Transcolonial Maghreb
Imagining Palestine in the Era of Decolonization
Olivia C. Harrison



Palestine as Metaphor

Among the chorus of chants and slogans echoing from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria, and beyond starting in late 2010, popular expressions of support for Palestine have been a remarkably persistent leitmotiv. From Sidi Bouzid, the site of the first Tunisian protests, to Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, Palestine has been invoked as a galvanizing issue by protestors hailing from all class, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. At first flush this is hardly surprising. After all, Palestine has been the most recognizable symbol of Arab and Muslim unity in Arab state rhetoric for the past half-century. Yet recent invocations of Palestine as rallying cry in the Maghreb and Mashriq invite us to look more closely at the kind of work “Palestine” does in the decolonizing world.1 Beyond the well-worn cliché of Arab-Muslim solidarity with colonized Palestine, what does the word mean for postcolonial subjects protesting their continued disenfranchisement and oppression decades after the end of European colonization?

Variously termed revolt or revolution (thawra) and uprising (intifada) in Arabic, the mass protests of the 2010s are, by their very name, inscribed within a decadeslong transnational history marked by two iconic anticolonial struggles, those of Algeria and Palestine.2 As the most visible and enduring symbol of colonial rule and military occupation in the twenty-first century, Palestine has played an important role in popular protests against authoritarian postcolonial regimes, revealing a much longer history of transnational mobilization for Palestine across the region, one that implicates corrupt postcolonial and military regimes in the oppression of nominally sovereign subjects. This book is concerned with the range of meanings and mobilizations of “Palestine as metaphor” for non-Palestinians, specifically, Palestine as a metaphor of the colonial, writ large to include Western/European, Zionist/Israeli, and postcolonial state discourses and practices in the colonial past and in the purportedly postcolonial present.3 It may seem counterintuitive or even objectionable to speak of Palestine as a metaphor of the colonial as opposed to an actually colonized place. And yet I argue that it is precisely because it remains colonized that Palestine enables a sustained reflection on the afterlives of colonialism in the present, including the legacies of European colonial rule, the ongoing effects of Zionist ideology and Israeli occupation, and “internal” or neocolonization by nominally independent states.

Palestine has operated as a catalyzing issue across the decolonizing world, and particularly the Maghreb and Mashriq, for decades. As the sole part of the region formerly controlled by France and Britain that was never decolonized, Palestine has been, at least since the coalescence of the Palestinian national movement in the mid-1960s and Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in June 1967, a point of acute concern for the “Arab street,” often in direct conflict with state interests, if not rhetoric (most states in the region pay lip service to Palestine, few follow through with actual support, and many actively hinder Palestinian rights).4 As activists and scholars have noted, civil society groups that had been mobilizing around Palestine for years were instrumental in organizing protests in the early days of the revolts, demonstrating the political use-value of the Palestinian question in facilitating democratic movements across the region.5 But Palestine must also be understood as a powerful metaphor of political disenfranchisement in the purportedly postcolonial present, as forcefully demonstrated by Samar Yazbek’s memoir of the Syrian uprising, which compares Syrians fleeing state violence to Palestinian refugees.6 Collapsing postcolonial Syrian subjects and Palestinians under occupation, Yazbek’s memoir, to which I return in the Epilogue, exemplifies what I call “transcolonial identification” with Palestine: processes of identification that are rooted in a common colonial genealogy and a shared perception of (neo)colonial subjection.7

The central argument of this book is that Palestine has been, and continues to be, deployed as a figure of the colonial, expanded to include not only the “classic” forms of colonization exemplified in French and British rule over the Maghreb and Mashriq but also various instances of neocolonialism, including continued foreign control as well as the repressive tactics of the postcolonial state. I argue that the three countries of the Maghreb—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—form a privileged site of transcolonial identification with Palestine, illuminating with particular salience the ways in which Palestine has become a figure of the colonial in the past half-century. France colonized Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the long nineteenth century, which saw the rise of political Zionism and the imperial settlement of the Jewish question. Though French colonialism and Zionism/Israeli expansionism differ on a number of points, they intersect historically and discursively in ways that have yet to be fully explored. As I will detail in individual chapters, the legal and cultural distinctions France instated between Jews and Muslims in the Maghreb (particularly in its prized settler colony, Algeria) bear strong resemblance to the construction of Jews and Arabs as opposite categories in Zionist discourse. Although Israel’s “principle of separation” between Jews and Arabs appears to be at the antipodes of the colonial myth of assimilation whereby natives must become French, my readings reveal that the borders between these two types of colonial discourse (separation and assimilation) are more porous than they first appear.8 The archive of texts I uncover brings a distinctly transcolonial sensibility to bear on the question of Palestine, revealing overlapping modalities and discourses of colonization across the decolonizing world.

