Olivia C. Harrison — Maghreb as Method

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1834, oil on canvas, 180 x 229 cm. Courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

This essay is part of a dossier on The Maghreb after Orientalism.

by Olivia C. Harrison

 “Se décoloniser, c’est cette chance de la pensée.”

(Decolonization is this chance of thought.)

Abdelkebir Khatibi, “Pensée-autre”[1] 


Unlike North Africa, the expression most commonly used in English to refer to the westernmost part of the Arabic-speaking world, al-maghrib is a term that is attested in medieval Arabic historiography, in the expression jazirat al-maghrib (island of the Maghreb), which gives Algeria (al-jaza’ir, the islands) its poetic name (Adelson 2012; Brown 1997: 8). A pre-colonial Arabic term, al-maghrib is in this sense indigenous to the region it names, although it has gradually been eclipsed since the anti-colonial period by the framework of the nation-state, and compromised by postcolonial territorial conflicts.[i] And yet as Edward Said’s work teaches us, there is no doubt that, as an area of study, Maghreb studies took shape within Orientalist, colonial, and anti-colonial discourses. Transliterated in French, the proper name used in this dossier, Maghreb (with a hard /g/ and guttural rolled /r/), betrays the fact that many of its contributors discovered Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian literature as students of French literature. Despite a welcome shift away from an unexamined focus on French-language classics alone (Kateb Yacine, Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun), Maghreb literature scholars still work primarily on French-language texts, with a secondary emphasis on Arabic, Tamazight (Berber), Spanish, and Italian-language works. In David Seddon’s pithy formulation, “the colonial experience created the Maghrib as a European periphery” (2000: 198). The Maghreb has, in turn, always been a marginal sub-specialty within the Eurocentric discipline of French and Francophone studies, when it has been included at all. It remains marginal, too, in the fields of Middle East and Arabic studies, a paradoxical result of the relative success of French acculturation, particularly in Algeria (Rouighi 2012). If the Maghreb remains our preferred “unit of analysis,” how can we, Maghreb scholars, acknowledge the troubled history of the production of the term (Brown 1997)? And if, heeding Said, we remain suspicious of an area studies approach to the Maghreb, what work must we do to denaturalize our own object of study?

Following Edward Said’s call to “methodological self-consciousness” and philological rigor (2003, 326), I begin this essay with a reflection on the proper name al-maghrib, a name that does not appear in his landmark work Orientalism even though its phantasmatic image, eloquently captured in Eugène Delacroix’s 1832 painting Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in their Apartment), pervades much of the Orientalist discourse Said examines in that book. My aim is not to fault Said for omitting the Maghreb from his study of Orientalism. Instead, I will take this omission as an invitation to read between the lines of Orientalism and across his oeuvre for traces of al-maghrib, as it is imagined contrapuntally by the Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi, whose critique of Orientalism rivals that of Said in scope and ambition as a “horizon of thinking.”[ii] To paraphrase what Said famously said about the Orient (2003, xviii): the Maghreb does not exist; and yet it can be imagined otherwise, according to what Khatibi calls “une pensée-autre” (an other-thinking, 1983: 12) – that is, as decolonial method. Said and Khatibi never met or corresponded, nor do they seem to have had much interest in each other’s writings.[iii] Reading their Maghrebi and Palestinians writings together nevertheless sheds important light on the decolonial stakes of their projects: in particular, their insistence on decolonization as an unfinished process aimed at both foreign control (imperial or neocolonial) and the internal exclusions of ethno-nationalism.

Surprisingly, given Said’s decades-long engagement with the Palestinian question, Palestine is conspicuously absent from Orientalism. As we will see, Khatibi’s writings on the Maghreb are, in turn, haunted by the figure of Palestine. This essay connects these two elusive figures, Palestine and the Maghreb, and argues that they are in fact central to the critique of colonialism offered in Said’s and Khatibi’s oeuvre. Picking up from the conclusion of Orientalism, which gestures toward the “‘decolonializing’ new departures in so-called area studies” (325), and Khatibi’s reflections on the Maghreb and Palestine as “horizons of thinking,” I read Said and Khatibi through the lens of what Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih call “transcolonialism”: the myriad connections linking formerly and still colonized peoples across imperial formations, in this case, the Maghreb and Palestine (2005: 11).[iv] I end the essay with a reading of the second book in Said’s Orientalist trilogy, The Question of Palestine, which pioneered transcolonialism as a decolonizing methodology, decades before the term came into use in academia. This essay is an attempt to think the Maghreb through Palestine, after Said and Khatibi, and thus elucidate the stakes of transcolonial critique in a present too quickly characterized as postcolonial.


