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Session R5886 (Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia), 2020
Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia presents an excellent case study of how a state uses paper, mortar, and money to reshape its past and create a new narrative to buttress its claims to legitimacy. The story told, particularly about the assembling of a national archive, is extremely pertinent as historians of the region are forced to rethink the archive in light of destruction, displacement, and denial. In Iraq and Palestine this has meant the theft of archives; elsewhere the archive has remained intact, but has become harder and harder to access. What is the relationship of historians, archives, and national histories? To what extent have historians been complicit in the making of national/state archives and their celebration, and when/how have they challenged these acts? Why do we fetishize these archives, even when their doors are closed in our faces? And what are the alternatives to national archives and national histories, which do not reproduce the narratives of the states that create and control them?

In my presentation, I would like to broaden the discussion beyond Saudi Arabia to make comparisons to other countries in the region to determine whether Saudi Arabia is unique in its archival ambitions. I would also like to make suggestions about alternative archives and sources for the writing of history. Archive Wars looks at the literary traces of the past – the collecting of documents to be housed in archives -- as well as the material traces of the past -- the designing of urban space to narrate a particular vision of history. How do we create alternatives that challenge the hegemony of state elites? What artifacts can be mobilized?