Category Archives: Book Reviews

‘The Wretched Of The Earth’

The Wretched Of The Earth.
Frantz Fanon. Translated by Richard Philcox; foreword by Homi K. Bhabha; preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.
New York: Grove Press, 2004. {originally published in French in 1961.}

The work of Frantz Fanon has inspired several generations of anti-colonial and anti-Western radicals, until recently most of them being at least nominally Marxist. These ranged from Marxian intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre to Marxist revolutionary ‘Che’ Guevara, from Iran’s Ali Shariati to Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zach de la Rocha.(*) His last book, finished as he lay dying of leukemia, has influenced African independence movements, Palestinian militants, the Black Panther Party, and the anti-apartheid campaign, to name just a few. Its appeal is grounded in two principal contributions: a penetrating analysis of the psychological “colonization” of non-Western people and cultures (as through the adoption of a European language), and a discussion of the rôle of violence in breaking through this conditioning to fashion a new and separate identity.

Fanon’s exploration of the psychology of colonialism appeared in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, which sought to unravel the inferiority complex experienced by the black or non-Western man in the face of Euro-American cultural dominance. This theme returns in The Wretched of the Earth in numerous pregnant passages, as when he observes that “the colonized subject has had to pawn some of his own intellectual possessions” in order to “assimilate the culture of the oppressor”. (13) It has in this latter volume taken on a more revolutionary tone, and rather than analyse the condition of the colonized man Fanon is concerned to show him the path to liberation. Interestingly, Fanon suggests that a solution lies in the cultivation of an authentic national consciousness — an echo of the nationalist ideology developed in and for Europe. In this way, despite remaining mired in the same discourse as the currently-dominant West, Fanon sees a path open to the development of a new identity outside the intellectual purview of the Western powers. Significantly, the path towards this identity is bathed in blood.

His views are occasionally caricatured or placed in a reductive context that paints him as a proponent of endless violence, but his celebration of the rôle of conflict in identity formation is the centrepiece of the book. Fanon argues as a psychiatrist that “at the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.” (51) Revolutionary action is thus the solution to a problem he had outlined earlier, in that it can clear away the debris of internal colonization and help the Third World man to stand up; Fanon argues that the colonial subject “becomes a man” only “through the process of decolonization”. (3) This rise to collective manhood is accompanied by a new-found sense of solidarity: “When it is achieved during a war of liberation the mobilization of the masses introduces the notion of common cause, national destiny, and collective history into every consciousness.” (51) Struggle is said to shape the raw material of the colonized man as the artist works his clay, since “for the colonized this violence is invested with positive, formative features… [A]rmed struggle mobilizes the people, i.e., it pitches them in a single direction, from which there is no turning back.” (50) Even violence perpetrated on the colonized serves a useful purpose, as “far from breaking the momentum, repression intensifies the progress made by the national consciousness.” (32)

Violence is claimed as the inescapable forge of national destiny, and only through its iron and fire can the Third World nation be freed of Western dominance. “Violence can thus be understood as the perfect mediation. The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence. This praxis enlightens the militant because it shows him the means and the end.” (44) For Fanon, that end is the truly independent state, free of the subservient status that characterizes peacefully “liberated” peoples. Fanon draws a contrast between the nation freed through armed struggle, as with the war in Indochina, and the autocracy and kleptocracy prevalent in the African states that were freed by executive fiat. (30-1) He quotes the first president of Gabon, Léon M’ba, who stated on arrival in Paris that “Gabon is an independent country, but nothing has changed between Gabon and France, the status quo continues.” (28) On the surface, Fanon’s analysis appears to be borne out by the evidence of decolonization: frequently those nations whose struggle for independence was bloody — such as Vietnam — are left without overt signs of their former connexion with the colonial metropole, whilst those that were granted independence without conflict — as with much of Africa — remain firmly under the heel of their former overlords.

One aspect of Fanon’s writing seems frequently to go unremarked: the overtly Nietzschean character of many of his arguments. These extend from epistemology and moral philosophy, through his diagnosis of colonial bourgeois resentment and idealization of the agonistic struggle for self-definition. The relativistic status of truth and value lie at the heart of his approach to liberation. Fanon argues that amongst a people struggling to be free, “only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth. No absolute truth, no discourse on the transparency of the soul can erode this position.” (14) Indeed, he observes that “for the colonized subject, objectivity [in the media] is always directed against him.” (37) “Truth is [merely] what hastens the dislocation of the colonial regime, what fosters the emergence of the nation. Truth is what protects the ‘natives’ and undoes the foreigners. In the colonial context there is no truthful behavior. And good is quite simply what hurt them most.” (14) Echoing Nietzsche’s views on ressentiment, Fanon describes the colonial bourgeois liberal as “a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor.” (16) And building on the expectation of violence inherent in the colonial relationship, he argues that the “impulse to take the colonist’s place maintains a constant muscular tonus. It is a known fact that under certain emotional circumstances an obstacle actually escalates action.” (17)

Finally, it may be worth mentioning that Fanon’s political and economic position is considerably more complex than it might first appear. He can be cited as an early Maoist for making certain claims about the political psychology of the nation, i.e.: “The peasantry is systematically left out of most of the nationalists parties’ propaganda. But it is obvious that in colonial countries only the peasantry is revolutionary. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain.” (23) But Fanon also seems to prefigure the current state of economic development in the Global South, as when he argues that the Cold War must end and the Third World “must receive generous investments and technical aid” from the former antagonists. (60-1) Heavy investment in the “developing” world since the 1980s has seen the locus of global industry and commerce shift positions, such that growth in the former colonial nations now props up the international financial system as the pace of expansion slows in the West. Despite his pronounced sympathies for socialism, Fanon never self-identified as a Communist, and it is interesting now to see how the world he knew is being transformed by institutions and discourses adopted from the West. Does this mean that the psychological colonization of the world has become irreversible, or merely that a common basis has been identified around which a global and multi-polar civilization will emerge?

