Saturday, February 11, 2012

Barbary Coast

I went to a fascinating lecture the other day at the Wilson Center on the Barbary Coast, colonialism and identity.  The lecture was given by Prof. Julia Clancy-Smith of University of Arizona.  She had recently written a new book called Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration, c. 1800-1900.  She began her lecture by noting that she had seen Los Angeles described as the "Barbary Coast of the West."  Whereas in the past, barbary had a connotation as "uncivilized," with its moors, pirates and corsairs- but now the word was perceived in a more positive allure as a place of mobility and motion.

The focus on the talk dealt mostly with Tunisia, as it sat precariously on the convergence of 3 empires (the Ottoman Empire, French Algeria and British Malta).  Prof Clancy-Smith went on to discuss the active migratory frontier that was North Africa in the 19th century, as waves of Italians, Spanish and Maltese peasant conducted north-south labor migration.  She spoke on the subsistence migrants that came primary from Sicily and Malta to work and settle in Tunis, and how that changed the dynamic of Tunis.  She made an interest point about port cities as being synonymous with vice- as being center of moral suspect. Clancy-Smith noted an old Sicilian proverb, "one does not set out on such a journey with a joyous heart."  Some of the migrants came for work, others were tricked by "coyotes"- thinking that the voyage would possibly take them to the new world, and other chasing promises of free land.  Also a fascinating reminder that migration, which today is south-north was once the opposite.  Beyond the north-south labor migration, a considerable bit of migration came from the French pacification campaigns in Algeria, which drove Algerian Muslims and Jews into Tunis.

All of this contributed to a shifting cityscape in Tunis.  With the influx of these impoverished Maltese, Corsican and Sicilian migrants, Tunisia underwent changes in its public spaces.    For one, private drinking- something winked and nodded at in North Africa for a long time (see under: the import of "vinegar"; prescriptions to imbibe champagne to cure gout)- suddenly became bowled over with public drinking houses of the Italians and Maltese.  Also, the Italian and Maltese peasants helped contribute to a ruralization of the city-center, as they brought their  live stock into the dense medina.  This all played into notions central to many migrations surrounding impurity, pollution and the newcomer.

There were some other interesting factors at play that Prof. Clancy-Smith discussed, such as the global costalization of human society, and the growing divergence between the coast and the interior.  This played itself out in the Tunisian context as the coastal elite ceased marriage confederations with the tribal interior and rather preferred Italian and Circassian brides.  Fast forward to today, the disconnect between coastal and interior played itself out in the spark for the Tunisian revolution beginning in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia's interior- a place seemingly disconnected from Tunis.   Another interesting point made was the unease of French systems of communication innovations such as the telegraph and the railroad leading from Algeria to Tunisia.

Anyway, it was a fascinating lecture on issues I love most: identity, migration, conceptions of public space and imperialism.  A few other points I found interesting from the lecture:

-19th century Britain's abolitionism and fight against contraband trafficking didn't really apply when it came to Malta, as the island served as a hub of contraband and trafficking of persons.

-the relationship of Tunisia's Jewry in the nationalist narrative.  While half of the Tunisian Jewish community's leadership sided with the nationalists, and a large number remained in Tunisia after its independence, Tunisia's Jewry was largely written out of the nationalist narrative.  However, more recently there have been scholars working to bring the community's role back into its place in the national narrative.

-Tunisia's public diplomacy towards Europe as projecting itself as "mediterranean."  In this regard, it hosted the Mediterranean Games, and played an active role in the Union for the Mediterranean (Euro-Mediterranean Partnership).

-some interesting tidbits I gleaned in post-lecture discussion:

 a) I Love Hip Hop in Morocco

b) Edward Bernays worked for India doing PD/PR.  In the late 1940s, early 1950s, India- with minimal money in its governmental coffers put Bernays on the payroll for an exorbitant sum.  He reportedly pushed India to conduct PD/PR to promote itself as the most democratic republic in Asia, and supposedly is to have advised the Indian government that all Americans knew about India was cows and snakecharmers- and that they should adopt an American-style Bill of Rights into their Constitution.  Legend has it, three days after they paid his fees, such a bill was added.  I need a little more confirmation and details on this story, but... Twain and facts...

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