Malika Zekhni – Historian Highlight

By Malika Zekhni, interviewed by Alex White

Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the eighth post in this series, Malika Zekhni explains her research into frontiers and mobility in Russian Turkestan at the turn of the twentieth century.

What are you currently researching? 

My PhD looks at trans-border mobility in the context of Russian Central Asia, also known as Turkestan, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am interested in how mobile subjects dealt with imperial borders – both physical and bureaucratic – as they traversed in and around the region. For this, my research zooms into different forms of documentary and regulatory mechanisms that categorised and verified individuals and groups. These paper documents – in the form of passports, visas, permits, and travel petitions – provide a glimpse into the crossroads of spatialisation, border management, and subjecthood. While some adapted and accommodated to the changing regimes of mobility, others negotiated and resisted. At the core of my research is the telling of these different stories of the mobile subjects, who inhabited and moved around a region where numerous imperial frontiers, notably that of the Russian, Qing, and British, were being drawn.  

What led you to research this topic? 

This is a long story that involves my undergraduate degree in art history and work in a museum, which shaped my interest in the life of everyday objects and material history. This eventually led to me interrogating the role of paper and paperwork – that is, I turned from studying manuscripts and artwork on paper to thinking about the role of paper in history. With this, I began wondering how pieces of paper that contained descriptions of one’s body became a powerful tool of surveillance and control over mobility. The Russian Empire, with its long-standing documentary regime, and Central Asia, a historically hypermobile region with extensive inter-imperial networks, together provided a particularly fruitful case for exploring this. The other part of this path includes my MPhil research on colonial cities in Central Asia, which allowed me to examine issues around shaping spaces and drawing boundaries. My curiosity expanded to questioning the functions and uses of borders and barriers in people’s daily lives.     

What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month? 

It’s not necessarily historical material, but the Hayward Gallery has a new installation up called Samovar. Set up by an art collective called Slavs and Tatars, this enormous sculpture of a metal urn is a visually striking replication of an everyday object in the houses of many, especially in Central Asia and Russia, and serves as a fascinating symbol of a global preoccupation with tea – both past and present.  

What’s one of your favourite historical sources? 

I am unsure about favourite, but there was a memorable one from a very recent trip to the British Library when I stumbled upon a file on a man named Yusuf Muhammad (who the file also regularly misnames as José, Jozi, Josia, or Djassin). He is accused of falsely claiming British subjecthood while engaging in trade in the Russian Empire and traversing from Tashkent and Batumi to Moscow and Odessa. Over the first few decades of the twentieth century, Yusuf regularly came into contact with various British and Russian officials, who continuously questioned his imperial belonging. These encounters resulted from Yusuf’s attempt to verify or possibly forge a new, imperial subjecthood and the sheer fact that he kept losing his passport. Over this period, he claimed he had misplaced his passport a few times – it was either lost, stolen during an attack, or confiscated. Thus, confusion and uncertainty underpin the whole file on Yusuf, and a tiny piece of paper – whether forged or genuine – seems to emerge as a significant factor in his ability to live, stay, and function in society. Another memorable part of this is that Yusuf appears to forget his own wife’s name continuously – whether she’s Zuhra, Zainap, or Fatma, he is rarely certain about it.  

Have you had to adapt your work to suit recent travel restrictions? If so, has this changed how you approach your topic, or the kinds of sources you use? 

As someone whose research looks at restrictions on mobility, encountering pandemic-related travel restrictions was a bit surreal. My research relies heavily on archives located in many different places, including Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. It is worth noting that post-Soviet archives, in general, are notoriously difficult to access – and the travel restrictions added a whole different challenge into this mix. I remember that I had a flight booked to Tashkent in March of 2020 and the daunting realisation that I wouldn’t be taking that flight. I don’t think I changed the direction of my research, although the process of self-isolation led to considering how to narrow down my topic. After a few months of chaos and confusion, I began tapping into a fairly small but genuinely supportive and tightly knit network of modern historians of Central Asia, who have been immensely helpful in pointing me towards resources and digitised materials for my research.  

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian? 

‘Break away from your Cartesian thinking’, a piece of advice by a brilliant scholar of Sufism, who also happens to be my mother. She’s always there to challenge my biases and remind me to humanise the stories I write as a historian.     

And the worst? 

‘It will only take an hour or so’, me to me, as I regularly overestimate my ability to complete a task. For example, I thought it would take me an hour to complete this questionnaire, and here I am three days later.   

Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience? 

Be confident and go for a stroll to different college gardens. Performative confidence is key to accessing and exploring the strangely closed-off world of Cambridge. Also, visit Kettle’s Yard – it’s a little gem with a wonderful collection and a serene café, where you can sip on a cup of tea and read.  

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