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Decolonizing the Maghreb: Everyday Life, Labor, and Violence

Panel XIII-18, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Prof. Sylvie Durmelat -- Presenter
  • Daniel Williford -- Presenter
  • Dr. Rebecca Gruskin -- Chair
  • Sunny Chen -- Presenter
  • John Keck -- Presenter
  • Dr. Andrew Bellisari -- Presenter
  • Natalie Bernstien -- Presenter
  • Daniel Williford
    In the four years preceding Morocco’s independence in 1956, anticolonial urban unrest in the country constituted a perpetual source of concern for French municipal officials. Following the December 1952 uprising in Casablanca, a group of colonial engineers, planners, and administrators in the city experimented with a novel set of techniques designed to contain both nationalist activism and everyday urban conflicts. This paper will examine a collection of material, financial, and organizational technologies developed during the final years of the French Protectorate in Morocco (1912-1956). These technologies remade the construction process—changing the way that building, demolition, and housing finance were organized in the city—with the aim of curbing urban violence and anticolonial resistance. I argue that three interlocking strategies—techniques of prefabrication, the reorganization of labor on the construction site, and the creation of low-interest, state-backed mortgages—constituted an attempt not only to stave off decolonization but to shape its outcome. In this paper, the late-colonial construction site serves as a prism for addressing a series of broader questions about the nature of decolonization in Morocco: How were the strategies and logics of colonial rule cemented within the built environment in the years leading up to the country’s independence? How was technology—specifically construction technology—made resistant to decolonization as a political movement? What role did debt play in creating new forms of dependency designed to weather the transition to post-colonial rule? Drawing on archival sources from the end of the French Protectorate, oral histories with residents of Casablanca, and close readings of technical documents, this paper engages with recent scholarly work that attempts to rethink the process of decolonization in North Africa by attending to the ways that environments, infrastructures, and institutions were materially reorganized. By analyzing how the construction site became a space for containing anticolonial aspirations, I offer a historical account of how officials endeavored to insulate technology, housing finance, and engineering from the broader aims of nationalist movements in ways that would continue to shape the trajectory of urban activism after independence.
  • Sunny Chen
    My proposed project examines the development of the Moroccan phosphate industry during the later decades of the French Protectorate (roughly 1930– 1950’s), focusing on the co-production of colonial land policy and labor policy as it was informed by European fantasies of the Maghreb environment, especially the Sahara desert. My analysis comes from a history of science background and perspective. My research will be based on French and Arabic language documents from the Archives du Maroc, including geological and land surveys, mining legislation, measurements of toxicity, radiation exposure and waste, and medical records (and possibly from other Moroccan archives as well, pending summer travel plans). Drawing from methods in environmental history, science technology studies, and racial capitalism, and economic history, my project seeks to show how geological and chemical sciences under the French protectorate constituted a racialized system of knowledge for the extraction and control of both labor and natural resources from the Maghreb. Through analysis of scientific knowledge production, my project also contributes to a critical analysis of postcolonial national economies and neo-colonial extractive infrastructure. Moroccan phosphate mines were nationalized in 1921, far before independence, under the Office Cherifen des Phosphates (OCP) in order to maintain the Protectorate’s “open-door” trade policy while at the simultaneously ensuring French precedence in phosphate trade. As such, they provide a view into the continuity of colonial economic and environmental policy under the guise of both national autonomy and scientific expertise. The history of phosphate extraction is a critically understudied topic that has increasing contemporary relevance. As Morocco holds more than 70 percent of the world’s phosphate, its mines were sites of primary importance to the French empire, as well as to international investors from the colonial period to today. Access to phosphate is also central to Morocco’s unyielding hold on the Western Sahara, where several major mines are located. Phosphate, as a critical component of fertilizer, is necessary for global food security and important for agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. On a broad level, my project seeks to position decolonization and African development at the heart of environmental justice and to contribute to the contemporary discourse around the climate crisis which too often reiterates colonial ideas of environmental stewardship.
  • John Keck
    In the late stages of the Algerian conflict of 1954-1963 and in its immediate aftermath, the French settler community known as the pieds noirs entered a period of intense ideological and frequently physical conflict with the French state over what it perceived as its abandonment by Charles de Gaulle. Even prior to this, the pieds noirs had come to see themselves as a largely separate entity from the French metropole. In large part due to the influence of their Arab and Berber neighbors and an influx of migrants from Spain and Italy, pied noir culture had developed differently than even Mediterranean France, becoming more like the Maghrebi cultures in terms of lifestyle, the building arts, and cuisine. Additionally, political strife with the French government had spawned nascent ideas concerning autonomy if not outright independence since the 1860s. While the existing literature emphasizes community, memory, and a sense of shared loss among the pieds noirs, there has been little consideration of them as a nation. Undoubtedly the pieds noirs fulfill most of Benedict Anderson’s criteria of a nation as an imagined community with a limited scope, print capitalism, and a desired homeland; however, Anderson’s final requirement is that it be imagined as sovereign. This paper employs articles from the French Algerian newspapers L’Écho d’Algers, L’Écho d’Oran, and the Depêche Quotidienne d’Oran, along with memoirs of their editors Alain de Serigny and Pierre Laffont and writings by Albert Camus, to demonstrate that a movement toward autonomy had been quietly building in the decades before the Algerian conflict, and that the abrupt and shocking revelation of the Evian Accords that ceded Algeria to the indigenous peoples completed the drive toward a break with France and an imagined independence and sovereignty. This gave a final form to the novel construct of a Maghrebi European nation, which has uneasily coexisted with the French metropole since its flight from Algeria in 1963. More recent newspaper articles demonstrate that this conceptual nation has held a tenuous and fragile existence to the present day, from the establishment of the Gouvernement provisoire Pied-Noir en exil in 2016 to the assassination of Jacques Roseau of the pied noir organization Le Recours by former Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) operatives in 1993 on suspicion of betraying the pied noir community. Finally, a comparison is drawn to Québécois nationalism to validate this argument.
