Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik, Maghreb Noir: The Militant-Artists of North Africa and the Struggle for a Pan-African, Postcolonial Future (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik (PTS): It was when I was conducting research for my master’s thesis at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, that I first learned about the Pan-African Festival of Algiers of 1969 (PANAF). Instantly, I was seduced by this festival that encapsulated everything the 1960s represented in my imagination: politics, art, Nina Simone, the Black Panthers, anti-colonial movements, and sex. I was surprised by how little scholars had explored this crucial festival and the history of Pan-Africanism in the Maghreb, or the Maghreb’s Africanity.
When I started this project eight years ago, I set out to write a history of the Maghreb’s Africanity. At the time, there seemed to be a push amongst academics to start including the Maghreb in histories of Africa. However, eight years later, one just needs to look at academic job postings, which are predominately Sub-Saharan positions, to see that more work needs to be done. And yet, the Maghreb is and has always been a hub for people from Africa. Writing the history of the Maghreb’s Africanity is essential to understanding the contemporary Maghreb and the present-day political demands of Black North Africans and the thousands of Black migrants in Algiers, Tangier, and Tunis today.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PTS: Maghreb Noir explores the question of Pan-Africanism in the Maghreb. In the historiography, the narrative of Pan-Africanism is primarily the story of Black Anglophone men in New York and London in the early part of the twentieth century. A few scholars have looked at France and at the encounters between Black men in Paris in the interwar period. Picking up where the scholars of Black Paris, Black New York, and Black London have left off, Maghreb Noir makes two contributions to the study of Pan-Africanism. First, I argue that amongst Black internationalists of the 1960s and ‘70s, the concept of “blackness” was political rather than racial. There was, thus, a capacious definition of Blackness—a definition that included colonized, formerly colonized, or otherwise marginalized peoples from across the globe within the category of “Black.” Second, because the ideas of Black internationalism were not limited exclusively to Black peoples, militants living in the Maghreb in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, some Black, others Arab, white, or Amazigh took up the project of Pan-Africanism and radically transformed it into a multilingual, multiracial, and multicultural project. Maghreb Noir expands the horizons of Black Internationalism by introducing new hubs of Black thought: Black Rabat, Black Algiers, and Black Tunis—the cities of the Black Maghreb.
Maghreb Noir moves chronologically and geographically from the Rabat of the late 1950s to the early 1960s, through the Algiers of the late 1960s, to the Tunis of the early 1970s. Though the Maghrebi governments attracted many Pan-African artists to the Maghreb, I focus on encounters happening outside of the purview of the state. In the shadow of Maghrebi states’ formal Pan-African projects (such as the Pan-African Festival of Algiers or the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage), Algerian Jean Sénac, Moroccan Abdellatif Laâbi, Angolan Mario de Andrade, Haitian René Depestre, Guadeloupean Sarah Maldoror, and their peers created alternative spaces of encounter and politicized personal spaces. They met in bars, cafes, and in each other’s apartments to collaborate and publish pamphlets and journals, like the Moroccan literary journal Souffles, to film low-budget movies, and to interview each other on radio shows, like Sénac’s Poésie sur tous les fronts. Each one of my chapters focuses on one of those projects and reveals that postcolonial culture was not just the domain of postcolonial governments, but that it also thrived in the margins of state-sponsored events, taking advantage of the capital that governments invested, while finding alternative sites to express outrage at the regimes’ growing authoritarianism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PTS: I have published several articles, for Monde(s), World Art, and the Arab Studies Journal, amongst others, that explore the experiences of specific individuals, such as American poet Ted Joans or American musician Archie Shepp, at the Pan-African Festival of Algiers. In this book I tell the larger history of Pan-Africanism in the Maghreb, returning at times to the PANAF, but also looking at other large Pan-African gatherings such as the Tunisian Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PTS: I wanted to write a book that was accessible to the widest audience possible, so I focused on story telling. The book is a series of interconnected stories based off primary sources. It is a history that should be of interest to people working on the Middle East, Africa, and the postcolonial world more generally. It is also a story of artistic activism. Maghreb Noir reveals that art is not antithetical, or a mere handmaiden, to politics. Alongside their careers as militant poets and filmmakers, the men and women of Maghreb Noir engaged in direct political action. In Rabat, Algiers, and Tunis, they participated in protests, shipped armaments, conducted military training, organized secret meetings, and disseminated banned literature. In short, they performed the work of the Revolution. I hope these stories will be of interest to people outside of academia: to artists, filmmakers, and activists.