*. Fanon is referenced in two tracks, including ‘Year Of The Boomerang’: “Enslaved by dogma, talk about my birthrights, Yet at every turn I’m runnin’ into hell’s gates; So I grip tha cannon like Fanon an pass tha shells to my classmates; Aw, power to tha people…”

‘History And The Culture Of Nationalism In Algeria’

History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria.
James McDougall.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

In what is sure to become an influential and widely-read study, James McDougall has in his first monograph produced a compelling synthesis of theoretical sophistication and solid archival research. His engagement with the critical theory of the past few decades appears sufficiently deep to have informed both the questions he asks and the structure of his answers; indeed, for a text so suffused with theory, McDougall’s writing is admirably clear and unencumbered by its conceptual framework. McDougall writes against the post-colonial vogue for projecting a nation’s ills neatly into the imperialist intervention, and emphasizes the active and dialogic manner in which Algerian society has invented and reinvented itself — not as a passive victim trapped within “the closed narrative of ancestral violence”, but as an active agent of historical self-fashioning. (3) In doing so, McDougall engages in a minor feat of activism, by identifying the rôle that Algerians have played in circumscribing their own opportunities and determining their present, and urging a re-conceptualization of history that might help to break the cycles of violence and unearth the repressed alternatives to a monolithic Arab-Islamic state. (6)

McDougall outlines his theoretical orientation in a well-structured introduction, which acknowledges debts to thinkers as diverse as Paul Ricœur, Michel Foucault, and Anthony D. Smith. The presence of the latter is surprising in itself, as few historians have taken up his path-breaking studies of nationalism; McDougall’s work, in fact, reads almost as an attempt to marry the re-interpretive aspects of ethno-symbolism with a typically (post-)Marxian adherence to the social construction of identity. (cf. 5) A brief prologue follows, in which McDougall introduces a “mobile pivot” (i.e., pivotal) character, the alim Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani. (19, 22, etc.) Born in Tunisia and later “exiled” to Algeria, his “ancestral home”, al-Madani is emblematic of the underlying complexity McDougall suggests is swirling beneath the surface of a facile, essentialist national historiography which al-Madani — as a prominent historian — himself helped to create. (26-7) More importantly, al-Madani’s life-trajectory provides a unifying thread around which McDougall can reproduce a singular narrative, and without which his text may have become mired in more abstract formulations.

The first proper chapter then makes a frontal assault on a unitary nationalist and post-colonial historiography which — in reading all of the main actors into the teleologic context of national liberation — manages to obscure their actual conflict over the power to “create ‘the nation’ as an effective ideological form.” (15) Smith’s ideas aside, McDougall argues that a nation “only exists meaningfully in the struggle to ‘hegemonize’ its meaning”, that is, in contests over self-definition. (9) Consequently, the failures of the ulema to direct the outcome of the struggle for independence are as important as its victories, and the many compromises made along the path to statehood can be seen for what they are, thus opening the way for their renegotiation in a more pluralistic (ideal) society. Chapter two uses representative “intellectuals” to map out some of the positions taken in the colonial period, from those claiming to speak for an “authentic” and “Algerian Muslim” nation, which “is not” and “cannot become France”, to those who argued for a modern identity which blended the North African and Muslim past into a French cultural milieu. (81-6)

This is followed in chapter three by a nuanced account of the salafiyya (reformers) who sought the mantle of legitimate cultural leadership of Algeria through their religious authority. As others have noted, despite a self-identification as “the bearers of true Islam”, the salafi movement was a distinctly modern phenomenon that arose only within and through “the colonial disarticulation and reordering of the world.” (113) Crucially, McDougall comes out against the assumption that ulema had all “rallied” to the National Liberation Front in 1956, and demonstrates that resistance to the vision of Algeria’s future continued until the FLN itself cut off independent options for fund-raising and closed down the AUMA (the principal institutional body of the Algerian ulema). (138-143) McDougall tries to show that the FLN squeezed out the ulema’s own visions of Algerian society, and subordinated their resources to a single national struggle (and increasingly, to a singular vision of Algerian nationality).

McDougall’s closing chapters delve into the formation of national historiography and the cultural enframing of collective memory. Here he locates the fabrication of a “changeless” national identity, “which the coloniser is unable to penetrate, dominate, and possess”, and which might serve as the foundation for a post-colonial identity. (148) This image is both reductionist and essentialist in the same manner as “Orientalist” scholarship, and paves over the multiple and conflicting sites of identity-formation in colonial Algeria. The pre-colonial and even pre-Islamic history of the land was imbued with new significance, and a “master narrative” emerged which subsumed identities of an “alien” character (from French colons to indigenous Jews, from ancient Romans to monolingual Berbers) beneath the umbrella of Arab-Muslim civilization; a civilization which had become the “perfecting salvation” of the Maghreb. (203) Seeming to downplay the sort of interpretation Smith might indicate, McDougall asserts that the fundamental identity, or “authenticity”, between (e.g.) Arab and Berber nationalities is not at issue, but rather the social space available for “legitimate self-definition and political representation” within a pluralistic society. (214) This points to one of this text’s more penetrating insights: By marrying the cultural imperatives of the AUMA salafiyya and the militant nationalism of the FLN (231), the distinctive voices of Algeria were consumed by “competing, and culturally impoverished, authoritarianisms”, leading to a new form of colonialism. (234) And that perhaps to-day’s Algerians, if made aware of the dominating power of language and conscious of their historical agency, might be able to re-imagine their past to make peace with their present.

‘Urban Forms And Colonial Confrontations’

Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule.
Zeynep Çelik.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

In a work of serious potential, Zeynep Çelik explores the hitherto unknown intersections of urban planning and colonial administration in Algiers, the Mediterranean heart of the French empire. She contends that “architecture is a cultural formation”, and that investigation of urban forms can reveal hidden dimensions of the cultural landscape. (9) Central to her study, however, is the far less innocuous position that “architecture and urban forms are key players in definitions of culture and identity.” (2) She takes this as a kind of truism and offers little to support it through the text. Indeed, the weight of evidence in her study — as she presents it — would seem to undermine the argument, in that French efforts to pacify the population and assure its future as an integral part of France were ultimately unsuccessful. Moreover, Çelik fails to take account of the cultural influence of the French colonial presence itself. Despite her observation that European notions of cultural “authenticity” led them to offer sub-standard housing and sanitation to native Algerians, she seems to pass over the demands for European-style housing and patterns of consumption: a fact which, if explored in collaboration with a cultural historian, might have bolstered her central contention. In the end, Çelik’s otherwise excellent study seems only half-finished; it lays out much of the evidence needed to argue that urban forms played a major part in the evolution of the colonial encounter, but fails effectively to articulate that argument.

In a concise introduction both to basic architectural history and to the philosophical orientation of post-Orientalism scholarship, Çelik presents a thin layer of theory to back up her wider cultural arguments. Most of this is poorly integrated and seems to have been bolted onto a more primitive approach to urban history, rather than penetrating deeply enough to have impacted the material she chooses to present. It does, however, offer some clever images to explicate contemporary theory, such as the “triangulation” metaphor she uses in order to convey the position that “there is no archimedean point outside the system from which to view historical reality.” (5) The early chapters of her book outline some broad contours of the colonial intervention into the urban landscape, and this includes a number of substantial insights. Her deconstruction of “the myth of the casbah” (21, &c.) uncovers the gendering of social space and feminization of the “Orient”, the “polarization” inherent in the segregation of European and indigenous space (38), and the impact of ethnographic studies on civil planning (87, &c.). This latter issue is explored in one of the book’s most useful sections, and helps to elucidate the subtle connexions between the policies pursued by colonial technocrats and the critical assumptions that informed them. Approached in a more expansive manner, the material Çelik presents here would be highly useful to anyone pursuing a cultural history of colonial Algiers.

