[In anticipation of releasing the second Pedagogy JadMag, MESPI is giving readers a sneak-peek into one of the feature interviews. Jacob Bessen interviewed Julia Clancy-Smith on her teaching experiences and approaches.]

Jacob Bessen (JB): The intensification of human migration across the Mediterranean over the past decade has been popularly framed as a crisis—a frame that carries plenty of connotative baggage and dangerous dynamics of visibility. How do you reorient students and prepare them to approach human migration through a historical or historical ethnographic frame?

Julia Clancy-Smith (JCS): Let us begin with a bit of background. Over the years, my syllabi on migrations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Mediterranean—whether modern or earlier—have embodied the subjects of inquiry. They are mobile and shifting, yet clustered around a stable core of ideas and arguments. Currently, my syllabus initiates our journey on the Mediterranean shores and Saharan rim but ultimately arrives at the US-Mexico border towns of Nogales in the Sonoran Desert. The impetus for this change in geographical scope and migratory mapping is obvious: an outpouring of investigative reporting, tragic incidents, and Tucson activism, including the organization No More Deaths. Our final session in the Fall 2020 semester was devoted to “Walls: the Arizona-Mexico Border and Human Rights.”  Thus, a fundamental query of the course revolves around the notion of crisis with its attendant walls, electrified fences, confinement camps, and death. Why and how do these embodiments of crisis, or tools for containing people on the move, appear roughly the same but in different parts of the globe?

I am fortunate to teach in a large diverse public university in a blue and green city that helped birth the Sanctuary Movement. My local students may not initially know much about MENA or Mediterranean histories, but they are aware of the perils and promise of mobilities transpiring very close by. Many participate actively in border actions, collective protests, and humanitarian campaigns. Some students hail from communities of indigenous peoples whose ancestral homelands span the international, but once fluid, Sonoran frontiers that have been butchered by layers of migration politics.

I teach in the School of Middle East and North African Studies which nurtures a synergy between our “local” in the Southwest and international or trans-national currents and circuits. The school hosts numerous students from MENA, including refugees. They enroll in a wide array of undergraduate and graduate programs. They act as peer-learning ambassadors when we discuss current regional issues, such as the Syrian refugee flight or Egyptian labor migration to the Gulf. As US national border hysteria increasingly obsessed upon the Tucson region, students from MENA pursuing studies here have discovered with dismay the increasingly serpentine and labyrinth-like nature of their own visa regulations. Because my classes systematically approach migrations historically, thematically, and comparatively, we juxtapose the North American Free Trade Agreement (between the United States, Canada, and Mexico) and the Schengen Agreement (between twenty-six European countries) throughout the semester.[1]

My Fall 2020 semester hybrid course grappled with the histories of “people on the move” in MENA as well as globally and linked diverse human displacements to social movements theory. Employing migration and “struggle and survival” as frameworks, we examine the major forces at work from about 1800 until the present: imperialisms, settler colonialism, capitalism and labor markets, shifting gender norms, education, environments/ecologies, debates about cultural/religious authenticity, nation-state formation, and legal regimes. Here we halt momentarily to examine how these larger, well-worn “containers” are problematic in and of themselves. Through a comparative historical lens, we realize that a system of domination as apparently “uniform” as “French settler colonialism in the Maghrib” (1830 –1962) was pretty messy on the ground and up close. In fact, the idea of “systems of domination” is more accurate for colonial North Africa because local actors,  communities, and states marshalled a broad spectrum of determined opposition to France’s rule.

From the start of the semester, the varying bandwidths of student background on MENA history demand strategies for addressing knowledge differentials.  Forty students could well mean forty levels of familiarity.  Long ago, I learned to embrace this situation and evolve various pedagogical approaches. Many students have only at best a vague idea of modern global imperialisms, and most were unsure of where exactly MENA, Europe, and the Mediterranean are/were. It reassures them to know that scholars have long disagreed on how to locate or situate these places, especially their fungible margins. We unfurl maps of different sorts throughout the semester to complement micro- and macro-history, biography, and meta narrative. Before deploying several assignments keyed to take on knowledge differentials, I need to deal with popular assumptions about the Mediterranean world that frames MENA.

