Shadow Zones: Contraband and Social Contract in the Borderlands of Tunisia

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Although Tunisia has been celebrated as the unique success story of the Arab Spring, its emergent democracy has failed to resolve the structural inequalities that caused the 2011 revolution, or meaningfully include marginal subjects within its address. This dissertation documents the life-worlds of those left behind in Tunisia’s democratic transition by tracking the precarious labor of smuggling by youth in the Western-Central interior. For unemployed youth living in the shadow of underdevelopment, smuggling offers a rare avenue of insertion into productive life, where the border serves as a natural resource for generating value through arbitrage. Disappointed by the revolution’s implicit promise of structural change, many young Tunisians now use these routes of economic survival to join up with jihadist militias abroad. Through 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Kasserine, an impoverished province on Tunisia’s Algerian frontier, I examine how smuggling practice generates a landscape of ambivalent belonging to the nation, a “Shadow Zone” that elicits desire for the state, as well as the material means to evade it. I show how cross-border movement refracts the meaning of social justice for local actors, including petty smugglers and informal laborers who work the border economy, Tunisian families whose sons have been recruited to militias in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and unemployed youth and civil society groups who militate for equitable development.





Miller, Alyssa Marie (2018). Shadow Zones: Contraband and Social Contract in the Borderlands of Tunisia. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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