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New book deconstructs North Africa

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Detail from map of North Africa showing the Maghreb region, from Wikivoyage.

LAWRENCE – By tracing the roots and shifting definitions of the area known as the Maghreb, native son Majid Hannoum aims to liberate study of the region from its colonial past.

Majid HannoumThe University of Kansas professor of anthropology has just published a book addressing the history and identity of this part of northern Africa, “The Invention of the Maghreb: Between Africa and the Middle East” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

The name Maghreb (which in Arabic means “west”) as used for the region of North Africa (without Egypt) is an ambiguous term, little known among the U.S. public and little used in the region itself, where people instead identify with the nation-state: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. Yet the term is commonly used in France, with a clear meaning. Hannoum argues that French colonials invented the region and, by the same token, created an immense field of study around it. 

“A lot of young scholars are very interested in the field,” Hannoum said. “But, at the same time, the field needs to be liberated from its colonial past. That’s why I wrote this book — to help do that.”

'The Invention of the Maghreb' book coverWhile the region is demarcated by Egypt to the east, itself part of the Middle East (also a colonial construction, though of the British), the Mediterranean (a 19th century construct) delimits its northwest, as a frontier of Europe, and the vast Sahara Desert to the south marks its division from the rest of the African continent. Hannoum argues that colonials invented other new markers as well: racial, linguistic, religious, but also geographical according to newly drawn colonial boundaries, especially between the French and the British empires.

Hannoum said that colonial invention of the region of northern Africa also involved the invention of Africa as a Black continent and the Middle East as an Arab bloc. The book also endeavors to help scholars of Africa and the Middle East understand how these regions were constructed and defined in relation to and against the region called the Maghreb, which is neither African nor Middle Eastern. These constructions still constitute our present.

“Maghrebi has become an ethnicity in France,” Hannoum said. “But as a Moroccan child, you were not aware of it. It makes sense only amongst the Francophone elite, and generally those who interiorized French culture.”

Apart from, yet related to, France’s military might, Hannoum wrote of what he called the “technologies of power” that enabled and reinforced the French colonial period, beginning in 1830 and continuing through the African independence movements of the 20th century. He said that these strategies — enforced through colonial-informed disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, history, linguistics, cartography and even tourist industries — were so all-encompassing that nationalist scholars of the region were forced to respond to them, in some cases even internalizing and repeating the colonial framing of issues.

“In the final analysis, the Maghreb was constituted by the colonial discourse, a discourse regulated by tremendous amounts of power,” Hannoum said. “It's also backed by strong institutions, including schools, presses, government agencies ... So this discourse has a lot of power at its command. You cannot ignore it. You cannot not use its categories. And when you do that, you automatically reproduce its ‘truths,’ even when you contest it. You submit to its discursive power, so to speak.”

Hannoum said that when he moved from French- to English-speaking academia many years ago, he gained a new perspective on how the Maghreb is viewed by people outside the Francophone zone.

Hannoum is also affiliated with KU’s Center for Global & International Studies, its African Studies Center and the Department of African & African-American Studies. He is also the author of the recent book “Living Tangier: Migration, Race, and Illegality in a Moroccan City” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

Hannoum cited a variety of French and Arabic sources in “The Invention of the Maghreb,” from the 14th century Muslim philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun and 16th century historian and diplomat Leo Africanus, to Elisée Reclus, Vidal de La Blache, Fernand Braudel and Abdallah Laroui, striving always to explain why they should be considered authoritative.

“The region itself is not a natural entity — the region is a conception, a reconfiguration, a colonial invention,” Hannoum said. “When we say ‘colonial,’ it means it was born in a certain time, with a certain type of politics, with a number of preconceived ideas and also a number of prejudices ...

“That is why today you still have some people who argue that colonialism was good for the region because it has brought modernity. This is a very colonial idea. You'll find that in France, and I am afraid you also find it among some scholars in the United States. So I hope the book will generate discussion or debate around the creation of the region, but also around the way we write about the region today.

“The book is not designed only for scholars who work on the Maghreb. Africanists as well as scholars of the Middle East may be very interested in seeing how Africa and the Middle East were also invented in relation to the region of the Maghreb, despite the fact that the Maghreb remains geographically African and culturally Middle Eastern.”

Top image: Image: Administrative and political map of the Maghreb states with flag. Credit: iStock by Getty Images


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