|Rusk Director Alexander's Book on Tunisia Sheds New Light on That Unfamiliar Maghreb Nation
October 11, 2010
Contact: John Syme
Few countries in the Arab world have remained less familiar to the English-speaking Western world than Tunisia, the former North African French colony that achieved independence in 1957.
Christopher Alexander, Davidson College's McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, associate professor of political science and associate dean for international programs, has taken a lead to remedy that dearth of knowledge, with his new book, Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb. "Maghreb" means "place of sunset," or west, from an Arabian perspective, and generally refers to the five North African nations of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania.
The book's combination of first-hand experience and academic research, delivered in the pithy observational tones of the best journalistic analysis, springs from Alexander's year in Tunisia in the pivotal early '90s of the first Gulf War. It was then that he fell in love with what he calls the "grit and grandeur" of Tunisia.
As a young Duke University graduate student on a Fulbright award in 1992, Alexander arrived in Tunisia at the American Institute for Maghreb Studies, housed in "a gracefully shabby old villa down an alley." There he met director Jeanne Jeffers Mrad, who immediately took him under her wing-and simultaneously pushed him out of the nest.
"Jeanne loved people who would just get the place all over them. She was completely unfazed by the fact that I didn't know what the hell I was doing," Alexander recalled. "I just dove into the souks, eating street food and talking to anybody about anything.... She's on every page of that book. Without Jeanne, I wouldn't have written my dissertation or gone into this business or written this book."
Early in that year, Mrad invited Alexander to speak at a meeting of the Center for Maghreb Studies in Tunis. He recalls being terrified, but the talk was well-received. Then he was off and running, meeting one-on-one with well-placed sources in Tunisia's unique governmental and economic amalgam of politics and personality. The ebb and flow of Tunisian "stability and reform," in the words of the book's subtitle, began to fascinate him.
"Tunisia is a human drama of national politics that's intimate," he said. "It's so easy when you're reading the theoretical literature to forget that politics is really about choices by people-people who have families and jobs and egos."
| Chris Alexander
His research methods were essentially a reporter's, "hustling interviews" with real people in real time, far from the constraints of academe. Once, he was even followed by a black sedan full of government agents who wanted to see his passport and know his business, after he left the apartment of a particularly valuable source!
The experience and expertise Alexander began cultivating in 1992 landed him in 2001 in Washington, D.C. at the request of the U.S. State Department, to participate in a "crash course" on Tunisia after 9-11. Today, his new book carries forward subsequent years of scholarly research and perspective.
"Why should anyone bother to write or read a book about Tunisia's modern economic and political development?" Alexander asks in his introduction to the book, part of Routledge's "The Contemporary Middle East" series.
"First," he writes, "Tunisia and its Maghreb neighbors play an important if not very public role in contemporary conversations about European and North American security.... Understanding Tunisia is also important because it sheds interesting light on political challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa... the last region in which authoritarian government is the thriving rule rather than the tottering exception."
From the beginning, Alexander was clear on the historical context-or lack thereof-for his work. Again from his introduction: "Writing at the close of the nineteenth century, the British author Herbert Vivian opined that "[t]he authorities on Tunisia are not worth enumerating. Those in English belong to a former generation; those in French are prejudiced and stupid."
Not wanting to fall into either category, Alexander focused on concision and timeliness in his book, looking at the mid-nineteenth century through Tunisian independence from French colonial rule in 1957 to the present day. It was a good fit for Routledge.
"Written specifically for a non-specialist audience, the book examines the factors that make Tunisia one of the Arab world's most stable and prosperous countries and one of its hardiest authoritarian orders," reads the book jacket blurb.
Tunisia is the smallest country of the Maghreb, mostly Sunni Muslim, arguably the most strongly influenced of its neighbors by European mores and customs. Alexander calls it an "inconspicuous island of calm" in a "transition zone between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East."
"Of all the countries in the Arabic-speaking world," Alexander says, "Tunisia is the most Mediterranean, the most European. It's the ‘good' country in terms of gender issues, human development, and quality of life."
Today, Alexander himself carries forward the spirit of his mentor Mrad, to whose memory he dedicated the book.
"The parts of my job I enjoy the most involve the same kind of events and the same kind of sensations that I was involved in then," he says.
As associate professor, he revels in opening students' minds forward into the world, shaking them loose from preconceived notions as necessary.
As newly appointed dean for international programs, he traveled with a Davidson delegation this summer to Syria, with an eye toward building a Davidson program there.
He is always eager for the Dean Rusk International Studies Program to host "on-the-ground" perspectives, from foreign correspondents to international policymakers.
And through it all, he says the best part of his job as director of the Dean Rusk Program is making possible, through guidance and grants, the type of high-quality international study abroad that he enjoyed, and that Davidson embraces as a vital part of its mission.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.