The metaphoric import of Palestine is hardly confined to the Maghreb, however. Keith P. Feldman and Alex Lubin have unearthed a rich archive of African American writings on Palestine, most prominently those of the Black Panthers, who “recognized the shared conditions of racial capitalism and possibilities for anti-imperialism among local communities across the world,” including “the Palestinian nationalist movement, and the struggle among black Arab Jews within Israel who formed the Israeli Black Panther Party.”9 Other, more recent examples include the Zapatista and other indigenous movements in the Americas as well as disenfranchised ethnic minorities in Europe and, of course, protestors and activists from Tunisia to Syria and beyond.10 Transcolonial Maghreb is in conversation, explicitly and implicitly, with studies of Palestine as metaphor in the decolonizing Global South, and among minority and other disenfranchised communities in the Global North.

The late Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said was the first to speculate on the global significance of Palestine in his seminal essay The Question of Palestine, presenting Palestine as exemplary of political subjection in the modern era, particularly the kind practiced by postcolonial regimes. For Said,

There is an awareness in the non-white world that the tendency of modern politics to rule over masses of people as transferable, silent, and politically neutral populations has a specific illustration in what has happened to Palestinians—and what in different ways is happening to citizens of newly independent, formerly colonial territories ruled over by antidemocratic army regimes.11

It is difficult not to think of the protests of the 2010s when reading this passage, which equates, in characteristically dense fashion, modern politics with colonial rule, exemplified in the fate of Palestine, and both of these with the postcolonial state. Glossing the racial question (“the non-white world”) as well as the difference between old and new forms of colonial governance, Said suggests that Palestine is paradoxically illustrative of the (post) colonial condition. The only remaining colonized nation of the twenty-first century, Palestine is both exceptional and exemplary of modern political violence. Put differently, it is the exception that proves the rule, a colonial remainder that belies the persistence of colonialism writ large in the purportedly postcolonial present.

Yet it is important to note that, for Said, Palestine is not simply a marker of political disenfranchisement in the era of postcolonial disenchantment. It also and by the same token represents the possibility of radical political change—or, to preview the arguments I make in this book, the possibility of decolonial thought. Starting from the status of Palestine as a “nonplace,” Said explores the metaphoric potential of Palestine as utopia, etymologically derived from the Greek a-topos, nonplace. Without underplaying the acute importance of reclaiming an actual place to inhabit, Said emphasizes the political significance of Palestine as “a place to be returned to and . . . an entirely new place, a vision partially of a restored past and of a novel future, perhaps even a historical disaster transformed into a hope for a different future.”12 The loss of Palestine becomes, in this reading, a pretext for political reinvention. Though Said is speaking here of Palestine as a utopia for Palestinians, he immediately opens this metaphor up to others: Egyptian students and Iranian protestors rising up against their repressive regimes in the name of Palestine, seen as “a symbol for the struggle against social injustice.”13 In this sense, Palestine is also a topos, a figure or metaphor, of the colonial writ large.

Said’s reflections on the metaphoric dimensions of Palestine open up a rich terrain of investigation for the diverse political imaginaries that concern me here. Taking my lead from Said, I analyze Palestine as utopia and topos in Maghrebi literature and intellectual history, from the immediate aftermath of independence to the present day. My subtitle should not in any way imply that we are living in a postcolonial age in a strictly chronological or even political sense, however. Palestine’s ever-worsening situation as well as the ubiquity of Palestine as a metaphor of the colonial, broadly conceived, in the decolonizing world constitute a bitter testament to the incomplete nature of the decolonization project in the purportedly postcolonial age. Yet the continued actuality of the colonial also confirms that decolonization is not behind us. We are decidedly still living in the era of decolonization, with all the pain and promise that realization brings.

It should be clear from the above that Palestine is not only topical in the usual sense of the term, that is, a topic of current interest among others, as the ubiquitous expressions “question of Palestine,” “Palestinian issue” or even “Palestinian problem” imply. Certainly, Palestine has been in the news regularly since the mid-1960s, and it is topical in the sense of a dramatically unfolding and always current event. Political imaginaries of Palestine in the Maghreb center round the two most traumatic events of modern Palestinian history. The first is known in Arabic as al-Nakba (“the catastrophe”) and designates the expulsion of some eight hundred thousand Palestinians to make way for the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, an expulsion the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe characterizes in no uncertain terms as ethnic cleansing.14 The second is known as al-Naksa (“the reversal”), the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, which resulted in Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai. The 1967 war provoked a veritable intellectual crisis in the world of Arabic letters, generating an effervescence of writings the Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm dubbed “the literature of defeat” (adab al-hazima).15 Writers and intellectuals turned to the past in an attempt to understand what had led to such a spectacular downfall, mobilizing Orientalist tropes of cultural decadence and intellectual stagnation. This new genre, though best represented by Israel’s immediate neighbors, had a few illustrious practitioners in the Maghreb as well.16 For the most part, however, the writers and intellectuals whose work I discuss here mark their distance from what they consider to be an occasional or even opportunistic corpus, preferring to look forward to the possibility of political change rather than backward on purported Arab shortcomings. Deriding adab al-hazima as a state-sponsored, retrograde form of nostalgia, they choose instead to deploy Palestine as a model for decolonization in the present.