I learned long ago that evoking the Mediterranean world conjures up images of dark green olive groves, vineyards, and white-washed villages set against a blue curtain. The Inner Sea has been characterized as a “liquid continent” or a “sea of mountains,” stretching from northern Morocco, Algeria, Iberia, and Italy to the Balkans. But it is also a sea of islands, islets, and micro-islands, many uninhabited, others densely peopled. Islands have moreover represented zones of legal exception, places of forced exile, navigational beacons, and much more. Islands represent stepping stones between continents and thus nurtured an amphibious way of being for millennia. A giant geological depression that reaches over 17,000 feet deep in some places, the Mediterranean Basin both divides and unites adjacent landmasses. The MENA region sits astride three trans-Sea strategic chokepoints: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tunisian-Sicilian Channel, and the Dardanelles Strait. Chokepoints mean population movements, exchanges, encounters, and violence of all manner. So, I gradually disabuse the class of the trope of the timeless Mediterranean, scene of Club Meds, cruises, health diets, and cookbooks, and I do so with hard-core geography—physical, cultural, and topographical.

The “phased” written assignments constitute another strategy to address knowledge differentials.  For the first essay in the Fall 2018 iteration of the course, the students set out to map, as historical and cultural surveyors, the campus, its architecture, buildings, signage, etc., the city, its markets, and the Tucson area for clues—in text, image, or built environment—of migrations or mobilities. The popular “Basha” grocery store chain did indeed originate with a Lebanese-Syrian emigration of generations ago, but what about the downtown’s “Moorish” architecture? The Fall 2020 iteration did not allow for the flaneur as mapper exercise, so the first written essay was an autobiography or prosopography of students’ own lives as people on the move, families, friends, etc. The results surprised some of them.

In recent years, as images of fishing boats, rafts, and dinghies crammed with unfortunate souls have multiplied on screens and in print, more students seek to understand more about the Mediterranean in general as well as the crossings. So, next, we consider this: Why do the stories and images of these hapless people trying to land in Pantelleria, Sicily, Gibraltar, or Greece seem “the same,” as reported or photographed—are they? Why do they reoccur? Another big question concurrently arises: how do these fraught passages resemble the borders of the Sonoran deserts and highlands only seventy-five kilometers away from our classroom? One of salt and water, the other of sand and searing heat or burning winter cold; the students do not need prompting. My aims are pedagogical, inspired by the humanities and social sciences, but they are also moral and ethical. Teachers can offer students the possibility of activism.

As part of the introductory sections, I list organizations, such as the “Missing Migrants Project,” that attempt to rescue, bear witness, or agitate for social justice in different arenas and on different scales. I play the NPR interview of a Tunisian farmer in Gabes, on the Mediterranean coast, who recuperates washed up bodies, preparing them for burial, a self-assigned task inspired by ideals of human dignity. It is important to contrast an individual response to unspeakable tragedy since states and supra-state organizations tend to dominate the narrative. We view a 2020 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) documentary on Libya, migrants, violence, and COVID-19, untangling all of the layered historical-political elements, short and long-term, feeding into what is labeled as a “crisis” or “conflict.”[2] The snares inherent in characterizing sea-crossings as “crises” start to emerge. Labels such as this tend to normalize—and also paradoxically to render invisible or semi-concealed—relationships and individual or collective destinies. Long-term structures of domination or exploitation come into view: fossil fuel industries and international oil companies in MENA from the post-World War I era connect with diverse kinds of migration.

In addition, it is paramount to stress individual or communal decision-making, planning, and motivations for departure and risk-taking, although not leaving might pose risks as well. Then too, the idea that many people elect to “stay put,” not to pack up despite worsening conditions at home, needs to be paired with the migrant as agent, not mere victim. Nevertheless, the convergent local, regional, and global elements that render staying home less appealing, even dangerous, call for deep historical analysis. Here I emphasize webs as much as lines or linear developments for conceptualizing the forces driving or encouraging mobility. I also stress that serendipity, contingency, and chance as much as big structures can shape migrations—with the caveat that the uneven margins where structure and contingency appear to converge must be carefully historicized and spatialized. That the largest, densest trans-Sea population displacements during the nineteenth century were north to south—counter-intuitive for today’s century—never ceases to surprise students. That fact nurtures weeks of analysis regarding agency, visibility, contingency, and strategies for resistance or mere survival.[3]

To sum up my approach, I cast the Mediterranean as a gigantic mixing bowl where time and place matter. Peoples and things from the Inner Sea or its extensive hinterlands have long traveled to other places of the world, and humans, species, and objects from far beyond the Sea have frequented its inter-connecting sub-zones. By remapping the Mediterranean, MENA, and the globe as inter-connecting zones, myths about Islam, Arabs, Middle Easterners, etc., are debunked. And the original or unique dimensions of the “region” and its peoples emerge. Finally, it may seem that all is connected in one way or another, but disconnections or ruptures need be ferreted out—the most contentious being the subject of “modernities.” Where, why, and when did global modernities emerge, and what did this mean for human destinies, becomes the critical question.

