Middle East Studies

Nancy Demerdash

Assistant Professor of Art History, Albion College

The Évolué, Migration and the Architectural Prophylactics of Hygiene and Housing in Postwar Tunisia

Early twentieth-century Tunisia witnessed something of a housing crisis—repeatedly referred to in documents as a crise du logement. Not only was there a palpable shortage of affordable housing for workers, but keeping workers, and workers’ sites of habitation clean was essential for the protectorate’s and métropole’s goals of “housekeeping.” Well before the Second World War, migratory waves of North African Kabyle populations settling in France troubled technocrats and colonial administrators, who suggested that the only solution to this implied infestation was for adequate housing to be constructed across North Africa. A later wartime study from the Tunisian Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes describes in detail how crucial not just cleanliness, but material ‘modern’ amenities—a “European W.C.,” curtains, elevated beds, dishes—are for the social Darwinism of creating the évolué (the oft referenced idea of a so-called “evolved” human subject). Discourses on habitation and cleanliness can be seen as a part of a much larger extension of the mission civilisatrice, exercised to its fullest. By expunging any residual traces of earthen building materials and by introducing the ‘needs’ of the household, we see how the imposition of contrived domesticity and superficial amenities were intended to fuel the desire for an elusive progress that could thwart migration. If one could transform and reconstruct the habitation of the Tunisian worker, one could thereby control and contain his or her desires, needs, and habitudes; the goal was to transform the Tunisian into an évolué. This paper, derived from Nancy Demerdash's larger book project, explores the politics of prophylactic architecture and the discourses on hygiene and habitation of the workers’ environment in postwar, late colonial Tunisia. By managing the risk for disease, the colony could circuitously protect the health of the métropole. The paper concludes by analyzing the conceptual continuations of the notion of the évolué in President Habib Bourguiba’s gourbiville (bidonville) demolition projects of 1960s.