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Dossier : Besoins d'histoire
III. Temps et histoires du Maghreb : Reconcevoir les cadres d’interprétation

Does Colonialism Explain Everything in North Africa? What Historians Can Bring to the Table

Tout est-il colonial dans le Maghreb ? Ce que les travaux des historiens modernistes peuvent apporter
Isabelle Grangaud et M’hamed Oualdi
p. 233-254
Cet article est une traduction de :
Tout est-il colonial dans le Maghreb ? Ce que les travaux des historiens modernistes peuvent apporter []


L’histoire coloniale, par sa violence et par les transformations majeures qu’elle a impulsées dans les sociétés du Maghreb tend à constituer un horizon du passé qui opacifie des dynamiques historiques bien plus anciennes. Cet article n’entend pas seulement mettre en perspective la réalité de cette ancienneté. Il suggère que la considération de la longue durée peut transformer l’intelligibilité et les cadres d’analyse de l’histoire maghrébine en général et du moment colonial en particulier. Une première partie analyse les lignes de forces du champ des études coloniales ; elle souligne cependant les apories liées la rigidité des cadres temporels et spatiaux considérés. Dans une deuxième partie, l’article met en perspective les désenclavements que permettrait la prise en compte des temps modernes et avec eux des legs médiévaux en considérant trois directions : le temps, nos conceptions des territoires maghrébins et nos lectures des archives.

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Notes de la rédaction

The following text is the english translation of the original article published in L’Année du Maghreb n°10|2014, p.233-254:
Tout est-il colonial dans le Maghreb ? Ce que les travaux des historiens modernistes peuvent apporter, Isabelle Grangaud (Historienne, Chargée de recherche au CNRS, IREMAM UMR 7310, Aix Marseille Université/CNRS, 13094, Aix-en-Provence, France) et M’hamed Oualdi (Historien, Assistant Professor, Princeton University, Histoire du Maghreb moderne et contemporain en détachement de l’INALCO).

Texte intégral

  • 1 International Crisis Group, “Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge,” Middle East/North African (...)
  • 2 The modernist Tunisian historian, Mohamed-Hédi Chérif, has often explained that the shift in meanin (...)

1Could there be a more ambitious project than rewriting “history, geography and even the human sciences”? In September 2012 an imam of Zitouna, a member of a professorial association (mashyakha) aiming to reinstate an educational program proper to the Grand Mosque of Tunis, called for nothing less than this. It would be mistaken to see this project as arising only in the wake of the political projects undertaken after the Tunisian Revolution.1 Rather, the imam’s project was connected to the competing strategies of writing such a history in North Africa and elsewhere. If anything, what the imam valued was counter-history. But what opposing history has to be “rewritten”? Is it the official history dictated by the Tunisian state of Bourguiba and Ben Ali? Is it another history, one at the intersection of the national state and academic knowledge, discussed in Tunisian universities even under authoritarian regimes?2 Or does it look to counter histories narrated in television soap operas, in pamphlets bought on the streets, discussed in families or the clandestine circles of militants and opponents of the regime? That which the revolution has permitted is not simply putting into competition different histories, as these have always been discussed in a more or less subterranean manner; rather, the revolution has led to officially recognizing the principle of competing histories due to the principle of the freedom of expression.

  • 3 In our analysis we consider the modern period of North Africa as extending from the 16th century to (...)
  • 4 See Deluermoz 2013; Bantigny 2013, 3-11 and 13-25: “temporality” is “understood here as one of the (...)

2The challenges posed by this new state of affairs call for a reflection on the modes of recognition and legitimation of these historical writings as well as their paradigmatic stakes. While leaving to the side the first of these matters, it is the second issue that we would like to focus on: what are the modalities to revise or rewrite the historical interpretations of North Africa? What are the inherent difficulties of such a project? Due to the fact that research on the colonial period tends to monopolize the attention of scholars and that the ensemble of the colonial period continues to influence the historic problems of the region (statebuilding and centralization, modernization, etc.), the question which continues to tie up modern and contemporary historiography of North Africa is the following: how can one understand the past of the Maghrib beyond and below its colonial history? More precisely, we are interested in exploring whether taking into account scholarship, and in particular French scholarship, on the modern period of the Maghrib can reconsider this colonial frame.3 Even more broadly, this inquiry questions whether such an exploration can lead to other understandings of the relationship to time and history in North Africa.4

3These questions are, of course, closely linked to contemporary debates in Maghrib political and social spaces on defining the self and the other. Does being Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian or Libyan imply a recognition of the legacy of an Ottoman and then colonial past, or do these terms refer to a culture perceived to be endogenous and authentic (McDougall, 2006)? By turning our perspective to modern times we wish to introduce the variations which allow us to substitute a number of shortcuts, much less dichotomous than the frontal antagonism between “self” and “other”, between “national” and foreigner. These efforts to think about the pre-colonial are hardly new. In his Intérieur du Maghreb [Inside North Africa] of 1978, Jacques Berque formulated the following pledge: “The future of North Africa will not be made by opposing the colonial period but by transcending it. Through a symmetrical process, it should put into question, and at the same time, give life to anterior periods, which need to be both rejected and prolonged. In short, it needs to be put under an iconoclastic fidelity …” (Berque 1978, 545).

4In the first part, we review why colonial histories play such a prominent role in the historiography of North Africa. We also examine the major propositions advanced by such a historiography in order to overcome the impasses that colonial historians themselves have detected in their own methodologies and analytical choices. These limits, according to us, are a consequence of the very success of this field: by making colonial history the reigning domain of North African historiography, inscribing the objects of this history within a larger context became increasingly difficult. In the second part, we propose what is effectively a displacement of perspective: from our point of view, which is that of today, contemporary historiography of the “colonial situation” would be better served by taking into account the dynamics of North African societies of the past. Examining individual and collective experiences in these societies before and after military conquests shows that a number of colonizing soldiers and civilians as well as colonized “subjects” were still struggling with their close past. Indeed, these societies were born in the wake of long-term historical dynamics. Putting these dynamics in perspective can lead to bringing out other intelligibilities and other temporalities of North African history.

