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Special Feature

Fragment(s) of Memor(ies): The Enduring Question of Space and Storytelling

Fragment(s) de mémoire(s) : la question résurgente de l’espace et de la narration
شذرات الذاكرة: السؤال الدائم للمكان والحكي
Mayada Madbouly et Aya Nassar
p. 13-26


Depuis des décennies, la double question du souvenir et de la mémorialisation de l’espace, d’une part, et de l’oubli et de la négligence, d’autre part, s’entrelace aux tentatives de façonner des espaces pour la mémoire. Alors que de nombreuses initiatives et actions se sont confrontées à ces questions, ce numéro spécial interroge : Qu'est-ce qui anime ces efforts ? Que promet l’acte de se souvenir ? Comment l’oubli fonctionne-t-il comme une menace omniprésente ? Comment les récits du passé sont-ils racontés ? Où ? Par qui ? Dans quels contextes ? Et pour quels effets ?

Ces préoccupations ne sont en aucun cas nouvelles. En posant ces questions, nous reconnaissons que les espaces de mémoire sont complexes : les acteurs comprennent l'État et la mise en scène de son récit officiel, les différentes articulations du nationalisme, les divers espaces de nostalgie, les universitaires comme nous, toujours fascinés par l’écriture de soi à travers la question du passé et de ses au-delàs, ainsi que les activistes, les praticiens et les utilisateurs des médias sociaux. Le passé, comme beaucoup l’ont noté, n’est pas seulement contesté ; il hante aussi le présent et fournit certaines promesses pour un futur imaginé. Ce numéro répond à la prise de conscience croissante de la nature fragmentée et incomplète de la narration, du manque d’accès aux archives et de la domination écrasante de régimes de mémoire spécifiques. Les contributeurs réfléchissent aux pratiques et articulations fragmentaires qui obligent divers acteurs, ou « agents de la mémoire », à faire un travail de mémoire : politique, universitaire, artistique, militant ou autre.

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“I want to study every public decision to transform ideas into ash, to feel the trace of those remains…” (Singh 2019)

  • 1 An online book launch hosted by A.M. Qattan Foundation, July 3, 2021. See translated excerpt of th (...)

1During one of the book-launches of her book In the footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat1 (2020), Iman Mersal noted how a personal archive becomes a source of anxiety precisely when we encounter its frailty. This note was in response to a question asked about memory and its spatiality in her work. For her, encountering the vulnerability of the material and personal archive is one of the core inspirations to trace and narrate stories, in archives as well as in material spaces and geographies. While this was a personal reflection from Mersal at the time, we believe that it very beautifully captures the spirit in which this collection has been conceived, written, edited, and published.

2We thought of bringing this set of contributions into a special issue at a very particular point in 2020. The world was changing drastically as it grappled with a global pandemic. Connections to places we might call home become frayed and their fragility became paramount. Reckoning with memory’s fragility and fragmentation is only imaginable while grappling with multiple and protracted global crises. This reckoning entails present struggles for justice, repair, and reparations (Mattern 2018; Millington 2019). We encounter every day the potential and limits of holding onto stories that make us feel in place in the world; from the aftermath of 2011 in the Arab world, to Beirut’s blast in 2020, from ecological crises to physical destruction of spaces, places, and lives.

3Closer to home, in the summer of 2020, Cairo’s cemeteries were being demolished to extend a flyover bridge network while simultaneously trees were being uprooted to make way for highways. This moment was experienced by many as one of erasure and loss (Elshahed 2020), a further fragmentation of material and ecological space as well as the history it conveys. While it might seem minor in the grand events of that year, it galvanises a range of ongoing questions and paradoxes about the fragmentary nature of spaces of memory, authorship of storytelling, and senses of belonging to (some kind of) space.

