Jessica M. Marglin, The Shamama Case: Contesting Citizenship across the Modern Mediterranean (Princeton University Press, 2022).

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

Jessica M. Marglin (JM): I was captivated by the lawsuit over the estate of Nissim Shamama, a wealthy Tunisian Jew who died in Italy in 1873, for a number of reasons. First, it offered a chance to tell a story about North Africa that connected the Maghrib to Europe. I wanted to write a book that would make European historians rethink the marginalization of North Africa and the Middle East in their own scholarship: the Maghrib is important not only as a site of colonization, but as a place where modern law was shaped in a conversation that spanned the Mediterranean.

Second, I fell in love with the characters! Not only Nissim Shamama, but the many people who were involved in the dispute over his fortune—potential heirs from Tunis, rabbis from across the Mediterranean, Tunisian government officials, Italian lawyers, slimy bankers, and many others who started to come alive as I sat in the archives. I wanted to write a book that would do justice to their stories.

Third, this was a case that brought together all my interests in one fabulously complicated lawsuit: it concerns Jewish law, Islamic law, Tunisian law, and the brand new field of international law. And the archival trail included documents in most of the languages I work in: Arabic, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and French—plus this project got me to learn Italian.

Finally, I wanted to write about legal history in a way that brought the drama of a complex lawsuit to life. Rather than write a more traditional monograph, I structured the book as a story—with a beginning, middle, and end. This allowed me to craft a narrative that felt more accessible to non-experts—a way into the fascinating world of North African Jews who lived their lives across regions.

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

JM: This book offers a new approach to the way we study citizenship. It uses the legal dispute over the estate of Nissim Shamama to explore how citizenship—and other forms of belonging—were debated between North Africa and Italy in the late nineteenth century. Rather than see modern citizenship as something that was invented in Europe and exported to North Africa and the Middle East, I instead propose that we think about “legal belonging”—a neutral term I invented to deal with the multiple ways in which individuals could be tied to a state. This perspective allows me to examine the ways in which legal belonging was articulated—and often contested—in both Europe and the Maghrib. In particular, I look at how Tunisian Jews and Muslims offered their own perspectives on legal belonging, often diverging sharply from the Italian lawyers with whom they were working.

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

JM: My first book, Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco (Yale University Press, 2016), was also a legal history of Jews in North Africa, but far less transregional in scope. It focused on Jews in the Moroccan legal system during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Working on The Shamama Case allowed me to learn more about the history of Tunisia and its Jewish community. I absolutely loved getting to know Tunis, and the archives there are incredibly rich; I fully intend to go back for future projects. I was particularly excited to work on Tunisia because it remained a province of the Ottoman Empire until colonization in 1881; my book is thus able to connect the story of North Africa and its Jews to Ottoman history more broadly.

Perhaps the most challenging departure for me was in the writing style; my first book was a much more traditional academic monograph, in which each chapter made a distinct argument and could stand on its own. In this book, by contrast, it is almost impossible to make sense of the chapters in isolation from one another. I admit I was a bit nervous about writing a book so strongly driven by narrative, but it was also a lot of fun and allowed me to experiment with a different authorial voice.

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

JM: I would love it if this book could appeal to scholars and general readers alike. Even for those who are not particularly invested in the historiographical debates, I think this book offers a peek into how Jews and Muslims lived their lives across the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century.

For scholars of modern North Africa and the Middle East and of Jewish studies, I hope this book helps encourage a more integrated approach to Jewish and MENA history; rather than see these as essentially separate subjects, I think of them as deeply intertwined.

More broadly, I hope that the concept of legal belonging—and the way it allows for a transregional history of modern law—opens up new conversations about the history of citizenship in the modern world. I am committed to figuring out how to get away from a model in which modern law (and modernity in general) was invented in Europe and then exported to the rest of the world. Instead, I want to find ways to see how modern law was co-constructed, like the rest of modernity.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JM: I am actually working on two projects. One is a history of Jews in the modern Middle East and North Africa that I intend to write for a popular audience (covering approximately 1800 to the present). The last synthetic history of Jews in the modern MENA is over thirty years old, and an enormous amount of scholarship has been written in the meantime. It seems to me high time for an accessible, updated synthesis of this topic.

The second book is a history of extraterritoriality in the nineteenth century, tentatively entitled The Extraterritorial Mediterranean: Jurisdiction and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century—which grows out of The Shamama Case, as well as earlier work I did on the Capitulations in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

J: Who is your favorite character in the book? 

JM: Since I am answering my own question, I will cheat and pick two: a favorite antihero and a favorite heir.

