“Les raisins de la domination. Une histoire sociale de l’alcool en Tunisie à l’époque du Protectorat (1881-1956)” – An Interview with Nessim Znaien

Diana Abbani in conversation with Nessim Znaien

Nessim Znaien is a Junior Professor at the University of Marburg, holding the (Post)colonial Maghreb Chair since April 2022. After studying history in Lyon and Paris, he defended a doctoral thesis at the University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne in September 2017, entitled “Les raisins de la domination. Histoire sociale de l’alcool dans la Tunisie du Protectorat (1881-1956)”. To complete this thesis, Nessim Znaien was awarded a grant from the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC), a French research institute based in Tunis (2014-2017). He was also a lecturer at the University of Aix-Marseille (2017-2020). Nessim Znaien is one of the editors of the journal l’Année du Maghreb. He conducts research on the history of material culture in the colonial and post-colonial Maghreb, in particular on the history of food and cereals.

Nessim Znaien is the author of Les raisins de la domination. Une histoire sociale de l’alcool en Tunisie à l’époque du Protectorat (1881-1956), Paris, Karthala, coll. « Maghreb contemporain : nouvelles lectures, nouveaux savoirs », 2021.

Nessim Znaien

Diana Abbani: In your book titled “Les raisins de la domination: Une histoire sociale de l’alcool en Tunisie à l’époque du Protectorat (1881-1956),” you employ a material culture and food history-based approach to explore the history of alcoholic consumption in Tunisia as a comprehensive phenomenon. This approach unveils not only the political and religious attitudes but also the economic living standards and dynamics of power within societies. What sparked your interest in exploring the social and material history of alcohol in Tunisia during the Protectorate period, and what motivated you to write this book?

Nessim Znaien: When I first became interested in the history of colonization, I was struck by the fact that this history was heavily influenced by publications on political history. I often found these political approaches rather limited because they didn’t take into account the vast majority of the population and everyday life. While cultural history gave a better account of everyday life, most of the time it concerned the history of cultural productions, such as the cinema, which I also found was often restricted to an elite. The history of material culture, i.e. the objects of everyday life, which I knew about in Europe, seemed to me from the Master’s stage to be a very relevant way of approaching colonial societies.

I chose Tunisia because of my familiarity with the country and I wanted to contribute to move away from a historiography of the French colonial empire that was very focused on Algeria. The choice of working on alcoholic beverages rather than another everyday product was initially motivated by a question of sources: the political or religious authorities were more interested in the regulation of alcoholic beverages than in onions, soap or shoes. I then gradually discovered that studying alcoholic beverages made it possible to tackle the full complexity of twentieth-century Tunisian society and colonization. It was also a way of trying to approach the history of the Arab and Muslim world differently, without giving in to a cultural prejudice that suggested Muslims would never drink alcohol due to their religion.

Diana: What types of primary sources did you rely on in your research, and how did they shape your understanding of the social, cultural, and political aspects of alcohol consumption and power dynamics in Tunisia?

Nessim: The interesting thing about working on alcoholic beverages is that the sources are fragmented yet multiple. Firstly, I worked on police and judicial archives dealing with regulations on public drunkenness and their application. I then read newspapers and literary sources to understand the views of different intellectuals on drinking in colonial Tunisia. I then read hospital archives, to see which registers might contain individuals interned for alcohol-related reasons. What struck me was that these different sources, which were all powers emanating from colonial society, approached the consumption of alcoholic beverages with different vocabularies and different policies. It was the historian who made the sometimes artificial links between these different discourses. The judicial and hospital authorities and the various intellectuals were highly autonomous. The coherence of colonial authority and the colonial elites seemed to me to be very weak during these years of study.

Diana: You talk here about utilizing a diverse selection of archival sources originating from different provenance. How did this fragmented archive enable you to address power dynamics in Tunisia and approach the history of the Arab and Muslim world in a different way? Did alcohol serve as a site of power dynamics and social control during the Protectorate era? Was it also a tool for cultural assimilation or resistance? Can you shed light on the various actors involved and their motivations, as well as the relationship between alcohol and colonial power dynamics?  

Nessim: I would say that these fragmented archives enabled me to approach the dynamics of power in a different way, firstly because the people documented in these archives very quickly seemed original to me. It’s always difficult to get precise information about workers and day labourers who lived 100 years ago. The hospital and court archives gave me fairly precise information about the lives of some of them, from the point of view of power of course. Secondly, a subject on alcoholic beverages meant that I couldn’t fall into a cultural cliché so easily. It’s more tempting to do a history of couscous in Tunisia, or a history of alcoholic beverages in Russia. By taking a subject that was counter-intuitive from the point of view of the representations we have of the country, I was sure, in a sense, to be original.