5Changing the frame of observation can help to denaturalize cleanly sliced temporal caesuras. An even more important issue is at stake: the explanatory devices that have up to now been maintained and which are profoundly linked to this periodization could be overturned (Cooper 2004; Bertrand 2006). In deconstructing the frontiers and spatial unities far too quickly taken for granted (such as the framework state/nation), these detours would allow us to capture other logics, reconstituting the coherence of even broader ensembles (North African or imperial). Conversely, these detours would bring to the fore the force of the local and the rights which were attached to it. This questioning assumes a programmatic dimension. We would like to defend the idea that the reinscription of colonial history within a history of a longer durée reveals the variety of forms taken by documentary records and the plurality of sources and languages of these records. In so doing, we aim to renew our approach to historical sources from North Africa in the colonial period.

The Primacy and Inertia of the Colonial in the Historiography of North Africa

The force lines of a field of study

6Our interest here is not to downplay the knowledge provided by contemporary historians of the colonial period. Yet to better understand the methodological limitations that historians of the colonial period have themselves sought to overcome, it is necessary to understand why this particular field of study became central to Maghrib historiography and how its imperious character has been eroded after the time of national independence. We argue that the centrality of colonial history in Maghrib historiography is due to at least three conjoined factors: firstly, the political outcome of national independence struggles; secondly, the traumatic character of colonial times for entire sections of North African societies; and thirdly, the accumulation of national and international knowledge on this period. While the relative weight of each of these factors has varied over time, the centrality of the colonial period for North African historiography has not wavered.

  • 5 See Dot-Pouillard 2012. For a comparative study of the official forms of the past in Algerian and T (...)

7It is clear enough that North African regimes after 1956 and 1962 derived legitimacy from the ways in which the colonial period were conceived, especially when it came to reconstituting a posteriori the rise of Maghrib nationalism. But the disillusions raised by these nationalist regimes lessened, at least for the subjects of these states, the attraction or legitimation that could be brought to bear by these histories (as well as historical research on the origins of the respective nation-states). In Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian society today, the main issue of debate concerns the moment of independence for their respective nation-states and the impact that this had on such matters as authoritarianism, education, the status of women, etc. Yet the connection between the legitimacy of the regime or government and attachment to the nation is still not deeply questioned in any North African country: in spite of the occasional debate, the cult of the flag and of great historical figures remain constitutive elements of politics, as the events in post-revolutionary Tunisia show only too well.5

8In a deeper sense, though, the dominant status of the colonial period in North African historiography remains due to the trauma of this period and its end days in the struggle for independence. The attention of historians has been captured by the Algerian War of Independence (or the Algerian War or the Algerian Revolution) and, in a symmetrical manner, the French military conquest from the 1830s (on the coast) to the start of the twentieth century (in the Saharan interior). Both events brought in their wake deep violence and, in the course of time, fluctuating relationships between memory and history, and in so doing have structured the foundations of a general architecture of North African historiography. Spanish historians have looked to Morocco and the Rif War. Italian historians have focused on the period of violent conquests and reconquests of Libya. In France and in other European and North American academic circles, the history of North Africa is organized around the case study of Algeria and the violence which took place there. The Algerian War has also led to major advances in the valorization or discovery of historical sources, by the enrichment of various methodological approaches, and by a generational restructuring, first in the wake of work by Omar Carlier (1995), Benjamin Stora and Mohammed Harbi (2004), and then in innovative work by Raphaëlle Branche (2005) and Sylvie Thénault (2001, 2005).

  • 6 “More prosaically, few French specialists of the Algerian War can read classical Arabic, which woul (...)

9A wide body of academic knowledge has been formed around the effects of these traumas, nationalist struggles, the singularities of North Africa and Algeria, and the disjunction between European and North African trajectories. This field was constructed under the influence of academics trained in European institutions. It was recomposed at the end of the 1950s by the emergence of departments of North African history and then, at the end of the 1970s, especially in the English-speaking world, with the emergence of postcolonialism, which questioned Orientalist knowledge and the ways in which “subalterns” colonized by history could have a voice. The use of European languages and Arabic for these scholarly works and for the reading of colonial-era historical sources also contributed to the field’s changing dynamics, as a kind of division of labor was installed in the field, divided between scholars working with French and other European (British, Italian and Spanish) sources and those scholars able to work with Arabic-language documentary materials (whether primary or secondary).6 Questions about the methodological limits of this kind of historiography were raised due to the risks of a kind of narrowness resulting from, on the one hand, a periodization starting with military conquests and ending with independence struggles, and, on the other, by the natural primacy given to the nation-state as a frame of analysis (Burke 1998; Clancy-Smith 2006).

The predominance of the postcolonial

  • 7 “The history of colonial Algeria is, first (and still, for example, in the work of the anti-colonia (...)

10No level of analysis or period is, in itself, more or less legitimate than any other. The choice of a certain level of analysis by a historian depends upon the object analyzed and how the actors studied understood the frames in their own right. But by keeping oneself to a single period and to the domains found and refashioned by colonial administrators, whose archives furnished the sole fount of knowledge, it is hardly surprising that this has led to a reproduction of the language and categories of the colonial. As a result, this has made the colonial the unique horizon of valid historical research. Under this optic Algeria became an exemplary case study. The other societies of North Africa were then only understood through it, becoming reduced to smaller Algeria(s) or other-Algeria(s).7 Scholars aware of the overrepresentation of colonial administration and the colonizer in this conception of history have called for another perspective than the single one of a confrontation of national histories (one French, the other North African) without a common meeting point (Liauzu 2004; Abécassis and Meynier 2008; Bouchène et al. 2012).

  • 8 Among recent work done, see Vermeren 2002 and Lambert 2009.
  • 9 See in particular the reflection undertaken in Malika Rahal’s blog ( (...)