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PTS: My experiences with conducting oral histories, and my time in North Africa have led me to a second project: a history of queer women in the Maghreb. In 2020 Franco-Algerian Fatima Daas published her novel La Petite Dernière (The Last Ones), which brought to the fore a character so uncommon in the French literary world: an Arab lesbian. The book provoked a small scandal in the French literary press over Daas’ assertions that being gay was a sin, despite her own identification as a lesbian. French critics accused her of homophobia, while others insinuated that she should stop identifying as Muslim to be a good lesbian. The debate was trapped in the false divide between homosexuality and Islam. Scholars, too, have hesitated to tackle the subject of homosexuality in the Maghreb, and when they have, their work has exclusively been focused on gay men. My goal for this project is to rely primarily on oral histories, so as not to import an American or European vocabulary. Rather, I aim to put together a corpus of descriptions of sexual socialization amongst women, retold in their words and attentive to all the political and social implications these words have in their communities. While I was doing research in the Maghreb in 2017 and 2018, I discovered the underground world of lesbian communities in the region’s capitals. For this second book, I will return to the cities of the Maghreb to conduct oral histories within these communities, in the hopes of tracing a history of queer women in the Maghreb in the postcolonial period.
J: What archives did you use for this project?
PTS: To write a narrative of artistic activism, I travelled to the Maghreb, France, and the United States. I conducted interviews and scoured through militant-artists’ personal papers, putting together a rich archive of letters, pamphlets, and memorabilia donated by my interviewees. This archive was interdisciplinary in nature; it included poetry, film, and drawings, as well as the more typical historical sources such as newspapers and correspondence. It was also a multi-lingual archive. I have used sources in English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic.
Collections of personal papers, such as the Jean Sénac archives in Marseille and Algiers, the René Depestre Archives in Limoges, or the Ted Joans Archive in Berkeley, have allowed me to delve into the lives of a few of the characters in this project. These archives were rich for what they revealed about the interior lives of the Maghreb Generation, although the peripatetic nature of these characters’ lives meant that there were significant gaps in the documentation—papers were lost, forgotten, or destroyed during moves, forced exiles, or after their death.
In addition to written sources, between 2018 and 2019, I conducted thirty-three oral history interviews in France, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the United States. Because many of my interviewees were committed to narrating a specific political project, informed by contemporary concerns and by a general nostalgia for a period of African history that they saw as brighter, they often overlooked tensions, ignoring, or even disputing the influence of racial prejudice in various Pan-African projects.
My method of interviewing was semi-structured. I often began with a few questions but generally let my narrators direct the interview themselves, which led to some unintended conversations, including one theme which came up again and again: sex and women’s sexual liberation. Of the thirty-two people I interviewed, only nine were women. None of the women discussed sex or intimacy with me, and, in fact, when I asked Sarah Maldoror about her partner Mario de Andrade she responded with: “That is my private business, ma’am.” The men I interviewed, however, brought up sexual fantasies and sexual encounters frequently, revealing the many ways in which these encounters challenged or cemented their racial perceptions of themselves and others. Chapter four, which relies on oral histories I conducted as well as interviews led by my colleagues in the PANAFEST archival project, came out of these uncomfortable, but revealing encounters.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, The Red in Red-Carpet: The Journées Cinématographiques De Carthage)
The story goes something like this: Tunisian film critic Tahar Cheriaa traveled to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1966. There, for the first time, like many of the other attendees, he discovered African cinema through Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s first feature film, La noire de … (Black Girl), a film about the dehumanizing effects of racism on a young Senegalese woman. The young woman works for a French couple who treat her so horribly that she resorts to suicide as the only option for regaining her liberty. Upon seeing Sembène’s film, it dawned on Cheriaa that cinema was a powerful tool that could illustrate the African experience for the masses. He invited Sembène to participate in the inaugural Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (JCC) in October 1966. Sembène received the festival’s first prize, the Tanit d’Or, that October, and inspired scores of young African filmmakers to create their own films. So goes the tale of the first encounter between Tahar Cheriaa and Ousmane Sembène and the subsequent creation of the JCC. In the decades since, both men have been lionized in films and documentaries such as Mohamed Challouf’s film Tahar Cheriaa: A l’ombre du baobab and Samba Gadjigo’s Sembène!
