- North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present
Unlike its sister region to the (middle) east, North Africa seldom attracts public attention this side of the Atlantic, or the interest of all but a handful of dedicated academics. Each addition to the rather slim literature on this part of the world should therefore be greeted with warmth, particularly when authored by a seasoned historian with a proven track record in the field, such as Philip Naylor of Marquette University. The historical scope offered by the book is particularly timely. [End Page 142] Ever since Jamil Abun-Nasr published his History of the Maghrib in 1971 (revised 16 years later and limited to the "Islamic Period," i.e., from the 7th century onward), and the 1977 translation into English of Abdallah Laroui's L'Histoire du Maghreb; Un essai de synthèse (originally published in 1970), no other comprehensive study in English on North Africa has been available for students and the interested public.
The book is intended to serve as "an introductory work" whose goal is "to present a primarily political historical survey of North Africa" (p. 14). That goal is certainly achieved, and Naylor should be commended for his simple yet concise style, which allows the novice reader (for whom this text is designed) to remain engaged with the flow of the historical narrative. Using Ibn Khaldun as the anchor for the ancient and early Muslim history of North Africa (Chapters 1-4), and Malik Bennabi and Jacque Berque for the modern and contemporary eras (Chapters 5-9), Naylor elegantly leads the reader through the maze of events that have shaped the history of a vast region at the crossroads of civilizations. While the bulk of each chapter consists of a political chronology, some discussion of cultural and social aspects is also offered. The introduction and concluding notes for each chapter neatly ties in larger themes.
Naylor's most interesting —and potentially controversial —choice is geographical in nature, namely stretching the geographical framework of "North Africa" beyond the three francophone countries of the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) to include Libya and Egypt (but not Sudan or the Horn of Africa). This is a very significant addition given the centrality of Egypt from ancient times to the present as well as its historical ties with the Mashriq. Defending his decision to incorporate Egypt, Naylor cites its "transcultural" significance, simply arguing that Egypt's importance "necessitates its inclusion" (p. 2).
Transcultural history is a crucial aspect of Naylor's work, a concept which he claims to have introduced in his earlier writings (see p. 253, note 2). Throughout the book, Naylor attaches that concept to key historical figures (e.g., Hannibal [p. 39], or Cleopatra [p. 43]) as well as broad cultural phenomena such as early Christianity (p. 49), Medieval Jewish commercial networks (pp. 74-5), or Berber empires of the Maghrib and al-Andalus (p. 100). One may wonder whether such prolific use of the term "transcultural," typically without much explanation as to why it is used in each specific context, does not dilute its significance.
Broadening the geographical scope to include Egypt works very well in some cases, but less so in others. For example, Naylor's discussion of the Fatimid expansion from the Maghrib to Egypt (pp. 72-4, 79-87) benefits from this broader scope, as does the survey of the Ottoman presence in North Africa (Chapter 5). On the other hand, the discussion of the post-colonial era (divided into two chapters, 8-9) tends to be somewhat uneven, as some countries (Algeria, Libya, and Egypt) get far greater coverage than others (notably Tunisia).
North Africa is a valuable introduction for students and the general public of an understudied part of the world. To the extent that the history and politics of North Africa are taught at the college level, it ought to be adopted as the...