About Meet an Egyptologist
This Nile Scribes series enables our readers to learn more about Egyptologists from around the world. From questions about their life and their career, we also explore their research interests and perspectives on the field of Egyptology. We want to use this series to help strengthen the public’s awareness of the Egyptological community, and to illustrate the varied careers and on-going research projects within our discipline. This week we interviewed Dr. Katherine Blouin from our very own University of Toronto.
Who is Dr. Katherine Blouin?
Dr. Katherine Blouin received her Ph.D. in Roman History at the Université Laval in Quebec, Canada and works as a specialist on Roman Egypt, focusing on its socio-economic and environmental history. Today, Dr. Blouin serves as Associate Professor in Roman History at the University of Toronto. Among her many research interests are the Nile Delta, its environment and people, and the impact of imperialism, colonialism, and Orientalism on the modern fields of Classics, Papyrology, and Egyptology. She regularly shares this research on her blog, Everyday Orientalism.
Nile Scribes: Where are you from and where were you educated?
Katherine Blouin: I was born in Québec city into a middle class family with working class roots. I’ve wanted to be a historian specialising on ancient Egypt for as long as I can remember. Since there were no Egyptology programs in Québec, I decided to do a B.A. in Ancient Studies at the Université Laval. This is where I discovered Hellenistic to Late Antique Egypt, and decided that it was the period I wanted to focus my research on. So after my B.A., I did an M.A. in Roman History at the Université Laval, with a complementary year in Egyptology at the Université Paris IV Sorbonne. I then went on to do a Ph.D. in Roman History at both the Université Laval and the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, and a Postdoctoral degree in Papyrology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. I was the first person in my entire, extended family to get a university degree. My parents didn’t have the means to pay for my undergraduate and graduate studies. Since student fees were much lower in Québec and in France than in English-speaking North America, I felt like graduate studies were a possibility for me despite the fact that I was not from a bourgeois or affluent background. I managed by working part-time, taking on a small student loan, and, at the graduate level, getting grants and scholarships. Yet despite all the hard work I put into my studies, I consider myself lucky: Given the ongoing governmental cuts to education in Ontario and in many other places (the UK for instance), university education is now becoming more and more out of reach to many young adults.
NB: How did you become interested in ancient Egypt?
KB: I think almost all children go through an Egypt phase. I just never grew out of mine! I’ve always loved books and I remember that my interest for ancient Egypt developed as a bookish one when I was in primary school. At about the same time, I saw my first mummy and sarcophagus during a visit at the Musée de l’Amérique francophone in Québec city. It’s the mummy of Nen-Oun-ef son of Perpaout from the Theban area. I still remember how that mummy freaked me out. For some reason, I was afraid it would come back to haunt me, and I couldn’t sleep well for a few nights after that. Yet this experience did not put an end to my growing obsession with ancient Egypt. I used to read and watch anything that had to do with the country and the region more broadly. I wrote my class papers on related topics, painted Egypt-themed canvases, and listened to Egyptian music. I went through many phases: Papyrus (the comic book series), Christian Jacq, Naguib Mahfouz, Lawrence Durrell, and Constantin Cavafy. I also had an embarrassingly long crush on Ralph Fiennes after The English Patient came out. I am now fully aware of how Orientalist, romanticised, and, thus, historically problematic most of these cultural products are, but I also acknowledge that they did, and still do, act as entry points for most of us who end up pursuing studies and careers in Egyptology, Classics, and Archaeology. I only wish that the offer be more nuanced and less stereotypically-constructed. That’s why I’m increasingly interested in public-facing scholarship and in the diversification and decolonisation of the field.
NS: Where have you worked in Egypt?
KB: I’m not an archaeologist, but a historian and a papyrologist. That being said, I’ve been going to Egypt every year for almost 2 decades now for pleasure, research, and to improve my Egyptian Arabic. I have the utmost respect for Egypt, its people, land, history, and culture. Despite all the changes the country experienced between Antiquity and now, I feel that my historical work benefits greatly from my firsthand experiences there. I usually work at the IFAO in Cairo and I’ve travelled around quite a bit to visit ancient sites and modern cities, but I’ve also spent some time at Tebtunis to work on ostraca, organised two fieldtrips for graduate students in Classics (I intend to apply for funding in order to make this initiative a more regular one), and directed one mission on the site of Tell Timai back in 2013. Tell Timai is the site of ancient Thmuis. This urban mound is located close to Mansurah in the northeastern Delta. It’s actually an extension of Mendes, and it was the Roman metropolis (capital) of the Mendesian Nome, which my second book is dedicated to. My work on the papyri and other evidence from the region explained my interest in the site, whose archaeological potential is quite extraordinary. Even though the Fates had us excavate a monumental, Late Antique structure made of redbricks that looked very promising at first, but turned out to have been dug before (most probably in the late 19th c.), we nevertheless were able to generate some interesting data regarding the occupation of this peripheral part of the tell. Sadly though, due to a series of unforeseen circumstances and despite having received enough funding for three more seasons, I had to cancel the mission after its first year. It was all for the best in the end for it allowed me more time to work on my other projects.
NS: What are your primary research interests?
KB: I’m first and foremost a socio-economic and environmental historian. My research interests include the Nile Delta, multiculturalism, cultural identities, as well as environments, peoples, and periods that are commonly considered to be ‘marginal’. I’m also interested by the ways in which imperialism, colonialism, and Orientalism have impacted (and are still impacting) the fields of Classics, Papyrology, and Egyptology. Lastly, I have done some papyrological work, notably the cataloguing, restoring, and digitising of the Greek papyrus collection in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. I’m currently completing the edition of Greek documents on papyri and leather from that collection, and have also edited Greek ostraca for the Franco-Italian mission at Tebtunis.
