Pan-Arabism that we were raised to believe in, I think it has been unfair to a lot of communities in the region - from Kurds, to Sudanese, and so on. Pan-Arabism said that it believed in inclusivity but it didn’t manage to be truly inclusive. I think a lot of political movements from that particular time, decolonization movements, didn’t succeed because they always had blindspots. Of course there are other geopolitical reasons - we can’t deny that - but there were blindspots. And for me, this project is trying to look back that the ideals of that time and improve on them. I believe that this project is about amplifying every single community that has an sort of relation to the MENA. I also hope to see other identities represented, including those that are currently repressed.
You can find MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT on Instagram and submit your own records and stories by direct message, at @middleeastarchive.