JB: In the introduction to Mediterraneans (UC Press 2011)a quite remarkable meditation on the methodological challenges of studying the history of the Mediterraneanyou highlight how the study of borderlands demands resisting “the temptation to fall back upon comfortable binaries or taxonomies.” How do you aid students in thinking through the unstable ground beyond these taxonomies?

JCS: We start with the proposition that population movements constitute the bedrock of humankind’s history and have assumed a wide range of guises: epic wanderings, pilgrimage, pastoral nomadism, transhumance, voluntary relocation, forced expatriation, trade diaspora, travel, tourism, and labor movements of many kinds, notably slavery. Even after the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery, countless enslaved persons were held captive and/or forced to move against their own will. Estimates of enslaved persons in 2020 vary but forty million seems a sound number globally. In taxonomies of motion, the critical elements are the relative presence or absence of force, the motivations and objectives of those favoring departure over staying put, the duration and patterns of expatriation, and whether the place of exile became over time a space of belonging. To these considerations must be added variables, such as gender, age and generation, social class, family structure, religion, and race. These variables determined how individuals or groups perceived their subjective situation and acquiesced to the idea of temporary or permanent expatriation, however alluring or frightening.

These diverse manifestations of mobilities—pilgrimage, labor movements, etc.—were not necessarily distinct but overlapped. Some entailed different calculations about struggle and survival, or merely getting along. Yet no matter how or why they departed, the people in motion introduced wide-ranging social changes to new lands or host societies as well as to those left behind.

We address the fact that space and time matters in the construction of taxonomies that seek to identify and control, and in doing so, often disfigure individuals or groups. Who is creating a “pigeon-hole” or “filing cabinet” and why? And, as importantly, how is this being done in practice? Who are the collectors and gatherers of information and purveyors of rumor, gossip, and street talk? Thinking about people flows, modern states, and legal regimes, several critical dimensions emerge: laws that govern entry and exit and laws that govern life, incorporation, and citizenship within nations. Thus, some of the architectural elements of law and taxonomies governing inclusion or exclusion are out on the table. But other subterranean figures call for consideration: the informants, gate-keepers, fence-sitters, and propagandists who shape collective social visions of “Others” in our midst, and thereby shape legal regimes. A striking illustration from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are the migrants, male and female, from the Ottoman province of Syria who traveled to the Americas. Many stayed but many returned in patterned circular migrations. As racially discriminatory legislation was passed in the United States during World War I to keep out the unworthy and unwanted, Syrian communities residing in the country scrambled to portray their people, their race and culture, as “white.” Earlier celebrations of industrious Syrian female peddlers, who amassed capital selling home goods to American households and traveled far and wide, fell silent as emigrants from the Middle East fully embraced dominant middle-class gender norms.[4]

JB: Similarly, in the introduction, you address the opportunities and liabilities of focusing on women and mobility in the Mediterranean. You highlight the wide array of women who disembarked in Mediterranean port cities, the moral suspicion they faced as migrants and women, and the difficulty you faced ensuring their integration into the fullness of the story you are trying to tell. How do you advise your students to write on women and mobility? How do you, as you recently put it in your contribution to Judith Tucker’s new edited volume (UC Press: 2019), teach them to force open broader questions about women’s relationship to the sea through only dimly perceivable evidence?

JCS: I suggest that from a world-historical and comparative viewpoint, “women in motion,” outside of the normative male-dominant household, have always been “suspect” and subject to physical restrictions, from religiously-grounded moral proscriptions to secular nation-state laws creating gendered classes of citizens. At stake are not only the physical displacement of female bodies but also of words, thoughts, ideas, desires, stories, and emotions, forbidden or circumscribed. No matter where or when, women’s freedom of movement threatens to introduce chaos into the patriarchal order of things, although patriarchy differed and differs. Women were barred from some ships because they were regarded as “bad luck” at Sea. Yet paradoxically, fertility and sea-faring goddesses, like the North African deity named Tanit, were venerated in Antiquity as “the protectress of sailors.”

Fast-forwarding many centuries, women could “serve” in the US Navy Nurse Corps organized just prior to World War I. But then and later, married American women traveled under their husbands’ passports as “dependents.” War tends to disrupt patriarchy, if only momentarily and partially. Providing examples from around the Mediterranean Basin, from Antiquity to the present, achieves several objectives. It helps to de-exceptionalize the myth that “Arab” or “Muslim” women constitute “immobilized persons.” MENA women of whatever religion, social class, or ethnicity have always moved about, whether on long trans-desert treks or across seas and oceans, or simply from one town or village to the next. As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, they performed pilgrimages to sacred sites, distant and near. As was true elsewhere in the globe, women had a repertoire of travel tactics: some dressed as men, or chose socially appropriate companions for their journeys. But there is nothing inherently Middle Eastern about these strategies; they are more or less universal.

