MESA Banner
Language, Culture and Politics in the Interwar Period in the Maghreb

Session IV-15, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The interwar period in the Maghreb witnessed seismic political and cultural events that shaped and informed the emerging cultures and societies in the region. After the Rif War and the sustained French ‘pacification’ of inland territories in Morocco, debates in the region centered on engaging with how colonial presence had affected the development of education and the status of indigenous cultures and lifestyles. Debates about language, culture and identity dominated the cultural scene in the interwar period in the Maghreb. The four presentations on this panel offer insightful perspectives that map out how literary and artistic practices in Morocco and Tunisia were embroiled in debates about the politics of culture during this period and the conflicted economy of language, tradition and national identity. The first presentation explores the nature and impact of the failed attempt of the French colonial administration to undermine the cultural and national unity in Morocco through its republican-inspired model of language diversity. The second presentation explores how the Moroccan cultural identity that is anchored in an Arab-Islamic cultural heritage and that hindered the French colonial administration project became an arena for renegotiating religious and spiritual identity among Moroccan intellectuals in the 1930s. Here, the debate focuses on Sufi orders and spiritual practices that moderate and enlightened Salafi intellectuals deemed anti-Islamic and reactionary. The analysis explores how this rivalry between these two groups paved the way for the emergent nationalist discourse and its independentist movement. The third presentation reflects on how this nationalist fervor translated itself in the writings and literary output of Allal Al-Fassi, one of the major ideologues of Moroccan nationalism and how his Salafi-inspired social conservative values conflicted with his progressive political vision. The fourth presentation sheds light on how this polarization on nationalist culture manifested itself in the attitudes and writings and cartoonist art of the Tunisian “Under the Ramparts” movement and its major figure Ali Douagi. The four presentations reflect how religio-cultural and language concepts not only intersected with questions of nationalist ideology in that period but also shaped the development of cultures in the Maghreb in the interwar period.
  • Language politics were a major preoccupation for colonial administrators in Morocco under the French Protectorate (1912-1956). From Lyautey’s Berber Decree in 1930 that triggered resistance by both Imazighen and Arabs to Captain Ropars, who ran the French Protectorate’s Anti-Atlas mountain military post in Ighrem from 1949-1952, language was at the center of colonial ideology and was considered to function as “the treasury of the thought of an entire people” (Herder). I will argue that the French colonial republican model of integration was unsuccessful in controlling the minds and the souls of the indigenous Moroccan population. In Morocco’s diverse multilingual context, the French administrators’ ideal of linguistic and cultural cohesion was ineffective in imposing a cultural model that does not correspond to the nature of a culturally diverse population. I will posit that Moroccan cultural identity that is anchored in an Arab-Islamic cultural heritage hindered the French colonial administration from unsettling the foundations of this historical belonging.
  • During the interwar period in Morocco, popular Sufi orders played an influential role among urban population and dominated many aspects of cultural spiritual life. After the uproar that was triggered by the Berber Decree and the emergence of the nationalist movement, many intellectuals perceived the practices and festivals of these popular Sufi orders as religiously anti-Islamic and politically reactionary. In this paper, I argue that the controversial debates between advocates of the Sufi orders and the so-called enlightened Salafi intellectuals played an important role in shaping the ideological agendas and political discourse of nationalist movement. These debates during the period of the 1930s helped pave the way for the emergence of a new polarized cultural landscape in which intellectual and socio-political debates would culminate in the submission of the bill of independence of 1944. These debates appeared initially to be strictly concerned with arguments about the correct understanding and interpretation of Islam and its place in the competing reform programs. However, in my analysis I demonstrate how the conflict and debates reflect a crucial power struggle to dominate public culture in Morocco and how socio-cultural ideologies competed to repurpose spiritual and religious questions for social domination and mobilization of civilian population.
  • During the interwar period when Morocco was a protectorate under French and Spanish colonial control, Moroccan nationalist intellectuals played a major role in negotiating the new and emergent culture of the country. Through their contact with the Arab nationalism of the Mashreq and the reform movement spearheaded by reformers in Egypt and the Levant, most of them sought to resist French and Spanish acculturation by emphasizing cultural production that centered on revival of Arabic and Islamic cultures. Allal Al Fassi (1910-1974), a leader of Moroccan nationalist movement, sought through his poetry and critical writings to bolster a sense of nationalism through critique of traditional Islamist thinkers and their passivity. In this paper, I argue that in his seminal text al-Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique), he offered a program that sought to build a modern national culture in Morocco by foregrounding Arab-Islamic tradition and resistance of French and European culture and values. However, the main tenets of this visionary platform nonetheless reinstated patriarchal authority and reproduced elite and bourgeois values because the Salafist school continued to maintain a powerful grip on Al Fassi’s progressive political vision.
  • The paper will examine the short stories, cartoons, and musical lyrics of Ali Douagi (1909-1949), one of the most prominent members of Taht Essour, the bohemian group of inter-war thinkers and artists that included Abu al-Qasim Chebbi , Hédi La'abidi, and Tahar Haddad among others, all of whom met "under the ramparts" in a café located at Bab Souika, against the walled fortifications of the Tunis medina. Experimenters of cultural forms, especially in derija (dialect), these satirical humorists poked fun at colonial authorities and their own society at a moment both when war abroad, military occupation and campaigns to save Europe via the North African underbelly of the Mediterranean brought the war home, jolting the social order. Douagi's writings caricatured the customs and quirks of the Tunisian society of his time. The paper will examine Douagi's short story collection, cartoons, and lyrics against the backdrop of colonial policy and contemporary history of the inter war period.