Tunisia’s Jackson Pollack

Following a scrawled address in my notebook, a reference from a couchsurfer for a small art space with an exhibition–that we just missed–of photographs from the revolution, we begin the labyrinthine task of searching El Medina. Our little crew of three American men and a Palestinian woman elicit a few odd glances and sotto voce remarks from lingering packs of teenage boys and a few old men as we navigate our way echoing our shared language, English. As we trace the lines of directions extending from the outstretched pointed fingers of several reclining Tunisian men and passing pedestrians we slowly narrow in on the Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar.

We wander through unfamiliar streets, Rue Jemaa Zaytuna, El Blagdjia souk, El Attarine souk, El Djeloud souk, and Rue des Tamis. From one side ventricle at the heart of El Medina, a sign points toward the Auberge de Jeunesse, Tunis Youth Hostel. The weathered sign, stained an impressive range of colors from exposure and neglect, points down Saida Ajoula street. We take a turn, following a hunch. We pass the impressive edifice of this former sultan’s palace turned youth hostel and continue through the black and white painted archways that connect the chalky walls of plaster that house Tunisia’s characteristic azure, cyan doors and window frames.

We stop a moment to examine a large wall painting:

In March and April the Paris based Algerian artist ZOO Project visited Tunis to leave his now iconic life size images of martyrs and revolutionaries across the city in a series of murals (For a great spread see The Guardian; A New Hype; and Share Design). The images represent courage of ordinary people who risk their lives for freedom. Many are modeled directly on some of the 236 people who were killed during the revolution.

Here we see Mohammed Hanchi, a 19 year old shot to death on 25 February during clashes between ongoing protests and the police. Although Ben Ali had been ousted a month earlier many Tunisians remained enraged that so many faces familiar with the corruption and abuse of the former regime still remained. Interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and former Minister of Interior, now Home Office Secretary, Farhat Rajhi were targeted with criticism over the continued use of force by security forces and their apparent lack of concern over such deaths, according to twitter posts at the time.

After a short conversation with a few men sitting nearby we continue around the corner. Not long afterward we stumbled upon another piece, a totem pole of youths, hoisting a Tunisian flag above their heads. The base of the painting is somewhat obscured at the ground by a small, red flatbed, strewn with some waste and a large cardboard with Chinese characters for the food distribution company that had sent it written all over. 

Upon closer inspection the rest of the symbol reveals itself. The tower of children, eager for freedom, democracy, and human rights are in the middle of a hop-scotch course. The end spells out “Democratie.” However, that the path to Democracy is obscured by garbage and the flotsam of Chinese global trade is highly symbolic if we treat this scene in its totality. It goes beyond the somewhat cliché “The road to Democracy is littered with…” but draws the viewer into an examination of global trade, political and economic interest and the inter-connectivity of international structures of power.

China’s principle foreign policy mantra of nonintervention in the domestic matters of other countries is the kind of rhetoric that allows state-sponsored violence to continue. Most recently China and Russia vetoed UN sanctions designed to pressure Syria to end ongoing violence by the Assad regime which has lead to over 2,700 deaths. But the double standards of political and economic actions, based primarily on the logic of what is expedient to the powerful, is an international issue that runs among the global elite. It draws attention to the role of the entire international community in both domination and democracy. The trash is a simple metaphor. It needs no discussion. We linger for a while and move off in search of 40, Rue du Pasha.

Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar is a metaphor of translated space. Once a Madrasa, the space was converted in the 18th century to a dormitory for Zaytuna University, part of the 8th century Zaytuna Mosque. As a dormitory of Zaytuna university the space housed the children of Tunis’ poorest families. The wards, otherwise unprovided for, were watched over by the communitarianism inherent in the teachings of Islam. At the entrance to the courtyard remains 25 ground level cubbyholes whose purpose was to house the secret gifts of food and other items left there by anonymous donation from the neighborhood.

In the 14th century Zaytuna university was attended by Ibn Khaldun, the renowned Muslim historian, philosopher, and-some argue-father of sociology. His statue, between the French Embassy and Tunis’ cathedral, on Rue Habib Bourguiba is currently surrounded by razor wire and armored personal carriers. During Tunisia’s struggle for independence with France in the 1950s, Zaytuna university, as a center of flourishing nationalist thought and activism, was the target of French assaults. In in its most recent manifestation the space has become an arts and culture center.

Here we are greeted by Jemal Abdennacer, who smiles when we note the shared name with anti-imperialist Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein. Our Abdennacer likes to style himself as the Jackson Pollack of Tunisia.

Educated at l’École du Louvre and l’École des Beaux-Arts, Abdennacer went on to study calligraphy and serve as an art therapist in Canada before returning to his native Tunisia. His art is a full experience. He places a canvas on a small easel, covers the floor with large multicolored, geometrically rich Berber rugs, and launches himself into a shamans trance of liberated color and movement. Wildly flinging his paint on the canvas, the floor, the spectator, as, his art is as much a spectator sport as a personal exploration and expression. I am curious how the power of such unfettered free expression must have felt during the Ben Ali years. After his explosive construction of colors concludes, and the canvas dries, he fillets the material into strips to give away. He always keeps one piece of canvas for himself. One could interpret this as a symbolic thesis that freedom of expression must be shared, to be considered a true freedom.

