Robert Fisk highlights a serious problem in studying contemporary Middle Eastern politics and history- the lack of access to archives:
LONDON: In Damascus, a massive statue of the late President Hafez Al-Assad sits on a mighty iron chair outside the 22,000 square meters Assad Library, a giant book open in his right hand.
Behind him lie the archives of his dictatorship. But not a single state paper is open to the people of Syria. There are no archives from the foreign ministry or the interior ministry or the defense ministry. There is no 30-year rule — for none is necessary. The rule is forever. There is no Public Record Office in the Arab world, no scholars waiting outside the National Archives.
It is the same in Cairo, in Riyadh, in Beirut and in Tripoli. Dictatorships and caliphates do not give away their secrets. The only country in the Middle East where you can burrow through the files is called Israel — and good for the Israelis.
Fisk is spot-on. On any controversial or sensitive political or security issue, researchers, Arab or foreign, have almost no chance of getting access to the local records, which is critical. After all, noone could write a decisive book about the First World War if they had access to only the French archives but not the German, or vice versa. In Europe, one can get access to the most sensitive documents, at least after 30 years, and we have a pretty decisive understanding of the events of the First and Second World Wars. Not so in the Middle East. Take for example, Arabs_at_War: Military Effectiveness 1948-1991, an overall outstanding book. The one thing that sticks out, however, is that 99% of the sources used are American or Israeli, which is a serious problem. That being said, there aren’t many sources the author could have consulted as they are all closed to the public.
On this topic, if anyone ever has time to kill in London- go to the National Archives at Kew Gardens. It is a gold-mine. In the time it takes to make a few clicks on a compter screen, one can get access to virtually any file of importance on say the Second World War, British foreign affairs, or even more contemporary issues such as the IRA. Its amazing how useful and organized their database is, which is in stark contrast to the situation in France where files are highly disorganized, and highly (comparaitvely) decentralized, and one has to go through more red-tape just to get access. In London, one can show up the day off, sign up for a library card within minutes, whereas in France, it takes much longer to get access. Although, my lack of research success in France probably had something to do with my mediocre French language skills.
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