Similarly, the forms of transcolonial identification I analyze in the following chapters distinguish themselves sharply from state representations of Palestine. Though policies have varied widely over the past fifty years according to shifting regional and international alliances, the rhetoric surrounding Palestine is largely one of unmitigated support, usually qualified along the lines of “support for our Arab and/or Muslim brethren in Palestine”—an obviously problematic formulation that neglects Christian Palestinians as well as the diaspora and refugees, who have fared notoriously badly in Arab host countries. Though Algeria is the only Maghrebi nation-state that unambiguously asserts its anti-Zionism (Morocco and Tunisia have historically been more circumspect), affirmations of fraternal solidarity with Palestine remain the official stance across the region. Rather than formulate a cohesive Arab identity, the texts I study blur the borders between self and other and call into question the state’s instrumentalization of the figure of Palestine. In this sense, Palestine represents the possibility of what Khatibi calls “double critique”—a critical distance-taking from both colonial culture and a purportedly originary Arab-Islamic culture, often articulated with reference to the Mashriq.17

Yet because Maghrebi and Palestinian experiences of colonial rule remain distinct, the metaphor by which Maghrebi writers have portrayed Palestine as Algeria or Morocco begs the question of the politics of representation. What are the pitfalls of speaking for the colonized other? To what extent can subjects of postcolonial regimes claim to identify with subjects of colonial rule? These questions are compounded when the languages and forms used to represent Palestine are those of the former colonizer, France. In different ways, the Moroccan journal Souffles-Anfas (Chapter One), Kateb Yacine’s popular Algerian theater troupe (Chapter Two), and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Chapter Three) all problematize the question of language in the postcolony in relation to Palestine. The question of representing Palestine is arguably even more fraught when those doing the representing are virtual—albeit often unwilling—Israeli nationals. As I will show in Part Two, Jewish-Maghrebi writers such as Jacques Derrida and Edmond Amran El Maleh identify with Palestine against Israel, the state that claims to speak in their name (Chapters Five and Six). The continuing deterioration of the conditions of Palestinian life and political existence in the twenty-first century makes the problem of representation particularly acute today, and in these chapters I also underscore the limits and dangers of transcolonial identification. Nevertheless, this book is driven by the idea that the politics of solidarity and coalition, indeed the politics of comparison, carry tremendous decolonial potential, perhaps nowhere more forcefully than in Palestine-Israel. Remaining attentive to the risks inherent in speaking for the colonized other, I insist on the urgency of representing Palestine, both politically and aesthetically, in this increasingly precarious context.

Transcolonial Maghreb focuses on an area that has long been considered marginal within the Arabic-speaking world. Each of the three countries of the Maghreb has a distinct history, yet their shared experience of French colonialism—which is nevertheless marked by important differences I discuss in individual chapters—justifies considering them as a coherent region, particularly in the domains of political history and cultural expression. At the same time, these three nation-states have, by virtue of their colonial past, been artificially segregated from their wider regional context. Critics have tended to privilege the Maghreb’s relation to France, particularly when it comes to issues of language, culture, and literature. Conversely, France’s aggressive assimilation policies and the continued prevalence of French in the region, particularly in Algeria, have led scholars of Arabic literature and Middle East studies to neglect the Maghreb, obfuscating crucial cross-regional and cross-linguistic links. The recent upheavals are only the latest example of the limits of the critical division between Maghreb and Mashriq. As the slogan chanted throughout the streets of Cairo—“kuluna tunisiyun / we are all Tunisians”—demonstrates, the links between the two regions run much deeper than is commonly thought. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The history of Maghrebi support for Palestine reveals that such transnational connections and affiliations long predate the twenty-first century. As my readings will show, Palestine was regularly the locus of struggles over language, literary form, and cultural politics in the Maghreb. By proposing that we reread the Maghrebi literary canon in relation to transversal political and aesthetic engagements with Palestine, I call for a repositioning of the field of Maghrebi studies along an East-West, rather than North-South, axis.

