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Maghrib x Mashriq: Gendered Negotiations of Transnational Ties

Session V-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Since the transnational turn over the last three decades, scholars have increasingly been thinking across national and regional borders. Even the precise boundaries of regions themselves continue to come into question, as scholars rightfully interrogate which spaces define “the Middle East” or “the Arab world.” One means of this interrogation involves examining how people, ideas, and cultural objects moved across national borders and regional boundaries. This panel explores the twentieth-century relationship of the Mashriq to the Maghrib not through a focus on political elites but by highlighting the centrality of women’s labor, education, culinary practice, and musical performance in nation-building projects. Together, they offer new ways of understanding how the Maghrib and Mashriq emerged as distinct modern formations that were nevertheless entwined in specific ways. In addition to overlapping geographies, an interest in how gender shaped these connections links the individual papers. The presentations will begin in Morocco and move eastward. The first paper will analyze the history of a prominent Middle Eastern record label in North Africa through a lawsuit brought against them by a Moroccan female artist. . The second paper will then examine how professional women of the Mashriq served as a trope that was evoked in Algerian discussions about the modern woman as central to national advancement. The panel will then move to Libya to consider how educators from the Mashriq were crucial to national education projects in the decades after independence. The final paper turns to Egypt to consider how cookbook authors invoked flavors, techniques, and recipes from the Mashriq rather than the Maghrib, instructing Egyptian readers in an idealized form of modern Arab womanhood that crossed continental boundaries in selective ways.
  • Between the two World Wars, the recording industry exploded across North Africa. By the mid-1920s, this meant that tens of thousands of records made their way across colonial and imperial borders annually. The growth in musical production and consumption owed to a number of factors: the groundwork laid by a first generation of Jewish and Muslim impresarios, the entrance of major European record labels, the advent of the microphone which improved sonic fidelity, and finally, the arrival of a Beirut-born company by the name of Baidaphon. To oversee their activities in North Africa, the Baida family dispatched Théodore Khayat, a young relative of one of the founding brothers, to settle and set up operations in Casablanca. While initially invited in by the French authorities, who believed that recorded music served as a distraction from a set of burgeoning nationalist politics, Baidaphon’s growing catalog of subversive song soon proved problematic, triggering a surveillance apparatus that would remain in place even past Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian independence. But Khayat’s relationship to the North African music-makers and music-purveyors behind such revolutionary sounds was sometimes equally vexed. Shortly after Baidaphon’s appearance on the scene, partnerships with local artistic directors, agents, and musicians soured. More than just a story of anticolonialism and its soundscape, this paper interrogates the multifaceted relationship of a Middle Eastern record label to an unfamiliar North African terrain. Whereas much of the scholarship on transregionality in MENA has concerned itself with the ways in which the Maghrib has looked to the Mashriq for inspiration, political or otherwise, this presentation considers how a figure and firm from the Middle East navigated questions of musical style, language, and gender in North Africa itself. Importantly, it also pays attention to the perspectives of a range of North African actors. To do so, this paper comes to a particular focus on the interwar case of Raissa Embarka, a Moroccan berberophone artist who sued Baidaphon in order in order to win freedom from a recording contract she deemed culturally and linguistically unfair. Indeed, far from a seamless entry into the overlapping music markets in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, a robust set of archives related to Baidaphon––from their own phonograph records to civil court records––suggest a more complicated picture of east-west connections, one in which women, for example, played a central role.
