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#Living Archives

(Re)claiming Archives: استعادة الأرشيف

A palace of memories for collective imagination قصر للذاكرة الجماعية والأحلام العامة لتتذكرها وتتخيلها

(Re)claiming Archives: استعادة الأرشيف

Archives are sites of temporality, collections of collective memories, spaces to reckon with history, and dream together of better futures. Usually held in boxes and containers within physical rooms, for me, archives have always been people.

Growing up in Kuwait to a family of storytellers, stories and memories were always told and seldomly written. As a child, I would spend hours listening to my mom’s funny recollections of traveling in a large van with her extended Arab family through the hot, humid summers of Orlando, Florida. My dad told emotional and brutal stories about being in the Kuwaiti Air Force during the Gulf War, infused with his unique sense of humor, while his mom, my grandma Sadeeqa Al Harmi, often recalled the day that a bunch of Iraqi soldiers stormed their house and took my dad as a prisoner. My maternal grandma, Jawahir Abdullah Ibraheem, shared little about her early years in Iran, except that her loving big sister, Aisha, took care of her. When Aisha died, my grandma moved to Dubai to live with her great aunt Domoni, but these weren’t happy days. At age 14, Jawahir moved to Kuwait and got married, and eventually had nine children, three of whom passed away shortly after birth. But despite her difficulties and sorrows, she always spoke fondly about how her community helped her raise her family.

These stories of happiness, adventure, fear, war, and community, usually passed on during family gatherings, eventually got mixed up with my own experiences to form my private “memory palace.” I remember my paternal grandpa Ibraheem Mohammed Hadi walking through the doors of our house carrying a bag full of ice-cream. My maternal grandpa Abdulla Al Harmi had a radio beside him at all times, almost as if it was his sidekick, and was constantly flipping through the news stations. My school had a large population of non-Kuwaitis, many of whom were Syrians, Egyptians, and Palestinians—before the Gulf War, there were about 400,000 Palestinians living in the country, and today the number is close to 80,000. I vividly remember spending school breaks drawing with one of my best friends Bushra Saleh, who always wore a necklace shaped like Palestine and superimposed with the Palestinian flag.

Where can I find the stories? أين يمكنني أن أجدهم؟
Where do the stories exist? أين يتواجدون ؟
Where do I go for answers? أين يمكنني الحصول على أجوبة؟
Why am I not represented? لماذا لا يوجد من يمثلني؟
Where are my stories? أين القصص الخاصة بي؟أو أين حكاياتي؟.

In 2017, at age 17, I moved to the U.S.A. to pursue an undergraduate degree in Architecture, a career that wasn’t very appreciated in Kuwait. Since then, I completed my Master’s in Design Research and started working and teaching in Florida. However, despite being professionally integrated, I feel a strong sense of displacement. Although there’s a large Kuwaiti community in Miami, the widespread anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S.A. is undeniable. Saying I’m from Kuwait sparks a range of reactions from bedazzlement, to pity, to downright racist ignorance—I’m often asked: “Did you go to school on a camel?” As an Arab person, I do not see myself represented in design histories and design discourse. And when one loses touch with one’s language of culture, the feeling of being invisible overtakes you. In those moments, my mind wanders into my own memory palace. Opening up shoeboxes full of photographs and browsing through family albums always makes me feel like I belong, no matter where I am.

“Dominant narratives on history have been forged through state and institutional archives, themselves an integral part of the colonial project.”

As humans, we naturally gather, merge and morph different types of information in order to share stories and experiences. Historically, however, dominant narratives on history have been forged through state and institutional archives, themselves an integral part of the colonial project. All over the world, the powerful built museums, collections, registers, annals, chronicles, and other official repositories cement power structures, framing history through lenses and voices of domination as destruction, and with that marginalizing—and sometimes erasing—entire communities.

Efforts to dismantle systems of domination therefore require counter-hegemonic archives that serve the silenced and the erased. Historian and archivist Eric Ketelaar once proposed that “everyone’s an archivist,” shifting the power of archiving from official institutions into the hands of the people. But how can we—the people, the marginalized—(re)claim what has been taken, to be able to see ourselves in the past, the present, and most importantly, in the future?

