In the summer of 2019, after teaching a course on ancient North Africa and the reception of Rome in the Maghrib for the first time, I drove some 1200 miles around northeastern Algeria meeting people, visiting sites, and generally getting a sense of the “lay of the land.” Geography is central in the progress of history, as we know from, say, Greek history and the Persian Wars, but we often overlook it, or oversimplify it, when studying North Africa.
While turning my dissertation on time and memory in Augustine’s Confessions into a book (an everlasting project), I realized that I needed to ground—quite literally—Augustine’s metaphors of memory as a place and time as a “swelling” (distentio) of that place in the world he and his immediate audience saw around them. So visiting ancient granaries and military camps, for instance, were instrumental, as he likens memory to both. Likewise, getting a sense of northeastern Algerian (Numidian) topography was crucial if I wished, as I do, to distinguish cultural and intellectual groups in a more meaningful way than relying on, say, arbitrary administrative borders. After all, in his Apology Apuleius mocks foreign Romans who failed to recognize actual local geography (41.5). I wished not to make the same mistake in my teaching and scholarship.
In Fall 2021, I began work on a project called Terrae Transmarinae, which would increase virtual access to North Africa by posting short stories directed at non-specialist audiences, photos of sites and artifacts (images of items in Algeria are hard to locate, and when they are the quality isn’t always great), exaggerated 3D topographical maps, and maps of intellectual and social networks. I paused work on the project when the pandemic hit in Spring 2022 due to the significant uptick in work that needed my immediate attention. Now that I am settled at Yale in a position prioritizing my teaching over my scholarship, I hope to revive this project with a more deliberate purpose: to make ancient North Africa (and its modern reception in the Maghrib) accessible to the introductory and intermediate language classroom. Stay tuned as I rethink my approach to this material in light of my new circumstances.
In the meantime, I continue to reveal (very slowly) the photos I took in Algeria in 2019 on the project’s Flickr page, where I link each image to Pleiades.
At the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught for many years before coming to Yale, one of my staples was an upper-division course called Africa & Rome: History, Memory, and Identity, cross-listed with African and African Diaspora Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and History—arguably the hardest yet most rewarding course I have ever taught. As I revive and develop the aforementioned project, the path it takes will inevitably be guided largely by that course and the various sets of students whom I had the great pleasure to work with in it.