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Tunisia's Gafsa Phosphate-Mining Region in the 1950s

Rebecca Gruskin
PhD Student, History
Grant Year: 
Rebecca Gruskin
The generous support of the Abbasi Program enabled me to spend four weeks in Tunisia during the summer of 2014 to conduct research on the Gafsa phosphate-mining region in the 1950s, around the time of Tunisia’s negotiated independence from France in 1956.  Most histories of this period focus on the nationalist movement from the perspective of its elite leaders, and as such, they are geographically anchored in Tunis and other coastal cities.  My research has allowed me to complicate this portrayal of Tunisia’s independence by focusing on what the nationalist movement looked like on the local level in a region far from the urban coast.  When viewed from Gafsa, the nationalist movement appears as a conglomerate of local grievances that stemmed from residents’ concerns about the difficulties they faced in their daily lives, concerns that did not necessarily align with the political agenda of the nationalist coastal elite.  My research explored three local sites of protest: the marketplace, the regional hospital, and the phosphate mines themselves.  Many Gafsans participated in trade outside the official local markets, much to the chagrin of local French administrators who were trying to police local commerce.  At the hospital, local unions protested against certain doctors whom the French administration subsequently dismissed.  The mid-1950s also saw a wave of strikes in which concerns about poor working conditions and low wages were paramount.  Considering these stories results in a portrayal of Tunisia’s independence moment that, like the local grievances of Gafsa’s residents, is intimately connected with yet refuses to be subsumed to the political program of Tunisia’s liberation from French colonial rule.  This history is important because Tunisia’s post-independence government did not adequately address these local grievances. The Gafsa region, despite the crucial importance of its phosphates for the country’s economy, remains impoverished and does not enjoy a standard of living equivalent to that of Tunisia’s urban coastal centers.
The Abbasi Program’s support gave me the opportunity to access archives and libraries in Tunis that hold documents on local administration in Gafsa, most notably the Archives nationales de Tunisie (ANT) and the Centre de documentation nationale (CDN), as well as to discuss my research with American, French, and Tunisian academics at the Centre d'études maghrébines à Tunis, the Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain, and the Institut superieur d'histoire du mouvement national at Manouba University.  I was lucky to meet several administrators at the Gafsa Phosphate Company and the Ministry of Industry who were extremely supportive of my research.  Importantly, I also had the opportunity to visit the Gafsa region for a week and a half, where I toured a mine and a phosphate-washing refinery and spoke with local supervisors.  I was also fortunate to have found many opportunities to visit with families there, specifically in the mining town of Métlaoui, and attend local social engagements where I could discuss my project with workers and their families.  (I was the first American many of them had met, and singing the classic Arabic songs I had learned at the Middlebury Arabic School prior to my research trip made me quite the hit in local social circles!)  
While the documents in the ANT and CDN formed the basis of my research seminar paper, a requirement for second-year History PhD students, the contacts I made in Tunis and Gafsa will be critical for the successful completion of my dissertation research on the history of the Gafsa phosphate region, which I plan to commence next fall.  I am extremely grateful for the Abbasi Program’s support, without which this research project, and the important dissertation preparation I received from it, would never have been realized.