Where do I belong? إلى أين أنتمي؟
What do I belong to? إلى ماذا أنتمي؟

The spread of transnational solidarity

I began writing this text in May 2021, against the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, this time triggered by an eviction order for six Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem. Protests soon invigorated Israel’s murderous settler-colonial regime, leading to Israeli air strikes in Gaza, and police and military violence across the land from Haifa to Yaffa, from Jerusalem to Nablus. As I watched the news unfold on social media, especially from Mohammed El-Kurd, I thought of Bushra and how her family was fragmented across continents. How does it feel to be tethered to your homeland through the ether, yet so far away geographically? I felt both physically here, in Florida, and mentally at home, in Kuwait.

“Those who flee are severed from the histories of their loved ones and homeland. Far away from home, they still need to have access to archives that help them build a sense of identity across time and space.”

Geographical proximity matters when it comes to connection, and I felt deeply disconnected. I believe this is an experience that many Palestinians know well. Their displacement is a familiar and recurring event the world has observed for the past 74 years since the Nakba in 1948 led to the forced displacement of over 700,000 people, with each generation of Palestinians carrying renewed trauma and fear. Families are fragmented, and those who flee are severed from the histories of their loved ones and homeland. Far away from home, they still need to have access to archives that help them build a sense of identity across time and space.

On May 18, 2021, an Israeli air strike destroyed the Samir Mansour’s Library, a two-story bookstore in Gaza City that for over two decades had housed the largest English literature collection in Palestine. Samir Mansour also functioned as a publishing house for Palestinian voices beyond the wall—an endeavor which, due the blockade imposed on Gaza, is in itself a massive challenge. More than anything, Samir Mansour was an archive: a place of hope and gateway to travel and dream the world through words.

I felt a deep sense of loss for this particular bookshop, as my great grandfather Abdullah Mohammed Nouri Al Harami himself was in the book business. In 1949, he founded the وكالة المطبوعات, a publishing house and bookstore in Kuwait, which was later on passed down to my grandfather Baba Dee and my uncle Kamel Harami. Baba Dee was deeply committed to circulating knowledge across borders. He printed his books in Egypt (دار غريب للطباعة) and Lebanon (دار القلم للنشر والتوزيع), and helped build bookstores in Cairo and Beirut that remained connected throughout the years. They printed newspapers from Kuwait in Egypt and vice versa, exchanging books across countries, and publishing in English and Arabic an array of literature including books on religion, grammar, law, food, and politics—the latter were mostly printed outside of Kuwait due to the censorship of the Ministry of Information. Baba Dee would also take me to the Kuwait International Book Fair (معرض الكويت الدولي للكتاب). Crossing booth after booth down the bubbling little halls that smelled like old paper mixed with freshly cleaned cloth, I felt like I was experiencing the world in slow motion. Although Baba Dee died when I was 14, his passion for books and archives was already deeply imprinted upon me.

“Disseminating knowledge helps (re)build cultural institutions, (re)gain faith, (re)create history—it incites networks of transnational solidarity.”

The Arabic word for publisher (الناشر) roughly translates to “someone who spreads.” This is the embodiment of what Baba Dee was trying to do in his time, but also what the Samir Mansour bookstore stood for. Days after the bombings, two human rights lawyers based in the U.S.A. saw photos of what was left of the bookstore under a mountain of debris, and they came up with a crowdfunding campaign which quickly became global, amassing over a quarter of a million dollars. Less than a year later, in February 2022, the fully renovated Samir Mansour reopened as a bookstore and a library amidst the continuous hardships Palestinians face with the blockade that has been imposed for over 15 years, affecting the economy, healthcare, and everyday life. As I scrolled through article after article detailing Samir’s excitement on the reopening, I couldn’t help but feel how much power there is in the act of spreading. Disseminating knowledge helps (re)build cultural institutions, (re)gain faith, (re)create history—it incites networks of transnational solidarity.

remembering = past تذكر = ماضي
imagining = future تخيل = مستقبل
collective memory = community تواصل اجتماعي = الذاكرة الجماعية

In memory of me

Human memory is anything but infallible. Every memory affects and is affected by the past, because we encode new memories based on what was previously stored. In that sense, memories are similar to physical archives: some information is accessed often, while others just take up space, collecting dust.