The Maghreb as Horizon of Thinking

Exile, displacement, strangeness, foreignness, West, Occident… These are some of the words derived from the trilateral Arabic root gh/r/b, which gives us the place name al-maghrib, the westernmost part of the Arabic-speaking world, stretching, in most accounts, from Tunisia in the east to Morocco in the west.[v] And yet al-maghrib remains a most fluid and slippery place name. Like the cardinal direction to which it refers, it is a relative term, one that invites relational thinking: west in relation to what, or whom? A syntagmatic unit denoting location (place names in Arabic are formed by placing the letter “meem” before the trilateral root: ma-gha-ra-ba) al-maghrib is also a trope, a common place, metonymically, a crossroads of continents, languages, cultural spheres, histories.

As those familiar with the work of the Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi will be quick to recognize, my reading of the Maghreb as a relational metaphor is based on his influential writings on the Maghreb, and in particular “Le Maghreb comme horizon de pensée” (“The Maghreb as Horizon of Thinking”). Written for a 1977 special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to the then precarious project of Maghrebi unity, this important essay is best known in its final, augmented form as “Pensée-autre” (“Other-Thinking”), published in 1983 in Khatibi’s landmark collection of essays, Maghreb pluriel (Plural Maghreb). If I begin with the first and least well-known version of this essay, it is because it makes explicit the stakes of what Khatibi calls double critique, and the proximity of this method to that developed by Said in his writings on imperialism, from Orientalism to his posthumous essay “On Jean Genet” (2006).

In their brief introductory remarks to “Du Maghreb,” co-editors Khatibi, Noureddine Abdi, and Abdelwahab Meddeb (Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian, respectively) co-sign a declaration that clarifies their intent, beyond ideological and other differences, to think “a radical Maghreb”: “le Maghreb radical demeure impensé. Radical dans le double sens du mot: racines et rupture” (a radical Maghreb remains unthought. Radical in the dual sense of the term: roots and rupture). The language of the opening editorial is unmistakably Khatibian: “Tel écart tourné vers la pensée de la différence, nommons-le Maghreb” (We call Maghreb this deviation turned toward a thinking of difference (1977: 5).) Written against the backdrop of an accelerating contest between the Moroccan state and the Western Sahara – which continues, fifty years later, to fight for independence – Khatibi’s essay imagines the Maghreb as a site of “double critique”:

Critique des deux métaphysiques, de leur face à face. En fait, un choix, un seul choix est possible: penser le Maroc tel qu’il est, comme un site topographique entre l’Orient et l’Occident. Le Maroc, en tant qu’horizon de pensée, est encore innommable. (Critique of both metaphysics, of their confrontation. In fact, there is no choice. We must think Morocco as it is, as a topographical site between the Orient and the West. As a horizon of thinking, Morocco remains unnamable.) (1977: 20)

The slippage from the titular Maghreb of the essay to Morocco as horizon of thinking in this passage betrays one of the ambiguities of the term al-maghrib, which in modern-day parlance is commonly used to designate the nation-state of Morocco (the official name of the country is al-mamlaka al-maghribiya, the Maghrebi Kingdom). Whether or not this slippage was intentional, Khatibi corrected it in the expanded version of the essay, replacing Morocco with the Maghreb in the corresponding paragraph (1983: 38-39).

But I want to focus on another variation that in fact narrows the scope of Khatibi’s double critique: the occlusion of Palestine from Khatibi’s imagined Maghreb. In “Le Maghreb comme horizon de pensée,” Khatibi’s articulation of the Maghreb as a site of double critique immediately follows an unambiguous condemnation of what, in his writings on nationalism, Said would call “the export of identity” (2006: 85), here applied not to the Maghreb, but to Palestine:

Et il y a d’autres écarts, d’autres ruptures qui déchaînent la violence des uns et des autres. L’identité aveugle et la différence sauvage en sont des démonstrations visibles à coup de mitraillette. Au nom de l’unité communautaire des Arabes, on massacre la Palestine. (And there are other deviations, other ruptures that unleash the violence of this or that party, as evidenced by the machine gun fire of absolute identity and savage difference. In the name of the communal identity of the Arabs, Palestine is slaughtered.) (1977: 20)

Khatibi’s articulation of double critique makes very clear that the brand of “savage difference” exemplified by Black September, the massacre of thousands of Palestinian feda’in and civilians by Jordanian troops, is a dialectical, if circuitous response to the savage difference of colonialism.[vi] Unnamed in the expanded version of this essay, Palestine in “Pensée-autre” is replaced by a vague mention of “examples all over the Arab and Iranian world,” weakening the thrust of Khatibi’s critique of imperialism as the export of identity (1983: 38).