Chapters four and five are devoted to the period leading up to and running through the war for independence. Contrasting this with the more haphazard and military-focussed approach pursued in the first century of colonization, this latter period witnessed the “first radical steps to assume responsibility for improving the housing conditions of Algerians”. (113) As the urban population swelled, the French adapted modernist urban planning to their ethnographic assumptions about the autochthonous Algerians, producing “stylistically conscious undertakings that emphasized the cultural differences between the two communities in Algiers.” (131) In the end, Çelik reveals that the policies pursued only helped to increase revolutionary sentiment, by bringing large numbers into close contact with one another within the context of qualitatively inferior housing.

Çelik’s book offers a wealth of insight and information on the evolution of urban forms in Algiers, but the success of her intervention must be qualified. Throughout she exercises insufficient care to differentiate policies from plans and plans from realities; i.e., the reader is seldom reminded that what they are reading about was not, in fact, ever built or used. The downside of this in light of her thesis should be obvious: If the urban forms themselves were to play a significant part in the development of cultural identity, it seems more important to focus on those urban forms that were actually in place in Algiers. By spending so much time on unrealised plans, Çelik is able to make a few key points about the ‘Orientalist” assumptions of colonial administrators (which is hardly novel in itself), but she is unable to develop her larger argument about the rôle played by architecture in identity formation. Çelik’s work is a masterful contribution to the history of colonial Algeria, in its clear and detailed exploration of urban spaces, but the limitations of its author’s source base and the relatively thin layer of theoretical sophistication weaken it in some very small, but not insignificant, ways.

‘States And Women’s Rights’

States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
Mounira M. Charrad.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

In States and Women’s Rights, Mounira Charrad sets out to explain the wide differences in the legal structure adopted by each of the three principal Maghrebi countries. All three, given their broadly similar geography and population, and common experience of French colonialism, took highly distinct routes to state construction in the postcolonial period, and Charrad argues that at the heart of each move is a relationship between the central authority and the tribal elements through which the state’s power would be both mediated and implemented. Her main contention revisits the familiar territory of Maghrebi “tribalism”, as she became convinced that her sociological training in class-based analysis did not apply to the Maghreb. “Although classes certainly developed” there, Charrad says that “tribal kin groupings appeared to be a key variable differentiating the process of state formation” in the Maghreb. (xii) It is these groupings which, through their inherent conservatism and patriarchal organization, exerted pressure on the central authorities to retain a more traditional interpretation of Islamic family law, enshrining it in the laws of the new state. The book is thus concerned with the laws regulating marriage, divorce, polygamy, and inheritance, which Charrad sees raising “issues at the heart of social organization, such as the place of individuals or collectivities in the social order.” (xii)

Aside from this addition, her analysis seems firmly rooted in the sociological mainstream, drawing on Weber, Durkheim, and Wallerstein amongst others. And her approach to tribalism seems, if anything, much more firmly established, being built on a foundation borrowed from Ibn Khaldun. She discusses the revival of Ibn Khaldun’s model as a way of explicating and interpreting the varieties of social organization dominant in the Maghreb in the period just before (and during) the colonial period. (23) In particular, her analysis is dependent upon the Khaldunian notion of asabiyyah, which she notes is more than mere solidarity: it is the means through which agnate relations provide a uniform structural cohesion to society. The use of patrilineal relations as a distinguishing feature of Maghrebi society requires her to enter a semantic minefield and define “tribe” and tribalism, at least in reference to the Maghreb. (9-10) She does this fairly effectively, and describes the Maghrebi analogue of tribalism as in coexistence and relation with “markets, states, and the religious universalism of Islam.” (10)

The book is built around “a comparative-historical method”, which allows her analysis to transcend the artificial boundaries of the colonial (and postcolonial) states. (10) At the same time, it makes it difficult for the text to examine the sociocultural details of each society (and the sub-groupings of each society) in a way that exceeds broad generalization. The evidence for her position involves the examination of legal opinions themselves, in addition to Islamic commentaries, and given her reliance primarily upon the former the text opens itself to potential critique with respect to the many nuances of the law and of its implementation through Islamic court systems. The book’s plan is sensible and effective. The first part of the book describes the commonalities in the Maghrebi states, and delves into the tribal structure of society, including the tensions frequently present between tribes and central authority. The second part looks at the differences that emerged in each state during the immediately precolonial and colonial periods, significantly examining the impact of colonialism on state-tribe relations. The third, and most analytical part of the book traces the differing paths beaten by each state in its quest for independence. (11-13)

In each of the states discussed, Charrad suggests that the extent to which the state could reform family law was determined by the degree to which the state relied upon autonomous tribal groups to ensure its own power. Thus, in relatively small and well-centralized Tunisia, a Western-style system was implemented upon independence, which banned polygamy, liberalized divorce and child-custody laws, and guaranteed equal protection under the law for women. It is worth noting that Charrad hails originally from Tunisia, and it was her interest in the sharp differences between Tunisia and its immediate neighbours that inspired her research. Indeed, the Tunisian case does appear strange, and is almost unique in the Arab world, given that — as Charrad indicates — the “thrust of Islamic law in general is to permit the control of women by their male relatives and to preserve the cohesiveness of patrilineages.” This underscores the “fragility” of marriage and the tenuous status of women under traditional law, where agnate ties are expected to be “the critical bonds for individuals even after marriage”, and where a woman can be divorced by simple repudiation. (31)

The situation in Algeria and Morocco is considerably more traditional and in line with Maliki interpretations of Islamic law. Algeria had, for many years, failed entirely to pass a comprehensive set of family laws. In the descent into chaos that followed independence in 1962, the issue of family law was held hostage to competing interests, and when the Family Code was finally passed in 1984 it rolled back what freedoms women had won for themselves under French colonial rule. By opting at last for such a harsh standard, “the Algerian state catered to social and political forces with a vested interest in the preservation of the extended patrilineal kinship structure” characteristic of Islam in the Maghreb. (200) Morocco stands, in Charrad’s analysis, at polar opposites from Tunisia. Unlike in the latter state, the tribes of Morocco retained a substantial degree of political and economic autonomy, allowing them to resist unpopular decrees from the central government. These tribes, which existed in “a constant state of tension with the center”, were able to make demands on the government: e.g., in exchange for taxation the tribes would be assured by the government of their continuing control over women. (103)