I am reminded of Paul Klee’s sentiment of his time in Tunisia. In 1914 Klee wrote,“Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me for ever.”

As Abdenaccer enthusiastically explains his art and shows us around the space, the melody of a violin lesson resounds, refracting on the arches and columns of this centuries old structure to provide a most alluring soundtrack to our stay.

After some time, Abdenaccer leaves us with parting words of philosophy. In regard to the sensitive transition and difficult task of rebuilding a state ravaged by corruption and political abuse, he simply offers, “Do not politicize the educated. Educate the politicians.” We wander back into the alleyway outside the art space with these thoughts, and of course a small fabric of colorful canvas.

Coffee Observations and LabLabi Contemplations on The Constituent Assembly Elections

We were sitting at the Espérance Sportive de Tunis Cafe Bab Souika, verbally composing a list of groceries to buy at the souk, sipping our café filtre. I had tried to order our three cups of coffee in my fledgling Tunisian Arabic, “ah-tee-nee lay-tha case kava.” The waiter smiled and repeated the order with the French ‘trois.’ I have been having bad luck with my Arabic ’3.’ But I have tried to never let linguistic shortcomings come between me and caffeine. Moments later the waiter returned with three short, thick glasses of coffee, flared at the top as is the style, and two large glasses of water.

As anyone who has tasted the aromatic cups of sweet, steaming, sludgy traditional Arabic or Turkish coffee in the back rooms of shisha cafes, padded with cushions, curtains, and lamps, in the heat or at night, in crowded cafes flooded by foreign words, minimalist restaurants with Eastern twists, or just a neighborhood kebab shop knows, sugar is added as the coffee cooks. But with our filter coffee we are given full choice to the degree of sweetness. We have taken to adding one sugar cube to the fragrant Tunisian coffee. This dearth of sweet has resulted in measured disbelief on several occasions as Tunisians are accustomed to usually adding—we are told—three cubes of sugar to every cup. We are handed our single cube with tongs of incredulity.

As we were discussing some mundane topic such as how many kilos of chickpeas or rice to buy we were alerted to the parade of banners and flags approaching from down the street. A chain of about 30 people were meandering through the stopped traffic, hopping onto the sidewalks, and ducking into shops. Some handed out pamphlets amid an entourage of waving Tunisian flags. A small group at the vanguard marched slowly with a long white banner, emblazoned with a stylized Olive tree that faded from a bright chartreuse to an olive drab and downward to a carmine red, beneath which was written PDP in the same shade of red.

They approached the cafe. Their faces were glowing with the jubilance of hard-won political freedom. Several older men with pot bellies and ties, women with curly hair and suites exchanged quick words with the men around us, a few stood back and took pictures, others distributed pamphlets. The explanations and photo-ops faded into the background of Place Bab Souika as the parade passed on into the souk, leaving talk of elections, and PDP pamphlets in their trail. This was my first display of campaign performances and I thought I would take some time to unpack some initial thoughts on the evolving democratic process by examining this first party to really come across my attention physically.

PDP is the acronym of The Progressive Democratic Party (In Arabic لحزب الديمقراطي التقدمي‎, al-Ḥizb ad-Dīmuqrāṭī at-Taqaddumī; or Parti démocrate progressiste, in French). The PDP was founded by Ahmed Najib Chebbi, who still leads the party. Originally the Progressive Socialist Rally in 1983, it later gained legal status as an opposition party in 1988. In 2001 it changed its name to the current Progressive Democratic Party. In 2006 Jribi Maya became the secretary-general, breaking the gender barrier for woman in such office. In 2009 Chebbi attempted to run for president but was barred from running. Chebbi is currently serving as the Minister of Local Development in the interim government.

While the PDP was a legal opposition party under Ben Ali, Chebbi endured years of intimidation by security forces and harassment by pro-government groups for his opposition stance. In October 2005, ahead of the UN’s “world summit on the information society” held in Tunis, Chebbi in addition to eight other prominent figures went on hunger strike. Calling themselves the October 18th Movement, they demonstrated for freedom of the press and of association, and the release of Tunisia’s, at the time, 600-odd political prisoners. It is this history of political opposition that has led to Chebbi, and the PDP’s, relatively high degree of support in preliminary polling ahead of the 23 October National Constituent Assembly.

On 15 January Al Jazeera quoted Chebbi,”This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession…” “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

However, it has been noted that due to Ben Ali’s tight control of the media Chebbi is not well-known outside of more elite circles and established opposition activists. This could explain the results of a recent survey by the Institute of Survey and Data Processing Statistics (ISTIS) and the Tunisia African Press Agency. While the PDP is the number two ranked party in the constituent assembly elections, according to the Middle East News Source, they are only pulling about 8.7% support of those surveyed. The moderate Islamic Al Nahda party polled at 22.8%. However these figures are not sufficient indicators to assume landslide results later this October. Official campaigning for the 23 October election only began on 1 October. And there are lingering considerations about the level of political knowledge and engagement among the country.