The antihero’s name is Leon Elmilik (or Eliyahu Almaliah, in Hebrew). He was born in ‘Annaba (Bône), Algeria, but made his life in Tunis. Shortly after Nissim Shamama died, he offered his services to Husayn b. ‘Abdallah, the Tunisian government official who was put in charge of protecting the Bey’s interest in the case. Elmilik convinced Husayn to hire him as a translator and intermediary, primarily between the government and the rabbis (whose responsa were crucial to proving the status of Nissim’s estate under Jewish law). As I got deeper into the case, I realized just what a feisty man Elmilik was: he picked fights everywhere, both in the legal briefs he wrote for the case and in his own series of lawsuits. But he also made fascinating claims about Jews and Jewish law—for instance, that Jews were most free in a country like Tunisia, where they could choose among Jewish law, Islamic law, and the court of the Bey.

My favorite heir’s name is Nissim Jr.: he was the son of ‘Aziza, Nissim Shamama’s grand-niece, who was like a daughter to him. ‘Aziza accompanied Nissim Shamama to Paris when Nissim Jr. was just four days old, and Nissim Sr. gave Nissim Jr. a quarter of his estate in his much-contested will. Although Nissim Jr. lived his entire life in Europe, he grew up in a thoroughly Tunisian milieu. The prolonged lawsuit over his great-uncle’s estate had a profound effect on Nissim Jr.; not only did he become a lawyer, but he specialized in both the law of wills and in private international law. He eventually became a lonely voice advocating for dual nationality—today commonplace, but at the time almost universally seen as an aberration. Nissim Jr.’s experience of moving across the Mediterranean, and between France and Italy, convinced him that one could be loyal to two states at once.


Excerpt from the book (from the Prologue, pp. xiii-xviii)

Death in Livorno

Nissim Shamama did not take long to die. He awoke in the early morning hours on Friday, January 24, 1873, with an acute case of enteritis, an inflammation of the small intestine. The pain was severe; Nissim could barely get out of bed. Two local doctors arrived at his palazzo in Livorno, Tuscany’s port city. At 9 am, they pronounced him dead.

Nissim was sixty-eight years old when he succumbed to his sudden illness; not a young man, yet no one expected him to die so suddenly. His entire household was in a state of shock—servants, secretaries, rabbis, but especially his favorite great-niece ‘Aziza. She was born in Tunis, like Nissim himself. In 1864, ‘Aziza had abandoned her homeland and accompanied Nissim to Paris, along with her husband Moshe and their three-day-old son. When Nissim moved to Italy, she followed again. ‘Aziza was like the child Nissim never had, despite three marriages. But in the eyes of the law, these bonds of affection were just that: fictive kinship without legal weight. ‘Aziza, her husband, and her child—also named Nissim, in honor of her uncle—had lived off Shamama’s largesse for a decade. Now that he was dead, what would become of them?

‘Aziza was not the only one wondering about the future. Nissim died an extremely wealthy man. No one actually knew just how wealthy; he kept his accounts secret, and not even his private secretary could say how much the man was worth. But there was no doubt he was rich. In Tunis, Nissim had been the Receiver General, in charge of collecting taxes for the entire country; the Director of Finances; and head of the Jewish community. In Paris, he installed himself in an elegant townhouse in the upscale 16th Arrondissement, and bought a second one next door for ‘Aziza and her family. The King of Italy made him a count and conferred a royal decree of naturalization as a citizen of the newly minted state. When Nissim moved to Livorno, he built himself another palace, grander still. Rumors estimated his fortune at tens of millions of francs—on the order of banking giants like Baron James de Rothschild.

The police arrived not long after Nissim’s death. Their first order of business was to find out whether the deceased had left a will. Nobody knew for sure—not even his beloved ‘Aziza. Nissim’s secretary had a hunch that, perhaps, his master had written a will when he was living in Paris. If so, it would be in his study. Without delay the police pried the only key from Nissim’s cold bosom. They opened the door and there, on the desk, were four sealed envelopes, with four identical copies of a will.

*   *   *

News of Nissim’s death moved across the city in a flash. Adriano Bargellini, the Tunisian agent in Livorno, heard shortly after Nissim was pronounced dead. He rushed to the telegraph office and dashed off a breathless message to the Tunisian Prime Minister, Mustafa Khaznadar: “I announce the death of the General Qā’id Nissim Shamama and request instructions.” Then he ran to the Shamama palazzo to see what he could learn.