11These observations have led to a number of calls for methodological changes, such as undertaking interdisciplinary work or comparative North African national histories. But only a few works in the field have concretely followed these calls and the manner in which comparative studies can be undertaken has not been adequately theorized.8 Another possibility, one that has caught on recently, consists in giving a primary focus to the first moments of colonization (Blais et al. 2010) or, conversely, its final moments.9 In both cases, the main issue is to overcome the gap in understanding that results from the teleological dimensions attached to such history. In one case the periods of conquest have been reduced to moments of muddling through that preceded and announced the emergence of a stable and reformist colonial regime. In the other case national independence across the region appears as the inevitable end point of an unstoppable historical process. As helpful as these different historical approaches have been, they have revealed new instabilities. As an outcome of these approaches, the European populations in North Africa in the 19th century have been better historically contextualized, with studies revealing the profound social and imperial backdrop of Europeans at the time of military conquest. However, when it comes to the North African population or societies of this time, this historicizing has been much less bold.

  • 10 This movement could be brought into contact with the first attempts to decolonize history: “decolon (...)

12A few propositions have been advanced to better understand the local dynamics of North African societies which were not all the product of colonization.10 Some scholars, guided by an ideological Arab-Islamic vindication, have underlined the continuities which render the colonial period quasi-invisible (Sa’adallâh 1981) – the evident risk here is ignoring the colonial period’s impact. Others, taking a more sociological approach, have evaluated the foundations of local cultures whose attachment to high literary culture was deprecated by both colonization and Muslim reformism (Colonna 2006; Chachoua 2001). These works put themselves within a resolutely endogenous history at quite some remove from the colonial field of study. In this sense, they do not risk becoming intellectually imprisoned in the categories brought on by colonial sources as they transcend the idea of a simple cultural transfer from France (and Europe more generally) to North Africa. One of the last methodological approaches recently explored has been considering the coexistence and competition between different regimes of historicity. This has led to distinguishing, alongside dominant regimes, others which, despite being in the background, were just as active (Branche 2012).

13As rich and stimulating as these different approaches to transcending the methodological barriers of North African historiography have been, they all run up against a series of limitations. They all limit themselves to the chronological frame of the colonial period and, even more importantly, they rarely raise the linked question of decompartmentalizing national territories. It is revealing that the majority of the most interesting scholarly works undertaken today are formulated through the lens of Algeria, without any consideration for the North African frame of analysis. Furthermore, if the approach of endogenous dynamics raises the question of North African sources in the hope of capturing other visions than those promulgated by colonial administrators, it is nonetheless the case that this approach rarely gives rise to scholarship resituating the corpus of North African archives in a longer history of literacy and writing in the Maghrib.

14In a more general manner, we argue that all of these limits come together into a single principal difficulty: the maintenance – at least for French and Anglophone historians of North Africa – of some notion of tabula rasa. In other words, all of these various analytical frameworks barely take into account what preceded the colonial period. The institutions produced in medieval or modern times are rarely discussed, regardless of whether they were founded by the kingdoms succeeding the Almohad Empire or by the provincial governments under Ottoman rule for nearly four centuries, from 1520 in Algiers to 1912 in Tripoli. Under this tabula rasa framework, whatever happens in a colonized society is for the most part thought of as something new, or, at the most, as a kind of acculturation or addition. Everything – the language of administration, the sense given to history, administrative rationality – seems to have the flavor of novelty. And in so doing it appears as if the result of military conquests meant that North African societies passed from one world to another. But the phenomenon of tabula rasa is not uniquely the result of North African colonial historiography, as contemporaries of the colonial period in the region reformulated the area’s past. Historians of the colonial period have not always considered the impact of these changes. Thus they were not able to avoid the dangers of forgetting or de-legitimating the colonial past which had quietly taken place along with these prior reformulations and therefore a blind spot in contemporary analysis arose. One possible – but not the only one – methodological approach avoiding these problems would be taking into account the modern period and also the medieval legacy which is incrusted, constantly maneuvered, reinterpreted, and molded within it. To that end, we will consider the effects on the colonial of three perspectives – time, territory, and the archive.

Pre-Colonial or the Transcendence of the Colonial?

The legacies of the modern period

15Examining the colonial period through the prism of the modern period, in the first instance and in all self-evidence, allows for us to take into account continuities, what was perpetuated in colonial times and what has been constantly updated and rediscovered. Jacques Berque drew attention to the importance of this temporal continuum: “Current usage underscores these links by calling the period in question ‘precolonial’, for the reason that the installation of colonial power ended it. But what about all that colonization could never have touched, or influenced only indirectly, or even not at all, from geographic fringes and recesses, obliterated social strata, to secret or marginal behaviors?” (Berque 1978, 393). For the Moroccan case Mohamed Tozy and Mohamed Mahdi have, for example, shown to what point “the management of the grazing paths of pastoral populations of Azrou in the Middle Atlas and the sedentary populations of Marrakesh in the High Atlas mountains” remained in force “despite different systems of governance which succeeded one after another throughout the twentieth century and profound socio-economic mutations which touched the mode of production for the peasantry” (El Qadéry 2007). Among these domains of continuity J. Berque for his part favored “the religion as master of the verb and of the breath” which, according to him, brought “to the colonized the conscience of an imprescriptible identity” – a stimulating idea but one that perhaps should be reconsidered since it is always necessary to interrogate the ways in which spirituality and Islam were understood in this period.

16Putting at the forefront these legacies and continuities, or, conversely, their rupture, leads firstly to reevaluating the domains of action by colonial subjects and their relative autonomy, which reveals the persistence of local practices and customs. These customs and fields of action allowed for the creation of strategies which became visible in the course of changes in lineage and households. In North Africa as well as in other regions of the Ottoman and Muslim world, the household constituted one of the privileged frames for constructing political authority. It is also a revealing prism for understanding economic and social practices, from the constitution to the preservation of patrimony. In Constantine families like the Benabylès, before retiring from the political arena and investing heavily in education, alternated periods of submission to the Ottoman makhzen and then colonial power with phases of resistance against the latter (Fromage 2012, 152). More modest families, like that of Zidane Ben El Maoui, were declassed for not having “understood that the use of violence [had] become the monopoly of the state administration and that private vengeance no longer [could] be permitted”, while religious families held themselves against the wishes of colonial authorities, who had no choice but to accommodate them, “especially in the mountainous areas where European elements appeared to be rare” (Rahem 2008, 105-106).

