How did you get started in your discipline? What drew you to Egyptian history?
My undergraduate studies were in political science at Warwick University in the U.K. and I switched over to history by embarking on a two-year master’s thesis at Keele University. The topic I chose was a left-wing uprising in 1943-44 among the Greek army and navy units that managed to move to Egypt after Greece fell to the Axis Powers in 1941. The study of the 1940s was a major trend in Greek historiography at the time. My research almost inevitably included understanding the reactions to the uprising among the large Greek community in Egypt. As I completed the M.A. thesis, both my supervisor at Keele, Professor Paul Rolo and Greek writer, Stratis Tsirkas encouraged me to go on and do a doctorate on the history of Egypt’s Greek community. The Rolos were a prominent British Jewish family in Alexandria. Tsirkas, a Greek born in Cairo, was a left-wing intellectual in the community in Egypt before he moved to Athens in the 1950s.
The Greek diaspora was then considered an important subject of study among historians of modern Greece and I took up Rolo and Tsirkas’ advice without further prompting. I was also motivated to do so by the potential easy access I would have to the community since my father’s side of the family had lived in Egypt for three generations. I was born in Athens after my father emigrated to Greece.
In the Fall of 1979, I began my doctoral studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. I chose to focus on the period preceding the wartime era that I had examined in my master’s studies. I settled on the years 1919 to 1937. I was studying the reactions of the Greek community in Egypt to the rise of Egyptian nationalism manifested in the 1919 Revolts to the abolition of the Capitulations in 1937.
I had the very good fortune to benefit from the advice and guidance of Roger Owen who was my supervisor, Albert Hourani who was the second reader, and Robert Mabro. All three are international authorities on the history of Egypt and the Middle East. I still miss their guidance, which was as gentle as it was wise. I was also fortunate that one member of my family had remained in Alexandria: my grandmother’s sister with whom I was able to stay. The location of her apartment, on El Horreya Road, was within walking distance of the Greek Community of Alexandria where I was warmly received. During my research, I made several visits to Egypt, staying for a few weeks each time.
What was the subject matter of your first book project? What is its broader significance?
My first book, entitled Greeks in Egypt: Ethnicity and Class 1919-1937,was published by Ithaca – which, at the time, the Middle East Center at St. Antony’s College used for its monograph series. An edited version of my doctoral dissertation, the book examined the reactions of the Greek community in Egypt to the rise of the local nationalist movement between the two world wars. Its significance was threefold: first, it showed that for the Greeks, and by extension some of the other European communities, ethnic identity was expressed differently within a community that was large enough to be socially differentiated. Second, it showed that in the 1920s and 1930s a substantial part of the Greek community tried to align itself with Egypt’s economic and political demands. Rather than behave like middlemen or a “comprador” bourgeoisie, Greeks were, or tried to become, more fully integrated in Egyptian society. Third, it highlighted ethnic differentiation within the community, which ranged from a secular understanding of Greekness expressed by the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie to a religiously based one expressed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.
In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?
My first encounter with the issue of positionality was in the late 1980s. Before I came across prefaces to anthropological works that acknowledged the subjectivity of researchers, the Middle East Center at Oxford used to organize extraordinarily valuable weekly seminars on topics in Middle East Studies every Friday. Once, Albert Hourani talked about the sweep of nationalism from the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire and to the Arab Middle East with such aplomb and authority that it took a while for the questions to get going. On another occasion, Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk Sluglett discussed an early version of Hana Batatu’s study The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. It was a history of the Ba’athist movement written from the point of view of a participant in that movement and addressed to both a general audience and supporters of the movement. I remember Roger Owen commenting about how interesting a challenge and legitimate it is to be writing such a history from within and for the people who had experienced it.
I dealt with the question of positionality almost instinctively when I returned to the study of the Greeks in Egypt with The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt. An historical overview, it was published in 2019 – exactly thirty years after the appearance of my first book. In between, my research had continued to focus on the Greek diaspora, but, because I relocated to the United States to pursue an academic career, I worked on the Greeks in the United States and diaspora relations more generally with Greece. In my first book, I had thanked members of my family who were from Egypt for the help and information they had offered. In the second book, I chose to state at the outset that I have a dual relationship to the Greeks in Egypt, familial and academic.