My emphasis on the transcolonial also shifts the terms of the debate surrounding the question of Palestine in important ways. In recent years, the field of Palestine studies has become increasingly inter- and transnational to encompass the Palestinian diaspora (refugees and exiles) as well as international mobilizations for Palestine. Given the ubiquity of the Palestinian question and the wide support it enjoys worldwide, what I am calling transcolonial identification with Palestine—transnational forms of solidarity that are based on an understanding of Palestine as the product of a long and unfinished colonial history—is clearly a global phenomenon, one that is not limited to the so-called Arab or Muslim world. Palestinian civil society campaigns such as the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) have given increased visibility to nonviolent resistance movements on the ground, eliciting unprecedented international support for the Palestinian cause. At the same time, historians have situated political Zionism and the foundation of Israel within the broader context of the European colonization of the region, and comparisons between Israel’s treatment of its Palestinians citizens (“Arab Israelis”) to South African apartheid or even Europe’s racialized treatment of postcolonial minorities have gained currency in the emerging fields of comparative settler colonial and indigeneity studies.18 The recent publication of books assessing the global significance of Palestine for still and formerly colonized nations and for our globalized, neoliberal modernity further attests to the universal importance of the question of Palestine.19 Transcolonial Maghreb contributes to this growing corpus on the broader resonance and significance of Palestine in the contemporary moment.

My starting point, object of study, and evidentiary terrain is postcolonial Maghrebi literature and intellectual history from the 1950s to the present day: popular plays, literary magazines, television series, feminist texts, novels, theoretical essays, letters, pamphlets, and public debates composed in the three languages of the Maghreb (Arabic, including the spoken languages known as Darija; Tamazight or “Berber”; and French).20 The six chapters of Transcolonial Maghreb reveal that writers and intellectuals as diverse as Abdellatif Laâbi, Kateb Yacine, Ahlam Mosteghanemi, Albert Memmi, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Jacques Derrida, and Edmond Amran El Maleh have been concerned with the Palestinian question and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for decades, with lasting effects on how they write and imagine the Maghreb, as well as Palestine, Israel, and France. The texts I have chosen are the work of some of the Maghreb’s most established and celebrated writers, revealing how deeply ingrained and dynamic the question of Palestine has been in the development of Maghrebi literature and intellectual history. With the exception of Derrida, who left Algeria for France as a teenager, and Mosteghanemi, who lives in Beirut, these writers are part of a heterogeneous and long-stifled tradition of leftist opposition in the Maghreb. The Moroccan journal Souffles-Anfas was banned after two of its lead editors, Laâbi (editor-in-chief) and Abraham Serfaty, founded a radical leftist party, for which they were imprisoned in the infamous jails of Hassan II. The Algerian writer and lifelong leftist activist Kateb devoted an entire play to the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, made several trips to the Soviet Union and Vietnam, and was a vocal supporter of women’s and Imazighen rights in Algeria. Memmi helped found the journal Afrique Action (later renamed Jeune Afrique) in Tunis at the height of the Algerian anticolonial struggle. Profoundly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre and the European Left, Memmi espoused socialist ideals and later professed to be a “left-wing Zionist.”21 Though not affiliated with any party, Khatibi consistently advocated for pluralism and democratization in his writings and public appearances. Finally, like Serfaty, El Maleh was a prominent member of the Moroccan communist party before retiring from politics. He is best known in Morocco for his first novel, a satire of the party, and well respected as a militant in the struggle for independence.22

Because Palestine has been a point of transcolonial identification in the Maghreb for more than half a century, the corpus I have selected will inevitably appear incomplete. This is partly by design. It is important to stress that Transcolonial Maghreb is not about the so-called Palestinian- (or Arab-) Israeli conflict. Nor is it about Palestine and the Palestinians’ rightful aspirations, though my study is in dialogue with both in ways that will become clear in my readings. I am concerned with transversal engagements and representations based on the understanding that the Maghreb and Palestine are part of an overlapping, transnational (post)colonial history, rather than with texts that depict the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a matter of foreign policy. The much-discussed novel The Attack, by the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, as well as its critically acclaimed film adaptation, for example, do not fall within the purview of this book.23 Khadra’s novel presents Palestinian suicide bombing in the Israeli-Palestinian context alone, without connecting it to a larger history of colonialism and violent anticolonial resistance—a surprising omission given the use of guerrilla warfare tactics, including attacks targeting civilians, during Algeria’s war of independence. Franco-Tunisian writer Hubert Haddad’s 2007 novella Palestine, which relates the fate of an Israeli soldier who is taken hostage by Palestinian militants in the West Bank, is similarly devoid of any historical background, and adopts instead the reportage genre increasingly common in fiction writing.24 And even though Rachid Boudjedra, Noureddine Aba, and Tahar Ben Jelloun decidedly place Palestine within a colonial genealogy, they do so without conducting a crossed critique of postcolonial Maghrebi states and Israel.25