If remembering is powerful, so is forgetting. Forgetting can happen intentionally or unintentionally, as a natural product of aging or as a result of trauma. Forgetting, however, should never be confused with erasure, which is a violent and intentional act of silencing that augments the power of the oppressors, while subduing the oppressed and creating simplified narratives about how the world has come into being. For the marginalized, forgetting is often an act of survival, which can serve as an indication of healing. We do not need to hold space for the recollections that don’t serve us, and letting painful memories fade away can be restorative.

“If remembering is powerful, so is forgetting. [...] For the marginalized, forgetting is often an act of survival, which can serve as an indication of healing.”

But when your history is not documented—by archives, the media, or simply the existence of others around you who can pass down histories and stories—it’s hard to build your sense of identity. Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, archivist and founder of the grassroots consortia Project STAND, which centralizes archives of marginalized student activism across the U.S.A., compares it to being in a family that constantly tries to remove you from photos. Even when you vividly remember being there when those moments were captured, you are not in the picture. You are not acknowledged even though you know you have historically been present.

“When your history is not documented—by archives, the media, or simply the existence of others around you who can pass down histories and stories—it’s hard to build your sense of identity.”

Understanding how our past has influenced us can help us discover and (re)claim who we are both as individuals and collectively. Community archivists and feminist scholars describe representational belonging as the sudden discovery of oneself in the archive. Representational belonging empowers individuals, while the lack of representation in an archive does the opposite. It creates an image in your head that is almost too real to deny: that you can’t see yourself in the future.

access = knowledge التمكن من = المعرفة
knowledge = power المعرفة = قوةالجماعية

The assumptions of archival access

For Hughes-Watkins, archives rooted in biases and oppression perpetuate the subjugation of vulnerable communities and cannot be transformed. In most institutional archives, access is often mediated by the figure of the archivist, who functions as a de facto gatekeeper. Depending on someone’s interest and the archivist’s bias, framed by the institutional policies of a certain archive, doors and drawers can remain closed or be magically unlocked. Gender, race, class, ethnicity, academic ranking and other factors influence who gets access and who doesn’t.

Counter-hegemonic archives such as those in the Project STAND network can function as safe spaces for marginalized and vulnerable communities. Although they should be accessible to the communities that need them the most, granting indiscriminate access can generate harm, as it assumes that the intention to read and share the information is rooted in a shared goal for social justice. Access is trusting the person you’re letting in, the same way you would trust an individual to whom you share personal stories. In this sense, all counter-hegemonic archives should have varying levels of access, to protect the communities they aim to support and elevate.

One project paving ways in that direction is She Who Sees the Unknown, a digital collection of books, manuscripts, and images of monstrous female and queer figures from the Middle East by an Iranian artist based in New York, Moreshin Allahyari. Gathering the material required Allahyari to manually scan manuscripts in libraries in the U.S.A., the U.K., and Iran, procure access to countless digital archives, work with an expert in Islamic archeology, and organize transcriptions and translations into Farsi, Arabic, and English. In the process, the artist was met with an array of gatekeeping and exclusionary tactics from many Western libraries, rendering the work far more laborious and time-consuming than expected.

She Who Sees the Unknown, a digital collection of books, manuscripts, and images of monstrous female and queer figures from the Middle East by Iranian artist Moreshin Allahyari

The difficulties prompted Allahyari to critically examine the relations between knowledge sharing and the concept of “open source,” which is often seen as inherently benign and non-problematized, especially in the West. As a result, the digital repository conceived by Allahyari includes a series of language strategies and cultural codes to grant various sorts of access to the material. The archive is divided in many levels, and getting further requires knowledge of Arabic and Farsi. With that, Allahyari’s goal is to “decolonize these existing power structures by protecting and preserving access to Arabic and Persian speaking people.” At the end, access allows communities to (re)imagine a different kind of future through (re)imagining of the past, especially the histories that have been forgotten, erased, and misrepresented.

On imagination and collective dreaming

In her book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russel poignantly states: “If we see culture, society and by extension, gender as a material to remix, we can acknowledge these things as ‘original recordings’ that were not created to liberate us.” She then further explains that these are “materials that can be reclaimed, rearranged, repurposed, and rebirthed toward an emancipatory enterprise, creating new ‘records’ through radical action.” Could an archive possibly act in the same way?

