Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ian Coller's "Arab France"

Ian Coller is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Arab France is quite characteristic of the book: it arises out of a chance encounter in the National Archives in Paris. On a small slip of paper, loosely inserted in the police file on an Egyptian intellectual called Ellious Bocthor, dated July 1811, the Police Minister instructed the Prefect of the Fourth Arrondissement of Paris to maintain surveillance of “this foreigner”. There was no further mention of Bocthor by the police, perhaps because there was nothing to report. It would have been easy, therefore, to dismiss this fragment. Napoleon’s secret police was famous for its network of spies across France. But this niggled with me, and I couldn’t just leave it alone.

Ellious Bocthor was a Coptic Christian who had arrived in France with Napoleon’s troops after the evacuation of Egypt (occupied by France from 1798 to 1801) along with hundreds of other Egyptians and Syrians. If anyone might be presumed to be a Bonapartist, it was this Arab who had crossed the seas to follow Napoleon. Bocthor had never shown any political opposition to the regime: he had lived in Marseille for 10 years, devoting his time to the preparation of an Arabic-French dictionary. By all reports, he was prematurely infirm. Why waste precious police resources on surveillance of such an individual? This puzzle plays a key role in the chapter that page 99 opens. This episode provoked for me larger questions about the role of intellectuals in Napoleonic France, and about the place of Orientalism in that system. Bocthor’s predicament challenged the binary thinking about East and West in the modern world: rather than an “Oriental” figure mistrusted by French bureaucrats, I came to see him as an Arab intellectual bearing many of the values of the French Revolution in a France which was now a province of a vast Napoleonic empire.

Arab France is primarily about people and place, about the transformations wrought by mobility, and the struggle to articulate a form of belonging. But in the process it touches on larger questions about French history, modernity, and the relationship between Europe and Islam that helped structure our contemporary world.
Learn more about Arab France at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue