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Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

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