Preserving Egyptian History - By the People, and For the People
A group of Cairo residents is teaching their neighbors how to build catalogs and document oral stories in an effort to safeguard the history of this unique Egyptian community.
Yasmin Tarek's favorite childhood memories all took place in Cairo's Shubra neighborhood, a densely-populated middle-class district in the country's capital known to be a melting pot.
Tarek, who lives in the nearby community of Al Warq, has vivid memories of visiting Shubra as a child to see her great-aunt, Amina Mohamed. Together with Tarek's mom, Nahed, they would watch films at a local cinema and frequent a restaurant known for its koshary — a popular street food and Egypt's national dish. "I have this emotional relationship with Shubra," says Tarek, whose fondest memories are with her great-aunt, who was born in the 60s and passed away in 2016. "She was the pillar of our family. She was a career woman, a working woman at a time when it was very difficult."
When Tarek heard of a project to help locals document their family histories and connections to Shubra, the young research enthusiast jumped at the chance to document her family's connection to the community. SARD for History and Social Research (SARD is Arabic for 'to narrate'), was launched in 2021 by residents of Shubra who wanted to begin archiving their personal history and encourage their neighbors to do the same.
With its tram lines and bustling public transit infrastructure, Shubra is a hub connecting people across the city and country. The neighborhood is commonly featured in movies and has long been studied by researchers for its role in connecting people. However, according to Mina Ibrahim, the founder of SARD for History and Social Research ( Shubra's Archive ), much of the documentation about Shubra is inaccessible to locals.
With its tram lines and bustling public transit infrastructure, Shubra is a hub connecting people across the city and country that has long been studied by researchers.
Photo: Mark Atef
Ibrahim, whose family is from Shubra and whose own PhD research involved interviews with residents from the community, witnessed non-Egyptian academics often traveling to Shubra to conduct research but never returning to share their work with the people whose stories informed their studies.
Ibrahim says this isn't the fault of researchers themselves, but rather a systemic issue prevalent in academia, as academics are required to focus on delivering research outputs rather than engaging or building long-term relationships with the communities they study.
Unlike museum archiving, which typically takes ownership of and stores possessions, Ibrahim says Shubra's Archive will help community residents "organize their own archives and put them in touch with others who are interested in doing the same." To make their work accessible to residents, Shubra's Archive prioritizes documenting everything in Arabic — from the organization's podcast to their upcoming book.
The Shubra's Archive office, nestled in a 1950s apartment complex that Ibrahim's family owns, has become a meeting place for community residents to discuss and compile their archives. Focusing on themes including public transit, cinemas, and football, the Shubra's Archive team of volunteers teaches community members how to build their own catalogs of photos and documents, and help them record their oral history.
SARD for History and Social Research was launched in 2021 by residents of Shubra who wanted to begin archiving their personal history and encourage their neighbors to do the same.
Photo: Shubra's Archives
According to Ibrahim, archiving Shubra's community history is not a new concept — however, Shubra's Archive is the first grassroots initiative to formalize archiving in this way. "The people in the neighborhood are already keeping pictures, cooking recipes, shopping lists," he says. "These are already there in people's houses, so what we are doing is not something new, but we are trying to link these personal archives together."
After he appeared on local TV speaking about Shubra's Archive, a woman from Shubra who owns a local grocer, approached Ibrahim when she saw him on the street. Holding a stack of papers in her hands of balance sheets and a ledger, she showed him how prices of produce had increased over the years, from when her father opened the grocer in the '70s.
"She wasn't keeping these for the sake of documenting [this aspect of life], but her father passed away 10 years ago and she feels it's part of the inheritance she received," Ibrahim says. Fascinated by documenting these aspects of everyday life, he offered to digitize her documents and turn them into a booklet for her. Shubra's Archive not only supports community residents in organizing their archives but also helps them turn these into podcasts, multimedia pieces, catalogs, and other outputs.
Focusing on themes including public transit, cinemas, and football, the Shubra's Archive team of volunteers teach community members how to build their own catalogs of photos and documents, and help them record their oral history.
Photo: Shubra's Archives
All of this is helping residents like Tarek reconnect with their favorite Cairo neighborhood. "I thought this program would be a good opportunity to go back [to Shubra] regularly," she says. "When I began, I had forgotten where my great-aunt's apartment was."
After connecting with the Shubra's Archive team, Tarek had a plan of how to document her connection to the community. With her mother's help, she returned to her late great-aunt's apartment, which had been vacant for years. Shifting through photographs and her aunt's belongings, Tarek began to recall more childhood memories in Shubra.
She is now using these materials to create a tour of Shubra through her great-aunt's eyes, highlighting her favorite local places, from streets to pizza shops. Tarek also joined the Shubra's Archives team, and spends her time helping other community members document their own stories and connections to Shubra. "It means a lot to me on a personal level to contribute to the history of the neighborhood itself," she says.
One year into Shubra's Archive, Ibrahim hopes this grassroots way of archiving can show academics how to make their research more interactive and inclusive of the communities they study. He also wants the project to serve as a template for other neighborhoods in Egypt to build upon the idea and create their own archives by, and for, community members.
When it comes to Shubra, he hopes the community archive will serve as a home to preserve unique stories. "[I want] the community itself to really believe in the idea and know that this place is a safe haven for personal and family archives," Ibrahim says. "It's a safe haven for stories from being forgotten."