Things have changed, however. The Tunisian newspapers reported in March 2020 that some women had found employment in the merchant marine, navigating ferry boats, for the first time. And the North African film industry, which has increasingly centered upon “those who leave home” as the subjects of documentaries and dramas now feature women as migrants. In her 2016 film, “Foreign Body,” the Tunisian director-writer Raja Amari follows the heroine, Samia, as she attempts to traverse the Sea on a rickety boat headed for France but without her legal papers. The film opens with horrifying sounds of the young woman gasping for breath as she fights for her very life in the water; she made it to France, but more trials await. Amari then explores social norms about territory, boundaries, identity, gender, and desire as well as women’s movement beyond the borders of patriarchy and the nation-state. This film resonates with global female labor migration trends documented by demographers showing that in many places more women leave home in search of work than men, an apparent shift from the past.

JB: In this same contribution, which lays out your aspirations for the future study of the Mediterranean, you ask for more attention to be paid to “unsuspected actors,” both human and non-human across the Mediterranean. At a time where significant interdisciplinary thinking is being invested to re-thinking assumptions of agency, how do the perspectives of a maritime historian contribute to this thinking?      

JCS: I emphasize that space, place, seasons, winds, and currents matter to human displacements as do technologies of movement. Resource structures are key; coastal areas with access to the kinds of forests and agrarian products required for shipbuilding or sail making may have a special vocation for travel. But fuels, the presence or absence of internal rivers, animal power, and other factors play a role as well. Geography and resources do not necessarily define opportunities for, or obstacles to, human mobility on water or land. Tightly linked to displacements is local knowledge about micro-regions, which in the longue durée was largely transmitted orally, but increasingly it is recorded in text and cartography. Yet even today, in our textually dominant world, orally transmitted news and information about local conditions are prized, sometimes they are critical to life and death. A tragic example is the use of cells by Syrian displaced peoples, who rely heavily on oral phone data to ascertain the location of treacherous checkpoints, to track family members, and to arrange for transportation or travel funds.

To appreciate what exactly is unique about the Mediterranean, and what is less so, we trek to other bodies of water. The more unlikely the comparison, the better. This leads us to eighteenth-century colonial Rhode Island, whose topography and location made it into a smugglers’ paradise and haven for runaway slaves. America’s smallest state, in fact, incubated wide-ranging sub rosa, illegal, extra-legal exchanges—both in humans and in commodities. What I want the students to grasp is that topography, terrain, and geography matter. Many estuary ports along the Mediterranean’s rims, north and south, such as Utica in Tunisia or Marsala in western Sicily, display topographical conditions—to an extent—similar to the Rhode Island swamps. Moreover, the swampy unpoliced terrains in which the Suez Canal was constructed beginning in the 1850s bore an uncanny resemblance to these other places; the Canal work sites attracted an international array of laborers. And local and transnational actors manipulated land-water course-ways to travel clandestinely for work, traffic in illicit goods, flee justice, and outsmart state authorities.

JB: More recently, your work has emphasized the ability of a longue durée approach to illuminate sites of contemporary disjuncture, in particular the role of historical coastalization in the 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali (Georgetown University Press: 2014). Meanwhile, in the introduction to your primary source reader in modern Middle East history, you describe the way archival access affects the task of the historian. How do you help your students think about and navigate the nexus between the contemporary and the historical?

JCS: When broaching this question, I issue a disclaimer. I have been researching and writing a textbook for many years (in collaboration with colleagues) on the “History of the Maghrib from Antiquity to Yesterday.” Thus, the trap of “too much information”—too much history—awaits the wary students. At first, they were doubtful about and even resistant to launching North Africa’s story with the late Neolithic, Carthage, Rome, and so forth. Nevertheless, we briefly observe trans-Mediterranean crossings in humankind’s history. A slice of time from the late Neo-lithic onward represents a challenging and thus provocative frame for students who thought that “irregular,” murderous crossings only transpired with or after the “Arab Spring.” Within this context, I can introduce them to cutting-edge archaeological field research by my colleagues in the Anthropology Department. Most importantly, I can interweave the literary research of two medievalists, Sharon Kinoshita and Brian Catlos, who sparked the Mediterranean Studies seminars whose members now include numerous modernists.