In political environments that are unaccustomed to democratic participation it is naive to assume a sudden landslide of political participation after significant changes in social and political conditions, regardless of the fact that these changes were brought about by popular mobilization. After all, it is often easier to break down than to build up. As Tunisian political sociology professor Hafedh Abd Rahim points out, “Tunisians’ remissness of the electoral campaign, especially among the youth, is due to their lack of interest in politics as a result of political marginalization during the last decades.”For this reason the democratization process should be understood as far more than the simple road to elections. As political opportunities open, those who take advantage of these openings should be more than just the elite who hope to compete in elections but should include those who have been previously marginalized, which in Tunisia essentially comprises the entire population. The electoral campaign must begin with a robust engagement with all members of the Tunisian society toward education and encouraging interest and participation, which may take many forms.

Framed in an alternative analysis, Meher Trimich, another Tunisian academic, believes political apathy is far from a Tunisian phenomenon. It is global, he says. “Apparently, the submitting of one’s voice –which is a conviction, makes the voter vulnerable as individual. This process requires forging bonds of trust between the government and the people.” This is a daunting task in a society freshly out generations of governmental abuse.

As much as a burn victim carries his or her scar, the victim of a culture of fear does not escape the ingrained behavior adapted for personal, familial, and community security simply when the physical conditions that comprised that culture of fear are lifted. It is often a psychic domination that lingers with as much conviction as when it was a material reality.

Two weeks ago, a few days after I had first arrived in Tunis, while I was walking around Rue Habib Bourguiba a 27 year old Tunisian man came up to me selling faded postcards with 1980s snapshots of famous places in Tunisia. I told him I wasn’t interested in buying postcards but offered to have a chat over a coffee. He started to introduce himself, his interests, and Tunisia. After speaking about his hobbies and family for a while I tried to change to topic to politics. He resisted. We parried this topic for several rounds but he made it clear that he was uncomfortable speaking about anything political. He merely alluded to some incident in the past involving his family and the government. He didn’t elaborate. At the time I shrugged this off as an example of what Rahim mentions above. But after some consideration I grew more convinced that this political apathy and reticence was likely a result of fear. Fear of an old system. Fear of reprisal. Later, in conversation with a Tunisian friend of mine, this thought was somewhat confirmed. After all, the Ben Ali years were known for walls with ears, secret police, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances.

Rahim and Trimich’s analyses are probably both correct. The primary task ahead of the 23 October elections is political education and concentrated efforts to ensure people’s feelings of security. People must feel safe to participate, to speak and act freely. But education and awareness of at least what the vote is for should come before any discussion of partisan promises.

This analysis is confirmed by a May survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) which found that only 43% of those surveyed correctly identified the election as a Constituent Assembly election, 26% gave an incorrect answer, and 31% said they did not know. These numbers did not seem to have changed according to a 22 September article in Magharebia which noted an alternate survey that 45% of those surveyed did not know anything about the role of the Constituent Assembly and that they did not trust political parties because of ambiguity.

The elections in October are not the final step. They will merely elect an assembly which will be entrusted with the task of reworking a constitution for the country. Again, the democratization process is arduous. If political apathy or disengagement remains, regardless of where it falls within Rahim and Trimich’s analyses, the continued momentum that succeeded in creating this opportunity will likely fall to the elite of the country. If the population does not remain informed, impassioned, engaged, and consulted, the structure of political power may well conform to its most comfortable mold. That is, the largess of a political elite extending slowing into the homes of temporary voters.

Addressing this Amir Yahyaoui, an independent candidate at the head of the Sawt Mostakel, had a powerful remark at this week’s 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting when asked to define what ‘fighting Ben Ali’ means today. She explained that when you look at the main political players campaigning right now what they focus on is building bridges, hospitals, etc. But what is more important now is the constitution, what goes into the constitution. Yahyaoui’s point is that it is the complexion of the constitution that will set the character of post Ben Ali Tunisia. This is a crucial sentiment and one that does not look good compared to the statistics above. Only 43% of the surveyed population was fully aware that they were voting for representatives that would be tasked with rewriting the constitution.

According to primary statistics, there are currently 10,937 candidates to the constituent assembly, 24% between the age of 23 and 30 (2,597), 55% between the age of 30 and 50 (6,057), and 21% between the age of 50 and 70 (2,283). What is most important at this stage of rebuilding Tunisia is a critical and open discussion of what kind of constitution the country wants, and needs. The worst thing for any of these countless candidates and parties at this stage is to attempt to capitalize on the situation to launch personal political careers. With this many candidates it is a vastly complicated task but also a vital task to discourage political apathy, they must all abstain from ambiguity or political maneuvering and build toward a national consensus keeping in mind Yahyaoui’s reminder.

This article is part of an ongoing thought process. It is not an extensive discussion or analysis but merely a snapshot of the political environment on 7 October as observed by the author. This article is not in any way an endorsement for or against a particular candidate or party.

Israel Nominates Mubarak for Peace Award

Israel nominated Mubarak for the Israeli personality of the year award. According to Al Arabiya, Israel’s Channel Two said that Mubarak was nominated for “his commitment to peace.” The article then points out that Mubarak had ruled Egypt since 1981.

