Arab and European Interactions in Aix-en-Provence

January 25, 2019
Village of Roussillon summer 2018
The village of Roussillon in Provence

In summer 2018, Gordon Gray Professor of Arabic and CMES Director William Granara, along with Khaled al-Masri, Associate Professor of Arabic at Swarthmore, led undergraduates on a Harvard Summer School program in Aix-en-Provence, France. The program, which Granara has led for several years, brings together students of Arabic and French language and culture to examine historical, literary, and cultural aspects of Arab and European interactions in the colonial and postcolonial eras. Andrew Aoyama ’21 wrote about his experience on the trip.

A curious chill had taken root at the dinner table, and not even the warm Mediterranean breeze seemed capable of dislodging it. “You’re wasting your time with all this Arabic stuff,” he said—in Arabic—from across a table laden with four different cheeses and a crusty baguette. “Wallahi,” Farid continued, “the future lies here, with the north.” He ripped a piece from the end of the baguette and spread a thick slab of Camembert across its surface. “It will be much more useful for you—za’ama for your future—to study French!”

Granara and undergraduates in Aix
William Granara and undergraduates at Camus's grave in Lourmarin cemetery, near the Luberon mountains


I managed to suppress a sigh—I was a guest in his home after all—but with several chapters of Suhail Idris’s Al-Hay Al-Latini left to finish after dinner for the next day’s Arabic class, I couldn’t prevent a hint of exasperation from creeping across my face. I was four weeks into the Harvard Summer School’s summer program in Aix-en-Provence, France, and the fact that I was studying the colonial and postcolonial Mediterranean in Arabic, not French, had been an on-and-off point of contention with my host since my arrival. Farid, a retired economics professor at the local university, was a Moroccan immigrant, a transplant from upper-crust Agadir society, who had studied in private French schools before moving to France for university. Since I don’t speak any French, I had initially been excited by the fact that we could communicate with each other easily in his native Moroccan Darija; however, Farid’s persistent claim that the contemporary Arab world was “retreating into its backwardness” meant that my living experience was to be much more complicated than I had first expected.

Given Aix’s location, many of my friends were also living with immigrants from North Africa; others had been placed with so-called pied noir families, individuals who could trace their roots to the European settlers of colonial French Algeria. In either case, our class material was intimately tied to our everyday experiences, meaning that interactions like this one were both inevitable and integral parts of the program.

Village of Roussillon summer 2018
The village of Roussillon in Provence


The next day, I vented my frustrations to Professor Khaled al-Masri. Each morning, our cohort had three hours of class in our respective target languages, examining the colonial encounter through the writings of figures like Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti. In the afternoon, the Arabic and French sides of the program came together for a seminar led by Professor William Granara that tackled the works of Said, Memmi, Fanon, Salih, and other post-colonial authors.

“This is why it’s so important that we study works like these,” replied Professor al-Masri after I filled him in on the latest back and forth with Farid. He gestured towards our copies of Al-Hay Al-Latini, a novel that tells the story of a young Lebanese student’s attempts to define himself amidst rising Arab nationalist sentiment while studying in Paris. “The cultural faux pas committed by our protagonist, the resistance he encounters for being Arab—these are things that echo through history,” he continued. “I don’t agree with Farid, and I doubt Idris would either, but maybe this book can help us understand what’s going on in his head.” He leafed through its pages to find where we had left off the previous day. “Yallah.”

Andrew Aoyama, host father, Aix, summer 2018
Andrew Aoyama, right, with Sam Eisendrath and host father


If the colonial encounter echoed through history, then so too did it reverberate across our program. The eight weeks we spent in Aix-en-Provence afforded my classmates and me a unique vantage point from which to view its continuing impact, and together we debated France’s efforts to ban the headscarf, interrogated famous works of orientalist art, and spent an afternoon listening to the stories of refugees at an NGO in Marseille. Aix at times felt like a small town—but our experience there was hardly provincial: every day, the contents of our classes bled into the composition of our surroundings. In Aix-en-Provence, there was a particular importance, a special relevance to the texts we worked with—regardless of whether we read them in Arabic or French. •