17The attention paid to the transmission of material goods and to cultural practices leads also to complicating the question of acculturation through the confrontation and interaction between colonizers and colonized. The practices and norms renewed in the colonial period are sometimes the result of an older wellspring common to both modern North African and European societies. These renewals were produced at a level of interaction at times removed from the colonial frame, either below or at the margins of it – one need only think here of the numerous interactions between North African societies and the Italian, Spanish, and French communitities installed in North Africa before colonialism, some of them dating from the 16th century. These exchanges took place in the fields of technology and architecture. They also influenced ideas of charity and social distinction, as well as shared languages (the diffusion of Italian and the use of a degraded lingua franca into sabir in the early moments of colonization [Dakhlia 2008]), labor practices (the establishment of contracts through the 19th century), and urban leisure activities (Planel 2000; Clancy-Smith 2011; Corriou 2011).

18Everything that was created, transmitted and maintained in the course of these permanent interactions could also have had feedback effects on the agents and structures of administration. And so the changes in the relationship between the state and its subjects from the 1830s were not initiated by colonial powers but by North African authorities under the pressure of traders and local political intermediaries, both Ottoman and European. The relationship between states and subjects were reshaped with the introduction of a more constrictive fiscal policy, the installation of military service, and attempts to homogenize legislation and judicial procedures. In Morrocco, Tunis and Tripoli, these reforms were accentuated by colonial administrations in a drastic manner in order to pay back the debts of protectorates placed under financial dominion and in order to enlist societies which were evasive about military service (or only submitted to arms after negotiation, in both cities and in the countryside). In this sense, at least for the Tunisian and Moroccan protectorates, the policies of colonial administrators were partly guided by the dynamics of these military and fiscal reforms targeting a prior state of affairs and which also were influenced by the interests of local, Ottoman, French, and British elites. An early manifestation of this took place in Algeria, where the nomination of caïds to the head of tribes and tribal confederations, a process initiated by the “Turkish” makhzen, was, at least in Constantine, maintained and redrawn throughout the second half of the 19th century (Establet 1991; Rahem 2008).

Concomitant historical dynamics and the contemporaneity of 19th-century actors

19Beyond the crucial stakes of the actions and interactions surrounding norms and transmitted practices, the second interest in approaching the realities of the colonial period through the modern period is to pose the question of regimes of historicity in North Africa. The experiences of political authorities are of special interest here. How were the past and present of provincial Ottoman powers and the Moroccan sultan reformulated by Spanish, Italian and French colonial powers in North Africa? Why, in the study of politics, has the “precolonial” been placed at such a remote, often skirted place in the foundational studies of North African historiography? Of course, this critique linking the notion of tabula rasa to colonial ideology is not new: “the colonial adventure” of the French in North Africa was thought of as lacking any predecessors other than the Roman Empire. The anterior forms of state authority in North Africa have been disregarded. A fortiori, the impact of any precedent political experience, whether colonial or imperial, Iberian or Ottoman, has been minimized.

20Other analytical perspectives, less focused on the state and colonial power and more interested in individual and collective experiences, can lead to more innovative understanding of these regimes of historicity. Two recent studies inserting the event of colonization within a temporal configuration attentive to these experiences have led to innovative explicative schemas. Jocelyne Dakhlia has called for reconsidering the interpretation of the event “the taking of Algiers in 1830” as not so much “a sudden confrontation with Europe but more as the end of a history, one certainly conflictual but also communal” with Europe (Dakhlia 2012, 144) – and maybe as well as the desire to efface a continuum of the modern period in order to promote an alterity in colonial times. For his part Thomas Dodman has shown to what degree the French colonial project in Algeria and the establishment of French-style cities and villages were a means of remedying a malady of the period, diagnosed by contemporaneous doctors under the term nostalgia. Reconstituting metropolitan territorial signs (church bells, village squares, town halls) was not only a means of satisfying this nostalgia but also converted a weakness into a dynamic of colonization (Dodman 2011). This manner of recomposing French relationships to origins and the homeland clearly indicated a way of turning one’s back to local landscapes and an endogenous past.

21Thinking less by “a cut-up succession of colonial to precolonial but by irregular series” (Berque 1978, 393) could more clearly reveal overlapping temporalities and historical relationships in North African societies, which cannot be understood and reduced to the single lens of colonial conquests and administrations. If these conquests were traumatic, the year 1830 is not, in this sense, just the taking of Algiers (Amara 2012) or the attempts to break apart a history that was “conflictual, but communal” (Dakhlia 2012). This year is also, from the point of view of combined temporalities, a crossroads, a period of military, financial and intellectual mobilizations within the Maghreb that have been scarcely understood. North African powers, from Morocco to Tripoli and passing from Abdelkader’s Emirate to the Beylik of Constantine, were confronted with the dual shocks of the loss of Algiers and the dynamic of organizational reforms within the Ottoman Empire. Starting in this period and throughout the long second half of the 19th century, North Africa was composed of “temporal discordances” (Charle 2001) between reform and colonial dyanmics whose hypothetical connections remain understudied: the French military conquest in Algeria; the reorganization of dynastic powers in Tunisia and Morocco; the reconquest of Tripoli by the Ottoman Empire in 1835.

22Even more, to contribute to opening up the range of possibilities and relationships to time, we should add that the central notion of “reform” associated with the period 1830-1870 is misleading if understood in a singular manner, that is, as an advancement of “progress” and “modernity”. In North Africa this understanding of reform was correlated to colonization projects and formed an integral part of the colonial posture. But different orientations are conjured up when the period’s Moroccan and Tunisian political projects are considered from the vantage point of Arab sources, which use such notions as islâh or nizâm, even jihâd, to refer to faith and a desire for reordering. The undeniable conflicts that appeared surrounding these “reforms” should also be considered. These included questions about the necessity of pushing islâh here or there, of reorganizing or renovating order (nizâm), of adopting a specific military technique or tax. All of these debates did not play out as an opposition between the ancients and the moderns but rather between divergent interests held by contemporaneous North Africans and Europeans, according to the coalitions of interests that divided Europeans just as much as they divided North Africans.

