Souffles: What made you write this book?

Hannoum: Having worked on colonial knowledge in the region for over two decades, the idea came naturally. It became clear to me throughout the years that this knowledge did not really have the function of justifying conquest—power does not need justification—but it meant something more important. It was a way to figure out, and eventually to define, and create the wanted colony. There is clearly a process of invention. However, the idea that power creates is an important theme in historical writings since the publication of the Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.
There are books about the invention of so many geographies, such as Africa, Latin America, Hawaii, Argentina, China, Israel, France, and, of course, the Orient in the pioneering work of Edward Said, but the region of the Maghreb was taken for granted. Even when Abdallah Laroui mentioned that the idea of the Maghreb needed to be written, as a historician he was thinking about its formation throughout the ages and not only the idea that the Maghreb itself (the term and conception) was a creation that L’histoire du Maghreb contributed to via its consecration after independence. Also, having read the Invention of Africa by V. Y. Mudimbe, I was puzzled by the fact that the Maghreb or North Africa was totally absent from this well-celebrated work and that the author does not even interrogate the name itself, he does not question its origin, and how it was extended from the North to the rest of the continent. This is to say, this book itself reproduces a colonial Africa seen only in terms of color and separated from its North, including from Egypt. Yet, the term Africa for a very long time indicated only northern Africa, not the entirety of the continent. Therefore, I became increasingly aware that a book on this invention should be written and I was surprised it was not.

Souffles: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

Hannoum: The book addresses a number of issues, not just the history of the concept of the Maghreb, but also how the colonial state reconfigured the geography of the region, with its new frontiers and new names. It also addresses how the population was reconfigured according to the categories of race, language, and territory. As important as the colonial period was, the book also demonstrates that the period after the colonial era was decisive in the consecration of a number of names, concepts, and categories in the region, despite changes due to the reactions of historians, ideologues, and politicians of the region, all of them exposed to the colonial discourse, whose authority they accepted without reflection. Additionally, I examine colonial and postcolonial literature, in both French and Arabic, to see how it contributed the process of colonial and postcolonial inventions. The book also contains analyses of tourist guides, cartography, photography, and other sources as important cognitive tools for the creation of the Maghreb. Analyzing Arabic historiography, in its Salafi expression as well as in its national one, shows how, even despite resistance, the Arab Maghreb itself is an avatar of the French colonial Maghreb. Local literatures, both in French and in Arabic, also contributed to the consolidation of the Maghreb.

Souffles: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

Hannoum: In many ways, this book flowed from previous research that spanned more than two decades. My initial interest was in colonial knowledge and the ways it articulated its understandings of the region, first through the myth of the Kahina, and then through the question of colonial violence in Algeria. My earlier work on Ibn Khaldūn was also a path that led me to this project given the fact that the French translation by William de Slane showed me how new colonial categories replaced medieval categories and created an understanding of the region that is new. All of this helped shape and facilitate the project.

Souffles: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

Hannoum: First, I hope this book can be translated into Arabic and French, so that the people who are most interested can read it. English is not widely used in the region called the Maghreb or in Francophone Africa. Of course, I also hope scholars who study the region everywhere can read it. My aim is to contribute to decolonizing our knowledge of the region and questioning categories and concepts used to conceive of the region, its populations, languages, and problems of territory and frontiers. I also hope it will contribute to revisiting the categories of Africa and Middle East, especially in relation to the category of the Maghreb. For this specific reason, I believe the book will be most useful if read in conjunction with Orientalism and the Invention of Africa. For Maghrebi studies, I hope, or rather I expect, the book will introduce a new way of thinking that problematizes Maghrebi studies, and unsettles the old, colonial and postcolonial paradigms still dominant today. These are high expectations, of course, especially considering that the study of the region in Arabic, French, and English is still dependent on the very concepts and categories I critique as colonial. I hope these expectations will be met.

Souffles: What other projects are you working on right now?

Hannoum: Right now, I am working on articles I promised to colleagues; they pertain to translation and ideology, language and rituals of power in Morocco, and the language of colonial violence in Algeria. I have also engaged in another ethnographic project on the risk and death of migrants from various parts of Africa crossing the Mediterranean. This is a continuation of my book on migration, race, and illegality in Tangier, but it is more ambitious. I intend to look at the phenomenon of the death of African migrants and question what this phenomenon tells us about the relation between Europe and Africa. My aim is to interrogate the moral order of our age, commonly called globalization, and why some lives matter and some do not. I just came back from northern Morocco, where I conducted fieldwork for a year, and I plan to go soon to southern Europe, to Spain and Italy, to complete it.

