Shana Minkin, Imperial Bodies: Empire and Death in Alexandria, Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Shana Minkin (SM): This book grew out of a love for Cairo and a particularly beautiful experience, during my Center for Arabic Studies Abroad year from 2003 to 2004, with the dwindling Cairene Jewish community. As I spent weekly lunches, holidays, vacations, and more with some of the members of the community, I had multiple conversations with them about their understandings of themselves as fully of Egypt and foreign to it. This crystallized for me my own curiosity in questions of belonging and the categories of empires and nations. I made the choice during that year to focus my research on late nineteenth-century Egypt and to think about what it means to belong to a community and to a country.

I returned to Egypt and the archives less than a year later, and I began to research the foreign-national community in Alexandria in the late nineteenth century. Homing in on the correspondence related to foreign hospitals and foreign cemeteries, I quickly realized that the argument communities used to secure space in the city were mirror images; in asking for hospitals, so-called foreign communities asserted themselves as key parts of Alexandria, as servants of the city at large, and asked for support from the Egyptian government as such. The same communities—at times with the same members or supporters—presented the opposite argument when asking for cemetery land: that their community was unique, separate, a self-contained entity, and that they needed a separate burial space to be identified as such.

The juxtaposition of both belonging and insisting upon separation fascinated me, and further research in British and French archives led me to conclude that the myriad of rituals and bureaucratic processes surrounding death were key to understanding imperial Alexandria. Death defined the living population—both in terms of the individual relationships between imperial subjects of the British and the French and in terms of the various struggles for political power between and among the European imperial consulates and the Egyptian national government.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SM: This is a book of death studies, a book of empire and colonialism in the Middle East, and a book of modern Egyptian history. I use the rituals and spaces of the dead and dying—the hospitals, funerals, cemeteries, death certification, and autopsies—to demonstrate how the imperial consulates utilized the bodies of the dead to make claims for resources and political power for their living. This is a book that is very self-consciously within the realm of the everyday workings of empire. And yet, within this, my work demonstrates that the burgeoning Egyptian national government actually held significant power over the mundane decisions about the land and resources used to care for the dead; the imperial consulates ultimately had to submit to the decisions of the local state. This is fundamental the findings of my book: the nascent Egyptian national government had the upper hand vis-à-vis the British and French imperial consulates in matters related to sickness and death. The national state in this instance had the power to self-govern.

Additionally, by finding this power in death, this book sheds light on the extravagance and fascinating rituals with which people created, controlled, managed, and destroyed both their assigned and their chosen communities, in the face of dying and in caring for their dead. By showing these processes at multiple scales, this book illuminates both voluntary and prescribed affiliations—and how both individuals and consulates manipulated both. In other words, this is a book that studies power, community, and belonging through the ritual of death at the everyday level for singular imperial subjects, as well as for systems of both imperial power and national governance. 

This book is thus a part of multiple academic discussions. It is a part of the growing field of death studies, works that center death as the primary actor in their narratives. It is a part of the literature of European empire, especially that which looks at the day-to-day building of imperial power on the ground. And it is a part of the literature on modern Egyptian history, especially as it insists that imperial subjects of Egypt are not somehow either more important than the indigenous population or otherwise outside of Egyptian history.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SM: This book is a radical reworking of my dissertation, which focused on foreignness and public and private space and used only British and Egyptian archives. While death was not the main focus of my dissertation, it was, for me, the most intriguing actor as it arose in the hospital and cemetery discussions. When I began to think about revisions, it was quickly clear to me that the role of death was where and how I wanted to focus my energies. Because I was not able to return to the Egyptian archives, I chose to expand my research into the French archives, which, in turn, changed my story as dramatically as shifting the focus to death did. With both, I found that rather than a story of how space and foreignness interact, my research led me to a more nuanced and unusual history of how the dead determined the political and social belonging of the living, from both above (in terms of governments and power dynamics) and below (in terms of everyday peoples).

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SM: I imagine this book both as a discussion amongst scholars of death, of empire, and those of modern Egypt or, more broadly, of the modern Middle East. I hope that my fellow historians and scholars will appreciate the ways in which centering death in my story reveals a different struggle for empire and an augmented role for the Egyptian national government. I also hope that this work will show the creativity with which we can tell historical stories, even when we have to alter our archival paths multiple times. 

