Ian Coller

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Ian Coller, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe 1798-1831

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Many think of Muslims in Europe as a twentieth century phenomenon, but this book brings to life a lost community of Arabs who lived through war, revolution, and empire in early nineteenth century France. Ian Coller uncovers the surprising story of the several hundred men, women, and children—Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, and others—who followed the French army back home after Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Based on research in neglected archives, on the rediscovery of forgotten Franco-Arab authors, and on a diverse collection of visual materials, the book builds a rich picture of the first Arab France—its birth, rise, and sudden decline in the age of colonial expansion. As he excavates a community that was nearly erased from the historical record, Coller offers a new account of France itself in this pivotal period, one that transcends the binary framework through which we too often view history by revealing the deep roots of exchange between Europe and the Muslim world, and showing how Arab France was in fact integral to the dawn of modernity.

Winner of the 2012 W.K Hancock Prize of the Australian Historical Association

Citation:  Arab France is a fascinating and impressively detailed study of the early history of Arab culture in France (especially Marseilles and Paris), stemming from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the 1790s and the subsequent exile of a group who had collaborated with the French. Bringing to life stories from a period of tumult, Ian Coller casts light on a neglected dimension of the history of racial and national identity, in France in particular and Europe more generally, connecting it to a broader history of Arab-European relations. The book is a tour de force of historical research, assembling a rich array of textual, literary and visual evidence to exemplify larger historical change. Coller’s persuasive scholarship displays his mastery of literature in English, French and Arabic and skilfully connects individual experience and attitudes to a broader national and transnational history.

From the Back Cover

“Ian Coller’s fascinating book explores the making of modern France during the Napoleonic period and under the Restoration ‘from the outside inward’. He examines the life of Arab migrants in France: their role as outsiders, and victims, but also as participants in the creation of the modern nation and its empire. In the process he also throws much light on the history of the contemporary Arab Middle East and North Africa.”—C.A. Bayly, University of Cambridge

“Ian Coller’s book is an outstanding achievement, one that will compel historians to rethink their interpretations not only of the relations between France and the Arab community—inside and outside the French metropole—but also, more broadly, of their understandings of the development of ‘orientalism’ and the origins of a European imperial culture.” —Timothy Tacket, University of California, Irvine

“Ian Coller shows how the controversies around religion, race, and immigration currently roiling France have a much longer history that many have supposed. Those French authorities intent on creating a ‘French Islam’ should start by reading this book.” —Tyler Stovall, University of California, Berkeley

“Arab France brilliantly intervenes in three quite distinct domains: our understanding of relations between East and West, the effects of diaspora on community, and the nature of French/Arab interaction in the early nineteenth century.” —Leora Auslander, University of Chicago


“This is an original and inspiring study, presented with elegant erudition. It will be read with pleasure and enlightenment by anyone interested in modern Europe, particularly the reception of Arabic culture, ‘Orientalism’ and national identity. It is a magisterial and magical book.”—Pamela Pilbeam, History (2012)

“Ian Coller’s Arab France is a fascinating recasting of France’s “Arab” past through the lens of individual and community lives in the aftermath of the French Revolution. While of great importance to scholars of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras in France, of the early nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, of colonialism, and of migration, it should also be of interest to all those concerned with the complex formation of communities whose boundaries are based on features that extend far beyond the geographic: communities of religion, language, food, dress, and personal obligation.—Naomi Davidson, The Journal of Modern History (2012)

“Arab France is an important book and a sad one. It is about the forgetting, and in some respects the obliteration, of history; it is also about lost ideals. It ends as France’s conquest of Algeria was making it difficult or impossible for an “Arab France” to persist in an age of colonialism. Coller is right in suggesting that the history of these “Egyptian refugees” in France remains relevant given the “clamor of [our] diverse present” (p. 218), when xenophobia threatens to undermine cultures of cosmopolitanism and tolerance.”—Heather Sharkey, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2012)

“In the end, Coller’s fascinating text reminds us that, long before the rancorous debates about Muslims in France that fill today’s headlines, a small yet significant community of Arabs from across the Levant settled in France. Moreover, his analysis elucidates the way successive French governments dealt with this population, highlighting along the way the role of this community in early Orientalist thinking and raising additional questions about the influence of Egyptian refugees on, and their relationship to, the development of government aid and surveillance.”—Amelia H. Lyons, Social History (2012)

“This is an imaginative and original work that successfully illuminates a forgotten chapter of history, and illustrates the quality of what Coller terms ‘in- betweenness’. Arab France certainly shows that the Arab presence in France is at least two centuries old. It remains a difficult work to classify: cultural history? diplomatic history? international history? This difficulty may be a sign of the originality of Coller’s approach.”Sharif Gemie, French History (2012)

“Arab France is an important and original book that will be of interest to scholars as well as to curious, non-specialist readers.”—Nadia Kiwan, French Studies (2012)

“Through his close reading of visual sources, published works, and letters – in both French and Arabic – Coller situates the Arab community in France within networks between Paris and Marseille, as well as in relation to the larger Arab world. While the field of migration studies often focuses on the 20th century, his study details an earlier history of migrants… Moreover, Coller’s study does not just focus on the dynamics of empire in itself, but makes the experience of imperial migration central to his story. From the richness – and messiness – of these voices, Coller shows how questions about migration, race, and belonging have a deeper history in France.” Minayo Nasiali, Reviews in History

“In the history of modern France, Arabs and Muslims are nearly invisible. Historians are now reconstructing the French past to include these communities in the narrative. A superb example is Ian Coller’s new book, “Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831” (University of California Press, 2011). A specialist in the history of diversity and cosmopolitanism … his scholarly talent is on display in this seminal book. His book lifts Arabs out of obscurity and into the light of French history.” Joseph Préville, Saudi Gazette

“The flowering of interest in Islamic and Arab art and culture has its echo in the publishing world, where Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, by Ian Coller, The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War, by Mehran Kamrava, and the new six-volume Cambridge History of Islam, edited by Michael Cook, are recent additions to a vast catalogue of titles on the subject.” Luke Slattery, The Australian

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