A New, Long History of Tunisia Sparks Discussion on Historiography

Historian Sophie Bessis (R) discusses her new book with moderator Myriam Amri (L) at the Tunis office of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

Historian Sophie Bessis shifted from English to French to answer some of the more challenging questions she received from journalists, political scientists, and anthropologists on Wednesday, July 17 at a presentation of her new history of Tunisia at the Tunis office of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES).

The tools, timescale, geography, languages, and subjects that historians use—or should use—were as much the focus of discussion as Tunisian history itself on Wednesday when Bessis presented her newly published book, “Histoire de la Tunisie: De Carthage à Nos Jours,” (History of Tunisia: From Carthage to Our Present).

The book is a grand history of Tunisia covering thousands of years, a scope similar to those chosen by other historians such as Habib Boularès, Charles-André Julien, Hassan Hosni Abdelwahhab and others. Bessis is explicit that she wants the work to be for general audiences, not specialists.

“Contemporary Tunisia has lost and has forgotten a lot of its history,” Bessis said. “After the revolution, maybe Tunisians need to read their history in a new way. I think now Tunisia is in a period that Tunisians have to build their future. And to build their future now, they have to know not only the present, but the long past of their country.”

A couple dozen people were present as the author took questions about the book, which is divided into two parts, moving chronologically. The first covers ancient Carthage up to 1830, and the second period runs from 1830 to the 2014 elections. For Bessis, 1830, which marks the beginning of French colonial rule in neighboring Algeria, is a point of rupture when local elites in Tunisia began to reform the state (but not society) in order to try to remain independent from the French.

“You have not one political leader in Tunisia…who didn’t say at one moment or another ‘We follow this reformist tradition of Tunisia,’” Bessis said. “You cannot understand the construction of the political mind of Tunisian elites without understanding this reformist period.”

Bessis’ first book L’Arme Alimentaire (The Food Weapon) was published in 1979 and argued that the food deficit in the Third World was a political and social phenomenon linked to dependence on the industrialized world. Since then, she has published several scholarly and journalistic books, edited the magazine Jeune Afrique, and she is currently a research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS by its French acronym).

Bessis acknowledges in the introduction of her book that “the presupposition of the existence of a three-millennia old Tunisia comes with the idea of a Tunisian ‘exception,’” a concept that has been both promoted and critiqued in many post-2011 analyses. Bessis also reiterated at the Wednesday discussion that “an eternal Tunisia from Carthage to today of course doesn’t exist,” in contrast to the Bourguiban “roman national” or “national novel”—a sort of national historical narrative that plays a particular political role—which she said is only “partly true.”

Nevertheless, this did not stop Bessis from starting her history from the period of ancient Carthage, prompting moderator Myriam Amri, a doctoral student in anthropology at Harvard, to “push back” on Bessis’ choice.

“There is a locating of the progressive making of Tunisia as we know it. Why?” Amri asked Bessis, before immediately adding another question on Bessis’ use of geography and demography to demarcate the borders of Tunisia.

Bessis responded by highlighting geography’s role in history.

“For a lot of countries, geography makes history. And what are the specificities of Tunisia in the field of geography? Coastal. The sea is everywhere,” Bessis said.

This, in addition to Bessis asserting that “the people” or “el-shaab” is a modern concept, prompted one audience member to ask whether it was possible to write a popular history of Tunisia or one that diverges from the traditional image of Tunisia as coastal and urban.

In response, Bessis asserted that while writing a popular history of Tunisia is possible, a “traditionniste” school of historiography—associated with an approach to sub-Saharan Africa that foregrounds oral histories—is absent in Tunisia.

“There is a real problem of sources. The popular source are oral resources,” Bessis said.

Bessis offered several other provocative arguments during the discussion. One was that colonialism did not disturb traditional centers of power in Tunisia or change society, as it was mainly economic and focused on extracting local resources. Bessis argues that, in contrast, Bourguiba did change society by getting rid of local power structures and replacing them with governors, reshaping gender relations through the code of personal status, and investing heavily in education.

One audience member asked Bessis why she used mostly francophone sources and few endnotes in her book. Bessis replied that while most of her sources are in the French language due in part to her weak Arabic skills, three quarters of these francophone sources are Tunisian. As for the endnotes—which make up 14 pages in a nearly 500-page book—Bessis replied that having written about Tunisia for 40 years she did not find it useful to constantly cite herself.

As for how her new book might speak to the present day, Bessis is convinced that 2011 marks a turning point.

“The structures of the ancien regime remain and remain very strong, we can say that of course. But Tunisia in 2011 changed totally the political habitus,” Bessis said. “Tunisia has entered a new period of its history in 2011. What will it be? I don’t know but it’s a new period.”