4These concerns are also not new. Remembering has long interested scholars in social sciences working on memory and history specifically from and on the region. Many scholars focus on the ways through which reminiscences are evoked intergenerationally, such as Zainab Saleh’s recent work about Iraqi memories of loss (Saleh 2020) or Mohammed Ezzeldin’s work on the post-1967 generation in Egypt (Ezzeldin 2017). The past, as many have noted, is not only contested, but it haunts the present (Salem 2019), and provides certain promises for an imagined future (Mossallam 2012, 2014, 2017). The past could even be perceived as “the effect of the present” (Lavabre 2016, 8), as it is constructed by (our) selective memory (Lavabre 1994). Scholars have also paid attention to “memory work” through mobilisations and/or collective action (Boumaza 2018), and how it eventually generates specific struggles and mobilises various actors (Madbouly 2018). Memory work can involve the state and its staging of its official story (Attalah and Makar 2014; Nassar 2019), different articulations of nationalism (Clement 2005), various spaces of nostalgia (Agha 2019), activists, practitioners, social media users (Madbouly 2021), and academics like us who are ever-so-fascinated by writing ourselves in the question of the past and its afterlives.

5Building on many initiatives and forms of activism that have grappled with these questions, this special issue asks: How are the stories of the past told? Where? By whom? Within which contexts? And to what effects? To be clear, in this special issue we do not propose a (Hi)story of space, rather stories that work with or against what we think is the official story. By doing so, we defend the use of fragments (Pandey 1992) to avoid the homogenization of narratives and assumptions about who “memory agents” are (Haugbolle 2019). Instead, we hope to unpack the tensions and possibilities inherent in thinking about the spatiality of memory, its fragmentation and its entanglement with questions of voice, power, and positionality. We propose that the fault lines of memory, narrative, and storytelling cut across the heart of what it means to be a political subject in Egypt as well as beyond.

Memory, history and space

“Wherever one looks, the contemporary public obsession with memory clashes with an intense public panic of oblivion, and one may well wonder which came first. Is it the fear of forgetting that triggers the desire to remember, or is it perhaps the other way around?” (Huyssen 2003)

6We understand both memory and history to be fields of power contestation, and that this contestation is inevitably articulated in space. This builds on a range of now established scholarship. Huyssen for example, invites us to look at cities as urban palimpsests (2003). He joins many thinkers who have brought questions of memory to bear on the social, cultural, and political worlds we live in (Halbwachs 1925; Bastide 1970). Within this (mostly European) tradition, memory is always already politicised. For instance, Pierre Nora in his seminal work, coins the term spaces of memory (Lieux de mémoires) as the angle through which French national history is written (Nora 1989). The French sociologist Marie-Claire Lavabre argues that the socio-political context in France during the seventies (the 1968s societal changes, death of De Gaulle, communist decline, awaking of “the Jewish conscience” to face the reality of the Vichy regime, etc.) contributed to the polysemy of memory in social sciences (Lavabre 2000). An important tension that appears in her work is the one between memory and politics, and the various political uses of the past in the present (Andrieu, Lavabre and Tartakowsky 2006). Sarah Gensburger extends this reasoning by highlighting the depoliticization of the past in the commemorative events (Gensburger 2013) as well as in historical exhibitions (Antichan, Gensburger and Teboul 2016). This political use of memory, and its tensions with changing political contexts, is a common underlying concern for many of our contributors.

7It is, however, important to reflect on how memory is thought of beyond this European intellectual lineage. Michel-Rolph Trouillot perhaps offers us some of the most imaginative theoretical tools to think about the question of memory as opposed to history in Silencing the Past (1995), by paying attention to power relations embedded in the process of narration itself. Concerned by the Haitian Revolution which has been written out from the Eurocentric history of modernity, Trouillot helps us reflect on the relations of power that are embedded in writing any kind of history. It becomes clear then that how we approach the relationship of memory and history does not only get articulated in space but is also constituted through the space from which we write.

