Theorizing the Histories of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Arab Maghrib

By Burke, Edmund,, III | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Theorizing the Histories of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Arab Maghrib

Burke, Edmund,, III, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


The field of maghrib studies has always been marginal to the U.S. academy - not quite African, not quite Arab, not quite European, the Maghrib inhabits a space between the essentialisms evoked by each. For Africans (and Africanists), North Africans were slavers and proto-imperialists, whose historical experiences diverged from those of sub-Saharan Africa. As constituted in the U.S., African studies has tended to see its terrain as Africa south of the Sahara, "black Africa" as opposed to "white Africa" (thereby mindlessly replicating colonial racisms). While Africa specialists are fully aware of the historical links between the two, such as the trans-Saharan gold trade, Islam and Arabic culture, the field often proceeds as if the North were another world.

Although two-thirds of all Arabs live in northern Africa (Egypt and the Arab Maghrib are each one third), Maghribis have long been regarded by U.S. Arabists as "not quite real Arabs," spoiled by colonization and the mission civilisatrice. Mashriqi Arabs, confident of their historic primacy and cultural superiority, regard Maghribi Arabic as incomprehensible, Maghribi intellectuals par trop francise, and Maghribi history as inalterably other (forgetting a common Ottoman and Islamic past). Those who study the Mashriq in the U.S. have tended to absorb these prejudices, often without thinking. As a result, "the Arab World" studied in the U.S. remains a field seriously out of kilter, shorn of one third of its inhabitants, an essentialized rump of a much larger and more diverse reality. As a result a comparative historical approach to the Arab World has been slow to emerge.(1)

Finally, despite one hundred and thirty-two years of French colonization (or indeed because of it) French historians see Algeria's history as occurring off-stage, rather than as an inalterable part of the history of France. Added to this is the way in which the way the histories of imperial role have tended to map on to the division of labor of colonial scholarship in Middle East studies. Eastern Arabs (some of them, anyway) had Britain as their colonial tutor, and thus their colonial records are readily accessible to Anglophone scholars. Western Arabs, on the other hand, were ruled by France (as well as Spain and Italy), thereby interposing a further screen over their colonial pasts for the linguistically challenged. British colonialism is a big subject in the U.S. (itself a former British colonial possession), while French colonialism is not. As a result serious historians of colonialism in the Maghrib have worked mostly in the shadows, and histories of the colonial Middle East take the British experience as normative, while largely ignoring French, Spanish and Italian colonialism.

As a result of its multiple marginality, the Maghrib has been something of an intellectual cul de sac in the U.S. Middle East field: professional journals and academic conferences largely ignore it, while books on North Africa go mostly unreviewed.(2) As the history of colonialism and nationalism recedes into the past, however, the marginality of the Maghrib seems increasingly less at issue. For the first time it is possible to imagine North Africa not in terms of what it is not (African, Arab, French), but rather as a site from which to interrogate the dichotomous forms of identity and historical understanding which derive from the history of modernity.

Today, in a different historical moment, that of the "posts" (colonial, modern, Cold War, Gulf War, structuralist) these "lacks" appear in a different guise: as marks of hybridity, alterity and liminality, sites of resistance and contestation. The colonial past of Arab North Africa appears as increasingly fresh and relevant to increasing numbers of scholars from outside of the traditional field of North African studies, a key terrain in which colonial culture can be apprehended.(3) Feminist theory, cultural studies, minority studies, postcolonial studies, the influence of the subaltern studies group of Indian historians, new ways of conceptualizing Europe as a dynamic multi-cultural arena (rather than a series of hermetically sealed essentialisms) have combined to bring histories of colonialism back onto the academic agenda.

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