23From this point of view, it is necessary to bring attention to the contemporaneity of a series of actors, of diverse origins, who lived at the time between Europe, West Africa and the Middle East. It would be mistaken to think that Europeans of the 19th century were somehow much closer to us in their thoughts and practices than North Africans of that period. In the same line of thought, although in a different context, that of the Dutch East Indies, Ann Stoler has asked us to complicate the idea that the “colonial State defined itself by the (Enlightenment) rationality of its administration”. This administrative apparatus stood upon a chain of information transmission that was full of incoherences and gaps (Stoler 2010; Sibeud 2013). In this sense, if more varied dynamics than previously thought penetrated North Africa throughout the 19th century, its inhabitants shared communal sensibilities that cannot be reduced to an epoch before and an epoch after colonization.

24More sustained attention to this second crucial aspect of the relationship between time and different historical meanings given to North African history, as well as to the legacies and their modes of transmission, can aid to re-situate the colonial period in a longer history of North Africa. This would do more than simply recognize the insertion of the colonial period after a series of chronological phases but would better understand its emergence in different contexts. Here too, the “colonial moment” – without minimizing its importance – should be understood through a larger historical dimension (Bayart 2010, 97). This should be done without giving the colonial moment any precedence, even if – due to its traumatic, administrative, and archival weight – it has obscured the past and made our ability to retrace it difficult. Colonial history and North African history are not antagonistic or opposing faces of the same coin. This history is overrun by “territorial, social and psychic borders in which [colonial] intervention … practically ceases to have any role” (Berque 1978, 395).

The local, the regional and the imperial

25The unity of the state or the nation has for a long time dominated colonial historiography. It has served as a privileged geographic frame and often understood as “natural.” Modern experiences suggest that this unity would be well served to be interrogated and re-aligned in favor of other, more ancient spatial frames whose impacts did not disappear because of colonial conquests. On the one hand, the local, and, on the other, the regional and the imperial – but also the transregional – were all significant parts in the construction of space in the colonial period. As Jacques Berque perceived in his Intérieur du Maghreb, these “interlocking [notions] in space were combined with unevenness in the social” as “everywhere there were adjustment attempts, a desire to command organization” (Berque 1978, 288, 325).

  • 11 From this point of view, in terms of the sheer number of works devoted to the subject, the history (...)
  • 12 The current work by Ismail Warscheid on Touat, of Augustin Jomier on Mzab, and of Charlotte Courrey (...)
  • 13 In the case of Djerid, Jocelyne Dakhlia evokes a form of historical forgetting in response to a sta (...)

26Despite their specialization by country, studies of colonial history have of course considered the question of level of analysis.11 As a result, and as we have already indicated, these studies have at times taken into account the limits of national monographs, but they have rarely thought through local affiliations and customs. These local customs have a long history, especially as unavoidable entry points into thinking about Maghrib social spaces whose configurations they have contributed into creating. Rights were attached to such notions as bilâd/bled and watan (small country) or hawma (neighborhood, quarter) (Grangaud 2009a) or to customs associated with Muslim law (’urf, izref); even more rights were attached to the strengthening and exploitation of the land: studying these various notions sheds light on the impact of powerful social and institutional frameworks. Not taking into account the power of such customs deprives one the possibility to fully understand transformation processes that were as silent as they were profound when these customs were questioned and disqualified in favor of organizations more favorable to colonization. The erosion and destruction of these local constructions touched the ways in which property and goods were held and also deeply impacted the adaptation to ecosystems or urban territories while also profoundly affecting communitarian structures and conditions of social and political belonging. It is even more important to reconsider the stakes raised by the force of the local in that doing so can nourish a new historiographical awakening about the construction of colonial territories (Blais 2007 and 2008) and, through Muslim law and religious reform, communities.12 In addition, the local continues to resurface, whether through a crop of monographs (the products of local North African scholarship which remains politically charged) or by affirmations of regional opposition to national powers (which was the case in triggering the revolutions in 2011 in the region of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia and Benghazi in Libya).13

  • 14 In her doctoral thesis, Rita Auoad (1994) pointed to the impact of colonization on the long-standin (...)

27Greater attention paid to the local helps not only in understanding the construction of the juridical, social and political and the various processes of their deconstruction. Starting from the local also allows us to reconsider the ways in which sultanate, and then colonial, authorities territorialized this authority. Not only are these processes poorly understood for the modern period, but the few scholarly works on this question – notably those of Fatma Ben Slimane (2009) on the frontiers of the Ottoman province of Tunisia – are relatively unread. They are also rarely put in relation with the later processes of building the state and the nation in colonial and postcolonial periods. Yet, according to a number of convergent indicators, colonial authorities took up and applied sultanate techniques of territorial management (which included compromise and delegation; see Establet 1991).14

  • 15 McDougall (2006, 137) points to the figure of the shaykh Sâlih al-Sharîf, born in the 1830s in Tuni (...)

28A second reason to transcend the frames of the state and the nation stems from the tendency of French and Anglophone historical scholarship to focus most of its attention on Algeria, which makes it difficult to place Algerian society into a broader North African, African or Islamic context. Yet the links between Algeria and Tunisia, for example, explain the contour of French colonial advances, with railway and telegraphic lines placed upon older communication networks. Even further, considering the phenomenon of migration between the two provinces allows for a better understanding, from Tunis to Algiers, of the emergence of reform/islâhist, and then nationalist, movements from the late 19th century.15 Downplaying these links leads to ignoring ancient territorial logics and, as a consequence, upholding – even involuntarily – nationalist approahces. This was manifest in the forgetting and effacement of memories of allegiance given to the Moroccan sultans in the Algerian region of Touat (Warscheid 2011).

  • 16 We would like to thank Catherine Mayer-Jaouen for these helpful points.

