Monday, March 28, 2016

My personal prespective on the Eurocentricism in Papyrology

Prof. Paul Schubert of Universités de Genève has shared in Papylist an interesting article in support of papyrology written by Prof. Dr. Stefan Rebenich of the Universität Bern. The piece appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Here is a link to read it: Below is my personal prespctive not to the article itself, but to the whole question of the Eurocentricity in Papyrology.

Thanks, Prof. Schubert, for sharing this interesting article with us. It is indeed a very focused overview of papyrology. It's last paragraph asks explicitly the community to grant more support for this discipline, which faces, as all the fields of Altertumswissenschaften, the danger of extension. I suppose we need more and more of such articles to appear in the public media, in order to gain much more support and appreciation to our work. But let me direct the attention to two remarks,from my own Egyptian-Arabic prespictives, on this kind of very welcomed contributions asking for the support and the appreciation of our field from the society in a digital age.

I, as well as many (I suppose) in the Non-European world, have read this piece. The first thing to notice is that it is very eurocentric. With all due respect to the writer, I think this piece belongs to the past more than to the present or the future of papyrology. It speaks about the European past, as if these papyri were found in Europe! Except for Herculaneum papyri, most of not all of the other pieces of papyri were found in Egypt, as we all know. Generally speaking, most if not all the artifacts attesting ancient Greek (language and culture) come from countries situated in the so called "east" and now either part of the Arabic or the islamic world. So why to speak exclusively of European past? Maybe because most of the discovered papyri are written in ancient Greek. Yes, modern Greek is a European langauage and Greece is a European country, but again this doesn't make ancient Greek a monopoly for the modern Greek state and/or other European states. I myself see it as a common past for both east and west ( if this dichotomy betwen us really correct or exists). Speaking about the other, it is not secret that modern Arabic speaking countries have also a history with this particular language, especially in philosophy and science. Avicenna and Avirroes are the most prominent examples in this regard. I agree that the Greek literature was not part of medieval Arabic, but now it is part of modern Arabic. Taha Hussein and Cairo university are the pioneers in this regard. My alam mater Ain-Shams university provides studies in (Greek) papyrolgy on the levels of MA and PhD since the year of my birth (1978).Homer's Iliad is available to the Arabic reader in Arabic verse (since 100 years) and in prose (since few years). So I don't think that keeping this eurocentric tone and identification of a field that goes beyond the geographical boundaries of its raw materials as well as its main knowledge-production centers would do good to its future survival.

The same also applies to the total ignorance of any mention of Arabic papyri. The piece speaks of papyrology as if it is exclusively Greek. It ignores the fact that the very collection that the colleague mentions is one of the largest in Arabic materials. Yes, the piece is written by an ancient historian not by a medievalist, but after all he is a historian who talks to the public audience in Europe. Edward Gibbon in his famous work about the Roman empire was speaking also to European audience ( even before the EU), but he didn't in any way neglect the other. On the contrary he devoted chapters to the emerging Arabic-islamic neighbors. It is another age now and these neighbors are now not only neighbors, but some of them became European citizens too. Every one lives in Europe knows that there are now about 20 millions European Muslim citizens who identify themselves with European identity, but at the same time would be very much interested to any thing related to Islam and/or Arabic. They would also be of course interested in Greek and Latin not as a wall that separate them from their follow European, but as a bridge that connect them with him as well as their (Arabic) ancestors and neighbors. Pragmatically speaking there is a chance that among these millions a person or an institution that is interested in supporting Arabic or/and Greek papyri and papyrology, from this regard, in European universities.

On antoher scale, every one on the planet can read this article including people like me whose mother langauage is Arabic, native country is Egypt, studied Greek language and literature in the university and lives in Europe. I have to tell you frankly that sometimes I found myself perplexed in such situation, where papyri in my home country are either destroyed by people who want to gain some money by selling them to Europe or the States, or controlled by security forces to protect them from these people and accordingly not easily accessible to researcher like me. The dilemma becomes even bigger when these papyri are identified online by the predominant knowledge producing center (in Europe and the Sates) as not part of my national history.To make the situation even worst, all the knowledge are presented online with languages that are not understood by most of the people who are supposed to protect the sites where these papyri (and other artefacts) were found or would be found in the future. Just ask yourself now one last question, what is the result of such tone (identification) and practice. Let me tell you from my personal experience and view, the message delivered to the people in the east through all this. These (papyri and/or) artefacts are not part of your history; it is European. It doesn't have to do with your past, but you could make profit from it and change your present by selling it to the people who care about it. If you were not able to sell it, then destroy it. If someone of your people stood on your way while you sell or destroy these artefacts then kill him. In this I don't (and I don't have the right to) blame any one or excuse any one of his direct responsibility of his own words or actions. I'm just trying to represent the view as I understand it.

I may have gone so far in all this, but I believe this article with its tone and assertions belong to the past of papyrology not to its present or its hoped future, where this field of study, as well as Altertumswissenschaften, gets rid of its eurocentric past and look forward to its real international future, where the one (western, eastern etc.) knows himself, but doesn't ignore the other !