Date of Degree
European History | Islamic World and Near East History
Tunisia, North Africa, World War I, First World War, French Empire, Migration
This dissertation analyzes the little-examined transnational experiences of ordinary North Africans around the First World War, demonstrating how the war catalyzed a wide and unexpected range of concepts of political and social belonging. With the Mediterranean once again the site of massive migration provoked by war and economic inequality, scholars and commentators have begun to revisit the First World War’s legacy in the Arab world. Yet much work focuses on the emergence of Arab nationalism or on the diplomatic folly of the European victors. My research confronts scholarly assumptions about the temporal and geographic boundaries of the First World War and its social and political impacts beyond Europe. It is not an overarching history of the war from a Tunisian perspective but rather examines a wide range of war experiences among Tunisian men around the Mediterranean. It contends that the war catalyzed a wider range of concepts of political and social belonging than nationalist, colonial, and First World War histories have thus far accounted for. Integrating materials from the Arabic and French popular press, colonial archives, and unexplored personal audiovisual archives from Tunisia, France, Italy, and Switzerland, it reveals how the contingencies of war created spaces for unprecedented encounters between North Africans and their neighbors from around the Mediterranean. Through these encounters, I argue, Tunisians found themselves caught between the new promise of affinity with the French public and the tragic boundaries of colonial practice.
Just as my research presents a challenge to the temporal and geographic boundaries of the war itself, it also offers a wider lens through which to understand how colonized men experienced the war, whether due to their varied social and religious backgrounds or to the serendipitous circumstances in which they found themselves. I treat in the same broad frame both forced conscripts and exiles and those who chose to travel out of a sense of duty, adventure, or ambition. Tunisians faced a spectrum from choice to coercion, with many having to choose from options that few would hope ever to have. While attention must be paid to the violence and oppression Tunisians faced at the hands of a colonial and military apparatus, it is clear that even those facing the most brutal aspects of war, such as conscripted soldiers and laborers, lived, acted, and made decisions within the evolving conditions of possibility through which they passed. It is in this sense that the trajectories of even the most dispossessed and disaffected can be considered alongside those who moved under very different circumstances, from the traveling Francophone artists to those back home who were exempt from conscription. To the latter point, this study also includes those who did not themselves travel or fight but for whom the war (and the war experiences of other Tunisians) provoked new ideas and public debates about their political horizons of possibility.
I begin in Chapter One by examining the life and career of Tunisian photographer and filmmaker Albert Samama-Chikli, the son of a Jewish financier father and Catholic Italian mother. Samama-Chikli traveled everywhere from the Western Front to the Sahara during the war and its aftermath, producing a distinct vision of his world during the war while employed by the French Army’s Section cinématographique. I explore how Samama-Chikli’s extraordinary trajectory took visual form, and how this vision differed from those of other Tunisians on the move and of other French Army photographers. Mine is the first Anglophone work to make extensive use of his newly archived personal collection of film, photographs, and correspondence at the Cineteca di Bologna. This chapter also draws from his photographs and films held at the Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (henceforth ECPAD), the French Army’s audio-visual archive. I present an analysis of his role as an adventurous arbiter of visual culture, problematizing the assumptions sometimes made about “cosmopolitan elites” in Mediterranean or French imperial contexts and about Samama-Chikli’s Jewish background. More importantly, I demonstrate how his elite trans-Mediterranean upbringing was strained, if not entirely disrupted, by the hardening of national boundaries and imperial rivalries in WWI. By beginning with Samama-Chikli, I introduce some of the tentative ways in which the war mobilized, but also tested, existing loyalties to empire and to privileged transnational circles.
Chapter Two examines how colonial hierarchies were brought to bear on Tunisian conscripts in the French army in unprecedented ways and spaces due to the war’s exigencies. Here I examine the humanizing relationships between French nurses and North African soldiers in French military hospitals. Special attention is given to the “Muslim hospitals” at Carrières-sous-Bois and Moisselles, built specifically by the French with certain civilizational tropes, political goals, and sexual and racial fears in mind. Drawing from personal correspondence, photographs (including those of Samama-Chikli), and military and medical records, I argue that the individual needs and desires of Tunisian soldiers and of French nurses, as well as material limitations and contingencies particular to the war, created space for an unprecedented series of close encounters which transgressed colonial and gendered boundaries. These encounters offer a layer of historical precedent for the interracial relationships prevalent among the politicized North African immigrant communities in interwar France.
Chapter Three explores how exiled Tunisian political activists engaged with reconfigured trans-Mediterranean intellectual networks, revealing the ways in which the First World War presented both ruptures and continuities with North African political concepts. In particular, it explores the Geneva-based Comité Algero-Tunisien, an anticolonial group led by Mohamed Bach Hamba that attempted to draw the attention of Woodrow Wilson and other leaders to the plight of North Africans under colonial rule. This chapter draws on Bach Hamba’s journal La Revue du Maghreb, various Arab reformers’ publications at wartime conferences in Switzerland, and the Francophone Swiss press. I compare the trajectory of the Comité’s leader, Mohamed Bach-Hamba, with that of his brother Ali, who turned toward a renewed Ottoman outlook after settling in Istanbul, mobilizing longstanding ties with Anatolia and the Arab East in order to forge a future for Tunisia. Mohamed’s exile in such a vibrant crossroads provided the physical and intellectual space for new political visions to be cultivated. This chapter also provides an opportunity to better understand the assumptions, exaggerations, and stakes involved in French intelligence’s pursuit of the “pan-Islamic threat” posed by exiles and their connections with the Ottoman and German Empires.
Chapter Four returns to the Tunisian “home front,” where Jews faced attacks at the hands of returning Muslim and French settler soldiers resentful of Jews’ exemption from conscription. Here I examine the French construction of a “Jewish Question” in Tunisia during the war and its immediate aftermath, within the emergent international context of minority regimes that would inform membership in the League of Nations and the justification for the French Mandate in the Levant. In turn, I investigate how Jews in Tunisia responded to intercommunal violence and the upheavals of the war, with a focus on new transnational political visions. In seeking justice, some Jews turned to international protection while others turned to Zionism as a solution. Indeed, the very term “Tunisian Jews” was itself constructed in the context of this imperial war, provoking questions about how historians can approach colonial archives which so often reproduce parameters that dictate boundaries how we understand communal identity.
The fifth and final chapter reckons with the nearly immediate political consequences of the war by comparing the tribulations of the veteran-turned-communist Mukhtar al-‘Ayari and the socialist reformer Hassan Guellaty. These two rather ordinary figures’ transnational encounters crossed and eventually diverged by the mid-1920s, marking the narrowing of Tunisians’ political horizons which had been momentarily blown open by the war, as demonstrated by both of their publications in the popular Arabic and French press and in police surveillance files. Their trajectories, when presented on their own terms rather than within the longue durée frames of Tunisian nationalism or French colonialism, demonstrate the importance of the war in producing, if only briefly, trans-Mediterranean cooperation and political alternatives such as communism and socialism.
Rominger, Chris J., "Migration, Colonialism, and Belonging: Tunisians Around the First World War, 1911-1925" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.