This notion of peace is built on shallow political stability. It disregards actual quality of life in an alarming way. It is a concerning sentiment that does not seem to be absent in other centers of global power, namely the US congress. The Al Arabiya article goes on to quote Odi Segel, an Israeli journalist, who said that “because Mubarak was such a friend to peace in the region he should be honored.”

This is an attempt to recast the narrative of Mubarak’s ousting in a vocabulary that glorifies his repressive reign and demonizes the protestors that demanded freedom. It elicits the same discourse employed by Michele Bachmann, noted earlier, that freedom and democracy, that regional peace are merely hollow vocabularies for political expediency.

This is not an Israeli issue, although Israel is brazenly disregarding Mubarak’s rampant human rights violations and the will of the Egyptian people. This is part of the reason why Bahrain has received no substantive attention from US policy makers or media outlets. It is a reminder that the Arab Spring is not a regional issue but must be situated within a global context of policy decisions and interests.

Bearing this in mind as Tunisia goes to elections, as Egypt goes to elections, as Libya calms, as the world settles into relations with the newly formed complexions of regional power is important to guard against a return to the old system of hollow political stability in place of substantive human rights.

Tunisia: Testing ground for Western companies’ censorship software

On day one of the 3rd Arab Arab Bloggers Meeting, Moez Chakchouk the new chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) revealed that Ben Ali’s Tunisia was used as a testing ground for censorship software developed in Western countries. Also see Al JAzeera English Yasmine Ryan’s recent interview. Now that one stage in the revolution is complete he calls on bloggers, activists, and politicians to ensure such censorship will have no place in a new Tunisia. Revealing the nefarious plots of Western companies in Tunisia has implications for other countries and the global movement for human rights.

In 2008 Naomi Klein revealed that with secret funding from US congress and illegal contracts with US firms, China developed its sophisticated surveillance networks. Surveillance networks that have been used to monitor, suppress, arrest, torture, murder, and quash popular attempts for freedoms and human rights. Her article raised serious questions about Western culpability in supporting brutal crackdowns on popular protest and human rights defenders. Now, with the overthrowing of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt it is timely to return to this discussion. What role has the West played in supplying oppressive regimes with the technology to suppress? How has such certification empowered repression?

Still, with changes in local laws across the United States and Europe, Charles Tilly among others have pointed out a trend of dedemocratization. Tilly writes:

“Contrary to the comforting image of democracy as a secure cave into which people can retreat forever from the buffeting of political storms, most regimes that have taken significant steps toward democracy over the last two centuries have later de-democractized at least temporarily. A surprising number of regimes that actually installed functioning democratic institutions then returned to authoritarianism.”

This has implications for revolution. Once the tyrant, the target of the revolution is overthrown, the revolution is far from over. Democracy does not cling to elections alone. And to ensure a proper transfer to democracy requires a robust system of free expression and access to information, uncensored media, access to education, and the ability to question and share ideas and criticisms. This is not a one hemisphere definition of democracy. What this means is that repression, surveillance, censorship, these are not isolated problems of the ‘developing world,’ as offensive as many postcolonialist scholars find that word, these are global problems that connect all human life.

In his presentation Moez lays out a clear outline of how these interconnected systems worked under Ben Ali. His slideshow is available online. The importance of these realizations in indisputable. A revolution is not a single event isolated within a single country. The connection between nations, the exchange of repressive strategies and techniques from the School of the Americas to US backed Indonesian Death Squads–revealed in 2010 by Alan Nairn–to the recent evidence of Tunisia’s significance in the war on censorship reveals a global trend. Only by cleaving apart the individual episodes of repression and resistance, by understanding the transferable mechanisms and processes, will those who have been voiceless to question and powerless to oppose begin to form boundary-spanning claims for human rights.

Interim Tunisian Gov to Palestinian bloggers, “Not welcome.”

The 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting, being held in Tunis from 3 October until 6 October, is a chance for activists from around the world to join together for a chance to share ideas, stories, successes, troubles, and build a solidarity network. The uprisings that have swept across the Arab world were propelled by social media tools that provided a voice to the voiceless. These tools have proven exceedingly useful against tyrants.

A number of years ago when Gayatri Spivak asked “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she decided the answer was still NO. The forces of oppression still held too tight the vocal cords and pens of the world’s oppressed. What chances did they have to speak for themselves, outside of the forums of global power?

When Spivak wrote this essay there was no Twitter, now banned in many repressive countries; there was no facebook, now banned in many repressive countries; there was no Vimeo, Youtube, or any such tools that have become mainstays in the innovative repertoires of resistance. These provided the means for free expression. They proceeded to challenge Spivak’s conclusion. With blogging, with twitter, with such means the subaltern began to speak. The 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting was called to bring the myriad activists of the Arab world together to engage with each other in order to build new ideas and strategies for maintaining the momentum toward freedom that has been growing. However, one problem. One group was left out. One group was left silent from the physical space.

