Accessible and Interactive Prisons-related Archives
October 21, 2021
Image via Marwan Tahtah
As part of its research and advocacy pillars, the MENA Prison Forum will soon launch a new archival section to challenge the scarcity of and inaccessibility to prisons-related documentation. The MPF will collect and openly share official reports, magazines, newspapers, pictures, and other archival materials that provide snapshots of histories and cultures of incarceration in the MENA region. Accessible and interactive, the MPF collections section will provide a space for interested scholars, researchers, and human rights activists to share their thoughts and analyses. Archives are not just preservations of historical materials but necessary documents for current and future quests of justice, retribution, and reparations. This can clearly be seen in high-profile tensions or ground-breaking discoveries surrounding archives, ranging from the Middle East to Europe.
Earlier this week, France 24 emphasized the efforts of two conservators, Philippe Grand and Brigitte Lainé, in revealing secret documents connected to the October 17, 1961 massacre in Paris. The massacre saw around 200 Algerians killed by French police forces while the Algerian struggle for independence was coming to an end. Despite the attempts to discipline and censor their testimonies, Grand and Lainé insisted on exposing the ugly and domestic face of colonialism in France. In 1997, they presented what they had collected before a French court. Grand says about the experience: “Our decision wasn’t going to go down well, but it was my duty to say what I knew…we did our job…nothing more.” The battle over French archives relating to Algeria is far from over, despite recent announcements that the French government will take steps to declassify archival documents relating to the colonial violence in Algeria.
The difficulties around accessing archives of the 1961 massacre can be also found nowadays in different countries of the MENA region. For example, historian Khaled Fahmy, who spent years researching the history of the Egyptian army, police, and prisons, illustrated the risks felt in Egypt around state-controlled archives: he stated “the [Egyptian] Ministry of Interior, and its various security branches, that pose the true threat to cultural institutions like archives and museums.” Back in 2013, the Egyptian National Archives had become a battlefield between the different political forces, namely the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even with the hope that the archives would be more available to the public amid the 2011 uprisings, The New Yorker reportedfollowing the 2013 coup, “none of these [security] procedures changed at all.”
Authorities usually believe that they know better than the public. Archives have become like gated communities where ‘we’ the public are seen as temporary visitors who need to follow specific rules to get what governments want ‘us’ to know. This mode of incarceration of information has nonetheless been contested not only by archivists and researchers but also by defected members of the ruling systems. In one of the most infamous leaks of government materials, in 2015, a military defector code-named Caesar smuggled 53,275 government photographs out of Syria. The pictures, methodically by government officials, show the brutalities committed by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad against political prisoners. The pictures helped families of missed and kidnapped Syrians to uncover and inquire about the fate of their beloved ones. They founded Caesar’s Families Association (CFA) to mainly know about the secret graves where the relics of their relatives are kept. For example, Ms. Mariam Alhallak, a founding member of the Association found her son’s picture among Caesar’s collection. She told the MENA Prison Forum that “we [families of CFA have significant proof, the existence of which the whole world has acknowledged. And this proof is the Caesar photos. With this proof, we can hold to account those who killed our sons.”
In a similar vein, The Photographer of Mauthausen (2018) is a film that depicts the efforts of an inmate to preserve visual evidences of the horrors committed inside one of the Nazi concentration camps. Based on a true story, the pictures taken by the Spanish photographer/inmate were used during the Nuremberg trials.
This compulsion of authoritarian regimes, from Assad to the Nazis, to meticulously document their crimes - furthermore, to document them visually not just in written documents - can ultimately be some of the most powerful documentation against them. There is no doubt that documents, pictures, and reports that come from the ‘belly of the beast’ of violent, repressive governing bodies are at the core of what ‘we’, the ‘outsiders,’ spend months and years trying to uncover. In this regard, the aim of the anticipated “MPF Collections” is to begin filling this vital gap between what the ‘insiders’ have and what researchers, activists, and archivists intend to capture.