From Street to Home, the Art of Resistance in Post-Trabelsi Tunisia

Amid rising cries of Degage, get out, the people of Tunisia ousted their despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country with his kleptocratic wife Leila Trabelsi. It was 14 January 2011 and for some the Tunisian revolution had succeeded and ended, for others perhaps it had only begun. In the days that followed the myriad houses and businesses once occupied by the ruling dynasty were abandoned, set upon and targeted with the rage and jubilation of a free people.

With rising discord between Tunisians who identify as Islamist and those who identify as secular, concerns of elite coastal and exploited interior dwellers, the discourse on power and identity, keeping a public space, or public sphere, for sounding concerns and free expression is paramount. While some Tunisians may express lament at what they describe as wanton destruction, the burning and looting of homes and businesses associated with the ancien regime, others describe feelings of discomfort, not a fear but an uneasiness, when setting foot inside these structures.

For others, such as the Ahl Al Kahf collective, the opportunity to transform the derelicts of domination into a vivid creature, imbued with creative forces and the potential of re-articulating power and maintaining public spaces, is the raison d’etre. Nafas notes that Ahl Al Kahf’s work “pays homage to global figures of resistance and playfully attacks those dictators remaining in the Arab countries.” However some Tunisians have expressed skepticism about the significance of these acts, known in the language of Chantal Mouffe and others as artistic activism.

Other than often presenting itself as a challenge to the commodification of art, are these public-sometimes anonymous-gestures capable of addressing the abuses of power in corrupt and oppressive regimes, and contributing to their downfall or at least restructuring? Politically motivated public art’s most idealistic often cited purpose, borrowing from the manifestos of past movements, is to present a challenge to accepted norms in an attempt to shatter dominant worldviews and introduce a counter narrative, to jolt people into thinking and acting more freely, or so has the famed Shepard Fairey often claimed. Of course Fairey is something of a commodity himself who has proven in several legal battles that he is more interested in branding his images than the free exchange of images.

In one way public art, as visually stimulating social engagement, could be included in the discourse on social media for social change. When we ask questions about the utility of facebook or twitter in bringing down repressive regimes or challenging power we should include public art as a more material form of that same non-hierarchical mechanism for social change.

As Alva Noe recently mused in a New York Times op-ed piece, the art and neuroscience discussion-admittedly still in its infancy-has produced little new in terms of answering questions on how the brain works, and arrives at aesthetic preferences. The discourse on art and resistance is arguably also somewhat in its infancy but the global collection, particularly that springing from the Arab Spring, offers a wealth of fantastic pieces for examination, appreciation, and possible future analysis.

One can also inquire about possible cultural lessons learned from the form of certain pieces. For example, one stencil below states in Arabic ‘freedom of expression’ with the image of a naked women. One could inquire why the women form is more often associated with the cry for freedom of expression than the male form. Doesn’t a giant penis statue shock the public as much as that of a giant naked women statue? The nude is not the nude, as it turns out. In late October, for example, a female artist constructed a giant white naked women statue and placed it on Tunis’ main pedestrian Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The intent was to call into question the notion of freedom of expression. The artist had planned for the piece to remain through the elections, starting as white it would be painted and added to as the date to the election drew near. However, as Myriam Ben Ghazi explains, the statue caused such an outrage that it had to be removed the same day that it arrived.

Some symbols are universally transferable and turn up in cities across the globe. The A.C.A.B, All Cops Are Bastards, tag is one example that can be found around the globe. Others receive a great deal of their significance in relation to the other symbols and images within their social space. That of the footballer overhead bicycle kicking the head-ball-of Ben Ali is undoubtedly a more powerful image in a culture that becomes transfixed on football, soccer, matches. Or, for many Ben Ali encouraged obsession with football as a distraction from politics. The significance of a football player kicking Ben Ali’s head in this sense is given deeper meaning. Deciphering the hidden messages of certain manifestations of street art, as with much contemporary art, often requires a subtle awareness of history and the artist. That is, one might find no meaning or pleasure in Cy Twombly, read Roland Barthes on Cy Twombly and then suddenly find an intense trove of meaning. In such a way, understanding deeper social and political significance of street art may require something of an awareness of the society that produces it. But this is not necessary, of course. We can still look upon works of graffiti and stencils and appreciate them for pure aesthetic reasons, indeed as many of us do. With this being said, let’s turn to a collection of images.