I have organized the six chapters of Transcolonial Maghreb into two parts, each of which is roughly chronological, to account for what I identify as the two main orientations of transcolonial identification with Palestine: Palestine as an exemplar of cultural decolonization and anti(neo) colonial struggle in the purportedly postcolonial present, and Palestine as a way to reassess the legacies of colonialism, particularly the separation between Jews and Arabs epitomized in Palestine-Israel. As will become clear, several problematics run through all the chapters of the book, none more centrally than the question of language: the imposition of French in the Maghreb, at the expense of Arabic, Hebrew, and Tamazight (among other languages) and the nefarious consequences of France’s preferential assimilation of indigenous Jews over Muslims. The related question of what public to address (the Francophone or Arabophone elites? the illiterate masses? France? the Mashriq? the Palestinians?) is similarly central to many of the texts under scrutiny here. As any scholar of Maghrebi (and more broadly postcolonial) literature will recognize, these are cardinal preoccupations for those writing in the wake of colonization. What I show in this book is that questions of language, assimilation, and public in the postcolony do not involve only the specter of colonialism. They are also debated and elaborated in relation to present, transcolonial relations. Palestine, I argue, is the interlocutor of choice in Maghrebi debates about the legacies of French colonial rule.

The three chapters of Part One, “Decolonizing the Maghreb,” focus on texts that deploy Palestine as a model for the political and aesthetic transformation of the postcolonial Maghreb. Chapter One analyzes the representation of Palestine in the bilingual Moroccan Marxist-Leninist journal Souffles-Anfas (1966–1971), the first text explicitly to connect cultural change in the Maghreb to an engagement for Palestine. I begin with this seminal text because it explicitly compares Palestine to Morocco on the basis of a similar history of colonization and acculturation, going so far as to draw a parallel between cultural imperialism in the Maghreb (e.g., continued French control over the publication and distribution of Maghrebi literature) and the “cultural annihilation” experienced by Palestinians under Israeli rule. Souffles-Anfas exemplifies what I call transcolonial identification with Palestine: forms of solidarity that are based on the understanding that the Maghreb and Palestine are part of an unfinished colonial history. I show that Palestine was a central interlocutor not only in the journal’s increasingly militant positions against the Moroccan regime but also in its efforts at “cultural decolonization,” including the recovery of the Arabic language and the development of experimental literary forms independent from both French and Arabic canons. Laâbi’s translations of Palestinian poetry in particular became the site of a reflection on the politics of culture, displacing the journal’s founding mission—the elaboration of an autonomous Moroccan literature—onto the Palestinian context. If the poets who launched Souffles-Anfas could write only in the colonial tongue, Palestinian poetry in Arabic—albeit translated into French—provided the model for cultural decolonization in an imperfectly decolonized Morocco.

Souffles-Anfas’ five-year run coincided with the pan-Arab fervor following the June 1967 Israeli-Arab war, and the journal naturally inscribed Palestine within a pan-Arab, pro-Arabization agenda. In contrast, the popular theater troupe led by Kateb Yacine in the 1970s and 1980s mobilized Palestine in Darija and Tamazight against a state defined as Arab and Islamic. Chapter Two analyzes the figure of Palestine in Kateb’s first popular play, “Mohamed arfad valiztek” (Mohamed pack your bags), as the vehicle of a two-pronged critique of the postcolonial Algerian state and French and Israeli colonial discourses.26 I argue that the play’s comparison between France-Algeria and Israel-Palestine serves to condemn what Mireille Rosello calls the discourse of “postcolonial hospitality,” applied here to the context of anti-immigrant racism in France as well as to Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian subjects.27 Aimed at a popular Algerian public, “Mohamed arfad valiztek” further satirizes the Algerian state’s instrumentalization of the Algerian and Palestinian revolutions to rally popular support. Kateb’s popular theater begins to make evident the convergences and overlaps between two apparently antithetical discourses, which will be the focus of Part Two: the discourse of assimilation, characteristic of French colonial discourse (Algeria is France), and the principle of separation that undergirds Zionism and the Israeli state (Jews vs. Arabs).