8Writing with the “postcolonial Arab geographies” in mind, Sonja Hegasy and Norman Saadi Nikro perceive memory as a milieu, seen as “proactive social environments and cultural practices in which communities and subjects emerge and come to be formed as they work to situate the past as a site of address and response taking place in the present” (Hegasy and Nikro 2017, 16-17). In their special issue editorial (2019), Hegasy and Nikro start with local and site-specific interventions rather than with broader sociological categories (such as state and society), a move we take inspiration from by focusing on concrete examples of personal and activist struggles and initiatives. In relation to Middle East Studies, Sune Haugbolle argues that the concern with memory in Middle East Studies emerged with a particular interest in oral history and alternative narratives. Haugbolle’s earlier work on the Lebanese civil war challenges the simple dichotomy between official and alternative narratives, and amplifies the role of private memory in contesting public oblivion and amnesia (Haugbolle 2005). With the Arab Uprisings, Haugbolle argues, scholars become keener on challenging national narratives and excavating the alternative archives, especially the ones linked to narratives of the revolts (Haugbolle 2019, 2). Dare we say that in our region the concern with memory is always tied up with critical acts against silencing and interrogating the politics of temporality? Two recent special issues on memory in the region touch upon just these two themes. One focuses on the social life of violent memories (Hegasy and Nikro 2019) and the other on the politics of time and temporality (Roccu and Salem 2019). In doing so, they also call our attention to the role of the international sphere, global forces and connections, transnational actors, foreign funding, and the new media in the memory industry as well as our own imbrication in social structures and relations of power.

9It follows, then, that there are different stakes that we have in research on memory precisely due to our position in structures and relations of power. These relations of power give authority to certain pasts over others. History, as Rahul Roa has recently argued, is “memory with an army” (2020, 79). It is why in this special issue we join in a conversation that comes from within the struggles of feminist, postcolonial and decolonial approaches. We understand that not only do the stakes shift when we write from a specific site (such as the Middle East or a position of ethnic, racial, classed or gendered privilege), but also that with this shift comes a rethinking of ways of research, vocabularies and grammars of articulation, and alternative modes of writing. In our attention to questions of space, we hope to also reflect on the various ways in which this interest in memory and storytelling allows for disrupting linear temporalities. Indeed, all our contributions sit with this uncomfortable thinking of the temporality of memory. It appears clearly in the contribution of May Kosba, as she captures a particular moment of the 1960s in Cairo which promised a “black sense of place” (following Katherine McKittrick 2006). It is also the subject of Nermin Elsherif’s paper which unpacks the practice of recreating different golden times of the past through social media. Omnia Khalil folds in the aftermaths of the events of displacement, revolution, relocation, and revisiting the field of research, and both Fayrouz Kaddal and Menna Agha look at the manifold presents of Nubian attachment to past-presents.

10Questions of memory do not always emerge from that which haunts us from the past, but also from the kind of futures that are (or have been) promised to us. In his book, Out of Time, Rao holds in tension questions of accelerated futures, desired futures, and the aftermath of aborted futures (2020; and see also Fisher 2014). He attends to deferred promised futures of independence as well as of neoliberalism. In his work, the archive can be the space of arrest and fixture but can also be a space of activism and activation of memory in the sense of staying with the affects it leaves behind (2020). Many of our contributors work from within the archives, but also challenge its power, hegemony, authority, and the narrative it contains. Some read it along its grain (such as Mohamad Gamal’s piece on the newsletter Journal de Timsah). Others reconstitute it through fragments and traces (such as Sara Salem, Menna Agha, Nayera Abdel Rahman, Sara Tonsy and Ingy Higazi). Given its centrality in much of current thinking about memory, and especially to our contributors, we attend to archives through fragments in the following section.

Archives through fragments and embodiment and haunting

“For whom is the city a coherent concept? Whose urban experience is stable and coherent? Who is able to see the city as a unified whole? By contrast, for whom is the city a geography of shards and fragments? Whose urban experience is necessarily negotiated at spatial scales that implode the city?” (Roy 2016)

11In the previous section, we wanted to highlight how memory is a field of contestation and of power, and how these relations are articulated in space as well as shaped by particular places. Through examining these relations of power, we want to emphasise our approach to memory as emerging through fragmented, and even surprising encounters that fold past, present, and future. These ways of understanding memory allow us to approach it beyond a linear history, and we do this through reflecting on fragments and embodiment.