It was not merely a gesture to acknowledge my subjectivity for the benefit of academic readers. It was also a way of underlining my goodwill in discussing the fond and sometimes excessive nostalgia with which many Greeks in Egypt, and especially their Associations in Athens, look back on their experiences in Egypt. Writing the history of a group we belong to requires a balance between the advantages that familiarity and proximity provide and adhering to accepted scholarly standards. We may not get that right, but by acknowledging our positionality we indicate that at least we tried.
I think the ways we express our positionality is important. While I acknowledge my father’s side of the family were in Egypt for three generations, I am not a member nor do I actively participate in the activities of the Greeks from Egypt associations in Athens. Having been born in Greece helps give me that distance. In fact, I was invited to present my book to the alumni of the Averoff High School of Alexandria, who have a very active association in Athens because one of their executive members heard me speak on the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire. Speaking to the Averoff alumni, I mentioned my background but did not avoid issues such as referring to Greek moneylenders in Upper Egypt and the advantages gained by the Capitulations. And I also mentioned the Greeks of Egypt feeling they had a special relationship to the country and to the Egyptians. I sensed that I could have been even more critical if there had been the need because the audience considered me an insider and was prepared to hear almost anything. During the question and answer period afterward the president told me: you are a scholar but you can understand us and tell our story, scholars who are outsiders do not. I responded that the more the story of the Greeks in Egypt is told the more likely it is that it will attract scholars who are outsiders. He confided that he would prefer such scholars did not become interested, because the Greeks in Egypt are a special case of diaspora Greeks. Clearly, he was expressing a suspicion of outsiders and a distrust.
Considering the state of Middle East History more generally, and Egyptian History more particularly, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?
As a student of a minority in Egypt, I would like to see studies of these groups become more fully integrated into the history of Egypt or any other Middle Eastern country they happen to be in. In my studies of the Greek American community, I have appreciated how much they and other immigrant groups are considered epistemologically part of American society. The narrative of America being a country of immigrants enables and legitimizes such a wholesome approach. Countries in the Middle East and elsewhere may not embrace such self-definitions but they became host to many immigrant groups – admittedly not by design as was the case in the United States. Thus, minority groups are part of their broader society and should be studied as such. Present scholarship illustrates the relativism of identities, their non-essentialist character, and the malleability of official and personal definitions of nationality.
In terms of Egypt, my recent book benefitted from a formulation of in-betweenness that has been made in a relatively recent study of surrealism in Egypt. Surrealism, the author suggests, was a European import to Egypt and it was adapted in the context of the artistic modernist current that was coursing through part of the Egyptian art world. The result was something not quite European but not entirely native either: something in between. I would add that the Greeks were precisely that, something in between. Moreover, although differentiated they were also an organic entity that continued to adapt to Egyptian society. We see this especially in the period between the two world wars which witnessed the rise of social movements in Egypt, most notably nationalism. The Greeks demonstrated a tolerance, even sympathy, with the nationalist movement. They took part in the economic manifestation of that movement with investment in the manufacturing sector in the 1930s. In that decade the intellectuals also participated in the peace movement and several of them began writing poems and prose that spoke about the difficulties the fellaheen (farmers) faced in the provinces. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, the support the Greek employees of the canal company expressed towards Egypt’s nationalization was another example of the Greeks no longer falling back on any real or imagined privilege and aligning themselves with Egypt’s interest. Their very experience undermines the application of binary categories such as Europeans and Egyptians, foreigners and natives.
Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?
After completing The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt, I assumed I would yet again turn my back on the Greeks in Egypt and focus on the Greeks in the United States. But a century and a half-long historical overview sheds light on hidden corners that invite further exploration. In my case, there were three such corners. The first two were inhabited by Greek Jews and the Cypriots, both hitherto overlooked. Their stories can illustrate the rich variety of Greekness in Egypt. The third topic is broad, and it is inspired by Heather Sharkey’s synthetical approach to religions in the Middle East. I am interested in examining the relations of the Greek Orthodox Church and its theologians in Egypt with the other Christian religions: the Catholics, the Copts, the Protestants, and also with Jews and Muslims.
To be able to conduct research at will is a great privilege of course and systematic research takes up a lot of time. Luckily, I am at that stage of my career and life where I can afford to move from full-time to part-time teaching and dedicate my time to delving into those shrouded corners of the history of the Greeks of Egypt, which are, of course, part of Egypt’s history as well.
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Alexander Kitroeff is Professor of History at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He was born in Greece and educated in the United Kingdom and then moved to the United States in 1986. His research focuses on the history of Greek diaspora primarily in Egypt and the United States.