Charrad’s study neatly skirts a recent trend in theory and historiography, wherein there is said to exist under Islam a substantial degree of agency and flexibility for women through family law. She takes terms like “modernity” and “women’s rights” to be relatively uncomplicated and entirely Western in orientation. This is not, in itself, a flaw. Like Fatima Mernissi, her take on feminism is remarkably straightforward and rooted in a simple recognition of individual choice and legal equality. Some will, however, take issue with her depiction of Islamic gender relations, as there has been an increasing tendency to gloss over what would appear — from a Western perspective — to be an inexcusably tyrannical bent in Islamic law, and in the name of multiculturalism to seek out some form of genuinely “Islamic” feminism. In line with this stance, Charrad’s basic assumptions prevent her from asking certain questions about modernity itself. By making Tunisia’s reforms appear to be entirely dependent upon the amount of power available to reform-minded central government, she neglects to wonder about the desire to reform family law. For the newly-independent government in Tunis, gender is made to seem an essential badge of “modernity”, and the end of colonialism an excuse to eliminate “archaic forms of social organization.” (220) The degree to which this book will find acceptance with the reader may, therefore, be determined by his or her commitment to modernity theory over the new multiculturalism (with all the warts endemic to both approaches).

‘Rebel And Saint…’

Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904).
Julia A. Clancy-Smith.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Julia Clancy-Smith characterizes this fascinating and important work as an “archaeological dig to uncover the subterranean dimensions of rebellion against, as well as tacit agreements with, the colonial regime” in Algeria and Tunisia. (254) She argues, indeed, that “inconclusive skirmishes, bet hedging, implicit pacts, and prudent retreats” were just as important in the preservation of Muslim identity as were “violent clashes [and] heroic last stands.” (1-2) The world she depicts is one not yet conditioned by years of colonial contact, where religiosity had not taken on a monolithic character and the place of in society of saints and holy men was fluid and heterogeneous. In looking at the first decades of colonial contact, she hopes to document the “sociocultural universe which made rebellion possible and imaginable or conversely impeded such.” (4) In other words, she is going to ask the “how?” as well as the “why?” of colonial confrontation, and in doing so she has produced a thoughtful and measured study of nineteenth-century North Africa.

After introducing her goals and sources, Clancy-Smith spends two chapters outlining the social and political context of her topic. The first presents the culture of the pre-Sahara regions of Algeria and Tunisia—parts of the country left relatively unfamiliar by the colonial historiography. The next discusses the experience of saints and sacred space, and the notions of sharifism and baraka, in the religious life of the Maghreb. (33) “The saints,” as she points out, “both living and dead, were legion”, and their veneration greatly conditioned the flow of people and information across the parched landscape. (31) Chapter three discusses the first two decades of French penetration, and lays out the complex of varying responses from the religious notables of the pre-Sahara, seeking to overturn the facile picture of Islamic authorities in uniformly militant opposition to French rule. The Bu Ziyan uprising and its aftermath are covered in chapter four, and in chapter five she attempts a re-contextualization of migration as a form of protest. Chapter six details another mahdist revolt, and she concludes with a lengthy discourse on the hitherto-untold story of Lalla Zaynab, daughter of Sidi Muhammad and heir to his position as a religious notable. (231)

Along the way Clancy-Smith produces a range of useful insights into subaltern lives in North Africa. As she has noted, “world-system theory has tended to ignore peoples located on the margins of non-Western states”, and dealing with such populations requires a deft touch and often a subtly subversive use of sources. (2) In order to bring out moves which have left little to mark their passing, she redefines “political action” more broadly, “to include not only participation in jihads or mahdist movements but also such things as moral persuasion, propaganda, hijra (emigration), evasion, withdrawal, and accommodation with the colonial regime.” (4) One of the most interesting moves she makes on this front involves the marketplace as a source of information. She notes that “markets and fairs were major collectors of information and news, which was then redistributed in much the same way that goods were” (29), and moreover that “the information transferral process itself produced endless virus-like mutations as news made the rounds, from mouth to mouth and ear to ear.” (100) With this formulation she has (inadvertently?) hit upon a genuinely good use for the concept of memes and the memetic transfer of information, a theoretical model built primarily by Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins and little-used or remarked in the humanities.

In a handful of moves certain to garner attention, Clancy-Smith reinterprets several phenomena to offer an implicit critique of the colonial-era historiography. First of all, she offers a new conception of the practice of hijra, seeing in it a shadow of direct resistance to colonial authority. She refers to what has often been called a pious act—moving to a Muslim population centre to be closer to fellow worshippers—as a “duty” that is seized upon by those unwilling to compromise their faith, for purposes ranging from arms smuggling to permanent emigration. (125, &c.) She also cleverly transforms defeat into victory, by highlighting the story of those who fought to retain Maghrebi Islamic culture in the face of foreign influence, and did so by dealing directly with the colonial power; the use of Zaynab in this rôle is only the most prominent example. (233) (As a brief side note, I found the description of Zaynab’s vow of celibacy and subsequent access to male power exceedingly reminiscent of the Balkan “sworn virgins” discussed in Murray O. Stephen and Will Roscoe’s book Islamic Homosexualities, and am now keen to know if the concepts are related.) Clancy-Smith also offers, perhaps unintentionally, a poignant meditation on the unintended consequences of imperialism, when she remarks that “fifteen years of French colonial rule” had “created a political environment conducive to radical kinds of solutions to the problem of social order and justice. And since the mahdi was from outside that contested state, collective hopes for salvation became riveted upon the Muslim redeemer.” (90) One can see the rise of Salafi and millenarian movements elsewhere as a similar response to unforeseen and unavoidable pressures placed on Islamic polities.

As significant as Clancy-Smith’s accomplishments are, the book is not without its flaws. She notes early on that tribalism “forged to an extent the outlines of social organization and ultimately state formation in North Africa”, yet she neglects to define “tribalism” and leave the reader to make assumptions about her subjects. (22) She also criticises James C. Scott’s portrayal of peasant culture without acknowledging that he writes primarily on South-East Asia, not North Africa. (27) Overall one might say that Clancy-Smith’s book is made more readable by her failure to engage with subaltern theory, but I wonder if that avenue might nevertheless have opened up untapped vistas already present in her source base. I am thinking in particular of Ranajit Guha’s path-breaking Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and its use of colonial sources against the colonizers, and more saliently of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s monumental work Provincializing Europe, which argues for the systematic incorporation of peasant religiosity and the lived experience of the divine into the historical narrative, which seems to have useful parallels with the lives Clancy-Smith seeks to reveal. At points in her discussion of religious concepts Clancy-Smith skates rather close to the edge of tautology, as when the suggests that baraka is what it helps to create (35) or when “supernatural gifts” are presumed to make the saint both “cause and consequence of the divine marvel.” (219) This only brings her closer to postulating the immanent nature of religious truth that is always presupposed in Chakrabarty’s model, making her failure to enunciate it all the more striking. But such theoretical complaints aside, Clancy-Smith has produced a remarkable work of scholarship that, like the best of the subaltern studies, deserves to be read well outside her own geographic audience.

