Manon Istasse

Status : Member - Doctor in Social and Political Sciences, Anthropology orientation


Thesis entitled “Living in a World Heritage Site: Ethnography of the Fez Medina (Marocco)” and successfully defended on September 23, 2013.

Under the direction of Mr. David Berliner. Members of the jury: Lady and Gentlemen the Professors Lynn Meskell (Stanford University), Mathieu Hilgers (ULB), Jean-Louis Genard (ULB) and Christoph Brumann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology).


In the present dissertation, I aim to render explicit the actualisation (realization) of heritage, following this guiding question: how do human beings come to qualify a thing, be it tangible or intangible, as heritage? I argue that heritage is at the same time a quality allocated by human beings in their relation with things, and a fiction that circulates between, and anchors them in situation(s). To support this assertion, I focus on one element of official heritage, namely houses in the medina of Fez in Morocco, listed as part of the World Heritage since 1981. Firstly, I study medina houses in terms of networks, that is to say the various ways people engage with their materiality in everyday life. In this ethnographic report, I ask the question of how to inhabit houses located in a World Heritage site. This ethnography allows to question notions such as legality, taste, privacy, hospitality tradition or agency, and it brings to the fore the debate concerning the skills and ability of Moroccan inhabitants to take care of their house, as well as their obliviousness to the concept of heritage. I argue that houses have another story than the official heritage one, because they offer holds, affordances, to which human actors qualify. Heritage is one of these qualities. I then focus on heritage as a trajectory, in order to shed light on how houses cross the heritage border. I first introduce the category of self-taught experts, and then propose a wider definition of expertise, as an ability "to speak in the name of" someone or something else. I then underline the importance of senses and affects in the relation with houses and suggest that they are one possible component in heritage qualification, together with actions and justification. Finally, I argue that a notion preferable to that of heritage border, is that of attachment, which allows us to grasp the qualification of houses as heritage, in how it stresses both the similarities and the differences between houses and elements of heritage. Heritage as a quality results from a "surplus of attention" and relates to nostalgia or a feeling of threat, loss and disappearing; values related to purity, materiality and time; and actions of preservation and transmission. Finally, houses may be considered heritage through their qualification, but heritage also stands for something else than houses in Fez, such as a label or a justification for members of institutions in charge of tourism development or heritage preservation, a tool for sustainable development in the context of international projects, a definition assorted with specific criteria, an object to preserve for experts, an object of research in the field of social sciences, or a legal object. These are forms of heritage circulating between situations in which they are anchored and are actualised. Each form has its own characteristics, its own criteria of valuation, while all the forms share similarities that I define as the heritage fiction, namely a specific relation to the past, the idea of culture as a specific entity, the importance of experts, and moral principles. Finally, I take the circulation and the anchorage of the heritage fiction and its forms to think of the local and the global as qualities, instead of scales or levels.

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