Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jillian R. Cavanaugh

Committee Members

Miki Makihara

Karen Strassler

Jane E. Goodman

Subject Categories

Linguistic Anthropology


Algeria, language, urban studies, North Africa, postcolonial studies, poetics


This dissertation analyzes the intersections of language, settler-colonial and postcolonial politics, and urbanism in North Africa (Algeria). It is an urban and linguistic ethnography of Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city, based on sixteen months of ethnographic, linguistic anthropological, and archival research conducted in Arabic and French. I show how contemporary Oranis mobilize language as a key resource in contemporary urban politics, which are inextricably tied to French colonialism’s material remnants, rubble, and legacies. In contemporary Oran, the connection between the colonial past and the postcolonial present remains palpable, even sixty years after independence; however, while the postcolonial Algerian state has long fixated on expunging the legacies of colonialism, my ordinary interlocutors drew attention instead to how authoritarian postcolonial regimes have reproduced colonial modes of governance against their own people. I argue that urban language—placenames, graffiti, stories about the city, metaphoric quips, and creative play with pronouns and deictics—are repositories of alternative historical knowledge and creative, quotidian contestation to power in which complex and painful pasts are revivified to speak to the injustices of the postcolonial here-and-now. Through intimate portraits of micro-scale protests and everyday contestations by taxi drivers, civil society actors, students, tour guides, and others, this dissertation theoretically develops the concept of everyday urban poetics as the principal tool by which city dwellers express their unrealized desires, disillusionment, betrayal of postcolonial promises, and dare to dream of other possible futures. Everyday urban poetics refers to how city dwellers simultaneously draw attention to linguistic forms (placenames, jokes, metaphors, rhymes, moral anecdotes, and strategic code-switches) and urban forms (the physical shape of streets, buildings, cemeteries, public spaces, traffic lights, and monuments), creating widely circulating collective sentiments, images, and tropes that carry political potential. Through collective acts of attending to and noticing the urban environment, Algerians make unexpected connections between otherwise disparate things, events, places, and people for specific aesthetic, political, and social effects. I ultimately show how the political power of everyday urban poetics in Oran culminated in the 2019 popular uprising (the Hirak), which erupted during my fieldwork, causing the 20-year autocratic president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to step down from office. Examining how everyday talk about the city circulates in alternative urban public spheres—in taxicabs, cafes, kitchen tables, and street protests—this project expands theories of public language as social and political action while foregrounding how everyday poetic language lays the groundwork for political claims to the right to the city.

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