‘Jihad And Its Interpretations In Pre-Colonial Morocco’

Jihad and Its Interpretations in Pre-Colonial Morocco: State-Society Relations During the French Conquest of Algeria.
Amira K. Bennison.
London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

Amira Bennison, a senior lecturer at Cambridge, offers here an alternative to the makhzansiba model to explain state-society relations in Morocco. She argues that that model’s focus on conflict between a weak central government and unruly tribal elements misses the all-important religious context of jihad, against both an encroaching foreign presence in the Maghreb, and against “un-Islamic” (hence, illegitimate) authority. Her replacement takes seriously the jihadi rhetoric deployed both by the makhzan and its critics, and argues that these competing claims amounted to a “constant renegotiation of the principles of Moroccan statehood during the nineteenth century.” (13) That such debates took place within the Moroccan polity is amply demonstrated by her work here; whether those debates offer much interpretive value remains unanswered.

The text proceeds chronologically and thematically, with each chapter covering a different crisis point and moving the central argument through new terrain. After an introduction that sketches both her argument and some essential background to the region and to major concepts in Islamic social order, she races through a chapter on Morocco prior to 1830, pointing to earlier issues that complement her approach to Moroccan statehood. Most of the book following takes place during the reign of sultan Mawlay ‘Abd al-Rahman. Chapter three concerns his attempt to exploit the French invasion of Algeria in order to expand eastward, using jihadi rhetoric to secure support. The failure of this enterprise opened the way to the Algerian mujahid ‘Abd al-Qadir, who attempted to establish a state modelled on Morocco; chapter four documents his rise to power and influence. Chapters five and six then document the breakdown in relations between the makhzan and ‘Abd al-Qadir’s forces, culminating in a confrontation over legitimate rule of both the umma and the Moroccan sultanate.

Bennison is perhaps at her best when describing the pre-modern Islamic polity, with its emphasis on the sultan’s duty to defend Islam actively against infidels, and with its state structures and authority (e.g., taxation) predicated on religion: “this entailed interpreting the dynasty and the state it headed as vital to the maintenance of Islam as a faith through the preservation of societal order.” (6) The book’s principal innovation is its documentation of the ‘Alawi concept of jihad as being aimed, not only against European infidels, but also against “dissidence, rebellion and challenges for power, collectively described as ‘corruption’ (fasad)”. (12) This allowed the government, increasingly constrained in its foreign relations by the growing European threat, to defend political and military actions which the populace might have considered unacceptable, such as suing for peace with France and turning away from the resistance in western Algeria. Bennison argues that the dynasty effectively deployed sharifism and jihad as the “key concepts” allowing the makhzan to “extend central government out from the cities and plains” and into the tribal regions. (158) But she also notes that the makhzan‘s interpretation of jihad as against Muslim elements was widely unpopular, and that the sultan was increasingly at odds with his people. (98) Not only was active jihad against the French urged on the makhzan, but the fasad angle was rejected by increasing numbers of tribal elements whose sympathies with Algeria and with ‘Abd al-Qadir exceeded their understanding of the danger from France.

On the other hand, Bennison is able to show that opposition voices appropriated the counter-fasad notion of jihad and used it against the makhzan. (38) This at times went so far as to cast the sultan, and perhaps the entire dynasty, as having lost G-d’s favour and consequently unfit to rule faithful Muslims. (124) Propaganda by ‘Abd al-Qadir’s forces, even when completely false, had the effect of “making it impossible for the sultan to regain control”, and popular fitna (rebellion) and siba (dissidence) expanded. (111) Bennison takes all of these religious justifications at face value, and suggests that jihadi credentials were essential to the legitimation of sharifian rule. But she seems to skate right over the fact that ‘Alawi rule survived constant military and diplomatic failures, finally culminating in colonization by France. If popular legitimacy could only be guaranteed by jihad, and the application of jihad against dissidence was less effective when wielded by the makhzan, how are we to understand the development of a modern state and national identity in Morocco? As she has amply demonstrated, the state’s coöptation and use of jihad was riven with contradictions. Bennison presents these competing interpretations as contributing to the rise of nationalism, yet the positions staked out within each interpretation seldom accords with the facts. How, then, are they applicable to mainstream political identity, as opposed to that called for by Islamic revivalists? In fact, she has this partly right in her introduction, where she notes that Islamic political traditions were not replaced by Western models, only “submerged” for a time. (1) The colonial experience would render these models essentially unworkable, but their continued appeal is reflected in the rise of militant Salafi movements.

Bennison’s main sources appear to be private and political correspondence, along with memoirs and state documents. Given the way that contemporary comments did not, in the end, agree with what actually happened, one at times gets the impression that Bennison has given her sources too much credit. The text itself is rife with editorial gaffes — errors in spelling and punctuation (the latter pervasively), the lack of translations for many quotes — and these detract significantly from the book’s readability. But it is on the basis of her model for Islamic history in North Africa that the book should be judged, and it is here that this reader is most ambivalent. On the one hand, the introduction of jihadi imagery adds measurably to our understanding of Morocco’s political history, and the use of such imagery does present a useful supplement to the more generic conflict between makhzan and tribal siba. All the same, it is likely that these interpretations of jihad were but one influence amongst many, and far from decisive in defining the early modern Moroccan state.

‘Serving The Master’

Serving the Master: Slavery and Society in Nineteenth-Century Morocco.
Mohammed Ennaji. Translated by Seth Graebner.
New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998.

Mohammed Ennaji, an economist and anthropologist at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has produced a slim volume intended to open broader discussion of slavery in the Muslim world. Having commented on the paucity of previously-identified sources for North African slave history — primarily travel accounts and the records of Islamic jurists — Ennaji notes that “the very nature of this documentation has contributed to an artificially sweetened view of slavery in the Muslim world.” (xxi) Put simply, the legal texts are concerned with the principles and not the practice of slavery, and foreign travellers had limited exposure to the more abusive forms of servitude, and would doubtless tend to minimize the horrors of slavery by contrast with its implementation in the Americas. It is this comparison which underlies and informs both Ennaji’s text and its wider significance. He hopes, through creative use of Makhzan (central government) records and the private archives of leading families, to shatter any illusions about the supposedly benign version of slavery practised in the Arab world. With some reservations, Ennaji is generally successful.