The story of Cheriaa and Sembène’s friendship is a central component of African film’s founding myth. Not only did the poster for the JCC’s twenty-sixth session feature both men’s contented faces, proudly puffing away at their pipes, but many of my interviewees refer to this creation story to illustrate Tunisia’s particular claim to Pan-African leadership. As Tunisian director Férid Boughedir claimed in a 2018 interview, “Tunisia remains the most Pan-African of the Maghrebi countries, when it comes to film, and to culture in general.” Boughedir, whose 1983 documentary Caméra d ‘Afrique chronicles the first twenty years of African cinema, is perhaps Tunisia’s best-known film director and one who, in our 2018 interview, still expressed his commitment to the JCC’s Pan-African origins. In 1966, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture created the JCC to compete with Algeria and Morocco on the African cultural scene. The JCC’s beginnings were geared toward European approval. Under the joint leadership of Tahar Cheriaa and Ousmane Sembène, however, the biennale gradually emerged as a Pan-African forum for debates on the role of the postcolonial state and the relationship between artists and their people. Through interviews with JCC participants and administrators, JCC pamphlets, press coverage, and personal correspondence, this last chapter reveals the little-known story of the JCC as the final home of the Maghreb Generation in the mid-1970s.
As Tunisian producer Néjib Ayed explained, although the JCC was created with the blessing of the Tunisian government, the Tunisian government didn’t have the expertise to put in place a festival of this scope. The Ministry of Culture thus placed the festival in the hands of the Fédération Tunisienne des Ciné-Clubs (FTCC), one of the few spaces where resistance to Bourguiba’s regime thrived. The FTCC, created in 1950, was one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in Tunisia: it had over 100,000 members from across Tunisia and directed the cultural activities of ciné-clubs throughout the country. In some towns the ciné-clubs were one of very few places of socialization and entertainment for the generation coming of age after independence. Organizing projections of films, debates, and other cultural events in locations across Tunisia, including in very remote areas, the leaders of the FTCC had their finger on the political pulse of the country. While the Tunisian government may have directed the cinema sector in theory, in practice it was the FTCC that controlled what happened on the ground. Similarly, while the JCC was funded by the Tunisian state, the actual planning, including the choice of films, the organization of the debates, and the allotment of prizes, was under the FTCC’s supervision.
If the ciné-clubs attracted and molded young activists who challenged the Tunisian government domestically, the JCC helped to inscribe this dissidence into a global network denouncing neocolonialism and authoritarianism across Africa. Beginning in 1968, what had started as a Tunisian project, a project conceived by Tunisian functionaries and subsidized by the Tunisian state, began to escape the Tunisian state’s control, and started broadcasting the Maghreb Generation’s ideology of dissenting Pan-Africanism—an ideology far from Bourguiba’s ideal foreign policy. Throughout the 1970s, the debates and screenings at the JCC were suffused with the language of revolution and militancy, often forgoing any aesthetic consideration and privileging films that felt radical or challenged the established power paradigms. To Sembène, the JCC was “Africa’s vengeance;” to Algerian Mahmoud Ben Salama, the JCC was a strategic nexus that worked fervently for an accelerated decolonization of subjugated cinemas. But to European observers, this trend was threatening. Victor Bachy, from the Belgian daily newspaper La Libre Belgique, wrote that “the JCC has demonstrated the victory of militant movies… It preaches, implicitly or not, violence, hate, and vengeance. It is a never-ending chain, alas.”