In the more elite coastal suburb of La Marsa, about 18 kilometers from downtown Tunis, up on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Tunis one can find the house of Imed Trabelsi. Imed is the nephew of Leila Trabelsi, a family name now stained with the connotation of corruption. I had the chance to visit this demolished, reconstructed space today. Here are a series of photographs.

For more related images and some further discussion see Invision Images, and Letsingerwrites.

Notes on the Dérive and a Jordanian Surrealist in Tunis

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” Explained Guy Debord in his 1958 essay The Theory of the Derive.

Dérive, the French form of the concept expressed, at least superficially, by the English “to drift,” is the situationist theory of itineracy or rather, as Debord explains:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

This notion encourages the loss of oneself, the acceptance of subjectivity in the previously taken for objective walls and lanes of urban bodies; in the way that acupuncture seeks to balance the body’s discordant energy flows by studying qi (气), understanding how energy flows through the body, the urban acupuncturist extends these concepts to approach ‘the urban’ as a creature composed of chakras, in a sense, the nexus of subjectivity and objectivity. The dérive seeks to uncover, to chart, and to analyze these urban chakra patterns, given the name of psychogeographic currents. Or, in a different conceptualization, Robert M. Pirsig writes in Lila:

A metaphysics of substance makes us think that all evolution stops with the highest evolved substances, the physical body of man. It makes us think that the physical body is man. It makes us think that cities and societies and thought structures are all subordinate creations of this physical body of man. But it’s as foolish to think of a city or a society as created by human bodies as it is to think of human bodies as a creation of the cells, or to think of cells as created by protein and DNA molecules, or to think of DNA as created by carbon and other inorganic atoms. If you follow that fallacy long enough you come out with the conclusion that individual electrons contain the intelligence needed to build New York City all by themselves. Absurd.

If it’s possible to imagine two red blood cells sitting side by side asking, “will there ever be a higher form of evolution than us?” and looking around and seeing nothing, deciding there isn’t, then you can imagine the ridiculousness of two people walking down a street of Manhattan asking if there will ever be any form of evolution higher than “man,” meaning biological man.

Biological man doesn’t invent cities or societies any more than pigs and chickens invent the farmer that feeds them. The force of evolutionary creation isn’t contained by substance. Substance is just one kind of static pattern left behind by the creative force (1991: 249-250).

Pirsig may or may not have been eliciting the theory of the dérive in his attempt to define a metaphysics of substance, here in the form of the city, to challenge the materialist conception of the meaning behind the form and concept ‘city’ but the two currents of thought, that of Pirsig and Debord, take us down similar alleyways of contemplation. They force us to rethink the ‘city’ as subjective for there can be no objective chart of chakras that can be superimposed categorically on all cities.

It is a matter of perceptions, memories, past ventures, histories-personal, familial, and collective-memories, warped or relived, damaged or manipulated by desire, crumbling facades with great meaning, ultra-modern corners of commercial banality devoid of deeper significance, bullet holes in plaster that date back to failed rebellions or poorly painted over graffiti incanting more recent revolutions, windows from whence beautiful women once looked, or hamams with long and twisting tales that get passed down from generation to generation, piles of bricks that had great plans of construction, the stained faces and indelible recollections of that street or this particular corner, these essences come together with the organic, with the natural, or, is it true as Georg Lukács was reportedly wont to quote from the 17th century Italian political philosopher Giambatista Vico, “the difference between history and nature is that man has created the one but not the other.”

