Zoe Griffith is a Doctoral Candidate in the Brown History Department. Her dissertation work has been supported by an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, and a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad (DDRA) fellowship. Beginning in January of 2015, she will be a fellow at the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), where she will continue her archival work in Cairo. Zoe graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her research.
1. What are you working on for your dissertation, and how did you settle on the topic you chose?
My dissertation revisits the position of Egypt within the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century, from the perspective of Egypt's Mediterranean port cities. The project draws extensively on records from the Islamic law courts of the port cities of Rosetta and Damietta and from the Ottoman imperial archives, as well as from French commercial and consular records in Paris and Marseille. Rosetta and Damietta were two of Egypt's largest and most important commercial centers in the early modern period, before the rise of Alexandria as a colonial port in the mid-nineteenth century. Egypt's ports have never been studied within the context of Ottoman economic or administrative history, even though Egypt was the richest and most agriculturally productive province in the empire throughout the early modern period. I am looking specifically at landowners, merchants, and maritime traders involved in rice cultivation in the Egyptian Delta to highlight the role of Muslim-controlled capital in Egypt's late-eighteenth-century political economy. By approaching this topic through multiple archives and in a Mediterranean regional context, I hope to complicate tropes and assumptions left over both from nationalist historiographical traditions and from Eurocentric views of the global transition to the modern age.
2. What methods and approaches have been most influential to your research and writing?
At its heart, this project has a lot in common with earlier generations of history writing that emphasized political economy and social history. I am very interested in understanding how economic and administrative activities structured relationships of power, negotiation, and resistance in Ottoman Egypt. Sometimes I think this sounds terribly old fashioned. But these remain big, fundamental questions for which we have very few answers. At the same time, the project is informed by many approaches that expand its scope beyond what one might associate with traditional social history; by bringing together locally-produced records from Egypt with imperial-level records from Istanbul, I hope to analyze social organization in Egypt's ports within the context of Ottoman imperial state-building and administrative reform. The scholarship that has been most influential during my graduate school career has come mainly from historical sociology and from literature in Chinese and South Asian history. The city of Rosetta, one of the cities at the heart of my study, has an incredible historic quarter of merchants' houses preserved from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Architecturally, they are unlike anything I or any of my architectural historian friends have ever seen, and completely unlike any other historic buildings in Egypt. It was seeing those houses for the first time, in 2008, that inspired this project and I had always intended to include a material cultural component in the dissertation. However, the events of the past four years have made it difficult to visit Rosetta to do this kind of work.
3. You have received several fellowships to support your research in the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo during a very turbulent period in its history. What challenges have you faced both in terms of gaining access to archives and documents, and in your daily life? How have these challenges shaped the way you have approached your research?
My early relationship with Egypt was formed when I lived and studied here for two years, from 2006-08. I am incredibly lucky to have been able to spend so much time here, including multiple trips over the past four years. We are no doubt living and witnessing something historic, and what more could a historian ask for? At the same time, the turmoil that the Egyptian people have lived since 2011 has indeed presented challenges to the logistics of research. I've had to plead with military bureaucrats at the Ministry of Defense to grant my research permit for the archives, and I was forced to evacuate just over a month after arriving for my major dissertation research trip in the wake of the coup in 2013. I waited for things to calm down while conducting research in Istanbul instead. In the early stages of the uprising, in 2011-12, these challenges came along with a collective sense of enormous hope and greater possibility, which was inspiring and energizing. Perhaps the greatest challenge at this stage is the collective sense of despair and trauma that has settled over the public sphere with the return of the old status quo and the increasing ruthlessness of the military government. This can be hard to deal with, psychologically, even while the stability of the past year is conducive to archival research. I would say that my experiences here have taught me to be much, much more flexible in my attitude toward my research. At several points, my research has been limited or shaped by factors that were quite simply out of my control, and out of my control in a way that made my research feel completely insignificant. At the same time, I think that persevering in this project and returning to Egypt as events continue to unfold has made me think more deeply about what I hope to accomplish with this project, and what I can contribute through my scholarship and writing.
4. How do you think your research experiences in Istanbul, Egypt, and France will influence your teaching?
Even though all of the sources I've been looking at deal with trade and politics in the same Egyptian cities during the same time period, it often feels like these different archives are describing completely different systems. This archival reality has shaped the way I think about teaching in two ways: firstly, I think the greatest skill historians can offer students coming to History from any discipline and in any field is the ability to deal critically with primary sources. In my experience, undergraduate courses in non-Western history fields often shortchange students on primary sources - perhaps this is because the sources often seem especially "foreign" and hard to deal with, and because instructors find it overwhelming enough to introduce students to the "History of the Middle East" or the "History of Africa" in 13 weeks. Secondly, I have started to think much more in terms of thematic courses, as these seem increasingly relevant for students and perhaps more satisfying for instructors. While I remain committed to the value of teaching students about the unique regional history of the Middle East or the Ottoman Empire, these days I find it harder to think about Egypt and the Ottomans outside the context of early modern Mediterranean or global developments, for example in commercialization, state-building, foodways and patterns of consumption.