Part One ends with a more critical take on Palestine as rallying cry in Mosteghanemi’s Algerian trilogy. Locating Mosteghanemi squarely in the Mashriqi cultural center—based in Beirut and the most widely read contemporary Arabic-language author today, she is far better known in the Mashriq than in her native Algeria—I show that her novels deploy the figure of the Palestinian guerrilla fighter and poet as a transnational allegory of revolution in the era of postcolonial disillusionment, reversing the classic nationalist trope of nation as woman. But if Mosteghanemi is rightly critical of feminine national allegories, I argue that she fails to interrogate her own metaphoric use of Palestine. Her contrapuntal allegories of Algeria and Palestine are symptomatic of what, adapting Graham Huggan’s terminology, I call “the transcolonial exotic”: a marketing of the margins (Algeria and Palestine) for consumption at the center (Beirut and Cairo).28 This is even more evident in the Syrian television series based on her first novel, which aired during the 2010 Ramadan in Tunis, months before the onset of the Tunisian revolution. Partly due to the constraints of the teledrama genre, the series goes even further than the original in exoticizing Palestine and Algeria for mass consumption, removing all traces of Mosteghanemi’s criticism of national allegory and postcolonial Algeria in the interest of pan-Arab patriotism.

Part Two, titled “Jews, Arabs, and the Principle of Separation,” elaborates on Kateb’s crossed critique of Zionist and French colonial discourse to investigate how debates about Palestine-Israel have served to reassess the legacies of colonialism in the Maghreb, particularly French minority politics aimed at separating Muslims and Jews. I begin this section, somewhat paradoxically, with the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, known simultaneously as one of the most important theorists of colonialism (The Colonizer and the Colonized) and as a staunch advocate for the state of Israel (Jews and Arabs). Against the critical tendency to read Memmi’s texts on colonialism and Zionism separately, Chapter Four examines his later essays through the lens of his early work, particularly his theoretical analyses and fictional representations of the colonial separation between Jews and Arabs. Memmi’s critique of colonial minority politics seems to disappear from his later work, which endorses the colonial (and Zionist) separation between Jews and Arabs in order to claim Jewish indigeneity in Palestine. Yet even his most pro-Israeli essays make surprising comparisons between Palestinians and Maghrebis, including those he hesitantly calls “Arab Jews.” Despite Memmi’s apparent about-face from anticolonialism to Zionism, I argue that his later writings betray a transcolonial understanding of—if not identification with—Palestine.

Ironically, Memmi’s early analyses of colonial minority politics and the role of assimilation in producing a “pyramid of petty tyrants” in the colony were used by several of his intellectual adversaries to disprove his claims about the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in the Maghreb.29 Chapter Five begins by examining Abdelkebir Khatibi’s 1974 pamphlet, Vomito blanco, written against Memmi as well as French intellectuals like Sartre who failed to recognize the colonial predicament of the Palestinians, despite their public support for Maghrebi independence.30 A violent polemic against Zionism, this treatise is markedly different in tone and genre from Khatibi’s later writings, and in particular, his exchanges with the Jewish Egyptian psychoanalyst Jacques Hassoun and the French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida. Whereas in his early pamphlet Khatibi engaged in a polemical tone similar to that deployed in Souffles-Anfas (he was an early contributor to the journal), his exchanges with Hassoun and Derrida are the occasion for a more meditative reflection on “the Abrahamic,” the tie that binds Jews and Muslims in spite of colonial and Zionist efforts to separate them. I revisit Khatibi’s notion of bi-langue—the in-between language he is compelled to practice as a result of the imposition of French—in light of these Abrahamic conversations and argue that he deploys bi-langue to resist not only assimilation but also the separation between Jews and Arabs. Conversely, I read Derrida’s writings on Algeria and Israel-Palestine through the lens of his exchanges with Khatibi, and show that his little known pro-Palestinian writings are rooted in his experience of French colonialism in Algeria.

Like Chapter Five, Chapter Six begins with an explicit refutation of Memmi’s position on Jews and Arabs by the Moroccan writer Edmond Amran El Maleh. Though most critics have focused on the fictional recreation of Moroccan Jewish communities in his work, I argue that El Maleh’s representation of Jews in Morocco is inseparable from his “disidentification” with Israel and his rejection of the European and Zionist construction of Jews and Arabs as opposite terms.31 Focusing on El Maleh’s novel Mille ans, un jour (A thousand years, one day), I show that his Judeo-Arabization of the French language works simultaneously against colonial assimilation and the divide-and-rule policies aimed at separating Jews and Arabs.32 But if El Maleh writes in support of the Palestinian cause, he also refuses to identify with or speak for the Palestinians, eschewing the dangers of representing the other as self. In pointing to the distance that remains between Maghreb and Palestine, El Maleh articulates transcolonial identification against identity, revealing the intimate connection, both historical and structural, between Palestine and the Maghreb without collapsing these heterogeneous figures.

