Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
Christine D. Baker
The Fatimid dynasty ruled North Africa from 909 to 1171 CE. The Fatimids identified as Isma’ili Shi’is and they declared a Shi’i countercaliphate in Qayrawan to rival the Sunni ‘Abbasids in Baghdad. Their dynasty rose to power from an underground missionary movement, but eventually conquered most of North Africa, the Levant, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Yemen. Their first capital was in Qayrawan, but they are best known for founding the city of Cairo as their imperial capital in 969. The Fatimids linked North African and Mediterranean trade with the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, creating an era of unprecedented economic growth. Further, Fatimid sponsorship of Isma’ili Shi’i ritual and scholarship allowed for the development of several Isma’ili movements that have persisted into the modern era. The Fatimid era ended in the 12th century during the rise of Turkic dynasties and the influx of Crusader forces into the eastern Mediterranean region.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project. Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.
At their closest points, Sicily and Tunisia are separated by less than 100 miles across the Strait of Sicily. Using intermediate islands as guides, it is possible to cross this distance without losing sight of land. The proximity of Sicily and the Italian Peninsula to North Africa facilitated substantial interactions between peoples in these regions across the central Middle Ages—from roughly 1000 until 1300. During this period, Norman Sicily and Italian city-states like Venice, Genoa, and Pisa had substantial interactions with Muslim lords across North Africa. Walled funduqs provided isolated and secure facilities for merchants to conduct business in Muslim ports. Mendicant missionaries tended to these traders and, at times, voluntarily martyred themselves by denouncing Islam and proselytizing in the streets of Muslim cities. These traders and monks operated against a backdrop of intermittent conflict. State-sponsored raiding from both Muslim North Africa and Christian Italy proved a persistent threat to merchants and their wares. On occasion, these raids devolved into more substantial campaigns aimed at conquest, including a handful of papally-sponsored crusades. The longest-lived Christian foray into North Africa during these years resulted in Norman Sicily seizing control over a strip of land in modern-day Tunisia from roughly 1148 to 1160 and forming the Norman “Kingdom of Africa.”
The emergence, spread, and transformation of media technologies in North Africa has attracted much attention over the past decade. Yet the disruptive effects of technological mass media have been a defining feature of North African modernity from the mid-19th century to the present. Classically distinguished from pre-modern oral and scribal transmissions by “technological reproducibility,” mass media offer capacities both for simultaneous collective address (i.e., broadcast), and for nearly limitless copying (i.e., reproduction) and re-transmission (i.e., sharing). As such, dramatic expansions in mass media, from print journals, or “the press,” to electronic broadcast media of radio and television, small media of audio and video cassettes, and Internet-based and mobile digital media, have sustained modern North African political movements and mass publics, from anticolonial nationalism to postcolonial nation-state building and the 21st-century Arab Spring. Any understanding of contemporary mass media, including digital media, in North Africa must consider how these current media movements reprise and transform earlier forms of political consciousness, community, and protest grounded in a century of new media.