Writing Iraq's History with and against the Post-Colonial State Archive

By Dina Rizk Khoury
Submitted to Session P4776 (Iraq's Many Pasts, Iraq's Many Presents: Memory, Archive, and Representation, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The state archive has become the locus of a great deal of scholarly literature: as site of memory; as project of colonial domination; as discursive field that produces regimes of knowledge; and as truth making tool in legal battles to bring justice. Much of this literature calls for a critical examination of the archive, whether national or colonial, as deeply embedded in regimes of power and asks that historian eschew positivism that their sheer volume and order elicit and perhaps demand. It is with this call against the positivism of the archive in mind that my presentation grapples.
I draw on my work and that of others in the Ba’th Arab Socialist Party Archive of Iraq archive, now at the Hoover Institution. The archive allows scholars a glimpse of the workings of a post-colonial state at a time when access to such archives in much of the Arab world is constrained by security concerns, war and prohibitions set by the states themselves. As Omnia el-Shakry so cogently argues, the result has been that historians have found that they have to write “history without documents,” and have been forced to find the “archival” in other places. The presence of the Ba’th Party archive provides both opportunity and risk. It allows for the writing of understandings of the workings of an authoritarian one party state, but it can draw scholars into taking that state at its own terms. It allows for a surfeit of politics, understood on the party’s and the archives’ terms, at the expense of other entries into Iraq’s history. My presentation seeks to answer three questions:
What kinds of history can be written using that archive? It is after all an archive of the last two decades or so of Ba‘thist rule, that is to say, very much an archive of the present and thus informed by the politics of its acquisition as an archive of “truth telling” as it is by the research agendas of scholars within the American academy. As a truncated and curated archive, what does it elide and what does it make visible? Finally, as a social historian, how does one navigate the pull of the positivism of the archive as a rich data source sutured to its nature as an archive of powerful and dominant party/state?