Sarah Al Naqeeb and Karen Abdelsaid joined Egypt Migrations in 2021 as student placements. Here, they reflect on their experience conducting oral history interviews for our exhibit: Egypt’s Migrants in Canada.
1) Tell us about yourself and why you chose to volunteer for Egypt Migrations?
Sarah: I have always had a great fascination with Egypt, both it’s history and culture. As a second-generation Egyptian Canadian, I was raised in a household where the programs on television, dress, food, language, religion, and history fascinated and motivated me to research my ethnic group. Because I am interested in contributing to and preserving stories of migration, I decided to intern with Egypt Migrations to conduct oral history interviews. I am so lucky to have volunteered with this digital humanities project because I had the chance to explore archival material and conduct interviews with ordinary people who have connections with Egypt. The interviewees have indeed created an original piece of work that is rare. People reflected on their lived experiences, memories, and stories about immigration. The exhibit is simply incomparable.
Karen: As a first-generation Coptic-Canadian and historian, I have always been aware of the lack of accurate representation of Egyptian culture in the Canadian public. I grew up in a household that held the Coptic faith and Egyptian identity close by. I grew up going to the Royal Ontario Museum, searching for anything real and tangible on Egyptian culture and history. I was often greeted by replica statues of ancient Egyptians, which made me realize that there is little accurate representations of Egypt in Canada. Egypt Migrations has created a place for Egyptian voices to be heard and seen, and I wanted to help their efforts in creating a place for those voices.
2) How did you prepare for the oral history interviews and what was the research process like?
Sarah: Learning how to conduct high quality oral history interviews does not come easy. One must train, read, and practice oral history methodology to be prepared for the interview process. In learning about oral history, I was inspired by the work of Alexander Freund, Alessandro Portelli, and Michael Akladios. From them, I learned how oral histories bring to life narratives that cannot be found in dry overviews, because interviews contain emotion, tone, volume, and rhythm. Even though we worked from an interview guide, I did not want to remain glued to the script and, instead, I decided to let the interview flow in its own direction, allowing it to become a conversation. As a researcher, I sought to give the floor to the interviewee’s story because the project is not about me, but them. However, regardless of my attempts at not interfering, the historian is still in the story and cannot claim academic distance from the interviewee.
Karen: During my time with Egypt Migrations, I was tasked with creating five oral history interviews. While I might be Egyptian, that does not mean I am completely knowledgeable about my own history. I still had to research and learn about the history of migration throughout Egypt, as well as learn about oral history methodology. Sarah and I, alongside our supervisors, Miray and Michael, conducted mock interviews to develop our skills. This practical experience was very helpful. I was also conscious that there might be the issue of bias, and I worked hard to ensure that I did not insert my own narrative into the stories we were trying to capture.
3) What is one lesson you’ll take away from this experience?
Sarah: At the very beginning of my internship, I was not aware of the wide range of experiences and stories by different individuals. Even though I have never been in their shoes, I learned that I needed to be open minded because I wanted to learn about their life stories. I had to learn how to converse with people who held different perspectives and life experiences than my own. This experience was eye-opening because I realized that everyone sees the world differently, and I was surprised that people were more than willing to share their unique stories of immigration to Ontario.
Karen: One of the most notable parts of the interview process was hearing my friends’ stories about migration. Yes, we might come from the same country, but our stories are not the same. We might share some similarities, but it was interesting to hear stories that I would not have heard otherwise if not for this opportunity. I learned about the importance of uniqueness and what it provides to the diaspora narrative. Each story is special and can not be replicated, even if you think the story or narrative has been exhausted.
4) Why do you think a digital humanities project such as Egypt Migrations is important? What would you say to chose hesitant to share their stories?
Sarah: While I was doing my own research on the immigrant community in Ontario, I realized that the history of migrants from Egypt was minimally documented. By referring to a digital humanities platform such as Egypt Migrations, academics and researchers—insiders and outsiders—can easily access a better understanding of the diversity of migratory experiences from Egypt. I say diversity because the interviews do not just focus on a homogenous idea of Egypt, but instead reflect its complexity and range.
Karen: These interviews are significant because they are a sample of how complex Egyptian identity is. They show just how fruitful immigrant narratives are. Hesitancy to share your story is natural, especially since Egyptians rarely have the space to be heard. But there is a need for these stories, as they contribute to our understanding of the complexity of Egypt. Immigrant voices and stories are an essential part of making the mosaic-stained glass window of North America. By sharing your experiences with Egypt Migrations, you are contributing to the diverse narrative and filling in the gaps of what it means to be a migrant from Egypt. Egypt Migrations is an important initiative because it creates a communal space for people to speak and to listen, allowing the community to take ownership of our narratives and to accurately represent ourselves. Egypt Migrations works for the community and with the community.
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support the organization.
Sarah Al Naqeeb is a double major in History and Sociology at York University. Sarah thrives in research about the ancient and modern history of Egypt.
Karen Abdelsaid is a public history student at Glendon College, York University. Her interests lie in modern Egyptian art, Coptic history, and exploring and promoting diversity in museums, galleries, and archives.