In the Epilogue I return to the use of Palestine as a metaphor of the colonial, broadly conceived, in the uprisings of the 2010s. Without effacing the important contextual and historical differences between and among current and past forms of transcolonial identification with Palestine, I argue that Samar Yazbek’s comparison between Palestinian refugees and Syrian subjects of Bashar al-Assad’s regime participates in a decadeslong political imaginary of Palestine as the figure par excellence of the kind of subjection epitomized in colonial rule, including in its post- and neocolonial guises. It will not escape the reader’s attention that Yazbek’s Palestine is more a sign of the deterioration of life in the purportedly postcolonial present than it is a beacon of revolution, as it was in the late 1960s and 1970s. There is a distinct sense, palpable through the chronological sequencing of the chapters in both parts of Transcolonial Maghreb and culminating in my Epilogue, that Palestine has become a figure for the failures of decolonization, by virtue of both a global postcolonial disillusionment and a Palestinian predicament that seems only to get worse with the passage of time. One can only hope that Palestine will again become a utopian figure, in the sense Said gives that term, in Syria, Egypt, Algeria, or indeed Palestine. This book was written with that hope and promise in mind.


1. Maghreb is the French transliteration of maghrib, derived from the Arabic root “gh-r-b,” which denotes, among other things, “the west.” In Arabic al-maghrib designates the western region of the Arabic-speaking world, as opposed to the east, al-mashriq. I retain the French spelling because it is widely used by the Maghrebi (maghribi) writers I discuss in this book, but use Mashriq/Mashriqi for the region referred to as Middle/Near East or Levant in European languages.

2. For an explanation of the multiple connotations of thawra and intifada, see Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 2. As Achcar and others have noted, the term intifada strongly echoes the Palestinian uprisings of 1988 and 2000.

3. I borrow the expression “Palestine as metaphor” from a book of interviews with the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Mahmoud Darwish, La Palestine comme métaphore: Entretiens [Palestine as metaphor: Interviews], trans. Elias Sanbar and Simone Bitton (Arles: Actes Sud, 1997).

4. I use the expression “Arab street” in the sense Asef Bayat deploys it in his nuanced analysis of “ordinary” forms of protest in the Arab world. Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 211.

5. Toufic Haddad, “Palestine” in Dispatches from the Arab Spring: Understanding the New Middle East, ed. Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 296. In her memoir of the Egyptian revolution, Ahdaf Soueif cites Egyptian protests in support of the second Palestinian Intifada as precursors to the antigovernment protests of 2011, and claims that the government knew that the people would count its treatment of Palestinians “among its sins.” Ahdaf Soueif, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 24. In the above-mentioned book, written before the uprisings of the 2010s, Bayat evokes the mass protests that erupted from Rabat to Amman following the Israeli incursion in Jenin in 2002, and explains that they were tolerated only because they were aimed at Israel rather than corrupt postcolonial regimes. Bayat, Life as Politics, 216.

6. Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, trans. Max Weiss (London: Haus, 2012), 15, 139–40.

7. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih use the term transcolonialism to designate “the shared, though differentiated, experience of colonialism and neocolonialism (by the same colonizer or by different colonizers),” as well as historical, political, and aesthetic alliances across heterogeneous postcolonial sites. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, eds., Minor Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 11. In this book, “the transcolonial” highlights cultural and political alliances and exchanges across the (formerly) colonized world in order to illuminate the modalities and contours of the (post)colonial condition from a comparative perspective.

8. I borrow the expression “principle of separation” from Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “A Peace without Arabs: The Discourse of Peace and the Limits of Israeli Consciousness,” in After Oslo: New Realities, Old Problems, ed. George Giacaman and Dag Jorund Lonning (London: Pluto, 1998), 65.

9. Alex Lubin, Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 113. Keith P. Feldman, “Black Power’s Palestine: Permanent War and the Global Freedom Struggle,” chap. 2 in A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

10. See Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Zapatista Commander: Gaza Will Survive,” The Palestine Chronicle, December 12, 2009, Examples of transcolonial identification with Palestine among postcolonial minorities in Europe abound, particularly in rap and hip-hop culture. For a literary example, see Mohamed Rouabhi, Les Nouveaux Bâtisseurs, suivi de Ma petite vie de rien du tout [The new builders, followed by My insignificant life] (Arles: Actes Sud, 1997).

11. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 125.

12. Ibid., 124–25. Original italics.

13. Ibid., 125.

14. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Oneworld, 2006).

15. Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, Al-naqd al-thati ba‘d al-hazima [Auto-critique after the defeat] (Beirut: Dar al-Taliah, 1968).