These changes in the JCC’s rhetoric were largely spurred by the African filmmakers who had become staples of the Carthage festival, including Ousmane Sembène, Guadeloupean director Sarah Maldoror, and Mauritanian Med Hondo. As Sembène noted in an interview with Tahar Cheriaa, “it [was] not Tunisia that made Carthage, it [was] the Africans.” Maldoror explained that Carthage was the city where African filmmakers learned to look at themselves: “We were watching our movies, our dances, our histories, our loves, and our dreams. There, by exchanging gazes, we understood our differences. We were watching others, no longer being watched.”
Sarah Maldoror was one of the few female directors who won acclaim at the JCC in the 1970s. The JCC, like the PANAF, Souffles, and other Maghrebi cultural projects led by the Maghreb Generation was primarily the domain of men. Most of the men I interviewed commented on Maldoror’s strength: she was a fighter, I heard again and again. Maldoror, whose father was Guadeloupean, was born in the South of France in 1929; like Sembène, she studied film at the Moscow Film Academy.
Though Maldoror’s style resembles Sembène’s in its realistic depiction of poverty, injustice, and suffering, Maldoror was committed not only to a cinema for the people but to a cinema for women. “I’m only interested in women who struggle,” she explained in the 1974 interview. By means of her films she hoped to inspire and support women who wanted to work in film, so that they would help grow the number of women in the film industry, since, she claimed, “Men aren’t likely to help women do that. Both in Africa and in Europe woman remains the slave of man. That’s why she must liberate herself.” Maldoror’s commitment to telling women’s stories came at a cost. In 1970, the Algerian government commissioned her to make a feature-length film about the PAIGC’s struggle for independence in Guinea-Bissau. Maldoror centered Des fusils pour Banta on Awa, a young woman. When an Algerian official, unhappy with her choice of protagonist, confronted her, Maldoror retorted that he was “a shit captain.” The Algerian government swiftly confiscated her reels and expelled her from the country; the film has since disappeared.
Maldoror took her struggle for women’s liberation to the JCC. Though she was practically the only woman to receive any acclaim in the 1970s, she wasn’t one to accept a marginal position; she was there to fight for Africa and for women. She considered “film to be the best way of liberating women,” remembered Tunisian Jelila Hafsia, who met Maldoror in Carthage. Hassan Daldoul remembered her intensity: “Discussion about males and females, for that I adored her. She was violent, in-your-face. She defended Muslim women. Of course, I teased her, but she knew that I didn’t mean it.” Daldoul went on to discuss how free Black women, as opposed to Arab women, were with their bodies.
Issues of race and sex were intimately intertwined during Pan-African reunions such as the JCC and the Pan-African Festival of Algiers. Hassan Daldoul’s supposed “teasing” of Maldoror and his comments on the “liberty” of Black women’s bodies reveal the layers of harassment and stigma that women faced at the JCC. In interviews conducted by the Tunisian press in the 1970s, Maldoror refused to discuss her private life and her companionship with Andrade, perhaps exasperated at being always associated with a man, or perhaps because, as a Black woman in the Maghreb, she needed to build walls around her personal life.
The JCC, like many of the projects that Maghreb Noir explores, began as a state-sponsored cultural endeavor, one designed to propagate a certain conception of Pan-Africanism, in line with that of the Tunisian government and with Bourguiba’s vision more specifically. But, as this book has illustrated through case studies from across the Maghreb, it was impossible for these young Maghrebi states to control interactions between members of the Maghreb Generation. In the end, the JCC went well beyond the initial desires of the Tunisian state, becoming a space for members of the Maghreb Generation to politicize themselves and others through film and in so doing create a dissident Pan-Africanism. Like their militant-poet peers, they argued that their mission was to use art to push African people to action, to drive them to reclaim power from the postcolonial states. It is true that by the 1980s the JCC had forsaken its original mission and espoused all the glitz and glamour of film festivals around the world. But the story of the JCC in the late 1960s and 1970s demonstrates that for a moment postcolonial culture did not belong only to the postcolonial states. Thanks to members of the Maghreb Generation such as Maldoror, Hondo, and their peers, postcolonial culture also thrived in the margins of state-sponsored events, taking advantage of the capital that the state invested while finding alternative sites to express outrage at the state’s growing authoritarianism and searching for ways to combat it.