In light of the profound physical and mental traumas of colonization endured by North Africans, historians of recent decades have primarily concentrated their studies of North Africa on colonial violence, domination, and shock. The choice is an understandable one. But in his new monograph, A Slave between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa
(Columbia University Press, 2020), M’hamed Oualdi
asks how a history of the modern Maghreb might look if we did not perceive it solely through the prism of European colonization, and argues that widening our gaze might force us to redefine our understanding of colonialism — and its limits.
As a sequel of sorts to his first book, Oualdi explores the life and afterlife of one figure, the manumitted slave and Tunisian dignitary Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah, as an aperture through which to understand the financial, intellectual, and kinship networks that mingled with processes of colonialism and Ottoman governance in unexpected ways to produce the modern Maghreb.
A master class in how historians might untangle the relationship between the personal and the political, A Slave between Empires centers Husayn — and North Africa — at the crossroads of competing ambitions, imperial and intimate. Engaging with sources in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and European languages, and corralling French, Tunisian, and Anglophone historiographies into one conversation, Oualdi’s newest book is not to be missed.
M'hamed Oualdi is full professor at Sciences Po in Paris, and was also Associate Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. The author of Esclaves et maîtres: Les Mamelouks des Beys de Tunis du 17ème siècle aux années 1880
(Slaves and Masters: The Mamluks at the service of the Tunisian Beys from the 17th century to the 1880s, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2011), Oualdi is currently the principal investigator of a project on slave testimonies in North Africa funded by a European Research Council grant.
Nancy Ko is a PhD student in History at Columbia University.