​​In the midst of the attacks on Palestinians in May 2021, a digital uprising started on Twitter. Posts were accompanied by the hashtag غرد_كأنها_حرة#, which roughly translates to #tweet_like_its_free. One person described a beautiful train ride from Beirut to Haifa, while the other shared a picture of a yellow Palestine Railway ticket. “Waited all this time to harvest olives with my dad, and he’s telling me I’m not picking them right,” said another Tweet. Another person shared pictures of elderly Palestinians holding the keys of their old houses, to which they have finally returned. Another tweet showed an airplane window framing a luscious landscape, while another shared a photo of Gaza’s International Airport, with a third one sharing its official luggage sticker. One person posted a picture of Edward Said’s tombstone, with the note: “It’s now free, can you believe it?”

#tweet_like_its_free / غرد_كأنها_حرة# posts by @JanaOthman13, @yasi_27, and @sofieloooo

Another project that aims to reframe the way we think about the yet to come is Countless Palestinian Futures by Danah Abdulla and Sarona Abuaker. The deck of cards asks us to engage with our imaginations by responding to questions that are framed around near, medium, and long-term futures. This game introduces various ways to dream, imagine, and talk about what the future of Palestine could look like.

Dreaming is a radical act, it defies all current realities to build a reality where we see ourselves existing and coming into being. For a short moment, Twitter became an imaginative archive of visions for what a liberated Palestine could look like. Similarly, Countless Palestinian Futures allows us to momentarely dream a different kind of future for Palestine.

“Dreaming is a radical act, it defies all current realities to build a reality where we see ourselves existing and coming into being.”

Migrants, refugees, the displaced, the dispossessed, and other marginalized communities have had to imagine a different kind of archive: one that is deeply informal, emotional, poetic, and personal. Dreaming of hearing their stories told through family voices, they actively create spaces in which they can see themselves.

To (re)claim archives is to claim but also to retrieve our own stories, narratives and ways of being. A single ant can’t remember its trail system leading to the same tree, but the colony does. Ant colonies are not hierarchical, they expand and contract based on patterns of behavior, resulting in a dynamic network working as a collective. When an ant dies, the others adopt the trail as its own, leading the colony to (re)member or (re)produce previous trails. Archives in this sense continue to serve as a place and space to piece together narratives, stories, and histories as collective memories. Together, we can (re)mix narratives, engage in public dreaming, and create an equitable, more just future where we not only survive, but thrive.

Randa Hadi (she/her) is a Kuwaiti designer, researcher, educator, and architect by educational training. Her interests lie in a space where architecture meets graphic design — an area of design process she describes as experimental, narrative, and speculative. Her work explores ways to (re)think the archives as a space to heal, dream, and imagine a better future and interweaving them with themes relating to Arab identity, belonging, collective memories and making, and cultural visual language through design. She currently works at Polymode as a Senior Designer where her work focuses on weaving narratives of social justice, resistance, unearthing voices, and imagining design experiences through poetic research, which asks us to look at the multiplicity and plurality of our current, past, and present realities. She is fascinated by shadows, reflections, and color, which embody both the material and immaterial appurtenances (cultural, ecological, memories, collective beliefs, stories) – bringing the invisible to the forefront. As an educator, she focuses on acts of inclusion, collaboration, and ways to (re)write design education both in the classroom and as a teaching assistant for the BIPOC Design History courses. Randa welcomes conversations and collaborations on any of these tangential topics.

Font: Typedesigner Omaima Dajani designed Lifta, a bold protest typeface available in black and stencil versions. Named after the Palestinian village Lifta that was destroyed in the 1948 occupation, it is a typeface that protests the erasure of Palestinian identity and the subjugation of their rights as they live under occupation. Omaima Dajani is from East Jerusalem and is living under occupation today. Lifta is used as part in textual breaks in this essay and it embodies the forceful and violent erasure of Palestinian identity and life under occupation.

All illustrations were produced by Randa Hadi, and drawn from the author’s personal family archive by layering, fragmenting, and distorting the photos for privacy.

This text was produced as part of the Against the Grain Fellowship.