by Katherine Blouin
This post is based on a short talk I gave as part of the University of Minnesotta’s series “The Future of the Past: Rethinking Legacies of Injustice in the Study of Antiquity“. I thank Steve Ahearne-Kroll for inviting me to think about my relationship to ancient texts and Papyrology alongside Rachel Mairs, Usama Ali Gad and Roberta Mazza, and together with an engaged audience of colleagues and students.
I want to start this post with four fragments of human stories. Each of them has come to us written on a piece of papyrus found in Egypt.
Somewhere in 2nd c. BCE Egypt, a mother or a wife writes to her son or husband:
“Discovering that you are learning Egyptian writing, I was happy for you and for myself, because now when you return to the city you will teach the slave-boys in the establishment of Phalou…the enema-doctor, and you will have a means of support for old age.”UPZ 1.148, Bagnall and Derow 2004 (1981) transl., 233
Four centuries later, that is in the 2nd c. CE, a woman named Tasoucharion writes to her brother Neilos:
“To Neilos her brother from Tasoucharion. I was very sorry to hear about Taonnophris. Bear it nobly, brother, for the sake of your children. And except that my children are away Ptolemais and Sarapion, I myself would go upcountry. Receive from the man who is delivering this letter to you dried fruits, 160 in number, and ten pinecones for the sacrifice for her.
(Address): Deliver to Neilos son (?) of Tasalos from Tasoucharion his sister.”BGU 3.801, Bagnall and Cribiore 2006 transl.,180
Around the same time, a piece of hieratic text was reused so as to write on the verso a Greek letter addressed to a man named Hermias by a woman (possibly his wife) named Isidora:
“Isidora to Hermias her lord brother, very many greetings. Do everything you can to put everything off and come tomorrow; the child (?) is sick. He has become thin, and for 6 days he hasn’t eaten. Come here lest he die while you’re not here. Be aware that if he dies in your absence, watch out lest Hephaistion finds that I’ve hung myself.”PSI 3.177 verso, Bagnall and Cribiore 2006 transl., 280
Around 296 CE, An Alexandria-based woman named Ploutogenia writes to her mother, who might have lived in Philadelphia (Faiyum oasis), given this is where the letter was found:
“Ploutogenia to my mother, many greetings. Before everything I pray that you are in good health before the Lord God. It is 8 months already since I came to Alexandria but you did not write to me a single letter. Again you do not treat me like your daughter (but) like your enemy. The bronze vessels that you have by you, give them to Atas and then get them back from the same Atas full. And write to me how much money you received from Koupineris and do not be neglectful. Take care of the irrigation machine and of your cattle, do not be idle and do not wish to trouble…If your daughter is going to get married, write to me and I come. I salute you and your children. I also salute those who love us each by name. I pray that you are well always.
(Address): Give it to my mother from her daughter Ploutogenia”P.Mich. 3.221, Bagnall and Cribiore 2006 transl., 294
These are only four among hundreds of thousands of texts written on papyri and other portable supports that have come to us. As such, they represent only a teeny tiny fraction of the overall spectrum of documents, languages, dates, and places covered by all known papyri.
Yet I hope that they suffice in illustrating how as letters that were handwritten, rolled up, carried around from hands to hands, unrolled, read out loud, stored, then eventually dumped or forgotten, they are the closest we can come to listening to the voices of people living in Hellenistic to Medieval Egypt and, also, a few other places.
It often strikes me as an odd thing that I, a Québécoise living in the early 21st c., get to read, and sometimes even to restore and decipher, texts written by people who lived twelve hour by plane and two thousands or so years away from me, in a land I was neither born nor grew up in, and in a language I don’t speak fluently.
What would Tasoucharion, Isidora, Ploutogenia, and the other authors and recipients of the letters above think if they would be told that two millennia or so after their death a woman from a continent they had no clue existed in their lifetime was giving a talk in which she read out loud their private letters? What would they think of the way I use their words in a classroom, at conferences, in publications? What would they think of this post? And what would we say to each other?
