JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Chloe Bordewich

February 5, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Chloe Bordewich (Ph.D. Harvard University 2022) completed her doctorate in History and Middle Eastern Studies and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research. Her research focusses on the gaps between what the public has the right to know, and what the state is entitled to conceal; between official propaganda and what members of the public know to be true. Her fellowship research project is titled Leaking Empires: The Long Struggle Over Information in the Eastern Mediterranean. Chloe is our 2023-24 JHI-CDHI Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow.

What are your main research interests?

I am a historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle East, and most of my research is based in Egypt and Turkey. I study the history of information---news, rumors, leaks, and propaganda. I am especially interested in how secrets warp political relationships and shape the production of historical narratives.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

My priority is turning my dissertation into a book, tentatively titled Facts or Fakes?: Empire, Authoritarianism and the Fight for Information Justice in Modern Egypt. During the Arab revolutions of 2011, citizens used new digital media to challenge the entrenched hierarchies of power that had long dictated their relationship to the state. Governments soon bent these tools into weapons of surveillance and control. But the idea that quality information is a public good worth fighting for is much older than our online age. In my book, which focuses on Egypt, I examine how people contested obstacles to the circulation of information again and again over the course of the twentieth century. Their demands shaped law, policing, and media—but repeatedly went unfulfilled. What did people have a right to know? What was the state entitled to conceal? Ultimately, I am interested both in colonial practices of information-gathering and dissemination and in the epistemological underpinnings of postcolonial authoritarianism.

I am also affiliated with the Critical Digital Humanities Initiative (CDHI), for which I organize the Lightning Lunch series featuring current digital humanities work by UofT scholars. In the fall I taught Introduction to Digital Humanities at UTM, which connected me to the broader UofT community in a different way (and helped me learn all sorts of new digital tools!).

At the same time, I remain deeply involved in the Boston Little Syria Project, a public history initiative I launched in 2022. It documents the history of the city’s first Arabic-speaking community, which thrived from the 1890s through the 1950s, through walking tours, exhibitions, and now a digital map.

How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

Having previously worked in offices with no windows or bleak views, I’ve found the great view from my JHI office highly conducive to writing and thinking. This is especially true in the morning, when downtown Toronto is often shrouded in an ethereal purplish fog. The sense of community across rank and discipline has been generative and refreshing. JHI has also created opportunities for fellows to get out of the office, which I especially appreciate as a postdoc who is not from Toronto, with only one year to make the most of it: among other outings, we have spun bowls at the Gardiner Museum’s ceramics workshop and leafed through rare books at the Fisher Library. In March, I will be facilitating a workshop here on cartographic absences, and I am grateful to JHI for helping my co-organizer and me bring our idea to life so quickly.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

It often takes time after I’ve read something to realize how deeply it has resonated with me. In keeping with JHI’s annual theme, Absence, I’ve been turning to two books with seemingly little to do with my research: Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. Each begins with the loss of the author’s father: Matar’s was disappeared in the 1990s by agents of Libya’s Qaddafi regime, while Schulz’s died more recently of old age. But their common subject is ultimately the unpredictable things of beauty that grow in the space left by such profound loss. Matar’s work is a meditation on the slow contemplation of painting, while Schulz tells the story of how she fell in love with her wife. The last third of her book is about “and”—the conjunction of losing with finding, of absence with presence.

What is a fun fact about you?

Back in 2004, I was a finalist in the U.S. National Spelling Bee, and the later rounds were broadcast on the sports channel ESPN. I did not win, so my claim to fame was being in what has gone down as “one of the first videos to go viral”—on the site eBaumsworld, because YouTube wasn’t invented until the following year. A speller a few spots ahead of me in the lineup fainted and keeled over mid-spell, then stood up and successfully finished his word (“alopecoid”). This is still a popular gif out there on the internet.