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Research in African Literatures 34.3 (2003) 66-83

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"A History of Hopes Postponed":
Women's Identity and the Postcolonial State in Year of the Elephant:
A Moroccan Woman's Journey toward Independence

Salah Moukhlis
California State University-San Marcos

One of the main concerns of postcolonial theory is to lay bare the dehumanizing and economically devastating consequences of colonialism on indigenous populations and to restore voice to the natives who had been silenced and exploited under colonial rule. Ever since the appearance of Edward Said's Orientalism, postcolonial theory has focused more on issues of representation in colonial discourse and the agency of the natives. The concern of postcolonial and emerging voices, as a response, has centered on subverting the assumptions of colonial discourse and rewriting its history from the vantage point of the subaltern. However, the direction that postcolonial theory was taking with its emphasis or rather overemphasis on the history of colonialism has received cautionary statements from a host of postcolonial critics with different political and academic agendas. Aijaz Ahmad, Ella Shohat, and Anne McClintock among others have all warned against establishing colonialism as a time marker around which other histories and subjectivities define themselves.

Ahmad, for instance, argues that while it is misleading to talk about a coherent colonial experience, we can, on the other hand, talk about a capitalist modernity that brought about similar state apparatuses and similar social and cultural configurations. He objects to the use of colonialism as a time marker since it valorizes the experience of colonialism and runs the risk of collapsing microhistories into one historical structure:

It is worth remarking, though, that in periodising our history in the triadic terms of precolonial, colonial and postcolonial, the conceptual apparatus of 'postcolonial criticism' privileges as primary the role of colonialism as the principle of structuration in that history, so all that came before colonialism becomes its own prehistory and whatever comes after can only be lived as infinite aftermath. (6-7)

Similarly, Ella Shohat draws attention to the homogenizing effect of the spatio-temporal semantics of the term "postcolonial":

White Australians and Aboriginal Australians are placed in the same "periphery," as though they were co-habitants vis-à-vis the "center." The critical differences between the Europe's genocidal oppression of Aboriginals in Australia, indigenous peoples of the Americas and Afro-diasporic communities, and Europe's domination of European elites in the colonies are leveled with an easy stroke of the "post." (102) [End Page 66]

Such criticism leveled at the term postcolonial was occasioned by generalizing definitions as that advanced by the writers of The Empire Writes Back, who argue that they use the term "to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day" (2). The growing awareness of the dissimilarities of the colonial experience has led to an urgency to highlight and foreground difference.

The flip side of the issue is de-emphasizing colonialism and embracing theories of nativism whose prime objective is to recreate, revitalize, and sometimes even imagine a presumably unified and coherent indigenous identity. As Edward Said notes, "Just as the Europeans saw Africa polemically as a blank place when they took it, or assumed its supinely yielding availability when they plotted to partition it at the 1884-85 Berlin Congress, decolonizing Africans found it necessary to reimagine an Africa stripped of its imperial past" (210). Blotting out the history of imperialism and colonialism would lead to a rigid form of essentialism that would eclipse the undeniable effects of the colonial encounter. The subversive poetics of many a postcolonial writer therefore are located precisely at the intersection between nativist theories and the experience of colonialism. Many of these writings combine a double criticism of both. They do not only stage the colonial discursive apparatus as an epistemic violence but also highlight and expose the asymmetrical social and economic relations within the postcolonial society. Foregrounding colonialism as the only source of all evils...


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