Debord continues: “Within architecture itself, the taste for dériving tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction.”Is this not why the labyrinthine coronaries of ancient places are so ideal for the dérive, as anyone who has gotten lost in the alleyways, hutongs, souks, courtyards, and tunnels of myriad timeless cities would agree. Built, refurbished, forgotten, named, renamed, burned, ransacked, salvaged, painted, inhabited, abandoned, drawn, copied, studied, ridiculed, praised, emulated, visited, avoided, the urban systems of place and memory haunt the dériving afternoon with suggestions and directions. Some may be seized to make the trip while others are ignored, postponed, or forgotten. How do you navigate in a strange city when you have no place in particular to go?

Despite best intentions you can never fully retrace your steps through any environment, cognitive or tangible, regardless of whether the attempt to reverse engineer the path of discovery is carried out in the mind, on paper, or by some process of movement or vehicle exterior to the body. Conditions shift, psychic states alter in the unending waltz of synaptic exchange, the gradual decay, onslaught of oxygen breaking down each molecule and memory over time, force us to adapt in thought and form. This means that when we look back we approach the object of observation from a different vantage point; each approach is different, no memory the same complexion. In this sense, observing, interacting with and analyzing an urban object-as is the attempt of the dérive- a work of art or literature, a cultural, social, or political phenomenon, a quotation gathered through formal or informal tactics, recipes or stories must itself remain an evolving process, divorced from grounded, unchanging theory, or so goes my understanding of the insistence of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

A few days ago I stepped outside of my house, down the stairs that are marked by the blue, yellow, and white geometric patterned tiles that gently glisten with certain angles of light from the always open window, out the door, brown and bulky with sometimes broken locking mechanism, and made a calculated decision: turn right. I began the somewhat rote trajectory of navigating alleyways, from tight passages to more open expanses. Sometimes doors open into a view of courtyards, past puddles and storefronts that reflect the familiar faces.

I was vaguely conscious of my direction but, attempting to remain open to the impulse of the dérive, pulled more spontaneously toward the same warren of streets in the Medina that sucked me in on my last attempt to emulate Debord. There was an angle of the city that resembled times past but the precision of the memory was irrevocably shifted to match the meteorological and contemplative peculiarity of the day, the time; subtle differences infect each observation rendering it unique, subjective, giving it a meaning granted by changing relationships.

A dark street sign mounted just above my head, mounted on an off-white wall, mounted by unknown hands, mounted to be translated by the reader, it read: Rue Archour. I followed several colorful doors, and random bits of refuse toward the next location which pulsated with expectant glee at the opportunity to be noticed; the static structure of plaster, stone, and time needed legitimization by human inhabitation and observation. Another sign, this one in Arabic, an open door, an inviting air, a familiarity to another days meandering. The shadows of time and similarity of past events were imprinted deep and dark in the psychogeographic contours of this sudden destination but the details were all shifted; like those memories of childhood events that come back to life in our dreams, the dimensions are never the same. I stepped into the Maison des Associations Achouria at 62 Rue Anchour, a collective art space.

Inside the open cells, white walls and arches of the Maison des Associations Achouria, in a back corner, behind columns of simple hanging oil paintings of Arab, Berber, Bedouin scenes, I saw a sign for Club Peinture Animé. Following still deeper into the soul of impulsive wandering I stepped into the small classroom, a few Tunisian pupils with pencil and brush hung on the personalized instruction of their resident Dali, the Jordanian surrealist painter Abdel Qwaider.

Qwiader (alternately spelled Guider) has been living in Tunis for four years, he explained. In that time he has seen a lot of things change in Tunisia. When I told him I was researching art and resistance he broadcast a rapid grin and invited me to sit at his little desk in the back hallow of the stone room. From across the wooden desk he offered me a macarooth, a heavy Tunisian sweet. As we chatted I glanced around the room. The walls bore his works.