Much has been made of the economic factors separating Arab-Islamic and Atlantic-American slavery; where the latter used slaves as a tool of production, the former made use of slaves primarily as luxury consumer goods. Ennaji does not deny that these made up the vast majority of slaves in Morocco, and most of his great anecdotes are drawn from them. The lives of female slaves were particularly fraught, as they had all of the liabilities common to women — such as the requirement that they be sexually available at any time — in addition to those exclusive to slavery, such as the spectre of sale and separation from loved ones. (32) But one of the book’s strengths lies in his revelations about the range of economic factors; “Moroccan slaves’ primary functions, swelling the armies and entourages of powerful men, did not prevent a significant number of them from working on farms.” (27) The use of slaves for simple manual labour was apparently much more widespread than hitherto imagined, especially in the oasis agricultural regions in the south. Other masters made more perverse demands on their property, as with the use of slaves for prostitution and professional street begging (the latter, incidentally, still practised in Saudi Arabia). (28)

More distinctive was the use of black slaves in the armies of the Makhzan and of the wealthy. In the former case, the Black Guard was powerful enough to have “enthroned and deposed kings at will”. (107) The slaves of the Makhzan were both the most numerous and the best-kept in the country, with all entitled to paid compensation, the protection of their family from sale, and access to training or formal education. (91) This is one of the most striking contrasts with slavery in the Atlantic system, where education was a liability and not a selling point. Ennaji even identifies a market for literate female musician-concubines! (13) The slaves of the wealthiest might well have been better off than much of the peasant population, but they also lived with certain marks of shame that we have come to see as abhorrent, such as an “enforced rootlessness” created by denying them proper surnames and the masters’ right to change a slave’s given name at will. (35-6) And while some slaves were clearly well cared-for, others were brutally abused and tortured. “With the distance of hindsight, slavery appears at once kind, compassionate, and violent.” (30)

However, in some cases Ennaji sets out to argue for reconsideration of one myth by substituting another in its place. One noteworthy example is his treatment of the racial element of slavery. He is particularly poetic when interrogating the supposedly non-racial character of Muslim slavery, by uncovering racial epithets and some horrific statements (as with one man’s claim that “animals are of two kinds: those that can speak: slaves; and those that cannot: beasts.”). (93-4) He can also demonstrate that efforts to abolish slavery often focussed on the “color prejudice”, “which treated blacks as a race condemned to enslavement.” (120-1) On the other hand, some of his associations seem a little strained (as when he reads a fixation with skin colour into an anecdote about slaves treating their skin with oils after exposure to lime). (62-3) Ennaji properly notes that social class — and not skin colour — were the primary determinants of status, and that governors and other high officials might be fully black. Further, he observes that black women were considered especially desirable for their beauty and sexual qualities. (34) When combined with the enslavement of Circassian and European ‘whites’, it becomes difficult to understand slavery in Morocco as a peculiarly racialized enterprise. Despite the indisputable presence of racially-charged opinions, Ennaji should take care not to leap from an association of slave status and skin colour (which may reflect only on the most common source of slaves) to an assumption that slavery in North Africa and in the Americas were equally racist.

There are other aspects of Ennaji’s analysis that are questionable, as when he argues against the notion that slaves might ever refuse to be freed. As he says, “nothing could be further from the truth… [Slaves] strove constantly to win [liberty]”. (54) Just a few pages later Ennaji notes that many newly-freed slaves were forced to sell themselves back into slavery to escape starvation, and much later he asserts that few slaves actively sought freedom on account of the economic hardships that would accompany liberty. (57-8, 115) The first point, then, seems to be a sentimental appraisal based on a supposed common yearning in all men to be free, whilst his later qualifications introduce factors that directly undermine his argument: they may have chosen from a range of bad options, but many slaves did choose to remain enslaved. But such quibbles aside, Ennaji has written a very important book which does much to broaden our understanding of slavery under Islam. Through concise — yet penetrating — discussion of social relations, economic rôles, family and sexual politics, and the daily lives of slaves in nineteenth century Morocco, Ennaji has greatly expanded the scope for studies of slavery. It is, as he admits, too early for any safe generalizations, but this book is a splendid first effort to redress a historiographic failure.

‘The Mellah Of Marrakesh’

The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco’s Red City.
Emily Gottreich.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

In setting out to define and contextualize the mellah (a walled Jewish district) of Marrakesh, Emily Gottreich has produced a book of multiple significances: historians of the modern Islamic world will gain insight into the substantially deteriorated relations between Jews and Arabs, students of Morocco will learn much about a community on the brink of extinction, and scholars of Jewish studies will appreciate many contrasts with the European ghetto experience. She describes the mellah as “fully invested with meaning as Jewish space and just as fully integrated into its urban setting”, and documents the highly complex interplay of social, economic, and religious interaction between these ostensibly-separated communities. (3) Gottreich is particularly effective at bringing out the inherently more urban and cosmopolitan leanings of both faiths, whilst simultaneously describing their often jealous struggles for sacred and physical space, in order to protect communal orthopraxy and control subordinated elements.

Beginning with a discussion of the evolution of the mellah as a feature of Moroccan urban architecture, Gottreich emphasizes the the mellah as process instead of product; she points to its slow development over several centuries, and to wildly divergent manifestations across Morocco. (19-21) Chapter two contains the spectacular discovery of a formal census, undertaken in a period when it has long been assumed that Morocco lacked the capacity to perform functions so characteristic of the modern state. This is followed by an impressive bit of detective work, in which she examines and explains convincingly the wide discrepancy between the figures in this census and European estimates of the local Jewish population. The next two chapters mirror one-another in approaching the constitution of Jewish and Muslim space, and recounting the daily transgression of these (largely artificial) boundaries. She then includes a discussion of the Jews living in the rural hinterlands before concluding with a brief excursus on the decline of the Moroccan Jewish community.

The Jews of Morocco claim to have settled there in the wake of the first Temple’s destruction, which pre-dates the Arab conquest by nearly a millennium. (5) Attempts to make the community more recognizable can thus be understood in the near-total absence of ethnic or cultural differences with the indigenous population. Gottreich also notes that North African Jews fell under a political and social régime (i.e., the dhimma, or protected status as fellow monotheists) that was far more accepting of them than that found under “Christian Europe’s formative theological bias against its Jewish subjects.” (12-3) Either way, the mellah was a relatively late development that was in part a response to the high visibility of Jewish immigrants from Andalusia, and Marrakesh’s dates only from the later sixteenth century. (24, 12) The move from mixed housing to a demarcated quarter of the city was doubtless traumatic, but “the new mellah almost immediately became sanctified as protected Jewish space.” (34-5) She suggests that Jews “felt most at home in the mellah”, and that they “felt sufficiently secure to defend this ‘citadel of their independence’ against intruders, even using physical force when it seemed necessary.” Significantly, she notes that “the mellah’s gates were locked from within, not from without.” (92)