Khatibi had already written an eloquent book about Palestine, Vomito blanco: le sionisme et la conscience malheureuse (Vomito Blanco: Zionism and Unhappy Consciousness, 1974), which, like Said’s Question of Palestine, takes aim at Western and Israeli exceptionalism, and advocates in unambiguous terms for “a secular and democratic state in Palestine for Arabs and Jews” (Said 1980: 220; see Khatibi 1974: 14). Like Said’s Palestine, Khatibi’s Maghreb is not, in fact, a region or area. It is rather an idea, or even a methodology, akin to the two-pronged process that Said poses as the condition for decolonization in his readings of Frantz Fanon: “Liberation as a process and not a goal contained automatically by the newly independent nations (Said 1993: 274). Maghreb as method, then. Palestine is, in Said’s writings, another name for this process.


Palestine as metaphor[vii]

Palestine plays a cardinal role in Khatibi’s theorization of the Maghreb as a “horizon of thinking,” as a “method” enabling the double critique of Western colonialism and Arab nationalism. In what follows, I argue that the Maghreb and Palestine function in much the same way in Said’s work, and this despite the omission of both figures from Orientalism. Toward the end of the first chapter of the book, “The Scope of Orientalism,” Said makes the puzzling assertion that, by the 1955 Bandung Conference that marked the birth of the Third World project, “the entire Orient had gained its political independence from the Western empires” (2003: 104).[viii] A quick look at the roster of countries invited to participate in the Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in April of that year reveals that this was not the case, as Said knew only too well: absent are Morocco and Tunisia, which were on the cusp of independence; Algeria, then in the early stages of one of the bloodiest wars of decolonization; and Palestine, which had no autonomous political representation at the time. And although Vietnam – which, unlike the Maghreb, Said does include in the purview of the Orient (2003: 41) – was present, its hard-won independence from France was being sorely contested by the ascendant US empire.

It is remarkable that the one and only mention of anti-colonialism and decolonization in Orientalism so clearly excludes both the Maghreb and Palestine, if not from the “scope” of Said’s project then from the map of decolonization – even if, as Ann Laura Stoler rightly insists, the much less commented upon third chapter of the book, “Orientalism Now,” which takes up nearly half of the tome, takes direct aim at US and Israeli imperial exceptionalism (Stoler 2016: 42-45).[ix] If, in the above quote, Said gives the somewhat cavalier impression that direct colonial rule of “the Orient” ended in 1955, in “Orientalism Now” and, even more explicitly in Culture and Imperialism, he makes it very clear that “imperialism did not end, did not suddenly become ‘past,’ once decolonization had set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires” (1993: 282). But it is in the book he published immediately after Orientalism, The Question of Palestine (1979) – which, along with Covering Islam (1981), he conceived as part of a trilogy on the modern relationship between the Arab world and the West (Said 1997: xlix) – that the stakes of Said’s double critique are most urgently felt.

The Question of Palestine begins with a paradox. If one of Said’s principal aims is, pace Golda Meir, to demonstrate that Palestine exists, one of the most compelling aspects of the book is its exploration of Palestine as utopia. “In a very literal way the Palestinian predicament since 1948 is that to be a Palestinian at all has been to live in a utopia, a nonplace, of some sort” (1992: 124). Rooted in the tragedy of Palestinian dispossession, Palestine as nonplace offers a paradoxical “chance of thinking” (Khatibi 1983: 16), capturing what Said would later call the process of liberation (as opposed to liberation as a telos or goal). “At its best,” Said writes in Culture and Imperialism, “the culture of opposition and resistance suggests a theoretical alternative and a practical method for reconceiving human experience in non-imperialist terms” (1993: 276). This is, Said claims, what explains the enduring allure of Palestine for what he calls “the nonwhite world.” For the Egyptians and the Iranians Said mentions in 1979, for the Tunisians and Syrians of the twenty teens, the protestors at Standing Rock, and the activists of Black Lives Matter, Palestine continues to serve as “rallying cry . . .  and symbol for struggle against social injustice”:

There is an awareness in the nonwhite 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 the Palestinians—and what in different ways is happening to the citizens of newly independent, formerly colonial territories ruled over by antidemocratic army regimes. The idea of resistance gets content and muscle from Palestine; more usefully, resistance gets detail and a positively new approach to the microphysics of oppression from Palestine. If we think of Palestine as both 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, we will understand the word better. (1992: 125, original italics)

Despite his insistence throughout The Question of Palestine on the uniqueness of the Palestinian predicament – and in particular the “burden of interpretation” placed on Palestinians by virtue of the fact “that the state preventing us from having a future of our own has already provided a future for its own unhappy people” (122) – Palestine is also, in Said’s account, exemplary of the colonial condition, writ large to include “the tendency of modern politics to rule over masses of people as transferable, silent, and politically neutral populations.” If direct colonial rule is the principal target of the first two chapters of Orientalism, Said’s oeuvre as a whole diagnoses “the question of minorities” (Fanon 1968: 80; Mufti 2007), the abuses of postcolonial authoritarian regimes, and the accelerating phenomenon of mass migration as by-products of European imperialism. Palestine crystallizes the link between direct colonial rule (ongoing in Israel-Palestine) and the fallout from imperialism, from authoritarian postcolonial regimes buttressed by Western powers in the name of security to the mass population transfer from south to north. The link between the Palestinian predicament and the condition of migrants and refugees would become even more apparent in subsequent decades, prompting Said to write, in Culture and Imperialism, that “it is one of the unhappiest characteristics of the age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons, and exiles than ever before in history, most of them as an accompaniment to and, ironically enough, as afterthoughts of great post-colonial and imperial conflicts” (1993: 332).

Writing about The Question of Palestine some forty years after its publication, Stoler expands on Said’s remarks about Palestine’s paradoxical exemplarity: “This is not to argue that Palestine is the Ur-colonial situation or that Israel is the quintessential colonial state. Instead, it is to see how the dispossession of the Palestinians articulates the so carefully crafted and normalized segregationist policies used to achieve it, providing a window onto forms of duress that are less visible elsewhere, forms that in Palestine are being made acutely resonant and recognizable” (2016: 54). Palestine as method reminds us that the colonial is not past, whether we are speaking of “classic” forms of colonial rule or the less easily diagnosable phenomenon of mass migration.


Toward a Transcolonial Reading of Edward Said

My objective, in this essay, has been to activate hidden links across the formerly and still colonized world, in this case between the Maghreb and Palestine, in a renewed critique of colonialism. Reading Said’s landmark book against the grain of The Question of Palestine and Khatibi’s Maghrebi and Palestinian writings also throws into sharper relief the anti-colonial critique of Orientalism, which Said insisted, in his 1994 preface, was aimed not only at the colonial past but more pervasively at “the immense distortion introduced by empire” from the time of colonial conquest to the purportedly postcolonial present (2003: xxii). Although the Maghreb is not named in Orientalism, and although Palestine is evinced from Khatibi’s “Pensée-autre,” Said and Khatibi offer Palestine and the Maghreb as horizons of thinking against the still “redoubtable durability” of Orientalism, imperialism, and other exports of identity (Said 2003: 6). Or, as Said put it in the central chapter of Culture and Imperialism: “How can a non- or post-imperialist history be written that is not naively utopian or hopelessly pessimistic, given the continuing embroiled actuality of domination in the Third World?” (1993: 280). In the wake of the uprisings that rippled from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria and beyond in the twenty-teens, and the ongoing dislocations bracketed under the expression “refugee” or “migrant crisis,” we would do well to respond to Said’s call with a view not just to the past, but to the future, the still uncompromised space of utopia. In this analysis, Palestine and the Maghreb are not simply areas or geographical referents. As method, the Maghreb and Palestine represent a “chance of thinking,” or what Khatibi names “decolonization.”


Olivia C. Harrison is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Transcolonial Maghreb: Imagining Palestine in the Era of Decolonization (2016) and co-editor of Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics (2016). Her manuscript-in-progress, Banlieue Palestine: Indigenous Critique in Postcolonial France, charts the emergence of the Palestinian question in France, from the anti-racist movements of the late 1960s to contemporary art and activism. Her most recent article, forthcoming from diacritics, examines the recuperation of minority discourses by the French far and alt right.



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Adelson, Sheldon. 2012. “British and US Use and Misuse of the Term ‘Middle East’.” In Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, 36-55. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Anidjar, Gil. 2006. “Secularism.” Critical Inquiry 33, no. 1: 52-77.