29Beyond the utility of bringing in a North African scale in the analysis of the Algerian case, and even beyond the stakes of the local, studies of the modern period lead us to understand a broader dimension, namely the east-west links between North Africa and the Levant. These links consist of “large waves of thought and feeling which, from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, come and go, rolling over the most closed systems” (Berque 1957, 6). Colonial scholarship has, by definition, insisted on north-south relations between metropoles (France, Italy, Spain) and their North African colonies. In a complementary manner colonial scholarship has – at times – pointed to the connections between Arab nationalism and solidarity in armed struggles, notably during the Algerian War. Pilgrimages and their impact upon colonial administration have also been studied (Chiffoleau 2005; Chantre 2007). But what about population movements, even those limited in number, between the ancient North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire and Anatolia and Istanbul when, during the modern period (from the second half of the 17th century to the second half of the 19th century) provincial North African elites were for the most part composed of individuals coming from Georgia in the Caucasus? What about the persistent effects of religious movements and in particular Sufism when we know that Muslim mysticism was nourished, notably in the 17th century, from the Arabian peninsula by numerous Moroccan intellectuals and holy men and also by the circulation of manuscripts and printed books (Chih and Mayeur-Jaouen 2010)? What about the flux of North Africans who came to study at Al-Azhar, a group so large that they had their own circle there (Raymond 1959)? Intellectuals of Islam and certain disciplines (law, literature, hagiography) were the object of incessant changes and created new sources. In these inventive iterations North Africa is not simply a terrain of reception. Moroccan intellectuals abroad furnish a serious case study: at the end of the 17th century, in Egypt and even further east, they distinguished themselves by their teaching of logic (El-Rouayheb 2006, 269). The lively circulation of knowledge to the east and south of North Africa responded to and fed a common piety, as attested by the fact that copies of the hagiography Kitâb al-Ibrîz could be found in North and West African libraries. In the 19th century, the Saharan fringes of Morocco even appeared like lands of erudition where the field of Islamic learning appeared better preserved than in the West (Patrizi forthcoming).16

30The recent insistence in colonial studies on the dimensions and composition of the French and British Empires (Singaravélou 2013) links with equally global approaches of historians of the Ottoman Empire committed to reconstituting the connections between its metropoles and provinces, notably in the duplication of the structure of households (Peirce 1993; Hathaway 1997; Oualdi 2011). If the logics of north-south and east-west and their intersections were more attentively studied together, the shared political stakes of Ottoman and colonial historiography would come to the surface, thus allowing a certain distancing away from the national and nationalist historiography.

For a recontextualization of the archives

31In response to the “scandal” of the discursive monopoly of the French colonizers of North Africa, denounced a long time ago (Colonna 1983, 1), today there is often an admission of an inequality of sources for fairly grasping the colonizers and the colonized. Beyond this admission, though, in what way is there not also a historiographical tradition that has privileged the analysis of documents resulting from the machinery of colonial administrations? How can we come to terms with the simplistic idea of distinguishing historical periods in function of the language of the archive: in the colonial, French; in the Ottoman period, Arabic and Ottoman Turkish; and, for the folklorist, dialect, Berber, songs and proverbs? It is well known that historical sources from before the colonial period were, after the colonial and national independence periods, reconfigured: their placement in archives, their organization and finally critical evaluations of them have all contributed to their current format. But what can we make, by contrast, of the writings that emerged from scriptural traditions and local institutions that continued to be active and the transformations they brought to bear on colonial administrative production? What is at stake in a confrontation of these moments of production that are successive as well as contemporaneous? What about the unspoken-of moments when they meet or encroach upon each other? And what can be brought to the historiographical approach to the colonial period by recognizing the coexistence and competing linguistic forms in administrative sources, sometimes in the same document?

  • 17 At the risk of essentializing a culture of popular struggle. On the program in this sense of Subalt (...)
  • 18 The risk here is that of a reification of the context of production (Stoler 2009).

32In the last few years thinking about the nature and use of historical sources has brought about a remarkable revitalization of analytical categories and methodologies of scholarship of the colonial period. We are a long way from the time when the colonial archive imposed its temporality and approach to every object of analysis, including studies aiming to reconstitute not only colonial order but also the confrontations between colonizers and colonized. In order to overcome the diktat of the colonial administrative archive, a number of critical reading tactics have been proposed, but these have only partially reoriented the field of studies of North African colonial history. These alternative readings, which have not always been compatible, have all taken as their starting off point a reconsideration of the historical sources and have all contributed to recognizing social realities much more complex than the simple relationship of domination conveyed by the organization, categories and discursive forms of the colonial archive. The proposition of reading the administrative sources “against the grain” has brought to the surface cultures of resistance among the colonized.17 To this the response has been a reading “along the grain,” attentive to tracking signs of uncertainty between the lines of the colonial archive; in so doing, this strategy exposes the self-avowed expressions of an impossible mastery of the categories of domination.18 From another perspective, faced with the performativity of the archive (Dirks 1993; Stoler 1992), another proposition has been developed, namely considering the construction of sources, including administrative ones, as a weapon in the conflict over legitimacies, which could not be limited to or restrained by the irreducible binary of colonized/colonizers (Grangaud 2008 and 2009).

33On the other hand taking some distance with the relationships of domination induced by the colonial order opens a path worth exploring. It would allow a reading of the administrative archive understood firstly and above all as a place situated with interactions. These interactions should be understood as not, in the final analysis, reproducing the archive; rather, and more crucially, they presided at the very construction of the archive, to follow along with what Angelo Torre has called “the genesis” of source (Torre 2007, 103). As a helpful exercise against the naturalization of these sources, such an approach can open up multiple perspectives: it takes into account a greater number of actors than that which a more literal reading of the sources allows – a thus a more enlightened reading that goes well beyond straight-laced colonial categories, a fortiori a pseudo “shock of cultures”. This approach would also contribute to updating contexts and stakes that are often underappreciated, crushed as they are by the teleological logic of the “colonial adventure”. And in doing so the weight and activity of historical periods well before the colonial come into view.

