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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 123-148

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Unwitting Actors:
The Preservation of Fez's Cultural Heritage

Geoff D. Porter


Much has been written in the last several decades about postcolonial reliance on colonial historiographies—so much so that the use of colonial historiographies by postcolonial nations has almost become a defining attribute of the postcolonial condition. Fred Cooper's and Ann Laura Stoler's "Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda" explores some of the scholarship that demonstrates this interplay and calls into question the very usefulness of the term postcolonial for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the imbrication of colonial definitions of what and who made up the constituents of the colony with later conceptions of citizenry and subjecthood, modes of power, and distribution of labor that defined the nations emerging from the colonial condition. 1 Nancy Florida has written about the fundamental role of Dutch colonialists in the definition of Java after the colonialist's departure. 2 In the North African context, Abdallah Laroui has written about the continuation of colonial forms of power in North Africa into the period following colonialism. 3 So has Abdallah Hammoudi from the anthropologist's angle in regard to Morocco. 4 My essay contributes to this scholarship by looking at one instance—the preservation of Fez cultural heritage—in which the presence of colonial historiographies in the postcolonial period is extremely tangible and explicit. It then proceeds to explore some of the problems and contradictions that emerge from this awkward application.

In 1976, a Moroccan delegation petitioned UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to include the medina (old city) of Fez on UNESCO's World Heritage List. [End Page 123] Four years later, the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior submitted a nomination form to the World Heritage Centre in Paris. According to the form, Fez's cultural heritage included, among other things, "ramparts, forts, gates, bridges, religious buildings (mosques, oratories . . . medersas [sic] and zawiyas), [and] centres for the dissemination of Islamic scientific thought (Karawiyne)." 5

The plan to preserve Fez's heritage described itself

not as an operation that preoccupies itself with the protection and restoration of the buildings of the medina ... nor as an operation that would be content to inscribe the protection of monuments in the context of a rehabilitation of the physical space of the inhabitants' lives . . . but as a vaster undertaking that proposes to assure the continuation and the blossoming [l'épanouissement] of the ensemble of the social, economic, cultural and religious life that made the particular genius of the medina. 6

The plan went on to enumerate forty-three specific projects, including a proposal for the "diffusion of Islamic education" in the medina. 7

Although it was argued that the medina as a whole represented Moroccan heritage, certain buildings and institutions within the larger site were more closely associated with the origin and production of the medina's heritage than were others. Foremost among these sites were the Qarawiyin Mosque and the student residences (sing. madrasa; pl. madâris) associated with it. The centrality of the Qarawiyin Mosque to the heritage preservation campaign was such that the mosque itself became a symbol for the campaign. [End Page 124]

What this essay illustrates is that the alleged causes of the destruction of the heritage of the medina of Fez dovetail withbiases held by the authors of the preservation campaign, who are largely of urban origin, toward people from the countryside. The heritage preservation plan institutionalized, with the authority of the state, a pejorative urban attitude toward rural immigrants to the city.

This is significant because, by their very nature, heritage preservation projects tend to script a narrative for the nation. The preserved heritage is couched as a national heritage that tells of the nation's preeternal past and foretells the values that underpin the nation's future. Those who are credited with creating the nation's heritage and their descendents become elevated in the national narrative, and those who are identified as causes of that heritage's demise or dissolution are labeled as...


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