When the first carton of French colonial reports that I was to sift through arrived on my desk at the Château de Vincennes, home of the French army’s historical archives, I thought the task before me was clear. I wanted to understand how colonial subjects came to form the nationalist movements that would confront the imperial state in the mid-twentieth century. I intended to extract information about nationalist protests in colonial Morocco from administrative and police reports and compile this information in a dataset that I would use to test hypotheses about the triggers of nationalist protest. It was a plan that I expected to be time consuming, particularly given the copious and meticulous documentation by French officials, but it was also, I thought, conceptually straightforward.
And yet, as I began delving into monthly reports on early protest activity in Morocco, I found myself unable to answer the most basic question: what counts as a “nationalist” protest? A June 1936 report described a demonstration in Casablanca; thirty “nationalists” protested against a local moussem, or religious festival, on the grounds that such celebrations of local saints are not sanctioned by Islam. What made these protestors nationalist, I wondered? The following month saw a series of protests in the towns of Casablanca, Khourgiba, and Fes when French and Moroccan workers went on strike for better working conditions. Should this event count as nationalist, or does the participation of French workers make it distinctly non-nationalist? In Meknes, more than 400 demonstrators took to the streets in September 1937 to protest changes to the existing water-sharing arrangement; infuriated that the waters of the Oued Boufekrane were to be redirected for use by French settlers, protestors shouted, “Not one glass of water for the settlers!” Should this be coded as nationalist? In November 1937, protests spread; protestors in multiple towns demanded reform, including the right to free speech and the right to unionize, but no one spoke of independence. Were these protests nevertheless nationalist? In January 1944, protestors took to the streets across the country to demand an end to French rule and independence for the Moroccan nation. Were these the first protests that should be called nationalist or were the earlier ones nationalist, too?