What would local scribes, veterans, judges, and farmers from Aphrodito, Oxyrhynchos, Arsinoe, Thmuis, Alexandria, Herculaneum, Vindolanda, or Petra think of us, today, if they were invited to join us during class? How would we explain what we do to them? How would we explain to them that their texts are stored in temperature controlled rooms, exhibited in glassy cases, cared for by scholars, discussed in international workshops, and at times smuggled, dismembered, scattered, forged and sold for lots of money?
Our ancient interlocutors are not living bodies anymore. They cannot sign an ethics form allowing us to use their words, texts, and data. They cannot object, reject, validate or invalidate what we do with their texts.
However, the Lands they lived on and were buried in still exist. Many of these Lands – including Egypt – have shifted, and so have the many generations of living beings on them. But they are still here, and although thousands of papyri have been scattered throughout the world, they remain fundamentally rooted in the Land where the words they carry were penned, burried, then extracted.
Which leads me to Papyrology.
I want to share a fifth story. This one is closer to us. And it took place in English.
What follows is the transcript of a conversation I had with a senior White Papyrologist during a cocktail party that took place in Barcelona during the 2016 International Congress of Papyrologists (ICP). Earlier that day, Rachel Mairs, Usama Ali Gad and I presented the results of our analysis of all of the ICPs programs and proceedings. The panel, which was chaired by Roberta Mazza, was attended by a large audience. While many were openly supportive of our findings and recommendations, that was not the case of everyone, including the person called “X” here. When I got home that night, and after having shared my experience with a few friends and colleagues, including Rachel and Usama, I wrote down our conversation. It’s been waiting on my desktop for the past six years, like a digital antigraphon.
“X : I don’t agree with your idea of having Egyptians named in the Association’s committee [at that time no Egyptian had ever seated on the Association Internationale des Papyrologues’ committee] and of having Arabic as an official language for papers. Do you know why there were never any Egyptians in the committee?
X : Because they were never any good Egyptian papyrologist.
Me: Really? In the whole history of our discipline, there were never any competent Egyptian?
X : No. And there still isn’t. We should not encourage them. The problem is, they go to University, their ego becomes bloated, and they start complaining and saying that they have been colonised. It’s like your Egyptian friend, you should not encourage him.
Me: … And what about Arabic? Why don’t you want it to become an official language?
X : Because I am not attending conferences to listen to talks in languages I don’t understand.
Me: Come on! You know that most of us don’t understand talks in the congress’ four current official languages [French, Italian, German, English] anyways.
X : You know Katherine, I’ve been working in Egypt for over 40 years, and I know the Egyptians very well. I deeply detest this country and hate its people.
Me: So why do you work there?
X : Because this is where the work has to be done. The Egyptians who work on Antiquities are incompetent. They are those who cannot get into the army, medicine, or the sciences. I’ve only known 3 or 4 who were slightly competent. The rest are not. Besides, as long as they remain Muslim, things won’t change.
X : Because Islam is the enemy of thought.”
What would Tasoucharion, Isidora and Ploutogenia think of this story? And what do you think?
The conversation quoted above took place in the middle of the crowd. We did not whisper. My interlocutor did not ask me to keep what they said to myself. They seemed very comfortable to “enlighten” me. I understood this comfort as being tied to the fact that I was perceived (as has often been the case) as a ‘young’ female scholar, who was deemed indignant, clueless and naive, yet who, contrary to my Muslim colleagues, was seen as ‘redeemable’. It was, in sum, a typical example of (wo)mansplaining. You might wonder why I didn’t I tell them off. I thought about it. But I was simultaneously aware of the documentary interest of the information that was fed to me, so I shifted to an inquisitive mode and simply kept on asking questions to see what more thoughts this person would openly share with me.
The colleagues I shared this conversation with were not surprised of its content. What they were surprised of was that this person shared so much unfiltered thoughts out loud. Someone suggested that maybe my interlocutor were drunk, or demented. Personally, I don’t think that alcohol and dementia render people racist and Islamophobic. Besides, it is not uncommon for such takes to be shared among White papyrologists, sometimes even in the presence of Egyptian colleagues. I’m pretty certain that most papyrologists (and Egyptologists for that matter) are able to remember one or several anecdotes (or pictures) involving a condescending and colonial colleague. I myself had other interactions of the genre, including one where I was informed that us “people need to stop talking about colonialism, and the same goes for Germany’s Nazi and fascist past”. Europe had apparently moved on and so should we. Let’s just say that in the light of the current geopolitical moment, this take did not age well.