  • Dr. Andrew Bellisari
    Muslim servicemen from France's colonies in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa made up more than a quarter of the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps during the Indochina War (1946-1954). A potent symbol of postwar France’s ability to command the loyalty of its colonial subjects during its first major war of decolonization, Muslim soldiers also represented an ever-present anxiety for French military officials who worried about desertion and feared that disaffected African veterans would join anticolonial movements in other parts of the French Union following demobilization. Similarly, the Viet Minh perceived North and Sub-Saharan Africans serving in French uniform as both a threat to its own rhetoric of anticolonial solidarity and an opportunity to spread propaganda aimed at widening rifts in a multi-racial, multi-confessional colonial military rife with tension. This paper examines the psychological warfare efforts of both French officials and Vietnamese Communists to influence Muslim soldiers and argues that these efforts spoke to larger anxieties each side harbored about them. For the French, these efforts involved the logistical challenges of attending to the needs of Muslims far from home, including: religious services, Halal food preparation, culturally-appropriate recreation, and even prostitutes brought from the Maghreb and West Africa. To monitor battle-effectiveness, morale, and possible subversion within the ranks, the French military’s "Bureau Psychologique" established special offices for Muslim and African affairs. For its part, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam launched a clandestine propaganda campaign known as "dich van" ("rallying the enemy) to exploit anticolonial activities in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa to encourage desertion and cultivate sympathizers among colonial soldiers. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, this paper also investigates the personal motivations of Muslim soldiers to understand how decisions to enlist, resist, desert, and rally were made and how attitudes changed during the conflict. Studying such decisions will contribute to recovering the lived experiences of individuals that remain little discussed within contemporary France, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
  • Natalie Bernstien
    Until recently, scholarship on the Holocaust—especially within modern Jewish historiography—has been limited to Europe’s continental borders, paying little attention to how European colonies in North Africa experienced the effects of the Holocaust during the Second World War. This paper contributes to this history through the lens of Tangier in northern Morocco in the twentieth century. While recent scholarship has begun to challenge the traditional geographies of the Holocaust, much of the work on the Holocaust in North Africa has focused primarily on the French colonial landscape and Vichy France, overlooking both the Spanish zone in northern Morocco and Tangier as an International Zone. Deemed an International Zone in 1925 until Morocco’s independence three decades later, Tangier evaded direct Spanish and French rule. Thus, the city served as a major sphere of international administration, at the same time allowing for the presence of anti-colonial activity alongside a robust European presence not always aligned with ruling colonial powers. Such was the political and legal milieu that the Jewish refugees of Europe seeking passage through Tangier found themselves in, often having to navigate overlapping and sometimes clashing authorities. Given the complex landscape in Tangier that differentiated the position of the refugees from those living under French jurisdiction, the study of their lived experiences is warranted. At the intersection of the study of the Holocaust and colonialism in wartime Morocco, this paper asks: How did Tangier’s status as an international city affect the settlement of Jewish refugees in Morocco? What were the bureaucratic and legal structures that refugees had to navigate in their passage to safety? How did the framework of an International Zone translate to their lived experiences? To answer these questions, I utilize both personal and colonial archives, such as the memoirs of escapees and French and Spanish colonial archives respectively, in addition to the documents of the Jewish Community of Tangier (the Junta).
  • Prof. Sylvie Durmelat
    In December 2020, UNESCO granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status to couscous following Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia’s joint application. They collectively made the case for a uniquely North African Berber origin for the dish, although Libya, not a signatory of the 2003 Convention, could not be included. Highlighting the central place of couscous in the life of Maghrebi families, they reclaimed ownership of this now global commodity. This display of unity around a shared dish was short-lived. Culinary diplomacy’s tenuous ties were tested when regional tensions between Morocco and Algeria flared up following the 2020 recognition by the United States of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for Moroccan normalization of relations with Israel, which also happens to claim couscous as one of its iconic foods. On August 24, 2021, Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Sahrawi Polisario Front’s independence struggle against Morocco, officially severed ties with the latter. In a retaliatory move, in November 2021, the Moroccan culture minister, Mehdi Bensaid, requested a “label” that would allow Moroccan couscous to be inscribed separately on the UNESCO list. I argue that these ongoing tensions further obscured that Sub-Saharan iterations of couscous made from millet, sorgho, cassava, fonio, corn, rice, and yam, from Senegal to Niger, were excluded from UNESCO’s recognition. This erasure results from competing historical narratives about couscous’ origins as well as disagreements between historians whose nationality plays no small part. It also reproduces French colonial racial hierarchies and geographical divides between Berber and Arabs, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, white Arabs and black Africans, and reinforces the Maghreb’s alleged whiteness and its rejection of its own “South” and its “Africanity,” while overlooking the history of servitude across the Sahara and the contributions of enslaved female cooks to Maghrebi cuisines.