The Story of the Cairo Papers

There is no better person than Iman Hamdy to tell the story of Cairo Papers in Social Science, the American University in Cairo’s long-running English-language journal monograph, which went online-only in 2016 and is published by the American University in Cairo Press. As the publication’s editor since 2001, she vividly recalls how the founders’ initial idea for a monograph series steadily evolved into a journal—today amounting to an astonishing 35 volumes, covering a fascinating and varied range of disciplines.

“As far as I can tell, Cairo Papers is a unique publication in the region,” says Hamdy. “A key feature of Cairo Papers, which was also envisioned by its founders and continues until today, is it that it is an interdisciplinary academic publication of the various social science fields.”

This multi-disciplinary feature is very much reflected in the diversity of the research published by the quarterly—spanning the fields of political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology, as well as history, mass communication, and psychology, all of it pertaining to the Middle East.

It all started back in 1977, when Dr. Tim Sullivan, the then chair of the economics, political science, and mass communication department at AUC came up with the idea for the journal and its name. The first issue of Cairo Papers in Social Science (CPSS) was entitled Women, Health and Development, and it was published by AUC Press. Soon after that, AUC professors Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (economics, political science, and mass communication department), Mark Kennedy (sociology, anthropology, and psychology department), and Asaad Nadim (Social Research Center) turned CPSS into a scholarly journal and served on its first editorial board.

“The aim was to produce a monograph series dedicated not only to demonstrating the relevance of Middle Eastern social science vis-à-vis Western theoretical orientations, but also to share with dedicated Western scholars the fruits of indigenous research into issues and problems of differential development in the Middle East,” explains Hamdy, referring to the periodical’s original mission statement.

She believes that today, “a good number of Western social scientists who specialize in the region, and in the Arab world in particular, acknowledge its value and refer to it in their research.”

This could well have much to do with Hamdy and her passion for the publication. “The reason why I have spent so many years at Cairo Papers is that I simply love my job,” explains Hamdy, who obtained her PhD in political science from Cairo University in 1996 and later taught part-time in the political science department at AUC, before becoming editor of the CPSS. “I value the task of disseminating knowledge even if I am not the producer.”

In addition to covering widely studied regional themes, such as political and economic transition, human rights, and the social policies of individual states, CPSS publishes works on education, the empowerment of women, child protection policies, desert communities, cross-cultural marriages, environment, and even diet clinics in Cairo. “One of our manuscript pools are outstanding masters’ theses,” notes Hamdy, before elaborating on the two important advantages this gives the quarterly: “First, these shed light on understudied topics that are not of interest to commercial publishers, and second, they are based on original research, thus contributing to better knowledge of the region and the topics in question, in addition to engaging with Western theories and concepts and testing them on new, non-Western grounds.”

As the journal editor, she oversees and reads all the issues. “Most Cairo Papers issues were eye-openers for me,” Hamdy admits. But evidently some more than others. Among the most interesting to her were Scenes of Schooling: Inside a girls’ school in Cairo (vol. 15, issue no. 1), Street Children in Egypt (vol. 26, issue no. 2), and Anthropology in Egypt: 1900–67: Culture, Function, and Reform (vol. 33, issue no. 2)—three issues, among others, that went out of stock very soon after they were published. “The first one gave me a detailed account of the so-called Islamic schools in Egypt back in the 1990s and the way they socialize children with regard to both religion and the state, which is totally different from what we learn and expect in our mainstream schools. The one on street children took me to a world I knew nothing about and gave me a much better understanding of what it means to live in the street. And finally, the history of anthropology in Egypt was a fascinating piece about the people who established the field in this country, and made me interested in reading their works to know more.”

Every year the CPSS holds its Annual Symposium—now in its 28th year. “The symposium has been a valuable addition to Cairo Papers, as it has given us the chance to publish research in newly navigated areas such as the issues on sports in the Middle East and the food question in the Middle East,” said Hamdy.

The symposium came about in 1991, when Professor Dan Tschirgi, who was the editor of Cairo Papers at the time, suggested that a small symposium be held to debate, from an academic point of view, the Gulf crisis, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. From that year on, the board decided to make the symposium an annual event and to publish the papers presented in it as a Cairo Papers issue. “Chosen themes covered timely and understudied topics, and participants were selected by the organizers from the local and international arenas in order to allow for a fruitful exchange of ideas related to the relevant topic,” says Hamdy, stressing that “the symposium is multi-disciplinary and tries to provide a comparative perspective for the issue in question by bringing research from more than one place in the Middle East.”

Next month, the CPSS will hold a fascinating and unusual symposium. It will focus on just one city: Cairo: A City in Mutation. “There are so many changes going on in the urban landscape, political economy, and social relations in Cairo that we chose to dedicate the whole event to discussing and analyzing these transformations in terms of their implications for Egypt as well as being a showcase for other mega-cities across the world,” says Hamdy.


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