He gestured to a painting of a faceless man sitting behind a desk, the juxtaposition of the material perspective of the man, the artist, in front of me, behind a desk, the stranger-essentially faceless, pointing to the pictorial man, the image, the object to my left of an inscribed faceless creature in the same posture, perhaps encouraging his unseen interlocutor to glance outside the confines of the painted image to notice another pair of observers. The man behind the desk in the image was naked. On the desk, near his right and left hands were two masks, each ostensibly a different archetype, ideology, characteristic. “People lie,” Qwaider commented when he noticed my attention focused on this work. While this piece had the feeling of an unrefined Magritte the bulk of Qwaider’s pieces were glaringly redolent of Salvador Dali.

This similar, mockingly reminiscent work, leads one to ponder, can surrealism be practiced in the same form as its origin or, in order to remain surreal, mustn’t the form evolve to keep track of its intended meaning? Let me explain. Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation, wrote:

The surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtapositions (the ‘collage principle’). Beauty, in the words of Lautreamont, is ‘the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’ Art so understood is obviously animated by aggression, aggression toward the presumed conventionality of its audience and above all, aggression toward the medium itself. The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its technique of radical juxtaposition (1966: 270).

In this sense, in order for a work to remain as a surrealist challenge to the established order, social or political, in order to destroy conventional meaning or create a counter-meaning, which means counter-discourse on negotiated reality, must it present an absurd construction? When once the juxtaposition of Lautreamont’s suggested beauty would have been taken as an absurd proposition it is now far easier to accept. Magritte’s challenge, ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) expressed in La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), would not resonate the same now as when it was first introduced into the collective experience-this challenge to the accepted order is now taken for granted- just as one cannot adequately retrace one’s steps through an ancient city center, preserving the full emotional affect of the first experience. In this light one is left to wonder whether modern surrealist paintings are devoid of the shocking potential to challenge political or social conventions due to their reliance on a now established structure of forms. It would appear however, that while Qwaider’s pieces are obviously no competitors for those of Magritte’s first insistence that we reexamine our ideologies and psychic constructions of validity they present a symbolic confrontation to the reigning order of subjectifying ‘reality,’ a ‘reality’ which under Ben Ali was taboo to represent or question.

It is easy for the radical to rush to advocate shocking established orders and issuing social and ideological challenges. But, as one Tunisian reminded me:

It is true that the point of some artists is to make some people really face their fears, to face their weak points, just shock the people. The thing is now, and I will talk only about Tunisia because I live in this society, in Tunisia we are not ready to be shocked. For sure we are living in an unstable society. We have this conflict between Islamists and secular. We are already suffering from this conflict.

We don’t have a real government yet. We don’t have mind stability. We don’t know who we are right now. For the artist to start shocking people right now, it’s really so much to take. The Tunisian cannot take that right now.

If you just wait for the country to be stabilized, for the country to take its first step and be walking in the right direction, then you can throw some shocking art on the Tunisian society. Then maybe, maybe, it’s gonna be tolerated. But right now it is not the time at all. For sure. I think that the Tunisian society needs time.

With both positions -shock and time- in mind, we return to our brief examination of Qwaider’s work.

Pointing at the image above Qwaider explained that it was painted after the revolution. Before the revolution this sort of image would have been forbidden; it could have landed the artist in the interrogation cell and the torture chambers of the Ministry of Interior. The signification challenges the regime, the object of oppression, the false wholeness and acceptability of life in a dictatorship. The chair, the throne, the seat of power, and the scepter, recognizable symbols of power. The ground beneath these symbols cracks from the tectonic resonances of “DEGAGE,” the dictator has fled. The skull and shackles remains in the foreground to remind the observer of the tortures that once would have followed the unveiling of this only slightly veiled criticism of oppression. After the revolution, Qwaider explained, “There is so much more freedom. Freedom about everything, not just for artists.”