When Bargellini arrived, the police were busy applying seals to secure the late Nissim’s possessions. Bargellini tried to assert himself in his capacity as the official representative of Tunisia. It was standard practice for consuls to take charge of applying seals to the possessions of a foreigner who passed away, or for those leaving behind foreign heirs. At this point, everyone believed that Nissim was an Italian citizen; the Tunisian agent did not expect to have the privilege of applying the seals himself. Nonetheless, Bargellini was peeved that he had not been contacted officially. He confronted Isacco Rignano, a Livornese Jewish lawyer whom ‘Aziza and her husband Moshe had summoned: “Seeing that there might be heirs who are Tunisian subjects” who were still in Tunisia, Bargellini said testily, the lawyer “might have invited [him] to be present during the formality” of applying the seals. Rignano responded crisply: “if after the will was read, it appears that there are Tunisian heirs,” he would invite Bargellini to “attend the lifting of the seals and the compilation of the inventory” of the estate. Until then, no promises would be made.

Bargellini went home and wrote his weekly update to Prime Minister Khaznadar; he began with an apology for not having sent the elephant tusks that Khaznadar had ordered. Then he described everything he had learned thus far about the death of Qā’id Nissim. Since Nissim was “an Italian subject,” Bargellini explained, the lawyer Rignano had demanded that the Italian authorities apply the seals. He ended his letter as he had his telegram: “I now await Your Excellency’s instructions.”

*   *   *

Jewish tradition calls for burial as soon as possible following death. Because Nissim died on a Friday, his funeral had to wait until the following Sunday, since Jews do not bury their dead on the Sabbath. On January 26, Livorno’s Jewish notables accompanied Nissim’s body to the new Jewish cemetery, east of the city center. Two members of Tunisia’s Italian-Jewish community served as pall bearers: Abraham Lumbroso, the Bey of Tunis’s personal doctor, and Pinchas Ererra.

The funeral proceedings had only just wrapped up when the solemnity of the occasion was interrupted by news from Tunisia. Rignano, ‘Aziza’s lawyer, announced that he had received a power of attorney by telegraph from Sousse, a city on the coast about 150 kilometers south of Tunis. The telegram came from Mas‘uda Shamama, Nissim’s estranged widow. Unlike ‘Aziza, Mas‘uda had remained behind in Tunisia when Nissim left for Europe. Having learned of her husband’s death, she empowered Rignano to protect her interests in her late husband’s estate. She also convinced the Italian consul in Sousse to write on her behalf. Although she had never stepped foot in Italy, Nissim’s naturalization as an Italian automatically conferred Italian nationality on Mas‘uda, since wives followed their husband’s state membership. The news of Nissim’s passing had not been long in reaching even this relatively provincial corner of Tunisia. Nor did Mas‘uda tarry in doing everything she could to secure her share of her late husband’s fortune; the miracle of telegraphic communication meant that it took her less than forty-eight hours to engage legal counsel on the other side of the Mediterranean.

*   *   *

The next day, Livornese officials organized a public reading of the will. Someone translated from the original Judeo-Arabic into Italian, so that locals could understand. When the envelopes containing the will were opened, those present learned that Nissim had written the will five years earlier—in 1868—when he was still living in Paris. The will began:

In the name of God, may God who realizes my desires be praised. Here are the conditions of my last wishes, which I write by my own hand in my home, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré number 47, while I am in good health and in possession of all my faculties—knowing that all is in the hands of the Holy One blessed be He, who directs and governs our life.

Nissim proceeded to divide his fortune into four equal parts. The first two—half of his estate—went to ‘Aziza and her son Nissim Jr. The third quarter went to Joseph Shamama, Nissim’s nephew. Nissim gave the final quarter to his great nephew Nathan Shamama. To other relatives, friends, and loyal servants, he gave smaller sums. Mas‘uda, his widow, got 100,000 francs. ‘Aziza’s estranged father, Nissim’s nephew Solomon—known to everyone as Momo—was given 25,000.

Nissim ended his will with a warning, forbidding his heirs from pursuing “a greater share than what I have given them.” The great man must have suspected that the estate would do far more to divide the Shamamas than to unite them. He was not wrong: battles over a large inheritance are almost as certain as death itself.

After the will had been read, only ‘Aziza and Moshe breathed sighs of relief; their uncle had provided handsomely for them. But the rest of the Shamama family expected that Nissim would apportion his fortune among his closest male relatives, as stipulated in the biblical laws of inheritance. Three nephews had the strongest blood ties to Nissim: Joseph and Nathan—each of whom had gotten a quarter of the estate in the will; and ‘Aziza’s father, Momo. Joseph, Nathan, and Momo had long ago calculated that they stood in line to split their childless uncle’s millions. But the will threatened to alter their calculus: Nissim reduced each of Joseph and Nathan’s portions from a third to a fourth, which amounted to a significant sum in such a large estate; this allowed him to provide more generously for his beloved ‘Aziza and little Nissim Jr. As for Momo, Nissim had cut him out almost entirely following bitter fights over money; Nissim’s will allotted his eldest nephew only 25,000 instead of the millions he had been expecting. ‘Aziza knew her father: Momo would not take this news lying down.


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