Brahim El Guabli, “Where is the Maghreb? Theorizing a Liminal Space,” Arab Studies Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2 (Fall 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this special section?

Brahim El Guabli (BEG): This special section of the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ) is the result of two years of rigorous work to produce an interdisciplinary special section on the counterintuitive question of the location of the Maghreb. When I first conceptualized what would have been a special issue, I started by asking myself whether the place we currently call the Maghreb is to be taken for granted and at face value or not. My answer was that by simply re-localizing the Maghreb, North Africa, or Tamazgha in space and time we can revisit the theoretical ramifications of this palimpsestic, geographic, demographic, and intellectual space. My premise is that a critical reflection on emplacement and temporality can yield generative results that can help us renew our questions and advance our knowledge of this elusive entity. As we know, there is an abundance of strong scholarship about both the Maghreb and North Africa, but Tamazgha, the indigenized term for the region, fades into the background, thus begging for more engagement with the Maghreb’s location beyond the current post-colonial geographical and political borders.

In continuation of a special issue I had co-edited in 2018, I invited a group of scholars to revisit the notion of the Maghreb through an approach that examines it from both “within” and “without.” While only a few articles passed ASJ’s rigorous peer review process and survived the vicissitudes COVID had wrought upon the authors, my initial proposal had a multifaceted number of contributions that covered Amazigh literature, Maghreb-Asia, Sufism, race, and music. The deconstructive effort that went into this special section offers some productive approaches that will shed new light on crucial conceptions, such as Tamazgha, Amazighitude, “transcontinentalism,” and linguistic dichotomies. The essays show the Maghreb for what it is—a multilayered space with indigenous and transnational significance the examination of which requires the mobilization of a multilingual and interdisciplinary scholarship. This is part of a “leftovers scholarship” that I have been constructing, by which I mean a methodical effort to revisit questions and sources that we might consider exhausted and overstudied in order to develop novel ways to approach them differently. Leftovers scholarship must be interdisciplinary and comparative. It involves questioning what might have been taken for granted and shining new light on it by engaging with new questions.

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

BEG: Claudia Esposito’s contribution probes Amara Lakhous’s and Leonardo Sciascia’s use of the investigative genre in their novelistic output to question the unassailable truths and grand narratives in Italy and Algeria. Esposito places the Maghreb within Italian immigration and power politics, concluding that the Maghreb is “located in the art” or in a methodology instead of a geographical location. Sonja Hegasy teases out the significance of liminality in its personal and collective dimensions based on Abdellatif Laâbi’s book Un autre Maroc. Drawing on the history of the “Years of Lead” and the legacy of the Moroccan Marxist-Leninist Movement, Hegasy invites us to examine Maghrebi utopias and their discontents. Carlos Cañete and Gonzalo Fernandez demonstrate how the Maghreb is depicted as both “outer and inner to Spanish history and culture” by tracing the genealogies of the terms “Magreb” and “Maghreb” as well as the contexts of their deployment in Spanish historical literature. In her contribution, Paraska Tolan-Szklinik brings attention to the overlooked issues of race, sexuality, and hypermasculinity in the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival  in Algiers, shedding new light on this wedding of African nations and their diasporas by being attentive to sexuality and asymmetrical relationships. Each contribution engages multiple temporalities and multilayered spatial connections to make sense of the Maghreb as it has evolved across genres, historical trajectories, and in utopian or revolutionary endeavors.

My own introduction to the issue revisits some of the current issues in Maghreb-related scholarship to foreground the fact that locating the Maghreb begs for new reading practices that take into account indigeneity, multilingualism, and interdisciplinarity. By focusing on the need to prioritize a “poetics of affirmation,” which accounts for Amazigh indigeneity and Tamazgha’s multilingualism—in lieu of the current “poetics of erasure,” which has relegated indigenous languages to something to be read for in dominant languages—I propose an “unlearning methodology” that calls attention to the absence of Amazigh language and culture in Maghreb-focused scholarship. This unlearning methodology requires that we pay attention to what has been absented for both objective and subjective reasons in order to “unlearn” the normalized acceptance of absence. In reality, we still continue to use the terms Maghreb and North Africa, including in this special section, whereas a significant number of indigenous scholars and activists in the region have renamed their ancestral homeland by using the neologism of Tamazgha. I am very interested in the methodological and conceptual ramifications of these names, which I believe capture Tamazgha’s intellectual, linguistic, literary, and demographic dynamism and vitality. It is by paying attention to this fluidity that the Maghreb’s liminality can be apprehended, and the conceptual potential of its imbrication with other spaces theorized. Finally, the Maghreb was conceived as a decolonial and revolutionary project by the generation of Maghrebi nationalists, particularly from the Rif (Morocco), Algeria, and Tunisia, who convened in Cairo in the 1940s, and reconciling this decolonialist Maghreb with the liberating potential of the indigenous Tamazgha could yield transformative results.