In this image and the one before Qwaider plays with the symbol of the chair, and stained in the fabric of his painted reference to illegitimately enthroned power, the color purple rises above the other hues. The color purple was Ben Ali as much as the color Orange signifies the Netherlands. The color is the RCD. The color is a reminder of power and oppression. The following vignette on the color purple comes from a Tunisian journalist with whom I sat down for tea one rainy afternoon; it offers some illumination on a possible signification of the color purple:

Well, we have been hating the color purple since whenever. I was born with the Tunisian TV slogan: purple, with the Tunisian bridges color: purple, with the Tunisian party wearing purple scarf, with the Tunisian leader, when they got[sic] for Nov 7 celebration the whole country becomes purple. And it is all related to Ben Ali. It is all to bring it back to Ben Ali.

I mean, the color purple is just a color but Ben Ali used it to so that when you see it you just remember Ben Ali. When you see it even in the street, just like that, a painted door, or whatever, you just remember Ben Ali. If you notice you cannot find any purple door or any purple window in Tunisia. No one paints that stuff with purple, just because it is a reminder of Ben Ali. We used to make fun of that. If you find any stuff with purple, that’s an RCDist. People made fun of it.

Just wearing the color purple, it was ‘oh, you have become an RCDist.’ Just wearing the color would make you like, we would make fun of you for wearing the color purple. You are related to Ben Ali for sure. You don’t have any other idea about purple other than Ben Ali.

In our mind as Tunisian, we don’t have any other idea about the color purple. Whenever we sit it is just Ben Ali. I mean it is not really true. Of course the color purple existed a long time before Ben Ali. The color purple has been there for ever.

With the kind of surrealist prodding encouraged by Sontag above the color purple might be issued a counter-meaning. This is the chromatic interpretation of Roland Barthes or Judith Butler’s re-signification and it stands out among myriad other artistic attempts, surrealist or otherwise, to re-articulate a meaning for Tunisian psychic spaces. Through such works of art arise challenges to the formerly established order and guidance for negotiating a new meaning to the pyschogeography of space. While omnipresent symbols of social control are sometimes escaped with everyday resistance, humor, desecration, parody, or art these are not always the responses of the oppressed.

The symbols of power can also become so entrenched in the social space as to shape ‘reality,’ and mold the collective meaning or experience of the imagined community of the nation as has been documented of the map or museumized images (Anderson 1993). In order to conceive a deeper account of the social space, to more adequately interpret the forms and meaning encountered either on the dérive or the analytic investigation, as Bachelard has noted, “…the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end (1969: 19).” If we accept this proposition then significant meaning for a given social space can be extrapolated from a careful encounter and analysis with images, indeed as is the thesis of Semiotics.

As I arrived at these images via the semi-structured wandering known as the dérive, guided by unspoken, uninscribed impulses, I will let them speak more for themselves. Their meanings may convey a challenge to the social and political order or they may merely entertain. I found the space where these images live and took them into my possession with the aid of digital photography and now disseminate them. I end with these further thoughts by Susan Sontag:

Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it (1973: 64).

-

Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities, London and New York: Verso.

Bachelard, Gaston (1969). The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press.

Pirsig, Robert M. (1991). Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, New York: Bantam Books.

Sontag, Susan (1973). On Photography, New York: RosettaBooks LLC.

Sontag, Susan (1966). Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A Feminist (trans)election Barometer

“What are your immediate thoughts on the election?”

“I am really angry! That is all,” Myriam explained through a facebook chat. Myriam is a university graduate in her mid twenties who has studied in Europe and recently returned to Tunisia.

At a small couchsurfing gathering at a friend’s apartment I started speaking with Mouna about her thoughts on the future of Tunisia following the elections. Mouna studied Business in France and currently works with a company that facilitates business opportunities for women entrepreneurs. She hopes to begin her PhD soon. I wanted to know how she perceived the election, through the lens of women’s rights. I began with the same question, “What do you think about the election?”