Having relatively little contact with the Sephardim (who settled mostly in the north), the Jews of Marrakesh were more-or-less fully integrated into the Arab/Berber context, within which they often filled significant social lacunae. (6) For example, the lack of Jewish prohibitions on alcohol meant that it was freely available in the mellah, and the ease with which Jewish women could mix with men served to facilitate prostitution. (78-9, 79-81) Indeed, for Muslims the mellah could be “a ‘quartier infament’, the locus of all the city’s vices.” (107) On the other hand, for Jews the “humiliation associated with their status as dhimma combined with the threat of conversion gave an equally negative coloration to Muslim space. The two groups’ mutual suspicion was greatly mitigated, however, by the mutual interest in furthering Jews’ participation in the larger Marrakesh economy.” (107) In addition to work as financiers and specialized craftsmen, Jews worked as tradesmen and merchants both within the city and across the region (often trading surpluses from one city’s mellah to another for re-sale under better conditions). Jews and Muslims were also pulled together by a wide range of shared traditions, from the veneration of common saints, to the practices of polygamy and slavery, to participation in similar folk-ways (such as warding off the ‘evil eye’, the appeasement of djinn, etc.) (74-5, 106)

Whilst I admire the text’s concision and commendable lack of jargon, it might have been interesting to see a more conscious use of urban theory in her argumentation. On the social creation of space, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space came to mind. Also, she might have been able to use work on similar phenomena, like the demarcation of sacred space in Shia Islam as in Juan Cole’s book Sacred Space and Holy War. Finally, her use of the term “legibility” (44) immediately put me in mind of James Scott (e.g., in his magisterial work Seeing Like a State) and Michel Foucault (especially his notion of governmentality). Again, however, as much as I might have liked to see Gottreich work through more of the issues surrounding municipal planning and the creation of civic and religious space, I think her text stands up quite well in their absence, and any lack of theoretical sophistication is more than amply compensated by solid analysis and persuasive argumentation.

Gottreich’s work is important for its complication of the common view of Jews as supportive of the colonial enterprise, and is thus equally suited to undergraduate and professional use. As she notes, resistance to the “de-Orientalizing” mission of the Alliance Israélite Universelle “is in part traceable to the durability of traditional spatial and social arrangements”, but more fundamentally, “anti-Jewish biases and missionary zeal in the case of gentiles, and a short-sighted vision of a Jewish mission civilisatrice in the case of the A.I.U., served to harden the mellah’s resistance to external efforts at Westernization.” (10, 90) However, this internal “wrangling was… all but lost on the local Muslim population. For them, the association between Jewish space and the intruding Europeans was a well-established fact, to the detriment of both the image of the mellah and eventually Jewish-Muslim relations as a whole.” (91) Gottreich has tried throughout to avoid “seeing European agency… as the defining factor in the history of the mellah.” Instead, by focussing on “the evolution of the cityscape itself”, she shows that the “Jews in Marrakesh were in fact subject to many of the same influences and shared many of the same reactions as their Muslim neighbors, and that these elements, rather than a unilateral, accelerated entry into a world-system, were primarily responsible for shaping their daily lives and destinies.” (137) In doing so, she has almost certainly produced a study that is closer to the spirit of this now-lost cultural formation than one might reasonably have expected.

‘The Forgotten Frontier…’

The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier.
Andrew C. Hess.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

In a work both intensely frustrating and historically significant, Andrew Hess has produced a systematic account of a specific epoch, in which he argues that Europe and the Islamic world definitively parted ways. Hess is surely right is noting that North Africa has gotten far less attention than it has deserved in the formation both of modern European and Ottoman-Islamic cultural identities, but The Forgotten Frontier is highly problematic — and utterly unconvincing — as a rejoinder to history over the longue durée. Though Fernand Braudel’s 1949 landmark [1] (which, probably not coincidentally, appeared in Engligh only a few years before Hess’s book) has its own manifold limitations, not least of which being a severe downplay of cultural difference, it is equally misleading to overstate those differences as Hess has done. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss his effort as classic “Orientalism” (in Said’s parlance), but the accusation is not far from the mark. In particular, the essentialism with which he deploys the term “civilization” positively cries out for theoretical justification or dispute (depending on your position). Hess for the most part eschews anything that might serve to detract from — or support — his characterization of European and Islamic “civilizations”, and in so doing has produced a study that historians to-day, looking back, can only perceive as unfortunately dated and analytically weak.

Hess opens by acknowledging “themes of unity” and “common cultural traits”, but argues that for all of these the civilizations of the Mediterranean have rejected unity and adopted mutually-antagonistic characters. (1) In objecting to Braudel’s work, he asserts that it is still possible to make sharp distinctions between such civilizations, and that these distinctions easily transcend the particularities of geography and shared contact. He spends several chapters laying out a basic exposition of North African society in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and broaches the matter of Spain’s evolving Reconquista on the Iberian peninsula. This is followed by a strong presentation of Ottoman expansion across the Maghreb, and by a (less impressive) sketch of Morocco under the Sa’adian sultanate. This middle includes long passages on military manoeuvres and on the rise and decline of dynasties, and the shadow of Ibn Khaldun lies heavily over them. Fundamental to his thesis is a chapter devoted to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims (including converts) from Iberia, and it is here that he goes farthest in defining civilization in terms of religious unity. He concludes with a nice discussion of Maghrebi responses to both Ottoman and Iberian penetration, and is particularly effective in presenting the Maghreb as a distinct entity.

Throughout his study Hess presupposes a strong sense of identity that explicitly rejects “alien” notions; he argues that “the relatively high ability of each civilization to organize its populations” would tend to “make the task of assimilation either impossible or extremely difficult”. (5) But borrowing, changing, and adapting are just as important as innovating and inventing in the formation of complex societies, and the assimilation and conversion of individuals has been the norm whenever populations or power structures have shifted location. Bald essentialism of this kind is repeated again and again through the text, leading one to question how Hess conceives of social change historically. He describes the rôle of Muslim cavalry, for example, as having “dominated the sociology of warfare. To descend from a horse, to fight in serried ranks, to give up tribal freedoms for the disciplined life of a professional soldier as an urban ruler might wish was not only unthinkable, it was unmanly.” (21) Yet he forgets that Western Europe experienced a similar transition, where mounted knights once dominated the field only to be supplanted by longbows and other later developments in military technology. One problem appears to lie in Hess’s conception of tribal cultures, which he sees as dominating western Islamic societies. He returns many times to the conflict between urban and rural populations, e.g., by positioning tribal raids and loyalties as the key factor weakening the post-Almohad sultanates (46), and attributing the “swift rise and fall of urban society” on “the influence of tribalism”. (178) In highlighting the rôle of extended families on social relations, he entirely elides similarities with European norms prior to the nineteenth century. (137) Hess sees a “revolution” at the start of the seventeenth century, which divided two civilizations that were previously “moving along compatible lines of development” and led to the “mutual rejection of cultural pluralism”. (187) Henceforth: “Loyalty to kin and attachment to village, religious community, and status group were to be downgraded in favor of membership in a more universal social order.” (210) In other words, he divines anachronistically a form of modern nationalism long before it had any popular expression, and downplays the local identities of Europeans.