34While the renewal of approaches to the colonial administrative archive is well under way, archival hierarchies instituted in the historiographical field have yet to be reshuffled. The fact of the matter is that it is not possible to dissociate within colonial studies the preeminence accorded to archives (in particular administrative ones, and usually written in French, and more rarely in other European languages) and the colonial processes of de-legitimating Arabic, vernacular languages and North African writings (or texts circulating in North Africa). The enormous number of colonial archives and the wide spatio-temporal range of the coverage that they promise are, it goes without saying, part of the attraction that they hold for contemporary scholars. The fact remains that this attraction also goes along with a history of languages in the Mediterranean, where, starting in the 19th century, new hierarchies presiding over the conditions of communication emerged (Dakhlia 2008, 410) – which is also when the impact of local North African writings (or texts circulating in the region) started fading away. This movement, far from being arrested, was often institutionalized with the national independence whose intrinsic modernity was fashioned by the legacy of colonialism (Diouf 1999). Furthermore, the very fact of uneven documentation – still deplored in colonial studies and correlated to the idea of a so-called “silence of the Maghribis” in modern and contemporary periods – needs, we believe, to be reinterrogated.

  • 19 See in particular the significant number of occasional and disconnected writings, sometimes exhumed (...)

35In order to do this, scholars have paid attention to the documentary forms and formats that too often became illegitimate and/or invisible. In so doing they have been able to grasp the relationships of the present or of history. Diverse and rivaling as these relationships might be at times, this has in any case led to a consideration of the very effects of plurivocality.19 This is one of the principal contributions of Romain Bertrand’s observation – connecting the principle of a “history in equal parts” to the necessity of recognizing, to further explore it, the relevance of local writings, even when these do not agree with each other or draw up alternative perspectives to those that history has retained. In this manner, the teleologically fashioned historical outline can be interposed with the universe of other plural possibilities that throw onto a disorienting illumination onto apparently familiar processes.

  • 20 Léon Buskens has convincingly shown how the publication and/or translation of legal texts used by l (...)
  • 21 Abdelahad Sebti has shown the properly political, and from this angle, socially crucial stakes invo (...)
  • 22 These discoveries are less often made by historians of colonialism than by medievalists or modernis (...)

36Thus the idea that the tabula rasa maintained in a number of scholarly works on the colonial period is only the product of a historical reading which, deliberately or not, has ignored these coexistences and their effacement. In this point of view, following “against the grain” the effects of editions and translations of North African texts has shown how reformatting the juridical corpus20 or literary genres21 could lead to losing both the usage and the meaning of these writings for their contemporaries. At the same time, this also shows that, beyond oral sources, so-called silence of the Maghribis does in fact emit more and more sound as research advances and curiosity sharpens on the matter. Alongside the catalogued and well-known libraries of scholars such as Évariste Lévi-Provencal, libraries that have up to now been ignored have been brought to light, and these showcase well-established literary traditions that remained active even well within the colonial period.22 This goes against the established order of chronological periods and leads to a more fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of the archival hierarchies that have up to now been privileged. Following Cooper and Bertrand, among other scholars, we must insist on the necessity of keeping in mind the unequal imposition of colonization and the persistence of unaffected spaces. But it is also, we believe, just as vital to understand these forms of production not as escaping colonization but in a way inflecting its nature.

  • 23 The “modern” archive in the sense elaborated by Messick 1993.
  • 24 Amina Aouchar, for instance, points out that the correspondence with the inhabitants of the High Mo (...)
  • 25 Alongside agents associated to these enterprises, we should also draw attention to interpreters for (...)

37If colonization “did not annul the moral and political economy of the societies it imposed itself upon, and [if] it did not totally absorb them either” (Bayart 2010, 97), then the colonial moment can well be the product (in a conflictual sense as well) of this coexistence. In so doing this admits a complexity resulting from plurilingualism, and the comparisons, overlapping, intersections or clashes between many languages. Shaking up the archivist hierarchy could also mean considering sources that have up to now been viewed as marginal or in apparently unusual forms. This means taking up some distance from models of the “modern” archive, or at least those that are immediately familiar to us.23 This is the case because archives in Arabic or bilingual archives (in Arabic and in a European language) were in fact produced by colonial administrations, or, to be more precise, by local administrative agents.24 We could interrogate the conditions of possibility of such an organization and the competences that they called for and then the rather violent manner through which this material has been rejected. This does not undermine the fact that this organization reveals unexpected continuities between the two periods, not only in writing practices that we thought were foreign to each other but also among individuals, producers or smugglers.25

38Thus for the Ottoman Algerian funds in particular, the colonial dimension – or, better yet, the fact that the constitution of these funds were a colonial production – has long been ignored. Among the reasons for denying this fact was the attraction, for the newly independent state, of having a body of autochthonous and pre-colonial archives, but also the intellectual disorientation brought about by their specific formats of production. Yet the emphasis placed on this dimension of the production of North African writings, and thus of their recontextualization, can only contribute to greatly enriching an unknown part of the history of French administration throughout the 19th century. Even more intriguingly, this can also illuminate what this history reveals in terms of continuities and the legacy, even if partial, of the Ottoman period.

Conclusion: Recovering

39Reconsidering the modern period for what it tells us about the possibility of other writings on societies, on the force of local rights, the ceaseless impact of circulation between Europe, Africa and the Levant, all this allows for imagining the autonomous fields of action for North African subjects in the colonial period. But it also allows us, in return, to explore the effects on colonial structures of the legacy resulting from the modern period. Thinking about the way in which these rights, writings and levels were progressively reduced and, in a general way, on the modalities according to which the modern period was minimized, constitutes just as much another path to explore. This would allow us to grasp the emergence of new hegemonies which overturned territorial practices and local writings that had yet partly been shared with contemporaneous Europeans until the middle of the 19th century. This is what, in a broad sense, can expand our explicative registers of North African history. The twinned efforts of recovering ancient historical dynamics and comprehending the reasons for their marginalization will contribute not only to opening up the colonial but will also reconsider the place of the colonial in the history of North Africa.

