The Persistence of Jokes

My friends laughed and called me a “revolution tourist” — which wasn’t incorrect, since part of my reason for coming was to see what was happening up close. But the other reason, of course, was to visit the state archives to check on the status of my application. Last fall, I wrote up a vague proposal for research I intended to undertake on the inefficiencies of cotton pricing in the nineteenth-century. I submitted the proposal in triplicate: one to the head of the Ministry of Higher Education; one to the section of the Ministry of Culture which oversees the administration of the State Archives; and one to the head of the particular archive for which I sought permission. I was optimistic when I first submitted my application—not just because I had a foreign research institution backing me, but because my advisor had contacted the archives director and requested his assistance in expediting my request.

But now, after these last few months, I had begun to worry that my proposal might fall through the cracks with everything else going on. Or that it might be rejected in a wave of zealous post-revolution cleaning. It was only after I arrived for my visit that I discovered that the same people I used to know at the ministry were still in charge. I scheduled a visit to the archive as soon as possible. I would pay a call to the head of the archive. I would greet him, sit with him, drink tea with him, and finally, just before leaving, hear something about the progress of my application. Years ago, the last time I was working in these archives, I used to bring this man various gifts—Edward Said’s latest book, a Montblanc pen, particular opera CDs that he had made a point of mentioning to me. I made sure to see him whenever I was about to travel abroad and then again on my return to Cairo. Just as I left the apartment, I felt in my jacket pocket for the small box of cuff-links I had purchased in Heathrow duty-free. (Read More)