SSFH Undergraduate Dissertation Prize-winner: Sara Green (Leeds) on the Touareg in the French ethnographic imaginaire

Sara Green was awarded the Society for the Study of French History’s 2020 Undergraduate Dissertation Prize for a dissertation entitled ‘The Touareg in the French Ethnographic Imaginaire: Using and abusing indigeneity to articulate colonial identities’. She wrote the dissertation while studying at the University of Leeds and in this blog post introduces the topic of her dissertation.

Histories of French colonial knowledge in North Africa are often predicated on a simplistic dichotomy between Arab and Berber indigènes, a rubric which was indeed supported by a plethora of colonial ethnographies. Patricia Lorcin notes that ethnographers almost cycled through bestowing ethnographic ‘favour’ on the two groups, in accordance with their respective resistance or docility to French control. The complex position of the Touareg in this dichotomy — with their linguistic and cultural proximity to other Berber groups, yet a geographical proximity to Sub Saharan African groups — was the focus of this project, and revealed the remarkable interrelation between colonial power and  knowledge that Lorcin outlines.

Historian of race in West Africa, Bruce Hall, remarked: ‘I cannot think of a people other than the Touareg from whom so much was expected on the basis of so little actual exposure and experience.’ This indicates the highly symbolic role the Touareg came to occupy in French perceptions of Algeria. Superficial remarks made by field ethnographers upon the relatively light complexion, ostensibly low religiosity, or even the demure ‘charms’ of Touareg women, were extrapolated onto a myth of Touareg ‘whiteness.’ The relatively porous and flexible approach of early French ethnology lended itself to the invention of the Touareg as a ‘lost’ European race.

Colonialism is often understood as a fundamental divide between the Self and the ‘Other’; if this is true, why would French ethnographers imagine such a proximity between themselves and the Touareg? My research finds that this proximity served as a conceptual space to articulate what ‘French-ness’ meant in a new colonial context; not only validating their presence as a primordial reclamation of an originally European territory, but also simulating a greater presence of ‘European’ power in the Sahara than actually existed at the time.

Following an incident of Touareg recalcitrance against the French in 1881, subsequent ethnographies consistently distanced the Touareg from this initial ‘European’ origin myth; in fact, these texts often reinforced the historical interrelations between the Touareg and Black Sub Saharan groups. This use of Blackness as a foil to civilisation and whiteness reveals both the hardening and codifying of racial pseudoscience, and the use of ethnography as a means to punish recalcitrant groups. By shifting from participative ethnographic fieldwork to putting Touareg bodies on display in Paris streets, French ethnographers successfully ‘Otherized’ the Touareg as a punishment for rejecting French power and subsequently revealing the arbitrary nature of their ethnographic ‘kinship’.

The project also deals with the legacies of being consistently separated, elevated and subsequently degraded from other indigenous groups. If the only formal knowledge about the Touareg was predicated on faulty genealogies and fleeting colonial anxieties, how was this redressed to be compatible with a postcolonial model of citizenship? By exploring Touareg political discourse and popular music, there was a surprising degree of subversion of the pervasive Arab/Touareg/Black divisions. By adopting an ethnocentric aesthetic and narrative style, Touareg musicians communicate the particularities of their political disenfranchisement whilst adopting a simultaneous message of trans-Saharan and trans-ethnic solidarity.

I hope that this project further broadens our understanding of colonial ethnography beyond a simplistic ‘Self’/’Other’ or ‘divide-and-rule’ rationale. Though these approaches are right in highlighting the critical role of divisive narratives, they understate the inherently interactive nature of ethnographic enquiry, wherein a study can say just as much about the hopes and anxieties of the author as it does about the subject. In the case of ethnographies of the Touareg, they communicated far more of the political and social anxieties of the day than of any lived Touareg experience of French colonialism.

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