  • The interwar years were a period of profound transition for Algerian society. As in other Middle Eastern spaces, rapid and large-scale urbanization blurred many of the distinctions which previously separated Algerian public life. Yet settler colonialism rendered Algeria irreconcilably different from other interwar Middle Eastern spaces. The colonial economy continued to restrict opportunities for both rural and urban Algerians and they had little political representation beyond a small number of local council members. Yet within this stifling climate, many Algerians were inspired by the rapid modernization underway across the Middle East. They saw women’s advancement as a key feature of the progress Middle Eastern nations enjoyed. Against this backdrop, debates about women animated Algerian society within the pages of the rapidly expanding Algerian French- and Arabic-language press. This paper considers how references to professional women in the Mashriq were deployed in a range of press articles written by Algerian men and women. Algerians were impressed by how women from the Mashriq, especially Syria and Iraq, participated in the workforce as professionals. They were inspired not only by the fact that large numbers of women were educated and working in these spaces, but also that women held important positions, and contributed to the national economy in meaningful ways. For them, the successes of working women illustrated that the Mashriq could be a space of inspiration in the arena of women’s advancement, alongside Western spaces. Their multidirectional references demonstrate everything that was at stake within these discussions about women—the moral health of Algerian cities, Algeria’s status as a quasi-extension of the metropole, Algeria’s place with a rapidly modernizing Middle East, the state of Muslim civilization broadly, and Algerians’ intellectual work to make sense of these questions. Most centrally, the way press commentators looked inward at their own settler-colonial society and outward to developments in the Middle East enabled them to push back against French colonial claims of Islam’s inherent misogyny and inferiority.
  • Women's activism and advocacy for greater rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been widely debated in Middle Eastern and North African history. Scholars including Beth Baron and Elizabeth Anderson argue that state-building and movements for women's rights developed alongside each other, inevitably linking the two issues within the political cultures of countries in the region. Libya was an exception to this pattern of state-building. While Tripoli had the first academic primary school for girls in North Africa, Italian colonial rule destroyed the Ottoman education system. Even jobs traditionally held by women in conservative countries, such as nursing and teaching, were mainly off-limits to Libyan women at independence. Less than one percent of Libyan women were literate at independence, and the first women did not receive high school diplomas until the 1950s. Women achieved the right to vote in 1963, but their economic and political participation in Libyan society remained limited until the 1970s. This paper considers the generation of women educated during the late Italian colonial period and directly after independence. Instead of being educated in Libya, they were educated in the major cities of Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon before returning to Libya. These women became the first female writers, broadcasters, educators, and activists in post-independence Libya while advocating for greater literacy. They also founded the first organizations that supported women's rights, including the Women's Renaissance Society and Women's Society. I argue that women's experiences in the Mashriq were central to narratives around women's rights in Libya during the 1950s and 1960s. In conclusion, by closely examining the influence of education obtained outside of the Maghrib, this project sheds new light on the rarely acknowledged role that international, as opposed to national or regional, education played on state-building, development, and women's rights in Libya.
  • Why is Egypt, situated at the northeast corner of the African continent, so frequently discussed as part of the modern Middle East or Mashriq, rather than North Africa or the Maghrib? This paper looks to gendered forms of labor and their role in shaping broader historical affinities and identities to offer a partial response to this question. It draws upon archival material, women’s magazines, and cookbooks produced in Egypt between the 1950s and 1970s in order to trace the emergence of a Mashriqi culinary imaginary during this period. This “culinary imaginary,” the paper suggests, was part of a broader reenvisioning of the Arab world and its subregions –– and a shift that took place not only in formal politics but in popular culture and domestic spaces. Tracing the work of two central cookbook authors, Abla Nazira and Basima Zaki Ibrahim, I argue that over the course of their careers, domestic education specialists in midcentury Egypt developed an increasingly explicit curriculum of culinary nationalism -- with the intention of instructing Egyptian girls (and future wives and mothers) how best to nourish the nation. From the work of these writers and educators emerged two key tenets of this culinary nationalism. The first was a new definition of “good food” that was explicitly anticolonial, emphasizing the superiority of Egyptian cooking over British cooking. The second was transnational, accomplished through the diversification of recipes for dishes like mulukhiya, bamiya, and mahshi to include Shami and “Sharqi” variations alongside Egyptian versions of these dishes. The recipes these educators created are analyzed in their broader context, from magazines like Hawwa’ that celebrated pan-Arabism to the Egyptian High Institute for Home Economics, which explicitly proclaimed its role in building pan-Arab solidarities by “strengthening the ties of Arab sisterhood.” Overall, the paper argues that transnational movements and solidarities operated not only on the level of formal politics, economic strategy, or social movements but also through the sphere of everyday practices and domestic labor. It also offers a new perspective on the place of Egypt within broader conceptions of the modern Maghrib and Mashriq.