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Redefining Subjectivities in the Maghreb: Memory, Performance, Politics

Panel I-19, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper interrogates how the memoirs of Tunisian leftists from the 1960s and 1970s were received and inspired actors of the left and student movements during the 2011 Revolution and its aftermath. From 2008, members of the Perspectives Tunisiennes movement began pushing against government-imposed censorship and amnesia by releasing memoirs that recalled their youthful idealism and dreams of a socialist society. After 2011, more Perspectivistes began releasing their memoirs sensing the historic opportunity going beyond the usual leaders of the movement to diversify and multiply the recollections of their struggle. They explored their social origins, their first protests at the university, and they culminated in histories of protest, plans for armed uprisings, and their lengthy prison sentences that signalled political defeat. This paper departs from the singularity of life-writing about contentious lives and revolutionary dreams during another episode of contention and revolution half-a century later. Drawing on Ann Rigney’s framework of the memory-activism nexus (2018), I argue that these published memoirs were intended to guide the post-2011 generation of Tunisian leftists and student protesters into the possibilities of revolutionary change, but especially, the means to remain hopeful and steadfast despite political setbacks. Indeed, I offer a reading of a sample of these memoirs that displaces its focus from the narrative content of their hopeful beginnings to the continuity of their struggle after their arrests, exile, ostracization and oblivion. I explore the reception of these memoirs by members of the younger generation of Tunisians in the online publication Nawaat and Nachaz (two notable spaces for young activists of the 2011 Revolution) in dialogue with the chances and setbacks of the Tunisian Left during the democratic transition process (2011-14). As such, this paper informs the process of inter-generational transmission and learning through life-writing, especially in the context of authoritarian closure where activists and contentious lives face defeat and disillusion more often than hope and successes.
  • In the 1960s, Tunisian musicologist Manoubi Snoussi broadcast a series of didactic radio programs entitled “Introduction to Tunisian Music” on the Tunisian national radio station. The program covered a range of musical genres considered vital components of the national patrimony, from the Andalusi-derived maluf to Islamic liturgy and folk music. This series, while extraordinary in some ways, was also part of a broader state-sponsored push to collect, define, and promote Tunisian musical heritage as a crucial strategy of nation-building in the wake of French colonialism. Snoussi’s broadcasts can be considered alongside contemporaneous state initiatives such as Salah El Mahdi’s publications on “Tunisian Musical Heritage” and the work of the Rashidiyya Institute and its performing ensemble, yet the radio medium’s orientation towards a mass audience pushed this project into a new realm. Simultaneously entertaining and edifying, the “Introduction” sought to inculcate the nation with a sense of sonic identity that was rooted in both pre-colonial historical narratives and narrow Arab-Islamic definitions of Tunisia’s ethno-racial population. This paper will consider the broadcasts in the context of the decolonizing moment in Tunisia and broader state and popular struggles to define a Tunisian identity. While produced in a nationalist context, Snoussi’s own background as the former assistant to prolific French musicologist Rodolphe d’Erlanger, and his role in the colonial production of knowledge, will also be addressed. This paper will also illuminate the historical trajectory of North African narratives around race and ethnicity in ways that I hope will aid in deconstructing and disrupting racialized forms of nationalism in the present moment.
  • In Algeria, as across different parts of the Muslim and Mediterranean worlds, the early twentieth century witnessed the coming to the fore of robust conversations surrounding gender and the “nation.” Historians like Sara Rahnama have retraced debates regarding nationalism and gender in Algeria during this period. Yet how these debates played out in artistic venues has been under- analyzed. Furthermore, scholars such as Rachid Bencheneb (1977) and Joshua Cole (2014) have elucidated the importance of theater in the interwar period as a space that political actors embracing a wide range of ideologies utilized for the construction of Algerian nationalism. While theater produced by Algerians, here Muslims and Jews, during this period has been labeled “Algerian,” foreign troupes passing through Algeria inspired Algerian artists, and Algerian performers put on plays around the Mediterranean. Drawing on playbills, scripts, song sheets, memoirs of actors and playwrights, and French intelligence archives related to theater, this paper will explore how various Algerian communities promoted or represented ideas concerning expressions of gender and nationalism through theater. Using methods such as critical discourse analysis, I will also reconstruct how different agents may have used theatrical spectacles, both as performers and audience members, as occasions for engaging with questions of masculinity that social, cultural, and political changes in the interwar period made more pressing. This work will also be one of the first to use a script of an entire play preserved in French police archives to analyze the social implications of a piece of theatrical art from this period. Connections between Algerian performers and organizations from around the Mediterranean will also be examined to identify whether conversations about Algerian gender reflected or influenced conversations about gender elsewhere in the region. Above all, this work will demonstrate the significance of theater as a site for the generation of gendered notions of nationalism and the nation in interwar Algeria, with an emphasis on consequences for local forms of masculinity and ideas of manhood. As such, it promises to contribute to broader conversations in Middle East Studies on gender and nationalism in the theater fostered by scholars such as Adam Mestyan and Raphael Cormack.