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

BEG: In fact, this special section is deeply connected to my ongoing work. I see myself as an interdisciplinary scholar whose research interests span comparative literature, Francophone studies, Amazigh studies, and Arabic studies, among others. Addressing the linguistic, mnemonic, and intellectual complexity of the Maghreb is part of my broad research agenda. In my forthcoming book, Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship after State Violence, I use a multilingual, interdisciplinary, and trans-thematic approach to examine the significance of the cultural production that emerged in Morocco since the mid-1990s. Probing Amazigh activists’ literature and novelistic outputs about departed Moroccan Jews, which I call “al-kitāba al-dhākirātiyya” (mnemonic literature), and testimonial prison literature about political detention, this book foregrounds the civic and historiographical dimensions of the contemporaneous reemergence of these three topics in Moroccan cultural production. Faithful to this multipronged approach, this special section aims to chart a new path for the critical examination of categories, themes, approaches, languages, and methodologies from which and through which Tamazgha has been approached so far. The goal is to develop an approach that sustains the problematization of the Maghreb/Tamazgha while also affirming its indigenous dimensions.

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

BEG: This issue should be of interest to an interdisciplinary readership. All the contributions reflect a multilingual and interdisciplinary effort that will be appealing to different readers across disciplines, such as history, French and Francophone studies, Italian studies, Spanish studies, literary studies, post-colonial studies, and art history, among others. The Maghreb/Tamazgha requires this multilingual and interdisciplinary approach, and our readers will appreciate the rich analyses our contributors have furnished in their highly engaging essays.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

BEG: I am currently working on two book projects. I am completing a book entitled Saharan Imaginations: Between Saharanism and Ecocare. The book theorizes “Saharanism”, which I have coined and defined as a discursive practice that underlies the universalizing imaginary and rhetoric about deserts. Saharanism takes several forms in cultural production, popular literature, film, and even academic studies, and Saharan Imaginations delves into its manifestations in different media and develops them into a theory of “Saharanism.” Saharanism has a devastating racial, environmental, spatial, and human cost that the book discusses at length.

The second project I am working on is provisionally entitled The Amazigh Republic of Letters. This work retraces the development of Amazigh literature across different temporalities, languages, and geographical areas, aiming to contribute to the ongoing construction of the field of Amazigh literary studies in English. The novelty of this work is that it engages in the close reading of Amazigh literary texts in Tamazight. Amazigh literary studies in English are a work in progress, and centralizing of the use of Amazigh sources in literary analysis is crucial for the sound construction of the field. Literary scholarship is primarily a reflection on language, and Tamazight deserves to be read and reflected upon as a literary language. Jadaliyya’s bilingual dossier on Tankra Tamazight (Amazigh Awakening) has shown the highly promising potential of the close reading of literary works in Tamazight. This work is particularly dear to me. Tamazight is my mother tongue and, as an indigenous scholar, I feel that it is a duty to use my Amazigh language skills to normalize the use of Tamazight as an academic language.

J: How do you assess the state of the field of Amazigh studies in Anglophone academia and what do you think should be done to develop it?

BEG: Amazigh studies are vibrant and ever growing in Tamazgha and Europe. In the United States, however, the discipline has yet to be built despite the significant scholarship that several colleagues have been producing about Amazigh issues. Until the 1990s, some universities, like UCLA and the University of Michigan Ann-Arbor, offered linguistics courses in Tamazight. Nowadays, it is mainly anthropologists and art historians who study and publish about Amazigh topics. Since Tamazgha is placed under Near Eastern and Modern Languages departments, other dominant languages have taken the place of Tamazight in departmental curricular and programmatic offerings. Therefore, the Maghreb or Tamazgha is studied without the language and literatures of its indigenous people. The disconnect between the profound rehabilitation of Tamazight in Tamazgha and its current absence in academic units in the United States is crystal clear. Tamazghan political regimes have reconciled themselves, albeit reluctantly, with their Amazigh heritage, but academic departments have yet to recalibrate their offerings to reflect this sea change in their curricula. In reality, academic departments, especially at universities that train graduate students who specialize in Maghreb/Tamazgha studies, can play a crucial role in supporting and expanding this indigenous field of study. This will benefit them in the short term because the current re-Amazighization of space, film, literature, and thought in Tamazgha is becoming a fundamental tenet of specialization in the area. Graduate students who can include Tamazight in their course of study now will contribute to unlocking the academic and curricular potential of this expanding body of knowledge in the years to come.