12A fragment is a detached portion or piece, it could be a material fragment, or flash of memory (McFarlane 2019; Wallach 2020). By centring fragments of space and storytelling in this special issue, we seek to reckon with memory as it appears to some of us in unexpected flashes, and in the entanglement of past and present. In his now classic article of 1992, Gyanendra Pandey defends the fragment as a mode of writing a history of violence when violence “wipes out evidence” (Pandey 1992, 35). The potential of the fragment, Pandey argues, “lies in that it resists the drive for a shallow homogenization […] of […] the future political community” (Pandey 1992, 28-29). These fragments can be approached as political tools for activism, reflection, critique, or disruption rather than looking at the debris as a melancholic reminiscence (McFarlane 2018, 1008). A fragment, therefore, is an attempt to challenge a narrative that is sanitised and comfortable (Pandey 1992, 41). Methodologically, a fragment does not act as evidence (in the social science sense) but as an articulation of other subject positions (Pandey 1992, 47). The reader will note that our contributors all share this mode of discomfort with recalling the past, and by resorting to writing fragments, they accommodate fragmentary writing. Nayera Abdel Rahman, Ahmed El Gezy, and Mohammed Gamal take us to different visions of Suez, Ismailia, and Port-Said. Menna Agha and Fayrouz Kaddal dwell in the submerged Nubian villages, sometimes from the spaces of the diaspora. May Kosba, Omnia Khalil, Ingy Higazi and Sara Tonsy attend to processes that implode Cairo as some of us might remember it.

  • 2 In 2017, the EUME organised an event with a pitch that perhaps Arab thought is experiencing a Walt (...)

13Thinking memory this way is probably intertwined with a pedagogy of fragments we inherit from Walter Benjamin (2002), one that is about assembling meaning through constellations, ruins, excavations, and rag-picking. The recasting of Benjamin as a key theoretical companion to recent research on memory in the region is poignant and indicative of the current atmosphere of thinking through and against loss we outline in the introduction2. The resonance of Benjamin’s figures of the collector and the rag-picker as an approach to history, coincided with the rejigging of the field of memory work that cuts across academic and public circles. The series of workshops and accompanying liberal arts courses initiated and organised by Alia Mossallam (2017) not only challenged imaginations of histories by amplifying counter-memories and alternative histories, but also – and crucially – trained a generation of scholars as critical storytellers.

  • 3 See also Pierre France (2020) and Juliette Honvault (2020) in Égypte/Monde Arabe issue 22 on Digit (...)

14This succession of conversations opens the question of the archive, which gains particular salience in the Middle East because of its inaccessibility or even absence (El Shakry 2015; Bsheer 2020). Long seen as a problematic space that is inaccessible to many researchers or the public (Fahmy 2012; El Shakry 2015), the archive has also been interrogated as a site constituted by power relations in which certain (hi)stories are privileged. The archive is a space of sovereignty (Lobo-Guerro 2013), one that is to be read along its grains (Stoler 2009), and also a space of colonial anxiety, violence, and erasure. At the same time, it could also be a space of ammunition to present struggles. In the face of the voice of the institution, resorting to writing stories of selfhood activates alternative ways of knowledge. Perhaps one of the most generative insights we get from postcolonial and feminist experimentations with thinking about time and memory is attending to how selfhood, the personal, and the embodied, are all entangled as we think about encountering the archive3. This encounter can be material, spatial, and indeed also affective. In No Archive Will Restore You, Julietta Singh dwells on her desire for the archive. In other words, an archive is not only one of emotions, as many have written, but also it is the object of a desire, a seductive hope for “the idea of what the archive might have to offer” (Singh 2018, 18). For Singh, the archive is not only the one in brick and mortar, but also crucially one’s body which is an archive and an archivist. It keeps the traces of what it experiences and remembers (Singh 2018, 31). Some of our contributors like Menna Agha, Nayera Abdel Rahman and Omnia Khalil look to their movement in space as their embodied archive of scholarship and selfhood. Their work disrupts neat categorisation of the space of fieldwork as separate from personal and political investments. We recognise that the archive is an institution of power, nevertheless one that is filled with arbitrary fragments and anxieties that could undermine whole and hegemonic storylines.