The interim Tunisian government did not grant travel visas to the Palestinian bloggers who had been invited by the event’s organizers. While the Tunisian government did not appear to issue any concrete reasoning for this decision speculations have mounted. The organizers of the event, co-sponsered by Nawaat.org, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, and Global Voices issued this statement:

“The Heinrich Boell Foundation, Global Voices Online and Nawaat Association strongly condemn the decision by the Tunisian Embassy in Ramallah to deny 11 Palestinian bloggers and journalists visas to enter Tunisia in order to attend the Third Arab Bloggers Meeting from October 3rd until 6th 2011. Participants from more than fifteen Arab countries, as well as participants from countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, and Ghana, were granted visas to Tunisia.”

To read the rest of the statement visit the event’s page.

A petition has been drafted to criticize the government’s decision. By signing the petition, by increasing the number of individuals from different countries who speak out against this silencing of voice, those who have a voice may continue pressuring the existing global power structures to ensure that Spivak’s conclusion is a thing of the past.

Click here to sign the petition.

ZERO SILENCE – Trailer on Vimeo

ZERO SILENCE – Trailer on Vimeo

“Zero Silence is a documentary about young people in the Middle East who have grown angry over the authoritarian regimes they live in. These young people are using the Web to bring about change in their societies where free speech is controlled or censored.

Among other topics, the production will explore the impact of the Internet and non-traditional media such as social media and whistle-blowing sites on the Arab world and beyond through a new generation that uses the Web to get the free word out to organize, mobilize, collaborate and fight injustice.”

Bachmann blames Obama for Arab Spring | Strange Bedfellows — Politics News – seattlepi.com

Bachmann blames Obama for Arab Spring | Strange Bedfellows — Politics News – seattlepi.com.

Apparently Michele Bachmann’s conception of democratic freedoms is predicated on the notion that despotic regimes are good as long as they are unquestioning allies of US interests. Labeling the perceived weakness of an American president as the primary cause of a transnational movement across the Arab world, she strips local actors of their agency and individual autonomy. That Bachmann has cast a negative signification upon the desire to rise against 30+ year presidencies and sham democracies is an unsettling sentiment from a presidential hopeful, and an apparent advocacy for American Imperialism: Strong US president= Strong local dictators; Weak US president= indigenous movement for human rights and democratic freedoms.

However, regardless of Bachmann’s sliding popularity, such thoughts are reflective of long standing US foreign policy. Namely, oppressive dictators who support US interests are “forces for stability and ‘democracy,’” while forces who attempt to free themselves from this domination are ‘brigands,’ ‘savages,’ and ‘insurgents.’ The freely elected representatives of a population who are apprehensive to sacrifice national sovereignty and human security to US demands are “Evil Doers.” Really, as confusingly simplistic Bachmann’s categorical signification: Arab Spring=Bad, may be, it is nothing new. There is frustratingly little new about neoliberalism or neoconservativism.

Arab Spring, Nobel Winter?

According to the Stockholm based International Peace Research Institute the “Arab Spring” is the focus of speculation over the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the prize to the “Arab Spring” would, “be consistent with their effort to give attention to high-profile and extremely important, potentially breakthrough developments by movements and by people,” according to Bates Gill, director of the Institute, quoted in a recent article by CBS news. Speculations aside, those who drool for the often controversial Nobel Peace Prize announcements will have to wait until October 7.

In the meantime we might begin to examine the rumors and raise questions of the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize which has been awarded, to much criticism since Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland took over as the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2009, for purposes of preempting peace as with the criticized receipt of Barak Obama in 2009. Obama, who incidentally increased US troop presence in Afghanistan, began unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, failed to secure the closure of Guantanamo Bay, refused to acknowledge the litany of serious charges of willing disregard for international law lobbied against members of the former administration, and most recently authorized the targeted assassination of US citizen, and suspected Al-Qaeda Imam, Anwar Al-Awlaki, in retrospect may not have been a deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The logic of preempting peace through the prize appears to have failed in this case. But this should not, in principle, tarnish the force of the Nobel Prize.

Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 receipt of the prize in absentia, the third recipient to be thus awarded since the origins of the Peace Prize 110 years ago, may be a strongly challenged thing in the mind of Hu Jintao and China’s elite but for much of the international community it seemed to patch some of the holes in the prize’s reputation. It was awarded to someone with a long history of campaigning for human rights and an end to tyranny, for democratic reform, and a history of abuse at the hands of his government.

If we look at the last two year’s recipients we see a prize awarded in hopes of what might be (Barak Obama) and a prize awarded for what has been (Liu Xiaobo). This has lead apparently to discussions on awarding a prize for what is. We seal the future, the past, and now the present. The logic of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, according to Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, “is that they really want to speak to current affairs. There is an eagerness to not only award a prize that has had an impact in the present but also to use the prize to impact the present.”

Jan Egeland, a former Norwegain deputy foreign minister, was quoted saying, “My strong sense is that this (Nobel) committee and its leader want to reflect the biggest international issues as defined by a wide definition of peace.” From a social and linguistic point of view, it is a matter of definitions that present concern. The award of the prize to a representative of the “Arab Spring,” runs the risk of inadvertently putting an end to any serious discussion of: what was the “Arab Spring,” and; what words should we use to refer to whatever it was. It conveys an internationally legitimized form and meaning to the myriad events before they have been fully placed in social and historical context, it would seem.