Why the deep dive? To defamiliarize, if only momentarily, the mental and real images of inflatable rafts and people desperate to reach other shores and insist that these lamentable displacements have existed for a very long time. People have always moved about under a wide spectrum of conditions. Might we unearth patterns from the late medieval expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, their subsequent waves of “relocations” across North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire until the sixteenth century? And how, methodologically, can the historian subsequently compare these earlier involuntary exoduses to those of the present century? In addition, an archaeological perspective beckons students to think about historical evidence.[5] As people departed, or paused on longer journeys, what kinds of evidence persisted or vanished? How might one retrace mobilities through specific spaces by reassembling fragments of material culture and thus speculate about passages altered through time—by the very fact of movement? So, the takeaway is that material artifacts and migratory pulses or flows have long been imbricated in complex and often unpredictable ways. The historian’s task, indeed duty, is to make sense of fragmented evidence.

JB: Teaching transnational history can be tricky, teaching transnational history in a place pervaded by state violence holds even more challenges. You study the history of what is currently one of the world’s most violent borders while teaching just north of another member of this category. How do you approach this juxtaposition pedagogically?

JCS: In Mediterraneans (UC Press: 2011), the title deliberately employed the plural, I set out to disabuse readers of the tired binaries of Europe vs. MENA, of the continents as insular or normalized bounded entities, of East vs. West, etc. I proposed that all individuals and collectivities simultaneously inhabit multiple universes, constructed of movement and stability. Thus, the proposition that some regions or borders, and their inhabitants, are “more violent” than others cannot hold. A brief historical survey from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 until the so-called “Gulf War II,” not forgetting along the way about Algeria, 1830, or Libya, 1911, makes the point. Yet we cannot exclude the violences of MENA actors and states: Muhammad `Ali Pasha’s nineteenth-century military campaigns in the Sudan or independent Morocco’s invasion of the Western Sahara. If, at present, the Mediterranean crossings appear inordinately strife-laden, the explanations lie in the confluence of human long and short-term actions and responses within the crucible of a place where worlds have met for millennia.

I conclude our course and discussions of imperialism and trans-Mediterranean migrations with the life stories of North Africans who embarked on educational journeys to the Metropole and back—people like Assia Djebar and Albert Memmi. The Tunisian artist and literati Dorra Bouzid (1936- ), who earned a degree in Pharmacy in Paris as the French Protectorate collapsed, observed during a recent interview: “We were opposed to racism and colonialism, not to Europe or the West.”


From my 2020 Syllabus:

Learning Objectives:

A. Undergraduates will survey 1) To introduce definitions of what migration is/was in world history; 2) to introduce concepts, such as labor, women, and gender, as historical forces in human displacements; 3) introduce comparative methods for the study of migration history.

B. Graduate students will survey 1) the history and historiography of migrations and the issue of historical sources; 2) theories of population movements and their relevance to MENA; 3) survey the policy options for migratory trends in the modern MENA regions.

Learning Outcomes:

A. Undergraduates: 1) will grasp how and why migrations differed in place and time; 2) will acquire the ability to apply notions of migrations historically to specific regions, peoples, and historical periods in MENA; and 3) will understand the value of comparative history for studying MENA migrations, history, and cultures in the twenty-first century.

B. Graduate Students: 1) will be able to apply theories of historical sources on migrations in MENA to other parts of the globe in critical fashion; 2) will reconsider MENA history by factoring in population displacements; and 3) be able to participate in comparative historical debates about the centrality of migratory theories to systems of power, the state, and trans-national process.

[1] Our school is institutionally affiliated with the Center for Middle East Studies [CMES] which promotes trans-cultural and trans-national visions of the world. The center collaborates with Latin American Studies, Anthropology, and other departments to afford a rich palette of events incorporated into our collective syllabi. Many colleagues in the school work on migration and present in-progress research to various classes. Indeed, as we quickly find, everything is connected directly or/and indirectly and can be brought into parallel conversations. Students calling Arizona home, from across the Americas, and those hailing from Morocco to Iran (and all the places in-between) quickly discover how much they share.

[2] See also Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier,”  The Borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering Edited by Nicholas De Genova (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

[3] Julia Clancy-Smith, Tunisian Revolutions: Reflections on Seas, Coasts, and Interiors (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014) provides a template for this approach.

[4] Sarah M. A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[5] Emma Blake and Robert Schon, “The Archaeology of Contemporary Migrant Journeys in Western Sicily,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 32, 2 (2020): 173–194.