But although it is important to me that fellow scholars engage with my book, one of my primary goals in writing this book the way that I did was to ensure that it would be accessible to undergraduate students. I aimed to write a book that held its stories and arguments within a compelling narrative that invited the uninitiated readers into this moment in Alexandria’s past. It is a book that I hope will draw those not already steeped in Middle East history, reminding them that the categories to which we belong as living are not proscribed, but rather that people and governments create categories of belonging to serve institutional and governance needs. I hope this book will serve to help undergraduates complicate their understandings of history and empire, in Egypt and elsewhere, and, perhaps, to help people to complicate some of their assumed categories of belonging in the present day.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SM: In my latest project, I have returned to the Cairene Jewish community that steered me on this path so long ago. I am working through my notes from the oral histories I did with the two Egyptian Jewish sisters who have since passed away. This project, which I am tentatively calling “Vera-fying History,” uses their personal stories as a lens through which to think about microhistory, or a way to probe the meaning of “belonging” in an internally diasporic community, as these women understood themselves and by extension the Egyptian Jewish community, to be simultaneously at home in and in exile from their Egypt. I am very excited to be returning to the story of these Egyptian Jewish sisters; this project builds off an article I published in Rethinking History in 2012, entitled “Simone’s Funeral: Jewish Lives, Egyptian Deaths in 21st-century Cairo,” which combined my research on death in Alexandria with my experience of death in Cairo.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction: “The Imperial Bodies of Alexandria” pp. 1-2, 8, 12-15)

“On the 10th of May last, Mr. John Engell, a German subject, reported that Miss Gertrude Beasley Woodward, a British subject, had that day died of typhoid fever in lodgings in Alexandria,” wrote Alexandrian British Consul Edward Gould to Lord Cromer, British Consul General of Egypt, in June of 1899. Gould continued: “This was the first that anyone at the consulate had heard of the case. Arrangements were at once made for the funeral[,] which took place on the same day at the European cemetery…”

Alexandria of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was home to thousands of British, French, and other European imperial subjects. Wealthy and destitute, permanent and temporary residents, they lived far from their homelands. And when they died, consulates sprang into action, accounting for, burying, and documenting the imperial dead.

And so it was with Gertrude Beasley Woodward. The flurry of activity surrounding the burial and processing of Woodward’s death revolved around the consulate. Consular employees arranged for a religious funeral, purchased a plot in a communal cemetery, and paid for her death registration. They located the doctor who cared for her to ascertain that not only had she died of typhoid as reported, but that the doctor and others who cared for Woodward treated her with dignity in her final days. The consular employees pieced together the story of her Egyptian life, including her work as a barmaid; her German fiancé, Mr. Engell; her Greek landlord; and her Arab doctor.

By centering on the imperial dead, this book takes the end of life as a purposeful, public foundation of political and social community. Death is both a local phenomenon – people die in Alexandria and are buried in the city – and a transnational, transimperial one in that the imperial dead had roots elsewhere, including family, friends, and property across the ocean or across the desert. In managing death, consulates marshaled the social belonging of foreign nationals in Alexandria and put it to political use. In doing so, they also inscribed that belonging as empire’s belonging in Egypt.

International treaties had guaranteed consulates jurisdiction over the bodies of foreign subjects in death as in life. Yet consulates repeatedly relied on the Egyptian national government to do their job. European consular officials regularly entreated the Egyptian government for land and financial resources for their hospitals and cemeteries and for control over the documenting of their dead. The protracted, and not always successful, negotiations they undertook to secure those resources and that control point to the imperial powers as beholden to the decisions of the Egyptian administration. Inquiring into this apparent beholdenness, Imperial Bodies uses British, Egyptian, and French archives to examine the unevenness of imperial power and apparent robustness of Egyptian governmental authority in matters of death and dying. The management of death among foreign nationals in Alexandria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revises our understanding of the relation both between imperial governments – here the British and the French – and with the Egyptian state. It reaffirms that the British were never the sole power in Egypt, and that the French never fully relinquished their claim to imperial space in Egypt, despite lacking territorial control. Moreover, this book reveals the continued role of the Egyptian national government in vital decisions about the resources and land needed to care for the dead. This book thus demonstrates that in regard to the mundanity of the day-to-day, of protecting national and imperial subjects in Egypt, imperial power asserted itself not through unilateral assertions of the colonial state but through the local consulate’s attenuated claims of belonging. In this peculiar reversal, empire, rather than claim the colonized state as belonging to it, presents itself as belonging to the colonized state. 