If it goes to the “Arab Spring,” who will be chosen as the symbol of a movement that has swept across the lives of millions of people and, this number could be contested, some eight or nine countries? Harpviken addresses this difficulty, “It’s particularly hard in the context of these protests where there hasn’t always been an identifiable leadership.

Harpviken’s top picks are Egyptian activists Israa Abdel Fattah (Facebook Girl), Ahmed Maher and Harket Shabab 6 April [The April 6 Youth Movement], a pro-democracy Facebook group they co-founded in 2008. The April 6 Youth Movement was originally founded to support the striking workers of El-Mahalla El-Kubra but from there it went on to represent a platform for dissent against the oppressive Mubarak regime. Consequently they played an guiding role in mobilizing resistance on the internet and on the streets, borrowing their tactics, and their insignia-the clenched fist- from the Serbian student movement Otpor which was instrumental in ousting Slobadan Milošević. While the April 6 Youth Movement clearly represents a powerful force for non-violent mobilization, resistance and peace, if it is selected as the representative of “The Arab Spring” it would further entrench what appears to be a growing narrative of Egyptian ownership.

Harpviken’s second choice is Wael Ghonim. Wael, an Egyptian born, Dubai based, marketing executive for Google, played a considerable role in online mobilization through his Facebook page which logged some 400,000 Egyptian followers. A powerful domestic force, he achieved international status and appeared to inject a surge of energy into the Egyptian movement following his emotionally charged interview after being freed from his 12 days of secret detention by Mubarak forces. It would seem that this nomination would run the same risk of placing ownership of a regional movement in the hands of the Egyptian people.

His third pick is Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who stood out as an early force in criticizing the regime in December. Like the other nominations, Mhenni capitalized on the social networking and mobilization potentials of Facebook, with her profile name Tunisian Girl. While people might enquire why not award the prize to Mohamed Bouazizi, after all it was his self-immolation that catalyzed the revolution in Tunisia, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. But questions about other deserving candidates may linger.

While the nomination of a Tunisian activist may place the prize in a slightly more accurate time line, as to whence the transnational pro-democracy movement began, it continues the problem of assigning ownership to a single individual and country. This is a convenient choice for categorizing and understanding the complexities of such phenomena and perhaps a necessary categorization for the prize but it opens the door to a number of concerns over the evolution of the narrative of indigenous resistance to domination. Naming the Nobel Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring” and awarding it to a single individual or organization, deserving as they may be, while it admittedly implies an honor for the accomplishments of many interconnected sites of resistance it would also begin to solidify a certain international narrative for what has taken place, and what is taking place.

The concern is that the narrative of these episodes of resistance may be sidelined to parochial conceptualizations and analyses. While there is not enough space to expand on a discussion of the Nobel Peace Prize tout court I would point out one critical analysis of this discourse on the “Arab Spring” and the prize selection and awarding process.

Awarding the prize to a single force within a greater regional conflict, a greater regional testimony to the changing dynamic of an internationally exploitative structure, may damage the potential for a critical re-articulation of international power. The episodes that have taken place across the region, and connected with episodes of protest that have been waged from Madison, Wisconsin to Athens, Greece are intrinsically linked to a central issue of domination and resistance. While what has taken place in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and what individuals and organizations in neighboring countries are hoping to accomplish is more than the ouster of a particular dictator. It calls for the reexamination of the international system, a reexamination of shallow political and economic peace. It calls for a critical assessment of human security.

According to CBS, The Nobel Committee “sees the Nobel Peace Prize as a catalyst for change, encouraging efforts to make the world more peaceful, democratic and respectful of human rights.” However, if the inherently international character of these episodes are categorized as the successes of a single country, organization, or individual, the much deeper potential changes for social and political transformations may be sidelined to the discussions of regional particularities.

Far from arguing against awarding the Peace Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring,” I simply want to offer this conceptual dilemma: will the framing of the events that have swept across many countries conform to a dominant discourse, be placed into a partial picture, ignoring structural failures of the entire international system. What has taken place in the “Arab Spring” is a tremendous opportunity but if treated superficially the ‘catalyst for change’ and the respect for human rights will be transformed into a catalyst for soundbites and rumors.

Postcolonial Thoughts from Tunisia: An Introduction

In Robert J.C. Young’s introduction to Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction he writes:

Have you ever been the only person of your own colour or ethnicity in a large group or gathering? It has been said that there are two kinds of white people: those who have never found themselves in a situation where the majority of people around them are not white, and those who have been the only white person in the room. At that moment, for the first time perhaps, they discover what it is really like for the other people in their society, and, metaphorically, for the rest of the world outside the west: to be from a minority, to live as the person who is always in the margins, to be the person who never qualifies as the norm, the person who is not authorized to speak (Italics mine) (Young, 2003: 1).

I enjoy the challenge at the core of this hypothetical. But we must be cautious not to misinterpret its meaning. It does not presuppose, within single racial or ethnic groups, an equality of perceptions or an equality of collective identity preferences. The notion of ‘minority’ cannot be simply expressed by the physical number of persons within a given social space in relation to the greater number of persons of a given group in relationship to which both are measured as having a certain percentage of the total population. This hypothetical is about more than simply counting the numbers of individuals of a certain phenotype in the room, when they are the lone person of X color introduced into a cultural environment outside of their ethnonational, cultural, socio-political borders. It requires us to examine critically the notions of identity, agency, and power.