Excerpt from the article (from pp. 34 – 38)

Occupying an interstitial position between different continents and trans- national cultural formations, a variety of linguistic, ethnic, racial, religious, aesthetic, and other cultural elements constitute the Maghrib. This position as a space-between-spaces makes the Maghrib a hub for human hybridization, literary creolization, artistic miscegenation, and cultural cross-pollination. Most recently, the renewed influx of sub-Saharan African economic and ecological migrants combined with the intensified policing of the southern European shores have turned Tamazgha (broader North Africa) into a destination, rather than a transitory passage. In turn, there has been a significant “re-Africanizing” of the Maghrib.

A rhizomatic collection of geographic, human, and cultural continuities extend beyond the officially recognized borders of what constitutes the Maghrib. Yet the potential of exploring the Maghrib in cultural terms remains mostly undertheorized or in need of fresh perspectives that build on both close and transmedial readings of the local. In attempting to grapple with this challenge, the articles constituting this special section investigate the location of the Maghrib beyond the dominant binary of Arab vs. Francophone, the much-critiqued idea of the Sahara as a barrier, or the assumption of the Maghrib as an insular space. Recent scholarly investigations into the Maghrib’s African, Mediterranean, and (even) Caribbean connections constitute the intellectual backdrop of our efforts to problematize its very location by looking both within and without.

In posing the counterintuitive question of the Maghrib’s location, this section draws on cutting-edge approaches to literature, music and art, emigration, and racial and linguistic politics to investigate the places from which the Maghrib is being rethought in light of human mobility, changing migration patterns, and the emergence of Maghribi aesthetics in Tamazight (the Amazigh language) or languages that have been hitherto unaccounted for. In this regard, Claudia Esposito’s contribution to this special section offers a comparative analysis of Algerian Amara Lakhous’s (b. 1970) and Italian Leonardo Sciascia’s (1921–89) uses of the investigative genre to question grand truths in their literary output. She thus places the Maghrib within Italian immigration history and power politics. The Maghrib, according to Esposito’s compelling argument, is located in a mode of reading—a methodology—rather than in a geographical location.

Moroccan literary critic Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938–2009) claims that the Maghrib is “a crossroad that belongs to the Mediterranean tradition, to the Middle East and Africa, and is a geopolitical and civilizational area.” Much of his definition of the Maghrib still rings true. What Khatibi does not say is the fact that the Maghrib was a revolutionary concept that was born out of an ideology of armed struggle for national liberation. A constellation of Maghribi nationalist leaders who lived in Cairo, before and during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule (1954–70) conceived of “the Maghrib” as an umbrella term for the three North African countries that were under French colonial rule: Algeria (1830–1962), Murrakush, meaning Morocco (1912–56), and Tunisia (1881–1956). As such, the idea of the Maghrib was rooted in anticolonial thought; one which the machinations of colonial power and exigencies of postcolonial state building and border disagreements have stalled ever since. The nature of the Maghrib as a project is reflective of the contours of decolonization in North Africa. It is not only states that failed to concretize the Maghrib project. The Third-Worldist Marxist-Leninist Movement (MLM)’s failure to achieve the proletarian revolution empowered postcolonial nation-states to build “Maghrib al-duwwal” (the Maghrib of states) instead of the dreamed-of “Maghrib al- shu‘ub” (the Maghrib of the peoples). Sonja Hegasy’s contribution to this special section draws on Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s (b. 1942) Un autre Maroc (Another Morocco) to tease out the significance of the Maghrib’s liminality in the intellectual sphere under the twin pressures of failure and optimism. The closure of the land border between Morocco and Algeria since 1994 seems to support some of Laâbi’s ideas, which echo historian Abdallah Laroui’s (b. 1933) argument that the Maghrib as an integrative project was an elitist endeavor that did not heed the diversity of opinions and tendencies within the region itself. Laroui is, albeit belatedly, right to allude to the fact that a top-down conceptualization of the Maghrib silenced other groups and erased their views. He thus recognizes, although indirectly, the claim that Imazighen (the Amazigh people, North Africa’s indigenous community), were never given a choice to decide the future of their homeland. Nor was their conception of geography and statehood ever taken into consideration.

The Arab Maghrib Union, a trade agreement established in 1989 by governments of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, was neither representative of—nor attentive to—the diversity of the populations constituting the Maghrib. Its definition of the Maghrib as an “Arab” area is counterfactual. Although Arabs are an important and integral component of the current Maghribi sociocultural fabric, they remain just one of several cultural, linguistic, and ethnic groups that make up the area. Before the Arab conquests of the early Islamic expansion, Tamazgha—as indigenous Amazigh activists have chosen to call North Africa since the 1990s—was populated by Amazigh populations of Christian and Jewish faiths. The Arab conquests of the seventh century began the long-term processes of Arabizing and Islamizing a large number of Amazigh populations. These dynamics, however, neither eliminated Amazigh language and culture nor drove out the sizable Jewish populations that shared this Judeo-Islamic space. Rather, it was nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonialism and the 1948 establishment and subsequent policies of the state of Israel that facilitated such emigration. Cultural production emerging from the Maghrib is only recently beginning to grapple with the memory of this Judeo-Muslim Maghrib. In fact, it was not until the creation of postindependence constitutions and the ensuing reforms that many of the postcolonial Maghrib states officially defined themselves as Arab-Muslim societies.