40In the final analysis, the effects of this recovering will join a number of important stakes in today’s North Africa: the place to give back to the regional (after decades of littorization, centralization, and repression); the hesitations in resituating oneself vis a vis the North and the Levant; the relationship to languages, which cannot be seen as a simple opposition between French and Arabic but has become complicated today by a recognition of Arabic dialects and Berber (Pouessel 2010; Hoffman and Miller 2010). What can be inferred about these mirror effects between the contemporary and the modern period? While everything in North Africa is not colonial, the issue is not to dismiss the study of this “moment” but to take stock of the nooks and crannies of a period and a space in order for historians to imagine their full temporal, spatial and cultural dimensions.

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1 International Crisis Group, “Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge,” Middle East/North African Report 137 (February 2013): 37 (

2 The modernist Tunisian historian, Mohamed-Hédi Chérif, has often explained that the shift in meaning that took place from the colonial period to the modern period was nourished by a desire for dissidence, or, at least, the desire to not follow the official creed of Tunisian nationalism incarnated by Bourguiba. We thank Sami Bargaoui for having drawn our attention to this source, as well as Nourredine Amara, Laurence Gautier, Augustin Jomier, Catherine Mayer-Jaouen, Alain Messaoudi, Hervé Pennec, Natividad Planas and the reviewers of L’Année du Maghreb for their readings and useful comments.

3 In our analysis we consider the modern period of North Africa as extending from the 16th century to the start of the 20th century, from Saadian and Ottoman battles against Iberian forces to the suppression or the placing under the tutelage of European powers of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Fez-Marrakesh.

4 See Deluermoz 2013; Bantigny 2013, 3-11 and 13-25: “temporality” is “understood here as one of the temporal rhythms which underpins the phenomenon studied”; by historicity we intend “the manner in which the past, present or future are articulated in a given society.”

5 See Dot-Pouillard 2012. For a comparative study of the official forms of the past in Algerian and Tunisian independence, see Siino 2010.

6 “More prosaically, few French specialists of the Algerian War can read classical Arabic, which would allow them to read certain written documents as well as the existing secondary literature. Mohamed Harbi was thus able to point out numerous errors in the short biographical notices of the second volume published by SHAT. … But only an Arabic speaker could note, for example, the divergences that exist in French army leaflets between the French text and the Arabic translation on the back. Furthermore, in certain regions Arabic was the only written language utilized; thus in the region of Oran, the verbal records of collections of archival funds (…) are all in Arabic” (Branche 2005, 177). These distinctions, of course, are related to policies of teaching languages. During the colonial period, teaching in Arabic was unevenly maintained, which still allowed a generation of historians to have access to texts. Their number has grown after independence with the development of national university institutions and policies of Arabization in teaching systems.

7 “The history of colonial Algeria is, first (and still, for example, in the work of the anti-colonialist Charles-André Julien) primarily French history, and then the history of France-and-Algeria” (McDougall 2006, 31).

8 Among recent work done, see Vermeren 2002 and Lambert 2009.

9 See in particular the reflection undertaken in Malika Rahal’s blog (2012).

10 This movement could be brought into contact with the first attempts to decolonize history: “decolonizing history all too often meant simply embracing the so-called indigenous forces while rejecting those labeled as foreign, colonial, or extraneous” (Le Gall and Perkins 1997, viii).

11 From this point of view, in terms of the sheer number of works devoted to the subject, the history of the colonization of Algeria trumps those devoted to Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya.

12 The current work by Ismail Warscheid on Touat, of Augustin Jomier on Mzab, and of Charlotte Courreye on the Association of Ulemmas in Algeria are good illustrations of this point.

13 In the case of Djerid, Jocelyne Dakhlia evokes a form of historical forgetting in response to a state which neglected this region of southwest Tunisia (Dakhlia 1987, 426).

14 In her doctoral thesis, Rita Auoad (1994) pointed to the impact of colonization on the long-standing relations between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.

15 McDougall (2006, 137) points to the figure of the shaykh Sâlih al-Sharîf, born in the 1830s in Tunis to a family hailing from Algiers; he founded, in 1914, a committee for the independence of Tunisia and Algeria (Jam‘iyat istiqlâl Tûnis wa al-Jazâ’ir).

16 We would like to thank Catherine Mayer-Jaouen for these helpful points.

17 At the risk of essentializing a culture of popular struggle. On the program in this sense of Subaltern Studies, see Guha 2002 as well as Diouf 1999 and Merle 2004.

18 The risk here is that of a reification of the context of production (Stoler 2009).

19 See in particular the significant number of occasional and disconnected writings, sometimes exhumed, translated and edited in journals for colonial scientific missions. These are rarely understood from the point of view of their relevance or the opportunity that their being placed into a particular form assumed for their writers.

20 Léon Buskens has convincingly shown how the publication and/or translation of legal texts used by local jurists transformed their concrete usage and therefore their content (Buskens 1997).

21 Abdelahad Sebti has shown the properly political, and from this angle, socially crucial stakes involved in the creation of a genealogical genre, which for Orientalists was held to be a production poor in material documentation and lacking in innovation (Sebti 1986).

22 These discoveries are less often made by historians of colonialism than by medievalists or modernists or even sociologists or anthropologists, and in general by specialists of African Islam. See Voguet 2003; Hadibi 2008; Sheele 2010; Warscheid 2011.

23 The “modern” archive in the sense elaborated by Messick 1993.

24 Amina Aouchar, for instance, points out that the correspondence with the inhabitants of the High Moulouya held in the Meknès property records is constituted of bilingual documents (Aouchar 2005, 147).

25 Alongside agents associated to these enterprises, we should also draw attention to interpreters for the French army (Messaoudi 2010).

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Isabelle Grangaud et M’hamed Oualdi, « Does Colonialism Explain Everything in North Africa? What Historians Can Bring to the Table »L’Année du Maghreb, 10 | 2014, 233-254.

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Isabelle Grangaud et M’hamed Oualdi, « Does Colonialism Explain Everything in North Africa? What Historians Can Bring to the Table »L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], 10 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Grangaud

Historienne, Chargée de recherche au CNRS, IREMAM UMR 7310, Aix Marseille Université/CNRS, 13094, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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M’hamed Oualdi

Historien, Assistant Professor, Princeton University, Histoire du Maghreb moderne et contemporain en détachement de l’INALCO.

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