In 2017-18, Houssem Chachia was the inaugural recipient of the CMES Tunisia Postdoctoral Fellowship, part of the CMES Tunisia Office and related programming made possible by the support of Harvard College alumnus Hazem Ben-Gacem '92. The fellowship brings Tunisian scholars, especially those whose research includes Tunisia and North Africa, to Harvard for an academic year, to pursue their research and teach a course in their area of specialization.
What was your doctoral dissertation about?
My research spans work on identity, cultural, historical, and minority studies. Chronologically, I focus on the sixteenth to eighteenth century. The title of my dissertation was "Sephardim and Moriscos: The Journey of the Expulsion and Installation in the Maghreb (1492-1756): Different Stories and Itineraries." In 2015, it was named by the Arab Center for Travel Literature: London-Abu Dhabi as the best research in the field of historical geography and travel narrative. The dissertation is in two parts: First, it examines the politics of expulsion and settlement in the Maghrib of displaced Moriscos and Sephardim from 1492 from 1756. Second, it attempts to understand the dynamics of expulsion and the settlement to problematize the situation of the two groups. I do so by analyzing the dynamics of expulsion, or how the thought of exclusion in the Iberian Peninsula in general, and in Spain in particular, evolved between the second half of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century. Moreover, to understand the process of resettlement and the reintegration of the two minorities in Maghreb societies during this same period, I consider the religious conversion of coming and going members of the two minorities between the three religions of the Mediterranean: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In my research, I problematize the limitations of this settlement and the possibility of talking about a solidarity between the Sephardic and Moriscos minorities during the period of expulsion and resettlement on the basis that they have the same Iberian origin, and on expulsion as a milestone in their journey.
What are your current research interests? What project have you been working on this year?
My research interests have recently evolved a little to include the East-West encounter. Lately, I have become interested in understanding the relationship between the West and the Arabo-Muslim world (especially the Maghreb) in the modern era. Currently, I am working on a monograph entitled "The 'Images' of the West through Tunisian Eyes from the 17th to Early 20th Century." This project was inspired by the resurrection of the Tunisian identity that became prominent after the Tunisian revolution (2011), both within the Tunisian elites and in the social media. To be more specific, I investigate the politics and the religious, linguistic, geographical, and cultural discourse of redefining Tunisia after Bin Ali. In understanding today's tense relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds, one must revisit the East-West encounter discourse and the historical roots of such discourse to answer a fundamental question: Is the Tunisian image of the West negative or is it a combination of both hostility and admiration?
What course are you teaching this term? What does it cover?
This semester, I am teaching a class called "The West in Tunisian Eyes: Through the Travel Literature." This course is for students at an advanced level of Arabic and it is conducted entirely in Arabic. The goal of the course is to examine the evolution of Tunisian travel literature and the relationship between Tunisia and the West. Thus, we are focusing on the image of the West in Tunisian eyes and the extent to which Tunisian reformers were influenced by the image of the West. We are reading a selected texts of Tunisian travel writers such as Ibn Abi Diyaf, Ithāf ʼahl az-zamān [The History of the Rulers of Tunis and the Fundamental Pact], Ali Ben Salem Al-Wardeni, al-Riḥlah al-Andalūsīyah [The Andalusian Journey], Muḥammad al-Miqdād Wartānī, al-Burnus fī Bārīs: riḥlaẗ ilá Faransā wa-Suwīsrā [The Journey to France and Switzerland], Ali Douagi, Jawlah bayna ḥānāt al-Baḥr al-Mutawassiṭ [A Tour through the Mediterranean Taverns], and Abdelwahed Braham, Isbāniyā ḥāḍinat al-Andalus. In discussing these points and reading the texts, students examine different vocabularies, in various historical, geographical, cultural, political, and sociological events from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century.
How do you like working with Harvard students?
In general, I really enjoy teaching and students to me are the fruits of academia. Harvard students, however, are special in their curiosity and inquisitiveness. Although we are studying a topic that is relatively new for most of them, I feel that they go out of their way to understand everything. I am very intrigued by the ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, and academic backgrounds of students and how enriching they are for the class discussion.
What do you like best about being at Harvard?
As a research-oriented person by nature, from my first week at Harvard I fell in love with Widener Library. It is my favorite place at Harvard. And not only for me but for many researchers, it is paradise. I can always find all the books and articles I need. The system to request books is simple and fast, and you have access to many online resources. I also appreciate the wide range of lectures, conferences, symposiums, and workshops that the Harvard campus offers. I like the open educational atmosphere, and the discussions between researchers from all over the world, who form a very rich community. One, of course, cannot forget the faculty, administration, and staff members at CMES, who are always very friendly, ready to help, and willing to accommodate. I want to take this opportunity to extend my sincere thanks and gratitude to them all. Thank you for making this cold city a very warm place and less overwhelming.
How have you enjoyed living in Cambridge?
I am from a small city in Tunisia called Beni Khalled, which is famous for its orange orchards. I grew up in my family’s orange orchard, so you can imagine how much I like nature. Due to this, I found Cambridge a very beautiful place. I like how quiet and green the city is. I like its public parks. I also like how organized the public transportation is. One thing that stands out about Cambridge, the city, is how it lends itself to a multicultural diversity. This diversity is reflected in its food, music, cultures, and events. As such, the city offers a home not only for its residents but also for those passing through. And, of course, one cannot skip the various types of American hamburgers served in Cambridge.
Had you visited the United States before, and would you like to visit again in the future?
This is my first visit to the United States. And I hope it will not be the last. The United States is not just a country; it spans a continent, and one needs many visits to say that he/she has visited the United States.
What do you miss most about Tunisia?
I miss my wife, my daughter, and my friends. And I also miss the sun, the blue sky, and the Tunisian food and air.
What advice would you offer future CMES Tunisia Postdoctoral Fellows?
I recommend that they organize their time at Harvard very well, because I can assure them that the 10 months will pass by very fast. Therefore, they should take advantage of the library’s resources and the rich scholarly environment that Harvard offers them. Above all, I would like to say, be ready for the weather, and stay warm.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
In the past, the United States and Harvard were very far off places and equally impossible dreams for someone like me. I never thought that it would be possible to even visit Harvard as a tourist, let alone work at Harvard, so I feel very lucky to be here. I am grateful for this opportunity, which gave me a chance to discover how a University ranked so highly in the world works. Again, I would like to thank my friends and colleagues at CMES, especially Professor William Granara, the Director of CMES, and offer my sincere gratitude to Mr. Hazem Ben-Gacem, whose generous gift made it possible for me to be here. Also, I would like to express my eternal gratitude to my university, University of Sfax, for being accommodating and for allowing me to take leave this year.