16. In his presentation of adab al-hazima as a self-Orientalizing discourse of Arab decline, Joseph Massad cites the Moroccan historian and philosopher Abdallah Laroui’s writings as preeminent examples of the “decadence” hypothesis. Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007), 18–19. Abdallah Laroui, L’idéologie arabe contemporaine [Contemporary Arab ideology] (Paris: Maspero, 1967); The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism? trans. Diarmid Cammell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

17. Abdelkebir Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel [Plural Maghreb] (Paris: Denoël, 1983), 12–13.

18. As early as 1966, the Palestinian writer and literary critic Ghassan Kanafani compared Palestinian resistance literature to that of South Africans living under apartheid. Ghassan Kanafani, Al-adab al-muqawama fi filastin al-muhtalla, 1948–1966 [Resistance literature in occupied Palestine, 1948–1966] (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1966), 50. For a classic account of the foundation of Israel as a settler-colonial project, see Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? trans. David Thorstad (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973). More recent studies include Ella Shohat, “Taboo Memories, Diasporic Visions: Columbus, Palestine, and Arab-Jews” in Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 201–32; Lorenzo Veracini, Israel and Settler Society (London: Pluto Press, 2006); Gabriel Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (London: Verso, 2008); and Ali Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

19. See for example John Collins, Global Palestine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Aamir R. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

20. Berber (Arabic barbar, French berbère), a term derived from the Greek barbaros, meaning “non-Greek,” was used by the Romans and then the Muslim Arabs who conquered the Maghreb to designate the indigenous populations. Today the descendants of these indigenous peoples still speak variants of the language they call Tamazight and refer to themselves as Imazighen (“free men,” singular Amazigh). I use Tamazight to refer to the language group, Amazigh/Imazighen for the people. I retain the term Berber only when discussing the “Berber movements” that emerged during the anticolonial period and accelerated in the 1980s.

21. Albert Memmi, Jews and Arabs, trans. Eleanor Levieux (Chicago: J. Philip O’Hara, 1975), 11.

22. Edmond Amran El Maleh, Parcours immobile [Immobile trajectory] (Paris: Maspero, 1980).

23. Yasmina Khadra, The Attack, trans. John Cullen (New York: Doubleday, 2005). The Attack, directed by Ziad Doueiri, 2013, film.

24. Hubert Haddad, Palestine (Paris: Zulma, 2007).

25. Rachid Boudjedra published an account of his visit to the Occupied Territories before switching to writing novels in Arabic in the late 1970s. Rachid Boudjedra, Journal palestinien [Palestinian journal] (Paris: Hachette, 1972). Noureddine Aba’s lyrical texts about Palestine mobilize a romantic iconography of the Algerian revolution, while Tahar Ben Jelloun’s poems are perfect examples of engaged anticolonial literature. Noureddine Aba, L’aube à Jerusalem [Dawn in Jerusalem] (Algiers: SNED, 1979); Tell El Zaâtar s’est tu à la tombée du soir: action pour un théâtre [Tel al-Zaatar fell silent at dusk: Action for a theater] (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1981); C’était hier Sabra et Chatila: Un chant d’épreuve; Montjoie Palestine! ou L’an dernier à Jérusalem [Yesterday was Sabra and Shatila: A song of trial; Montjoie Palestine! or Last year in Jerusalem], trans. Cheryl Toman and Evelyne Accad (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). Tahar Ben Jelloun, Les amandiers sont morts de leurs blessures [The almond trees died from their wounds] (Paris: Maspero, 1976); The Rising of the Ashes, trans. Cullen Goldblatt (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010). Though Khnata Bennouna and Slimane Benaïssa do position the Palestinian question in relation to the Moroccan “years of lead” and the Algerian “black decade” respectively, I do not find their work compelling enough to justify a separate study. Khnata Bennouna, Al-ghad wa al-ghadab [Tomorrow and wrath] in Al-a‘mal al-kamila: Al-juz’ al-awal; riwayat [Complete works: part one, Novels] (Rabat: Wizarat al-Thaqafa, 2006), 111–309. Slimane Benaïssa, Prophètes sans dieu [Prophets without god] (Carnières-Morlanwelz, Belgium: Lansman, 1999); L’avenir oublié [The forgotten future] (Carnières-Morlanwelz, Belgium: Lansman, 1999); The Last Night of a Damned Soul, trans. Janice and Daniel Gross (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

26. Kateb Yacine, “Mohamed prends ta valise” [Mohamed pack your bags] in Boucherie de l’espérance: OEuvre théâtrale [Butchery of hope: Theatrical works] (Paris: Seuil, 1999), 205–370.

27. Mireille Rosello, Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

28. Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2001).

29. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, trans. Howard Greenfeld (New York: Orion Press, 1965), 17.

30. Abdelkebir Khatibi, Vomito blanco: Le sionisme et la conscience malheureuse [Vomito blanco: Zionism and unhappy consciousness] (Paris: 10/18, 1974).

31. I borrow the term disidentification from Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 138–39.

32. Edmond Amran El Maleh, Mille ans, un jour [A thousand years, one day] (Grenoble: La Pensée Sauvage, 1986).