What is perhaps most striking is the ease with which Hess aligns Spain and Western Europe. He argues that after the sixteenth century “the two civilizations followed distinctly different paths: the Ottoman was conservative and the Iberian radical”, which is hardly how I would describe Spain in this period. (210) He makes no distinction, for example, between the feudal social order utilized in Spain’s American colonies and the capitalist ethos guiding Britain’s much later settlements. Spain retroactively gains all of the features characteristic of modern Western society, and no mention is made of the severe decline of the Iberian states relative to their northern neighbours — a decline whose periodization and essential features appear to bear closer resemblance to Ottoman fortunes than Hess would admit. More fundamentally, Hess seems to identity scientific rationality with Christian civilization, despite the obvious restriction of the naturalistic Weltanschauung to a tiny minority in the West. In a supremely reductionist turn, Hess suggests that the “extensive technological innovation” and “social mobility of early modern Europe exceeded the limits of the Islamic social order.” (208-9) This Orientalist canard speaks to the heart of his model, which cleverly brings culture back into focus in long-term historical change, but uncritically accepts Western self-definition and manages thereby to over-define the frontier metaphor as a solid boundary.

[1] La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen a l’époque de Philippe II.

‘Turning Turk’

Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630.
Daniel Vitkus.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Daniel Vitkus offers a study that is equal parts cultural history, literary criticism, and theoretical intervention, and which succeeds on most of these fronts. The sources, almost all of which are plays first composed in this period, are dissected for subtle insights into the mentality of the authors and producers, and the results are placed within a discursive framework intended to capture more of the nuanced impact of radical alterity on an internally-homogenizing population. He presents this period as the last in which a fluid ethnic and cultural identity could be discerned in England, and he suggests that the Ottomans – and more generally the fractious and violent Mediterranean – can be taken as the unifying cultural threat against which a cohesive national identity could arise. (9) This is not, however, a Freudian attempt to summon the power of the Other to shape a monolithic ego-nation. (7,10) On the contrary, Vitkus questions the applicability of the sort of binary opposition that underlies Edward Said’s influential model of East-West interaction, and argues instead for a reading of culture that is reminiscent of Homi Bhabha in its use of a “representation of the Other” that is “‘always ambivalent [and] disclosing a lack’.” Put in this light, English encounters in the multicultural Mediterranean “[open] up a space of negation, negotiation, and confusion of identity”, which introduces the possibility of “cultural hybridity” and a by-definition much more complex rendering of national identity. (13)

The author seeks to join a growing chorus of voices questioning the characterization of Elizabethan England as fundamentally imperialistic. It has been too easy to see a nation which rose to world dominance in the mid-eighteenth century as already pre-possessed of the essential discourses and cultural institutions of an imperial power. He argues instead that the popular and literary representations of England in this period did not so much reflect the lived reality of the audience as the dreams and aspirations of an emerging nationalistic identity, and as such he can describe such phantasies as “merely the premature articulation of a third-rate power.” (3)(*) What remains somewhat unclear is the extent to which this should surprise anyone, for even the most ardent booster would admit that England could hardly hold a candle to Spain or the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, and that since theatre would play a significant part in the development of a national ideology of greatness, a temporary lack of agreement with the facts is hardly relevant.

In fact, this is precisely where Vitkus’s text shines most impressively. What seems in hindsight an obvious move is actually a clever reading of the sources, in which the nascent social construction of empire is situated within a framework comprised of its early theatrical representations. The cultivation of an explicitly imperial national identity, and the ability to view the world outside Britain as an exotic Other waiting to be plucked, is surely one of the key factors in the emergence of a popular imperial project over the next two centuries. (27) Vitkus has much to say about the expression and development of these imperial images, and about the ways in which English culture sought through these to coöpt and adapt to “new procedures and identities that were based on a Mediterranean experience defined by instability of identity and a questionable moral and religious status.” (162) According to Vitkus, the theatre did present these alternative cultures “as difference, but that difference [was] open, multiple, and unstable”, and therefore no simple identification can be presumed between the audience and the more presumably “English” characters on the stage. (30)

More significantly, these works are frequently ambiguous in their representation of supposedly alien cultures; “the Turks are both immoderate and disciplined, excessively masculine and perversely unmasculine”, “virile and impotent”, and so forth. (119) There is certainly a lack of detailed information upon which to base their characters and settings, but the ambiguity goes much deeper than ignorance; Vitkus helps us to imagine some of the conflicted ways an English audience may have perceived a power like the Ottoman Empire. Particularly useful here is the threat – real or imagined – of conversion. The fear of losing one’s religious identity, and perhaps the immortal soul, presented an ontological challenge to the evolving Western self-conception, and Vitkus is right to evoke the tenuous existential environment in which Europe is simultaneously colonizer (of the New World) and colonized (by Ottoman Muslims, who continued their inexorable penetration of Europe, converting people and sacred spaces along the way). (77-8)

Intriguingly, he deploys the topos of conversion in a secondary rôle – as a metaphor for the “collective cultural and economic transformation that English society was undergoing.” Vitkus suggests that “English culture was ‘turning Turk’ not only in the sense that some English subjects were converting to Islam”, but that contact with the exotic world of the Muslim Mediterranean was forging a distinctively English identity which saw itself as fundamentally opposed to foreign despots. (162) The Reformation context of these works is crucial, and the dramatic enemy could just as easily be the Ottoman Turks as the Roman Catholic monarchies. (59) It is this attempt to stitch the English theatre into a more broad and multifacted cultural context that makes this text so useful, despite its seemingly one-dimensional limitation to a narrow field of data. At times the reader can wonder if he has picked up a purely literary exegesis, so deeply does Vitkus immerse him in the world of the stage, but the breadth of Vitkus’s secondary reading helps to root that exegesis very deliberately within a critical image of the early seventeenth century. He appears to have taken quite to heart a warning he draws from much of the postcolonial literature; viz., the ease with which some now “[confuse] the merely discursive with the material conditions of empire as an institution.” (6) For an argument founded upon clever readings of dramatic work, his is a surprisingly well-grounded treatment.

*. Sometimes one may wonder if the author has a sense of humour or his reader just has an active imagination. Can we dismiss all of that imperial bluster as a premature ejaculation? After all, what better way to deflate a powerful ego than to question its owner’s manhood..?