Agents, entrepreneurs and storytellers of memory

“We come to our research and our writing already undone. We are always already unable to definitively locate ourselves as selves in the narrative strategies that are available to us, whether ‘literary’ or ‘academic’, even if we accept that there is little distinction between these.” (Dauphinee 2013)

15In this final section of the editorial, we focus more explicitly on who does memory work and in what form. These two questions, as it is probably becoming apparent, are not separate from issues we raise earlier about relations of power, and modes of navigating fragments of memory. In doing so, we wish to acknowledge our role as researchers who are participating in acts of storytelling, and processes of transmitting these fragments and shards. Social scientists, academics and activists participate in memory work by constructing events as turning points, by selecting the narratives to study, and by circulating representations of the past. This is important to highlight, as we are inspired by feminist and decolonial approaches that compel us to reflect on our positionality. By doing so, we include ourselves in memory work as academics interested in memory studies, but also as privileged researchers who grapple with the reproduction of colonial knowledge and extractive practices (Smith 1998).

  • 4 The Righteous designates the non-Jewish persons who saved the Jewish during the Second World War. (...)

16The first question concerns the roles that actors play in memory work. This has been subject to sociological research. Many scholars address this through the lens of “entrepreneurs” following Becker’s notion of “moral entrepreneurs” (1963). Based on a study on the survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and their associations, Michael Pollak argues that the “entrepreneurs of memory” (entrepreneurs de mémoire) are the ones who ensure the “framing of memory” (travail d’encadrement de la mémoire) (1993, 30). Sarah Gensburger (2010) and Renaud Hourcade (2015) extend Pollak’s framework to study the explicit political and social roles of these entrepreneurs of memory. Gensburger’s work on the Righteous of France4, observes how entrepreneurs of memory use public policies to establish common references and promote them in geographical and political spaces. Renaud Hourcade’s research on two slave ports in France and England uses social movements approaches to rethink entrepreneurs of memory as representatives of particular norms inside the group as well as outside it (Hourcade 2015, 36). However, if the notion of entrepreneurs of memory calls our attention to the politicised roles actors defend, promote, and advocate in their framing of memories, perhaps it might overlook the role of “ordinary” individuals in reshaping and transmitting their “common references” of the past. Indeed, the social and political context of our region necessitates us to enlarge the scope of this specific lens to include other actors participating in the memory work. Nayera Abderahman’s contribution, for example, shows how an “ordinary” woman, Umm Bîju, participated to this reshaping of the past without making a living out of this memory work. On another scale, Menna Agha’s article also highlights how women from her family circulate nostalgic narratives about the ancestral land.

17The second question is about the forms in which memory work is being done, and it takes inspiration from the fragmentary nature of the past we encounter. Storytelling here becomes a means through which these fragments, that might seem unconnected, are made meaningful without imposing an imaginary linear narrative or whole story (Edkins 2013). Writing in the early nineties, Pandey “hesitates” to use his personal voice and the intrusion of his “self” (Pandey 1992, 28) as he recounts the difficulties of asking questions to survivors of communal violence in India. He worries about the “ritualised account, a collective memory, or record that has been generated on behalf of the entire community” (Pandey 1992, 26). Social sciences have since then grown increasingly receptive of the use of personal voices thanks to postcolonial, decolonial, and feminist challenges to the ways in which we are supposed to write about knowledge (Smith 1998; Inayatullah 2011; Zalewski 2013), and the contributions in this special issue all reflect that ethic of folding in the narrative and personal journey alongside incisive reflections on memory.

  • 5 In 2018, Syria Untold Stories became a non-profit organization in Berlin. For more information: ht (...)

18By centring storytelling, we try to think together about the changing practice of what Sune Haugbolle calls memory regimes, which do not only mean hegemonic narratives but also hegemonic techniques of knowledge and representation (2019). In this we build on Mossallam’s path-breaking work in centring how we re-tell the narrative we uncover, encounter, or retrieve. For Mossallam, storytelling departs from established academic forms and therefore becomes more accessible to the non-historians who are invested in these histories (2017). Mossallam’s work on songs shows how singers are memory agents since they “had the role of making historical instances memorable, lifting people’s moral, educating about life and politics, and committing events and experiences to lyrical memory” (Mossallam 2012, 174). We can also take the examples of Tahrir Monologues or the Syrian “Untold Stories” platform5, which we can perceive as an art of resistance to counter the official narrative. These stories and testimonies also show a deep need to create parallel digital and physical spaces where contributors and participants express themselves, share their accounts, and more importantly present non-hegemonic voices from exile. Storytelling therefore becomes an “art of presence” to “assert collective will in spite of all odds, to circumvent constraints, utilizing what is available and discovering new spaces within which to make oneself heard, seen, felt, and realized” (Bayat 2010, 26).