The issue at stake here is not a matter of feeling minority status simply because you are the only white skinned, black skinned, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, queer, or conservative within the room. The primary difficulty of a representative of the ‘majority’ empathizing with the ‘minority’ is not so easily resolved by plopping a white christian down into a traditional neighborhood in Nairobi, Urumqi, Istanbul, or La Paz, because it neglects the overwhelming power of the ‘majority’s’ monopoly of internationally legitimized cultural, economic, and symbolic capital.

It is far more difficult to bring upon the feelings of alienation, questions of self and collective worth, deterritorialization, marginalization and the other well known conditions of the globally designated ‘minority’ than by simply plopping this ‘only white person in the room’ into whatever environment they find themselves to be the minority in terms of phenotype alone. Again, they may come to some superficial realization of ‘what it is really like for the other people in their society’ but this realization will be fleeting. Firstly it will always be tinted by the knowledge that a return to their position of power, in relation to the rest, is a possibility. Inherent in this realization is the very fact that they come from a position of power, and privilege. But to fully grasp this notion we must withdraw ourselves from both this hypothetical in the local setting and from an unfortunately reductive categorization of the majority and the minority that is based on phenotype alone; after all, an ethnic minority in the United States may well find themselves in a position of ‘majority’ power, in relation to their neighbors in the social space of certain Indian cities or Turkish towns.

I do not mean to discredit the very real situation of racial inequality that exists all over the world. And one that in many respects, has been artificially constructed in relation to the unfortunately dominant conceptualization of worth that has emanated from Western Europe and the United States. After all, my Greek friends have told me that in Greece it is not uncommon that wealthy, well dressed black men are stopped by the police and questioned. There have been cases where Swiss or American citizens, well dressed, or in the costume of the tour bus type, have been verbally assaulted by the police of Greece, accused of being illegal immigrants from Africa, having their passports or national IDs ripped up in front of them, are taken into custody until a word from their respective Embassy wins nothing but their freedom. No apologizes or investigations into racism follow. Many Chinese express distrust or fear of their dark skinned ethnicities: Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and the like, but also reproduce many racist stereotypes. It is the same in many corners of the world. It is a serious problem.

The market value of skin whitening creams, despite an unfortunately unregulated clinical process for testing the products which has resulted in a horrendous number of disfigurements, throughout Asia and Africa is proof of this nefarious and dominant signification that light skin equals higher worth. There is no argument that global racism is a scourge that is far from being uprooted. The rise of xenophobic nationalism and fascism in Europe and the United States, anti-Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, or the categorical anti-Black African sentiment one might find from Utrecht to Berlin, Barcelona to Sofia, the anti-Mexican, Guatemalan, Pakistani sentiments in the United States, hatred and mistrust of Muslims, the darker the skin the more aligned with Al-Qaeda they appear to many fervent Fox News viewers. But it is more complicated than pigmentation alone.

How will this ‘only white person in the room’ know the experience of the ‘world outside the west?’ He or she will often not be a ‘minority,’ even if she is the only person of a certain phenotype simply because she is a metaphor of the dominant culture. It is in relation to her that the margin in constructed. It is in relation to her that the norm has been constructed and brutally enforced. She is always authorized to speak. The American, the German, the French tourist, exchange student, independent researcher, or medical professional, etc. who finds that he is the ‘only white person in the room’ will also likely find that their worth, their value, is conferred by their possession of placement in this dominant cultural identity. While it is often associated with the color of skin, it goes deeper. As Langston Hughes notes in The Big Sea, when he arrived in Africa he was called a ‘white man,’ not because of the color of his skin but because of the color of his passport.

What is at stake in understanding the alienation of the oppressed and silent global South. I have been, from time to time, ‘the only white person in the room,’ or on the train or some such place. Why is it that in such situations my interlocutors will quickly begin to rattle off the names of American singers or movies? They will show off their knowledge of American culture. They will ask me questions about living in America. How much does this or that cost in America? How much does it cost to fly to America? I often find that people, whether a migrant worker from rural Sichuan province, an engineering student from Istanbul, a panhandler in Tunis, or an Anarchist in Athens, will know more about American politics than many citizens of the United States. I find it amusing that a Swedish friend of mine, living in China, knows more about American popular culture than I do. How do these observations factor into an understanding of ‘majority,’ ‘minority’ power dynamics?

I make these cursory observations to point out a critical problem. A member of the dominant culture, from what has become the dominant political, economic, and cultural norm, will not be able to empathize with the so called Other simply by feeling a sense of temporary phenotype marginalization. Furthermore, we may begin to enquire how this affects understanding and analyzing cultures and people that are distinct from our own. The status of the observer, the analyst, and ‘the only white person in the room’ will still be conferred by the fact of a certain, greater source from which power derives its substance. This is perhaps best explained through Bourdieu and symbolic capital.