Abdelmajid Hannoum, The Invention of the Maghreb: Between Africa and the Middle (Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2021)


Introduction – Excerpt:

This chapter examines maps of the region from precolonial times, especially the eighteenth century, up to the colonial period. It traces the visual representation of the region as a distinct unit, with specific contours and names. It also looks at the frontiers of the region westward and eastward and examines how geopolitics imposed certain cuts excluding Libya, an Italian colony, and Egypt, a British colony that became important after Napoleon, in the construction of an Arab Middle East. The chapter looks at popular forms of knowledge, especially the atlas, to examine how the conception and the name of the Maghreb were made available for a larger audience in order to shape the geographic imaginary of the modern citizen in Europe as well as in the colonies:

In 1966, Charles-André Julien, a major historian of the region known as the Maghreb or North Africa, published a small book in the well-known series “Que sais-je?” designed specifically for a large public. He called his work Histoire de l’Afrique blanche (History of White Africa), an unusual title, but not a new one. In 1939, Émile-Félix Gautier, an architect of the construction of the Maghreb, had published a book with a similar title, L’Afrique blanche. But Julien’s book was different; it was written by a staunch anti-colonialist, an unapologetic communist, and an unwavering defender of the region’s independence. His book came out in a postcolonial context, and with a title that could not leave the reader indifferent. Readers then, as now, were accustomed to associating blackness with Africa and Africa with blackness. Both whiteness and blackness are indicative of a relation to progress – the first embodies it, the second lacks it – wherever the people these abstracts signify might go, even outside of Africa itself. Whiteness is an attribute of Europe. It is as if Julien wants to tell his contemporaries that Europe does not have a monopoly on whiteness; Africa is also white. Which Africa? For Julien, it is the northern part that includes not just the Maghreb, but Egypt as well.

Roger Le Tourneau, also a major historian of the region, reviewed the book and saw it as dealing with two rather distinct subjects within this entity of White Africa: Egypt and the Maghreb. He explains that the book deals with two subjects more separated than united. In fact, the Nile Valley is turned towards the Near East (Proche-Orient) and the eastern Mediterranean since the beginning of historical time whereas the Maghreb is decidedly attached to the western Mediterranean and often to the Iberian Peninsula.

Julien’s French audience then, and even now, would have easily understood his definition of the region: the Maghreb is neither part of the Middle East (of which Egypt is a significant part) nor it is really Africa. If both are comfortably located in northern Africa, the Maghreb is on one side, west, by itself, not even part of West Africa, which is genuinely Africa, while Egypt is on the other side, east, not part of what is called East Africa, but part and parcel of what is known as the Middle East, a bloc mostly located in Asia. Egypt was meant to be a leading nation of Arabs, a hub of Arab nationalism, the geographic center of the Arab Middle East, and the heart of its political and intellectual renaissance. The Maghreb was then (as it is now) a region whose construction the present book deconstructs: a geographic bloc by itself, with a history of its own, and an important zone of Francophonie in French postcolonial eyes.
“Maghreb,” “Egypt,” “White Africa,” “Black Africa,” “Africa,” “Mediterranean,” “Middle East” – all are names invented at one point or another in modern history, and each meant different things at different times. Today, these names are postcolonial denominations with specific meanings, the genealogy of which can be found in colonial times, since France stepped foot in the region with Napoleon’s expedition on July 1, 1798. Napoleon and his savants defined modern Egypt; his successors, some of them also his companions in Egypt, engaged in the redefinition of the region west of Egypt – that is, the Maghreb – as early as the 1830s.

Before 1830, Le Tourneau’s definition of the Maghreb would have been impossible to formulate as he did. The region was then perceived not as a single unit but as partly Ottoman and partly the Kingdom of Fez, or the Sharifian Empire. Officers of the French army who landed in Sidi Ferruch on June 14, 1830, would not have understood the definition a future historian such as Julien or Le Tourneau offered to them. Even seven decades later, by 1900, their definition would hardly have made sense to a Frenchman in Algeria or in France. The Maghreb did not exist yet, even though its embryo could already be found in the tremendous work of the Exploration scientifique de l’Algérie. It took nearly a century to formulate. The concept of the Mediterranean itself was unclear, and the Middle East was not yet born. Even British Egypt looked more Napoleonic than Arab, and the entirety of the Levant was still part of the larger Ottoman Empire that also stretched into Asia and Europe, as European maps of the eighteenth century showed, despite the difficulties of the Ottomans in retaining these lands.

In 1966, the definition of the region Le Tourneau put forward was so familiar, so natural, that most probably Le Tourneau and Julien did not doubt it as a natural entity. Something drastically important must have happened between 1830 and 1966 to make such a definition possible, comprehensible, and even natural. That thing was not only colonization by itself, but an entire process of colonial creation that transformed several precolonial entities into one single entity with an identity that makes it separate from others and distinct from anything else. This book is about how this definition became possible, understandable, and, by dint of discursive repetition, natural – that is, believed to be there, to exist independent of human consciousness. Thus, the book is about problematizing a name, and also a region, or rather, the conception of a region, with its geography, its population, its language, and its history. The book is an examination of geographical imagination; it is about the history of how the region was constructed and reconfigured throughout French colonial rule in the region.