19We conclude by a note on the structure of this issue. The special issue encloses academic articles, research notes, resources and materials through which our storytellers engage a side (or more) of memory work. The invitation to our contributors was explicit in its openness to length and form, in recognition that the format of writing is integral to the fragmented and entangled nature of work on memory. Fragments of research, vignettes, creative and fictional academic writing were all welcomed alongside traditional academic format. The contributors are all early career academics and are all from the place they write about. This, we feel, is important to highlight to signal to the interventions scholars from the region are making in anglophone and francophone academic discussions on memory, even when we recognise our various positionalities and privileges.

20In this special issue, the authors unpack processes through which different memory actors (family members, singers, novelists, tourists, local guides, and Facebook groups administrators) share their story, and where individual recollections and collective memory overlap. Most of the articles invite us to rethink fragments through the analysis of non-traditional archives. Some contributors are interested in the afterlives of the past, affective archives, and haunting. Other contributors show how materiality constitutes fragments that narrate the past and/or reshape the present and the future. Collectively, the issue is an attempt to share theoretical questions, methodological tools, and epistemological anxieties as social scientists and storytellers studying a region trapped in a long complex cycle of political and socio-economic upheavals. Whether academic or otherwise, we hope to attend to these stories with what Karen Till (2012) calls an ethics of care. Storytelling is not only about the agents and audience but also about the story itself. Through an attention to narration (or the impossibility to narrate) we become attuned to silences, ambiguities, unlikely juxtapositions, and contradictions. Therefore, what we offer in this special issue is always already incomplete, uncomfortable, and partial. Through approaching the whole project this way, we hope we might be more comfortable by slipping through the seams of the official stories and suturing it as otherwise, drawing on myth, fiction, maps, buildings, songs, and oral history as we approach our pasts and senses of self sideways rather than heads on.

We wish to thank Sara Salem, Marie Vannetzel, and Marine Poirier for comments on earlier drafts. We would also like to thank the authors for their engagement during the whole process of publication.

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1 An online book launch hosted by A.M. Qattan Foundation, July 3, 2021. See translated excerpt of the book in the special issue.

2 In 2017, the EUME organised an event with a pitch that perhaps Arab thought is experiencing a Walter Benjamin moment, see: A year before, a seminar on history and cultural memory used Benjamin’s work to make sense of the Egyptian revolution (see: And a year before that, in 2015, a Benjamin study circle was organised in Alexandria that resulted in a handmade pamphlet.

3 See also Pierre France (2020) and Juliette Honvault (2020) in Égypte/Monde Arabe issue 22 on Digital Archiving in the Arab World.

4 The Righteous designates the non-Jewish persons who saved the Jewish during the Second World War. It became a public category and a foreign policy tool not only to honour these persons, but also to commemorate the Shoah.

5 In 2018, Syria Untold Stories became a non-profit organization in Berlin. For more information:

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Mayada Madbouly et Aya Nassar, « Fragment(s) of Memor(ies): The Enduring Question of Space and Storytelling »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 13-26.

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Mayada Madbouly et Aya Nassar, « Fragment(s) of Memor(ies): The Enduring Question of Space and Storytelling »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mayada Madbouly

Mayada Madbouly is a PhD candidate at the Institut des sciences Sociales du Politique (ISP, CNRS/UMR 7220), at the Université Paris Nanterre. She was a doctoral fellow at the Labex les passés dans le présent (2015-2018) and is actually associate researcher at the Centre d’Etudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales (CEDEJ). She was a Temporary lecturer and research assistant (ATER) at Sciences Po Toulouse/LaSSP (2018-2020) and has taught at Sciences Po (Reims campus) and Cairo University. Her research focuses on memorial practices, social movements and cultural diversity in Egypt.

Aya Nassar

Aya Nassar is an Assistant Professor of Human Geography in Durham University. She holds a PhD from Warwick University. She is a Human Geographer who is interested in elemental geography, infrastructure, archives, and the postcolonial city. A Political Scientist by background, she currently teaches and researches on Political and Urban Geography and is ever so fascinated by the ways narration creates, imagines and disrupts time and space.

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