Said talks to the dead. No, he’s not a medium or a wizard, he’s a history PhD student. “Because I’m a historian I mostly deal with dead people,” he explains. “The best feeling is reading a book or a paper that you know hasn’t been touched for 150 years. In that specific moment, you can almost touch the person that wrote it, shake hands with them, talk to them and experience their history in an amazing way.” Although Said has always been interested in learning about the past, it was his own personal history growing up in Russian Central Asia that led him to pursue a PhD in social history. He’s a student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, a joint project between Free University of Berlin, Humboldt University and the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies.
As a social historian, Said focuses his research on groups that are often underrepresented in the historical sources. A challenge most historians face, whether they study ancient Rome or the American Revolution, is that historical texts were largely written by upper-class, educated males. Privileged men were often the only literate group, plus they had the leisure time to devote to writing. As a consequence, historians have a detailed understanding of their lives, but a limited view of the rest of a society. “I want to write about people who are often neglected in historical chronicles: the poor, illiterate, and female,” Said explains. “I think that by writing about their lives and their interaction with the state we could learn a lot about the so-called Zeitgeist.”
Said’s dissertation is about women in the sex trade, an especially marginalized group in Russian Central Asia during the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the sex workers were illiterate lower-class women; they left none of their own records. To add another challenge, sex work was (and still is) a very sensitive topic in Central Asia. Said’s only option is to look for evidence of sex workers in local archives. Most of these documents were produced by Russians and were handwritten in Russian, local Turki, and Persian. The police documents often contain records of interrogations with sex workers who got injured or were accused of committing a crime. “Only through this distorted lens do you get to hear the local women speak and they are quite revealing. And of course I have to tell the story,” says Said. Since the only documents that record the existence of sex workers from this period were all written and regulated by governmental authorities, they can be seen as controlling over womanhood.
The picture that emerges from the documents is very complicated, especially since historians know preciously little about the social lives of the lower classes prior to the Russian conquest. They do know that the arrival of the Russians ensured peace which allowed for greater mobility of the population. Tens of thousands of soldiers arrived the area which, combined with the legalization of prostitution, created a high demand. Many women came from the provinces to the capitals to offer their services. Said says the documents show that the Russians struggled to understand the Muslim marriages and that the definition of marriage in the 19th and 20th century seems to be different than it is today. Women may have had more agency, as records indicate that some women tried to shield themselves from government interference by finding a local man to act as their husband.
When his dissertation is completed, Said’s work will fill a gap in the English language literature about 19th and 20th century Russian Central Asia. There are very few contemporary social histories of the lower classes and their lives during this period. “How can we claim that we know anything about this time when we only see the opinion of such a small part of the population?” Said wondered. “I wanted to research from a new perspective which has never been done before. I see it as visiting an unvisited room.”