The definition of the Maghrib as an exclusively or primarily Arab space in spite of its historical, territorial, ethnic, and human makeup has had dire effects on the region’s indigenous people. Governments have either entirely silenced Amazigh language and culture, as was the case in Libya and Tunisia, or actively repressed them, as was the case in Algeria and Morocco. Nevertheless, a vibrant Amazigh Cultural Movement (ACM) has struggled to re-Amazighize the Maghrib by inventing traditions and refiguring toponymies. Tamazgha, which this ACM defines as extending from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, has replaced both “North Africa” and “the Maghrib” in activist nomenclature. Activists have thus reinscribed this consciousness of “al-dath al-amazighiyya” (the Amazigh self/subjectivity) in public spaces as well as in the markers of Maghribi geographies. Gone are the days when Amazigh people could be simply erased from the cartography of their native lands. Tamazight has acquired a constitutional status in Morocco and an official one in Algeria. Its speakers are working to have it recognized in Libya and Tunisia. Across all Maghribi countries, the language has in turn added a new level of complexity to the public sphere. The ubiquity of the Tifinagh alphabet (the Tamazight script) and the proliferation of Tamazight literary and audiovisual production has created a new cultural reality. Across short stories, novels, film, and music, Amazigh creators are reinventing the Maghrib and reconciling it with its indigenous past. Jadaliyya’s Arabic- English dossier on “Tankra Tamzight” (Amazigh Awakening) demonstrates that the once-hamstrung Amazigh voice is now pivotal to what the Maghrib is becoming. Especially significant is the fact that Amazigh literary history is “co-constitutive of the history of the movement for Amazigh people’s cultural and political rights.” Aesthetics and denunciation live alongside each other in Amazigh literature.

The rise of taskla Tamazight (Amazigh literature) and cultural production is the single most transformative literary development in the last thirty years of the Tamazghan intellectual movement. Amazigh cultural production is the space where conceptions of geography, language, and indigeneity play a fecund role to redirect our attention to this new Maghrib. Amazigh cultural producers are not just rehabilitating their mother tongue. They also rehabilitate an erased geography, a sense of indigeneity, and the relation- ship between space and people. Shamal Iiriqiyya (North Africa in Arabic), Afrique du Nord (North Africa in French), or the Maghrib, are geographical and political appellations superimposed on the region in specific contexts of colonial invasion or decolonization. Alternatively, Tamazgha is a politically conscious name that is from the same root as Tamazight. Tamazgha means the land of the indigenous Imazighen, which reconfigures space, revisits history, and questions accepted toponymies. Unsurprisingly, the limited teaching of Amazigh language has constrained the range of scholarly works on this ever-growing Amazigh literature. Setting critical works that draw on field work to look into oral and artistic traditions aside, the close reading and analysis of Amazigh works is a very rare practice in literary studies. As a result, the ways in which Amazigh literature and music depict indigeneity and connections to land and other languages in Tamazgha remain to be studied. These questions will continue to invite scholars to broaden their linguistic and research scopes. Only when we recalibrate our scholarly lenses to think in terms of Tamazgha and its literary and aesthetic corpus, do we understand the significance of what has been silenced or left out even in the most attentive readings of the Maghrib.

The plurality of the Maghrib and its multilingualism will undoubtably acquire a different meaning when we read them from the perspective of indigenous authors in Amazigh languages. Immersion in the discourses of the ACM reveals that foundational ideas like le Maghrib pluriel (the plural Maghrib) may have found their first inspiration in conversations Khatibi had with members of the Association Marocaine de Recherche et d’Echanges Culturels (AMREC, est. 1967) and Jam‘iyyat al-Jami‘a al-Sayfiyya bi-Agadir (The Agadir Summer School, est. 1979). These organizations seeded and then advocated the idea of “al-wahda fi al-tannawwu‘” (unity in diversity). Rehabilitating the generative role Amazigh activists played in reindigenizing the Maghrib can also shed new light on trans-Tamazgha connections in music, film, and literature that underlie transnational Amazigh identity. Whether it is Algerian Kabyle musician Idir, the Moroccan band Izenzaren (Sun Rays), or Malian Tuareg band Tinariwin (Deserts), Amazigh melodies and poetry travel, cross boundaries, and reconnect Imazighen across the globe. This “traveling Tamazgha” complicates the Maghrib’s location and invites a constant mapping and remapping of the space and its aesthetics.