Brown, L. Carl. 1997. “Maghrib Historiography: The Unit of Analysis Problem.” In The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography, edited by Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins, 4-16. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Darwish, Mahmoud. 1997. La Palestine comme métaphore. Translated by Elias Sanbar and Simone Bitton. Paris: Actes Sud.

Fanon, Frantz. (1963) 1968. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.

Khatibi, Abdelkebir. 1983. “Pensée-autre.” In Maghreb pluriel, 9-39. Paris: Denoël.

—. 1977. “Le Maghreb comme horizon de pensée.” Les Temps Modernes 375 bis: 7-20.

—. 1974. Vomito blanco: le sionisme et la conscience malheureuse. Paris: Union Générale d’Editions.

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Khatibi: A Transcolonial Comparison.” In A Companion to Comparative Literature, edited by Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas, 388-407. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

— and Shu-mei Shih. 2005. “Thinking through the Minor, Transnationally.” In Minor Transnationalism, edited by Lionnet and Shih, 1-23. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mufti, Aamir R. 2009. Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

—. 1998. “Auberbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture.” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 1: 95-125.

Robbins, Bruce. 1994. “Secularism, Elitism, Progress, and Other Transgressions: On Edward Said’s ‘Voyage In’.” Social Text 40: 25-37.

Rouighi, Ramzi. 2012. “Why Are There No Middle Easterners in the Maghrib?” In Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, 100-116. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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—. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.

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Rest of the World. New York: Vintage Books.

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[i] To the extent that one considers the Arabic language to be indigenous to northwest Africa. Many Amazigh, or Berber, activists would not. Before the Islamization of the Maghreb in the late seventh century A.D., the populations of the region spoke dialects of the Afroasiatic language Tamazight.

[ii] I am riffing off the title of a recent book similarly concerned with questioning the assumptions of area studies while exploiting the full potential of a decolonial retooling of the area studies model, Kuan-Hsing Chen’s Asia as Method (2010).

[iii] Said disparaged Khatibi as a “peripheral” figure, “a kind of Moroccan equivalent of Derrida,” in a 1998 interview published in Al-Jadid (cited in Lionnet 2011: 399). This essay builds on Françoise Lionnet’s article on Said and Khatibi, which explores the “uncanny similarities” and “telling differences” in the trajectories, writings, and reception of these exilic thinkers (2011: 389).

[iv] The expression “imperial formations” is Ann Laura Stoler’s: “I use the term ‘imperial formations’ . . . as an alternative to empire . . . to signal the temporal stretch and recursive recalibrations to which we could be looking” (2016: 56).

[v] Different sources have, at times, included present-day Libya, Mauritania, the contested Western Sahara, and what was known, until 1492, as Al-Andalus in the region known as al-maghrib.

[vi] Said offers a similar critique of the dialectical response to colonial racism toward the end of Culture and Imperialism: “[The] worst and most paradoxical gift [of imperialism] was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental” (336). There lies, for Said, the importance of dissident French writer Jean Genet’s thinking on the Maghreb and Palestine: “Above all, given Genet’s choice of sites like Algeria and Palestine, identity is the process by which the stronger culture, and the more developed society, imposes itself violently upon those who, by the same identity process, are decreed to be a lesser people. Imperialism is the export of identity” (2006: 85). While I share Gil Anidjar’s misgivings about the use of the term secular in a postcolonial context (2006), I am building here on the important insights offered by Bruce Robbins and Aamir R. Mufti who, in different ways, argue that for Said, “secular criticism” is one of the names of anti-identitarian critique (Robbins 1994: 26-27; Mufti 1998: 106-107). One of the virtues of “double critique,” compared with “secular criticism,” is that it allows Khatibi not only to avoid the risk of Orientalist dualities (Islam versus the secular West) but performatively to deconstruct them as well.

[vii] I am borrowing Mahmoud Darwish’s felicitous expression, “la Palestine comme métaphore,” from the title of a collection of interviews with the late Palestinian poet (1997).

[viii] As critics have noted, “the Orient” is a slippery term in Orientalism. If Said insisted again and again that he was writing about the phantasmatic Orient of Orientalism rather than an actual place, he also used the term in empirical terms, as in the above passage, to designate a geographic area, albeit one with fluid borders.

[ix] Stoler forcefully argues that Said’s unsparing critiques of US and Israeli imperialism were ironically sidelined by the field Orientalism helped launch, postcolonial studies: “Was not the field of (post)colonial studies (and an entire multidisciplinary initiative to document colonial situations and their effects) made safe for scholarship from its very beginning by an occlusive process that, among other things, held the two texts, Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, apart?” (2016: 53).



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