NS: What would you say is the largest impact colonialism has made on the field of Egyptology and our understanding of ancient Egypt?
KB: The whole field – like Classics – is a colonial construct: Its development as a scientific discipline took place in the context of the French, then British occupation of Egypt and, more generally, of the cultural and political competition between European (and later American) imperial powers. This is also the context in which most museum collections and archives were acquired and the “official” languages of Egyptology and Classics (German, French, Italian, and English) established. As a result, Antiquity-related fields remain to this day largely Eurocentric. Thus is it perfectly excusable still for non Arab-speaking scholars to ignore scholarship in Arabic (and the same goes for modern Greek and Turkish). The categorisation of Egyptology within the wider field of “Oriental Studies” also stems from the colonial and reductive dualism European/Western/Graeco-Roman vs Oriental/Eastern/Egyptian/Arabic. This phenomenon leads to this day to absurd chronological and linguistic compartmentalisation in universities, archives, and museums. For instance, scholars working on Greek papyri from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt are considered “Classicists” and, for that reason, not necessarily expected to read Egyptian scripts nor Arabic, whereas colleagues studying excavating or studying texts from Egyptian temples of Ptolemaic and Roman date are considered Egyptologists. Things are slowly changing, but lots remain to be done in order to foster a more integrated approach to the history of ancient Egypt in the longue durée.
Another, persisting issue is the difficulty many Egyptian students and scholars still face when it comes to accessing scholarship and conducting research abroad. While many events do take place in Egypt, be they organised by Egyptian colleagues and/or foreign institutions with an anchor in the country, most major conferences on the history of ancient Egypt tend to take place in Europe or North America. As Haythem Guesmi recently argued on the blog Africa is not a Country regarding African Studies, this phenomenon contributes to excluding our Egyptian colleagues further because these conferences are super expensive and, also, often hosted in countries whose visa policies are increasingly discriminatory against citizens from the Global South, including, Egyptians. That’s one of the reasons why Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs, and myself have decided to launch a yearly, Egypt-held workshop entitled Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt. The 2019 edition will take place in Alexandria’s Bibliotheca Alexandrinaon March 11. I also see it as an excellent news that the next International Congress of Egyptologists will take place in Cairo.
NB: How do you think diversity can be represented more effectively within modern scholarship?
KB: First, as Dan-el Padilla Peralta has brilliantly argued recently, diversity is good because it allows diverse perspectives into the conversation. The more diverse – and I use this term in an intersectional way that includes gender, race, socio-economic background, country of origin, and area of expertise – academia is, and the more inter-disciplinary, diachronic, and collaborative our approaches are, the more encompassing our understanding of ancient history will be. If most Antiquity-related fields keep teaching, supervising, promoting, and producing the same type of scholarship produced by the same types of peoples, who were trained in the same way in the same handful of “prestigious” universities, we are self-limiting our understanding of the past because we are only telling a very limited number of stories. Paul Veyne once defined history as a tale made of true events. I say the more seats we allow at the ancient history table, the more tales we’ll finally get to hear.
Second, I don’t believe in grand, revolutionary gestures. I find it more realistic and meaningful in the long run to see those of us who are in a position to do so implementing small but serious and steady initiatives towards diversity – and also decolonisation – at all steps of the way: high school curricula and classroom pedagogy, undergraduate and graduate teaching and recruitment, scholarship, journals, conferences, public scholarship.
NS: You often share pedagogical musings on your blog, Everyday Orientalism. What is the best advice you can give to scholars and teachers of history?
KB: My first advice would be to try to involve as wide a variety of “voices” as possible in the conversation, both in terms of ancient (types of) evidence and modern historiography. If you tend to fetishise literary sources, consider how including artefacts, papyri, inscriptions or geo-archaeological data could contribute to your teaching. If your syllabus contains mostly or exclusively readings from older white men working in the Anglo-Saxon world, why not make an effort to include content from scholars of historically marginalised groups, of a more junior status, or from outside the Anglo-Saxon academic world? I find that blogs, online journals (like Eidolon), and podcasts are very helpful in that regard.
NS: What are you currently reading? What about it has caught your interest?
KB: At the moment, I’m reading two books written by two female, Egyptian scholars. The first one is Hala Halim’s Cosmopolitan Alexandria: An Archive, which provides an in-depth, post-colonial analysis of Constantin Cavafy’s poetry, E.M. Forster’s writings on Alexandria, and Lawrence Durrell’s Quartet. This is a powerful, monumental work of scholarship that demonstrates how embedded in colonial and Orientalist tropes most narratives about Alexandrian (and Egyptian) history and culture remain to this day. For this reason, I recommend it to anyone working on Alexandrian and Egyptian history, no matter the period (same goes for Timothy Mitchell’s and Malcolm Reid’s books). I’m also reading A Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words. el-Sadaawi is one of the Egypt’s most prominent figures of feminism and literature and I still hadn’t read her, so I thought that to do so now would be a great way to kick start my literary year. Luckily for me, I was right!
The Nile Scribes are grateful for Dr. Blouin’s participation in our interview series. If you have any questions for Dr. Blouin, you may contact her on Twitter or leave a comment on the blog.
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All images are courtesy of Dr. Katherine Blouin.