The ‘only white person in the room,’ the lone British, Australian, or American in Nagarkote, Nepal or Phnom Penh, Cambodia, regardless of pigmentation, is still in possession of a greater degree of status and prestige than the local ‘majority’ because the world system has evolved to pay an unequal reverence to the status of their home countries. It is an illusory worth, constructed in the logic of Empire and enforced through the sanctions of world trade that has brought this particular weltanschauung its majority share of global values. That is, if the ‘only white person in the room’ is from the United States, Great Britain or France, they will likely find that the discourse, the very language of communication in such situations in fact will tend to favor their native tongues, favor their cultural experience. How could this possibly lead to an understanding of what it means to be marginalized and oppressed by the global order of things?

It is a wonderful sentiment. A simple solution to global inequality: send everyone to live in a village or city where they are isolated by the color of their skin or their convictions and we may well break down the walls of cultural, racial, religious misunderstandings. However, this is an impossibility. If it were simply a matter of those in the majority having never stepped out of their comfort zone, which admittedly many do not, than what is to explain the social phenomenon of the Christian missionary? Aren’t there many who would fit into this category, World Bank investigators, International Donor program administrators, field researchers? They knowingly go into the environment where they are likely to be the only one or two of their race or nationality. Instead of feeling the experience of the truly marginalized they spread their own dominant conception of the good. They are guarded by their conviction that they have it right.

The question becomes, is it truly possible for someone from a majority power holding group to ever know the experience of the one they dominate, whether personally and intentionally or inadvertently simply because he passively receives the benefits of his belonging to that dominant group? I have often marveled that the recent US college graduate with a bachelors in History, Communications, or Hotel Management can travel to China, or South Korea to teach English, qualified simply because it is her native language, and earn a salary five times that of her Chinese instructor colleague, with as it often turns out a bachelors or masters in English or English Education. Does it suffice to simplify it as a matter of paying a premium for native proficiency or is it part of a deeper inequality, an assumed worth conferred by membership in a certain group or culture? I would argue for the later and in relation to Young’s introductory remarks, I challenge that it is this assumed worth that makes the task of understanding all the more challenging.

In general, this appears to be Young’s real point. He continues, asking the reader:

Do you ever feel that whenever you speak, you have already in some sense been spoken for? Or that when you hear others speaking, that you are only ever going to be the object of their speech? Do you sense that those speaking would never think of trying to find out how things seem to you, from where you are? That you live in a world of others, a world that exists for others (Young, 2003: 1)?

The answers to this question vary dictated by one’s relationship to power. Identity, self-worth, perceptions of one’s place in society, and the world at large, these are influenced by one’s relationship to the dominant value system. To simply assert that phenotype alone dictates the answers to these questions is negligent to the complexity of identity, power and people’s relative position within the overlapping structures of power, political and economic, social and cultural, linguistic and personal. It is more than the pure structural domination exposed by Sarte or the psychological, interpersonal domination exposed by Memmi. To explore the answers to these questions, Young first encourages us to turn to the discourse on postcolonialism.

In the conclusion to his 1957 Le Portrait du Colonise precede d’un Portrait du Colonisateur [The Colonizer and the Colonized], Albert Memmi puts forth this one very important question, “If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited (Memmi, 1991: 149).” This challenge must be treated with the severity with which it deserves. And one may continue by asking, what lessons may be learned to address this fundamental question, what theoretical applications from colonial and postcolonial studies may be applied to address this concept. For when the colony becomes a country, ostensibly autonomous in its own right, who become the oppressed and exploited; and for that matter, who becomes the exploiter? If we extend our understanding of colonization beyond a rigid disciplinary definition biased toward racial or geographic fixation, then one might argue that colonization is itself, indeed as Memmi does, “above all, political and economic exploitation (Memmi, 1965/1991: 149).” To which I would argue, in line with Said and Spivak, among others, that colonization is discursive exploitation.

It is addressing this that postcolonial literature attempts. For, it is more than a treatment of the world in some ‘after the age of colonization and decolonization’ that postcolonialism comes. It does not imply that the evils of colonialism have been transcended. It is the ‘post’ of ‘postmodernism;’ we may speak of postmodernism but that does not mean we speak of the future, which is reserved for science fiction. It as an attempt, however, to alter the dominant discourse, to shift the lens of examination and understanding away from the power relations of Western and non-Western world-views. It forces the discourse to begin from the acknowledgement that examining the non-Western world, the trend of theorists, historians, and above all policy makers, has been to categorize what they are seeing as more a mirror image of themselves and their own assumptions (Young, 2003: 2), first understood in relationship to the dominant world-view. We see this dilemma clearly in the discourse on the Arab Spring. The language, the questions, the assumptions, and conclusions are, with notable exceptions, merely extracted segments of a world as seen from the West.

For the next several months I will be living in Tunisia. With this new blog I will be offering my thoughts and observations on the social and political transformations. I will not presume to present some farcical objective truth divorced from my own experiences and theoretical orientations; especially considering no such truth exists. All I will attempt to offer is a collection of my thoughts on a particular social space. I will be blogging about my own research but also any piquant tidbits that pop up along the way. 

Memmi, Albert (1991). The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press
Young, Robert J.C. (2003). Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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