It’s true that alcohol was also a tool of assimilation or cultural resistance. There is, for example, a group of Tunisian artists called ‘Taht essour’ who made the consumption of alcoholic beverages part of their identity in their resistance to the powers in place. The vast majority of drinking was done in a “normal” way, without the intervention of a coercive power, as can be seen from photographs or literary sources. But the paradox is that the vast majority of sources concerning alcohol come from social control administrations, and where the consumption is repressed, by a policeman or a judge. A study based on sources is often led to focus on the most numerous sources, in this case power relations.

Diana: What insights does your book offer regarding the economic aspects of the alcohol industry in Tunisia? How did alcohol production and trade impact local markets and livelihoods by connecting them to global markets and altering everyday life?

Nessim: The economic aspects of alcohol cover about a third of my book. I’m trying to show that alcohol was an economic niche that grew in importance at the end of the nineteenth century in Tunisia, in connection with the collapse of the French wine market following a disease affecting the vineyards, called phylloxera. The importance of wine in Tunisia never matched that of the neighbouring colony of Algeria. Revenue from wine never reaches more than 5 or 10% of Tunisia’s total commercial revenue. However, this was a niche economy, which was relatively protected because it affected certain economic interests of major colonists. This wine economy shifted gradually toward the local market, as the French market became less accessible. For instance, at the end of the 19th century, 4 litres of wine per year were consumed per inhabitant in Tunisia. By the 1950s, that figure had quadrupled, largely as a result of the development of the wine industry. At the same time, the beer industry also emerged between the two wars.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the most common alcoholic beverage almost always escapes the sources, because it was never industrialized. This is palm alcohol, which is consumed particularly in the countryside, further away from the control of the authorities. What is also interesting is that business circles were the most liberal, and many insisted on allowing Muslims to drink wine, in accordance with the principle of freedom of conscience. However, the authorities refused this idea.

Diana: It’s fascinating to learn about the importance of palm alcohol and the fact that many aspects of its history remain “out of the archive”. Does this highlight the limitations of archives and emphasize the importance for historians to seek out unconventional sources, especially when it comes to uncovering local histories that extend beyond global economies and colonial regulations?

Nessim: Indeed, that’s true. When it comes to the Maghreb and Tunisia in particular, historians are often quite dependent on central government archives. Local archives are often less well preserved. Conducting field research to obtain unconventional sources makes it possible to challenge the perspective of the political powers’ archives. However, this requires time, and a presence in the field that is not always easy to obtain, particularly during doctoral work. This is why most research projects tend to focus on elites and central government. In terms of feasibility, this is the least risky form of research.

Diana: Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from “Les raisins de la domination”? What broader conversations or debates in the field of social and material history and colonial studies do you believe this book contributes to? Can you provide any recommendations for further research or reading for those interested in exploring the social and material history in Tunisia or similar contexts?

Nessim: That’s a good question. Perhaps I hope that the broadest aim is to show that alcohol was consumed in colonial Tunisia, obviously to varying degrees and despite the Muslim ban on drinking alcohol. The repression of alcohol was primarily the work of the colonial authorities, who wanted to impose a certain vision of Islam on Muslims. More generally, I think that this book contributes to a history of daily life in the colonial Maghreb, and of power relations through the lens of the societies rather than focusing solely on political elites.

In terms of further reading, I really enjoyed Annick Lacroix’s thesis on the post office in colonial Algeria and Arthur Asseraf’s work on the circulation of news in colonial Algeria. Although the subjects may differ, I would say that these books are part of a broader trend: that of studies into the social history of societies in the colonial era, but which do not regard the colonial state as inescapable.

Dr. Diana Abbani is the science communication coordinator for the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) at the Forum Transregionale Studien. She is responsible for MECAM’s transregional science communication, collaborative meetings (academies and transregional workshops), and research data management. Diana Abbani is part of the TRAFO-Blog editorial team.

“Les raisins de la domination. Une histoire sociale de l’alcool en Tunisie à l’époque du Protectorat (1881-1956)” – An Interview with Nessim Znaien, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.09.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48743

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 14. September). “Les raisins de la domination. Une histoire sociale de l’alcool en Tunisie à l’époque du Protectorat (1881-1956)” – An Interview with Nessim Znaien. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut7t

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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