Judith E. Tucker (ed.), The Making of the Modern Mediterranean: Views from the South (University of California Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Judith Tucker (JT): The book grew out of a conference held by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University back in the spring of 2013. We wanted to commemorate the work of our late colleague, Faruk Tabak (1954-2008), most notably The Waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A Geohistorical Approach (2008), his magisterial contribution to the field of Mediterranean studies. We had invited a number of scholars who approach the history and culture of the Mediterranean from the southern and eastern shores to participate, and the quality of the papers they delivered made it clear that a published volume was in order. Of course, as is often the case, most of the papers were conference presentations and the road from the conference to the published volume was a long one, as the various contributors needed time to revise and expand. I was excited about this project from the beginning as it overlapped with my own forays into the history of the early modern Mediterranean, so I happily served as editor.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JT: The central concern of the volume is to explore how changing the angle of vision can help us revisit the historic place and space of the Mediterranean. The view from Europe has long been the dominant one in Mediterranean studies, although there have been some recent attempts to reorient the field. Many of the questions that are asked in the volume are not new: What are the borders and defining characteristics of the Mediterranean? What forces of nature, politics, culture, or economics have made the modern Mediterranean? Has it been a site of conflict or connection? How does the history of change in the Mediterranean help us understand the transition from early modern to modern times? The novelty lies in the answers when given from the southern and eastern shores.

Three chapters explore the tensions between space and place. Nabil Matar examines Arab views of the Mediterranean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and questions the extent to which it was a meaningful or even coherent space for Arab thinkers. Julia Clancy-Smith looks to the Mediterranean from the Maghrib in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a focus on what marginal people and things, the kidnapped and the shipwrecked, have to tell us about both fragmentations and connections in sea space. Edmund Burke III makes his own argument for connections of identity and ideology in the long nineteenth century that owe much not only to the southern shores but also to broad Eurasian trajectories.

Two other chapters look to the semi-licit world of piracy in the south and east as key to the forging of business and legal ties that could alternately be connectors or destabilizers. Joshua White traces a practice of “slave laundering” that took place in the seventeenth century and depended on cooperative networks, but also gave rise to tensions. My chapter on the law governing Mediterranean piracy in the eighteenth century suggests that southern and northern laws and practices of piracy converged to create a shared legal culture that could, however, be subject to challenge from inside and out.

The final two chapters address the imagining of the Mediterranean from its southern shores in colonial and postcolonial times as a critical and contested project. Osama Abi-Mershed discusses the utopian vision of a prominent St. Simonian based in French Algeria who saw Mediterranean space as a location for reform and cooperation under the aegis of a benevolent France. William Granara, looking to colonial and postcolonial Tunisian Arabic literature, traces the struggles of Arab writers to take back Mediterranean space. The overall thrust of the volume is a rethinking of centers and margins, and a complicating of linear Mediterranean stories in which Europe has been the star player.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

I have been mainly a historian of women and gender, and Islamic law, in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the Ottoman period, so this is a big departure for me. By chance I became intrigued a few years back by the history of piracy in the eighteenth century, and everything we do not know about it, and so I began to look into it in relation to questions of gender and law, in particular.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JT: I do hope it has some impact in the field of Mediterranean studies and invites scholars to pay more attention to the “other shores.” It is an invitation of sorts to future researchers to do their work on as many littorals as possible, as well as the sea itself. More broadly, the Mediterranean is a problematic space today—a political, economic, cultural, and psychological barrier, a place of danger, inhumanity, and death. I like to think that engagement with its complex history might put this moment in perspective, might help us to remember and then reimagine the Mediterranean as a shared space of connection and intertwined communities of land and sea.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JT: I am still engaged with the history of piracy, although I would like to integrate this interest with my longstanding commitment to gender history. It is not proving an easy task, but I am still trying. I have a couple of other projects on various burners—a historical novel that, yes, incorporates some pirate action, and also a team plan to write a history text for women and gender in the Middle East. One of the real perks of being at my stage of career is the freedom to follow your interests wherever they lead without having to give much thought to the requirements and pressures of publishing in and for the academy. It is liberating!


Excerpt from the book 

From the introduction

Finally, political agendas have also made their mark on the field. The imperial dreams of modern Europe could take a Mediterranean form, most famously in the case of France and its territorial expansion into the lands of North Africa. After its invasion of Algeria, France began to trumpet itself as the heir of Rome, a destiny that would reestablish and improve on Roman glory in the Mediterranean by restoring the physical integrity of the region. Such ambitions could not but influence scholarly production, and a French colonial environmental history arose that shaped this imaginary, as well as related policies. To be sure, it was no accident that Braudel’s sojourn as a high school teacher in Algeria for nine years in the 1920s drew his attention to the Mediterranean world and helped incubate his ideas about Mediterranean connections in an earlier period—and that French scholarship has maintained a record of continuous engagement with Mediterranean studies ever since. In the Mediterranean of much European scholarship, however, beginning in the late nineteenth century, Arabs and Muslims were shadowy presences, marginalized or even excluded from membership in a Mediterranean identity.

Anticolonial and postcolonial nationalism eschewed this Mediterranean of imperial imagination in any case, and the national narratives of most states on the southern and eastern shores have had little to say about a Mediterranean identity. Looking east to other Arab lands, south to African connections, and above all within territorial boundaries, nationalist historians of North Africa, for example, wrote the history of the state without much reference to a Mediterranean past or to a connection to Europe outside of resistance to colonialism. In Kenneth Perkins’s essay on historiography in North Africa, which appeared in a volume focused primarily on indigenous historians and the decolonizing of history, the Mediterranean as a meaningful site or concept does not make an appearance. The same holds true for most of the other essays that discuss North African historiography. The impression that the Mediterranean as a historical frame is treated by those from the southern and eastern shores with a certain amount of reticence is reinforced by the fact that the lion’s share of academic journals focused on the Mediterranean World are European publications, and there is no comparable journal published in Arabic.

The Mediterranean enjoyed another upsurge in Europe as a concept and a theater of action in the 1990s, when European policy makers came to embrace it as a delineated place that made sense for the political agendas of the time. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership or “Barcelona Process” initiated in 1995 envisioned new forms of cooperation in the realms of politics, security, and economics as well as social and cultural affairs among the Mediterranean countries of the northern, southern, and eastern shores, and interest in these cooperative projects gained new momentum after 9/11. Isabel Schäfer argues that such initiatives were a direct response to European concerns about what it saw as a variety of threats to its security coming from the south and east: migration, radical Islam, and economic crisis drew attention to the Mediterranean as a zone of instability in need of guidance and reform, fostering the notion of cultural unity to legitimize European pursuit of its interests in the region. The theme of an inclusive cultural heritage did not originate in the 1990s; rather, it drew on an existing strand of scholarship, as well as on French utopian thought about a “Mediterranean dream” of concord and harmony. The Saint-Simonians of the late nineteenth century; French intellectuals such as Albert Camus in the 1930s; and more recently Jacques Berque, with his formulation of the “Mediterranean of two shores,” all spoke to the richness of a shared Mediterranean identity. French political discourse has, on occasion, continued to incorporate this theme: the minister of foreign affairs, Dominique de Villepin, gave a speech in 2002 in Rabat titled, “The Dream of Two Shores.”

Ideas about Mediterranean cultural commonalities developed in uneasy tension with impulses to differentiate and confront. Schäfer portrays European Union policy as wavering between a “Mediterraneanism” that promotes a shared Euro-Mediterranean identity and a “delimitation” that constructs the south and east as dependent “antechambers to Europe” in need of protection. Ambivalence and ambiguity haunt the European approach to the Mediterranean: “the common cultural heritage continued to be invoked while firm policies on security, migration and enlargement are pursued, which draw a clear frontier in the middle of the Mediterranean.” Fabre notes the ongoing purchase of “paradigms of discord,” à la Pirenne and Huntington, alongside the more utopian visions, and characterizes Euro-Mediterranean relations as a “hegemonic peace” of inherent instability. At this writing, as a mood of anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be escalating in Europe, and the refugee crisis calls into question claims of a shared Mediterranean fate, European political agendas seem to be swinging hard toward policies of difference and the solidification of borders—this Mediterranean dream is in retreat.

The Mediterranean has proved elusive as a place. Scholars and policy makers alike have disagreed about almost everything of importance—its physical boundaries, its primary characteristics, its unity, its connectivity, and the value of its past and future as a space for political projects, economic ties, cultural connections, and meaningful identities. We have seen that angles of vision make a difference. The Mediterranean has been viewed from environmental, economic, political, and cultural perspectives, with a resulting variety of outcomes and judgments on its utility as a unit of analysis for intellectual or political projects. The Mediterranean has lent itself equally to the development of different themes in various historical contexts; those who study ancient, medieval, early modern, or modern periods are preoccupied with distinct topics, some of which may or may not travel well over time. And as with all academic fields, Mediterranean studies is located in a broader context of political and economic power imbalances and struggles. Few would quarrel with the notion that the intellectual center of gravity has been located in Europe, and studies of the Mediterranean have privileged the European experience of the place. In this book, the hope is to contribute to a growing body of scholarship that is fostering a more inclusive study of the Mediterranean by taking the experiences of the southern and eastern shores into account.