School of Languages and Area Studies

France, North Africa and the Middle East

Interdisciplinary and Multimedia Perspectives

18 March 2009

This study afternoon focused on teaching methods and interdisciplinary approaches to France, North Africa and the Middle East. The event was sponsored by the Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Subject Centre and the Centre for European and International Studies Research. It is part of a series of events leading up to the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France’s 30th Annual Conference on ‘France and the Mediterranean: representations, policy, transnationalism’, held at the University of Portsmouth 3-5 September 2009.

The purpose of this webpage is not only to be a record of the study afternoon, but to create a useful resource for lectures and students interested in questions of historiographical change, interdisciplinarity, new technology and their impact on scholarship and teaching. It contains pod casts and short written interviews with those who participated in the study day. Your feedback, comments and questions are welcome – please contact Dr Natalya Vince at

Written Q and As

Dr Michael Brett, Emeritus Reader in the History of North Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies discusses received ideas, partisan perspectives and key reading in Algerian history. Please click here to view the document. (*Document is in pdf format) 

Dr Hélène Gill, Principal Lecturer in French, University of Westminster outlines the key features of late 19th century French Orientalist painting, challenging binary readings of Orientalist paintings as an expression of Western domination. Please click here to view the document. (*Document is in pdf format)


Dr Joseph McGonagle, Lecturer in Cultural Studies in the French Speaking World, University of Manchester answers questions on key themes in filmic representations of Franco-Algerian relations, the advantages and pitfalls of using film to help students understand historical and contemporary Franco-Algerian relations and gives his essential viewing (interview carried out by Natalya Vince).

Dr Marie Pierre Gibert, University of Southampton answers questions on key themes in the relationship between politics and cultural practices in Israel, the advantages and difficulties of interdisciplinary approaches and tells us tales of field work and dancing. (interview carried out by Natalya Vince).

The study afternoon report

Dr Michael Brett began the afternoon with an insight into his experience of teaching Algerian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies from 1970 to 2000. He outlined the key trends in 30 years of Algerian, French and British historiography, discussing the impact of contemporary events such as the 1979 Iranian revolution and the civil violence of 1990s Algeria on the field. Dr Hélène Gill (Westminster) then gave an insightful critique of the application of Edward Said’s Orientalism to late 19th century French painting in North Africa. Using a range of visual supports, she illustrated alternative readings of Orientalist paintings as not the expression of Western imperialist power and subjugation but instead expressions of spiritualism by artists struggling to find suitable subjects in rational, secularising Third Republic France. Dr Joseph McGonagle (Manchester) ended the first session by discussing three recent films depicting the Algerian War with children as key protagonists: Michou d’Auber, Cartouches gauloises and Caché. He commented on the press reaction to the films, the multiple possibilities of interpretation and how they relate to current “memory wars” in France.

After the break, Professor Martin Evans (Portsmouth) presented key findings of new archival research which he has carried out for a forthcoming monograph on the Algerian War. He emphasised the importance of the international context in shaping the responses of the Socialist-led Republican Front government to the Algerian crisis and in particular how this related to France’s relationship with Israel. Dr Marie-Pierre Gibert (Southampton) closed the day by analysing how the newly-created Israeli state attempted to forge an “Israeli identity” through the invention of an “Israeli folk dance” after 1948. Using this case study, she considered not how art might reflect contemporary politics (as in Gill and McGonagle’s papers) but how politicians might explicitly set out to create a new art form.

In questions and discussion, there was debate about the tensions between political and aesthetic readings of art. A key theme which emerged was how lecturers might help students locate artefacts such as paintings, film and dance in their historical and political contexts whilst avoiding the pitfalls of over-interpreting cultural products which have their own artistic codes and preoccupations. The study day also highlighted to lecturers and students the wide variety of approaches to the study of history and politics, and thus was of particular use to dissertation supervisors at a moment in the academic year when second year undergraduates are choosing dissertation topics.