[…] The migratory possibilities of empire that resulted in so many foreign dead in Alexandria were largely and unsurprisingly limited to Europeans and those with European protection. That these imperial migrants often lived far beyond their consulates, associating with them when it was of benefit and keeping distance otherwise, is also not surprising; indeed this was common practice in Alexandria and elsewhere. It is impossible – and would be irresponsible – to write a history of the city, of the building of empire within Alexandria, without acknowledging the power dynamic that privileged these European imperial citizens and subjects. And yet, it is equally impossible – and equally irresponsible – to assume that they were necessarily foreigners to the city, any more or less a vital part of Alexandria’s story than the Ottoman/Egyptian Muslim native who may have been from anywhere in Egypt. To write these others – here meaning both foreign-national citizens and subjects as well as religious minorities – as more or less of Alexandria or Egypt than any other category of people is to impose a teleological story on the city, ending in either Egyptian nationalist rule or ruin with the end of empire. 

[…] The archives of death show that the imperial residents of Alexandria were simultaneously local and foreign, of Alexandria and of empire. However, rather than engage in debates about the best way to characterize this heterogeneous population that was divided in some ways but fluid in others, I am interested here in what happened when this fluid population died. In death, subjects needed their consulates. Bodies needed to be recognized and protected, and consulates, in turn, needed those corpses to show that they could provide for their living. In a world where people often seemed to exist beyond the reach of the imperial state, they were nonetheless claimed by it in the end. In death, these imperial subjects could be put to use for empire. Their bodies were imperial tools, and their lives were now, after death, categorizable, controlled, contained, and commemorated by one national consulate in the name of religion, geography, and politics. Their lives were flattened into categories. This act was not centered around depriving an individual of complexity, and indeed this complexity was saved within these same processes, but nonetheless this flattening demonstrated the way a diverse imperial population could be rendered uniform and put into service for empire. Legal nationality may not have been fixed, but death was. People who did not live in categories died in them.

[…] Various forms of governance – city, national, imperial – were constantly getting pushed and pulled together, in ways that were both intimate and personal and in the realm of the abstract political negotiations and relations of the time. At this moment of concentric governance, imperial powers were determined to assign categories to claim bodies, and, with that, to claim and redefine belonging. Belonging here was not only that of the individual corpse to consulate, but of the empire to the colonized state. For this reason, death matters, and this is the moment where we see stories of the imperial bodies of Alexandria, of the Egyptian state, and of international imperialism rub up against one another.

Death, then, became a determining ritualistic and bureaucratic process by which empire asserted power in Egyptian land… It forced foreign communities and foreign consulates, which were overlapping but not mutually exclusive entities, into action; they were necessary and essential actors in the process. The handling of the imperial dead reveals empire because one had to bury the dead; it was an inescapable necessity in everyday life.

[…] Thus this book, by centering on death, presents a history of Egypt, highlighting a different view of the state in the late nineteenth century. This is not a book about an emerging national consciousness, even as it demonstrates Egyptian governmental strength. Instead, it consciously places itself in the lived experience of empire. It accepts as a starting point that the end game of nationalism was not yet known, that the imperial subjects moving in and through Alexandria and Egypt did not yet understand that this land would soon be a nation-state. They could not have known. Rather than locate nationalism, this book keeps its eye dead set on empire, and, through empire, this book makes an argument for the agency of Egyptian national governance.

[…] (From the conclusion, “The Death of Empire,” p. 133)

In that process of dying – in the morgues, the funerals, the cemeteries, and death documentation – this book reveals that European consulates and communities were in constant negotiation with the Egyptian government, just as they were with each other and with their own capitals across the sea. The Egyptian national government maintained control of land and institutions, even as it ceded them to foreign consulates and communities to build cemeteries or care for the sick and dying. That is, even in the acts of burying imperial bodies, acts I describe as building empire, the foreign consulates and communities were beholden to the decisions of the Egyptian administration. And after 1882, the British colonial state was almost nowhere to be found in these negotiations; the dead were the purview of the local, Alexandrian British and French consulates and the Egyptian government alone. The imperial bodies were thus both bodies of empire and bodies of Egypt.