Obviously, and thank goodness, my interlocutor doesn’t represent all papyrologists. I also do acknowledge that Egypt’s Antiquities and heritage sector is experiencing many structural issues that affect both Egyptian and foreign colleagues. And yes, many encouraging projects and initiatives were launched since 2016. One can think for instance of the work of colleagues like Roberta Mazza and Brent Nongbri on provenance; the Forging Antiquity project; Usama Ali Gad’s Classics in Arabic; Eidolon’s special issue on papyrus thefts; Jennifer Cromwell’s Papyrus Stories; the election of Noha Salem to the AIP committee; the adoption of a Statement on Professional Ethics by the ASP under the Presidency and with the support of Todd Hickey and the ASP executive board.
But to me, this conversation remains a valuable window into the genealogy of Papyrology, as well as the ongoing challenges faced by the discipline. For the reality is, despite the encouraging developments listed above, global Papyrology remains for the most part conservative, and unwilling to structurally disrupt its traditional, philological and Eurocentric habitus: It is overall poorly invested in dialogues with other disciplines besides Classics, archaeology and Egyptology; seldomly engages with post/decolonial theory (and when it does it is sometimes several decades behind what is happening in other disciplines); and looks down on public-facing scholarship and outreach, which are often deemed ‘easy’ and so the prerogative of ‘weak’ papyrologists (that is those whose scholarly work does nto center on deciphering and editing papyrological documents). There are obviously nuances depending on which country and particular institutional environment one works in. But overall I have over the past 15 years noticed, simultaneously to the initatives listed above, the mobilization of gatekeeping forces that aim to shut down – or prevent – out-of-the-box and critical work. What these forces ultimately do is push away scholars whose work disrupts the status quo. These scholars feel more and more alienated from the discipline, and so decide to skip the ICPs altogether, publish critical papyrological content in non-papyrological journals, and purposefully shift their energy towards conversations with scholars working in other fields.
This cross-pollinization beyond the narrow field of Papyrology is ultimately a silver lining. Indeed, this type of work does a better job at honouring the ancient lives whose stories are preserved on papyrological documents while making the case for the importance of telling and teaching these stories in today’s world. In contrast, by despising and occluding self-critical scholars(hip), Papyrology works towards its own intellectual impoverishment and disciplinary asphyxiation. At a time when (ancient) History is simultaneously threatened by conservative attacks, subject to increasing defunding, and misappropriated by far-right groups, this seems like a self-destructive move. And it breaks my heart.
During the second wave of the pandemic, as Ontario’s Conservative government was failing to follow public health advice for the sake of not displeasing its donors, an ICU doctor decided to share the story of a patient who had just died on national tv. His testimony went viral. It created such a wave of popular outrage that the government was finally forced to implement some further restrictions. An epidemiologist commented on twitter: “It’s fascinating that the compelling anecdote always trumps the stats and data. It’s the Stalin line that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Why am I bringing this up? Because this is a potent example of the power of stories (a power I only became truly aware of through (un)learning from Indigenous knowledge keepers, and especially the late Lee Maracle).
Papyri, as objects and as texts, are receptacles of ancient, mostly but not exclusively Egyptian, stories. Besides a few dozen individuals, noone cares about dotted letters, tables of taxes on dry land, or debates over a contract formula or the dating of a particular cursive hand. Not that these details don’t matter. They obviously do. But they are means to an end. This end is to tell, and learn from, the stories of real people, of the real lands they lived, moved through, and died on, in as respectful, responsible and humble a way as possible. To be able to retrieve, tell and teach these stories is a privilege; one that comes with responsibilities, including a duty of self-reflection. This is all the more so the case, I would be tempted to argue, for those of us who are foreigners to the lands these ancient stories belong to.
By the end of the Barcelona conference, Rachel, Usama and I had decided that the time was ripe for us to create a platform where disruptive and decolonial voices could find a home, and where creative pedagogical conversations could safely take place. A friend suggested we call it “Everyday Orientalism”.
We very much liked that idea then.
And we still do now.
cover picture: Detail from P.Mich. 3.221