The overarching emotional value of her response can be paraphrased as distinct apprehension, fear that one dominant force will simply be replaced by another. While she spoke, my thoughts returned to a moment of exchange at the New Arab Debates, held at the Mediterranean Business College on 20 October, three days before the election. It mirrored comments that echoed in multiple languages across Facebook and Twitter leading up to the 23 October election. The sentiment can be summarized as, “We did not oust one regime that controlled what we can do to vote in another that will control what we can do.” There was, and continues to be, a palpable environment of concern over the rights of women in particular. At the same time, individuals in the international media have begun to speak of a women’s victory in the election, see for example University of Washington professor Philip N. Howard’s recent article in Miller-McCune. Howard claims, “[r]egardless of how particular parties fared in the election, it is safe to say that women will help mediate political power in Tunisia.” I argue that positivist and episodic analyses that fail to take into account qualitative and long term indicators may result in a more shallow picture than realized.

“Women’s rights are in danger,” Mouna explained. I pushed her on this issue. The status of gender rights in Tunisia is a common point of praise among scholars and analysts observing Tunisia, and an oft expressed issue of national and legislative pride among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken. An example is the Personal Status code, passed in 1956, which gave women the right to vote, to engage in parliament, and the rights to abortion and divorce.

But in a social space where the overarching narrative is one of gender equality, a legal space where the laws are purportedly clear on the status and rights of women, it is necessary to separate narrative from the material phenomenon encased in the narrative. Why? Because when a narrative becomes enshrined in the conscious perception of ‘reality’ it is easier for that narrative to maintain itself, of its own force, well after it has ceased to signify a material phenomenon. What does this mean? It means that constructing a narrative of a phenomenon, and deconstructing that narrative, are equal components of power and resistance. Unwrapping this narrative, the conscious ‘reality’, the signifer of a social phenomenon, from the signified concept, the material phenomenon is the task of discourse and narrative analysis. While this article is too short to adequately present and analyze the complexity of Tunisian social space it offers a small platform to inaugurate this sort of inquiry into the social and political transformations simply understood as the Tunisian revolution-accepting that a revolution is a bounded episode of change, and that the episode of change in Tunisia is still underway. I argue that the Tunisian revolution is still very much under way. This is perhaps best understood in the continuing dialectic environment. So, approaching the revolution in Tunisian social space with these caveats in mind, I return to Mouna’s concerns on women’s rights.

She agreed that by many accounts women’s rights in Tunisia are more robust than in many of the country’s Arab neighbors, and by some accounts more robust than in a number of ‘developed,’ ‘modern,’ ‘democratic’ countries. Still, according to Al Jazeera, regardless of the law stating all party lists for the constituent assembly must alternate between men and women candidates, the fact remains that of the 828 parties’, 655 independents’, and 34 coalition’s domestic lists, totaling 1,517 lists, the percentage of men vs. women as heads of lists before the election was 93% men and 7% women. However, if we examine the result it paints a somewhat better picture. According to Tunisa-live, forty-nine women received seats in the 217 seat Constituent Assembly giving them 24% representation. This means that women make up a slightly larger percentage of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia than in the 112th United States Congress, which, according to thisnation.com is 20% women. These are quantitative indicators that often fail to present a deeper, analyzable picture of a regime or social space.

Mouna, and a number of others, have expressed a deep concern, which should not be disregarded as merely overly emotional or uninformed apprehension. It is the continuation of a narrative that has apparently grown traction among much of Tunisia’s (women) elite. I make this clarification due to my own sampling constraints, the women with whom I have spoken, and the majority of women-as writers, referents, or general voices- in this conversation appear to be among the country’s elite. Defining ‘elite’ in the confines of a blog is difficult but I will stick to a narrow definition, that of an educated, identifying as predominantly secular Muslim-or cultural Muslim, and generally from a middle class or above economic group. This understanding of elite applies to both men and women. Mouna continued…

“Maybe…” Maybe the situation is better. Maybe there are reports that discuss marriage and divorce rights and women are granted a purportedly freer status in public space, “but it is not good.”

Tunisia signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 24 July 1980 and later ratified the Convention on 20 September 1985. It is germane to situate Tunisia within the timeline of other Maghreb countries’ date of ratification. CEDAW entered into force in 1981, thirty days after the twentieth state ratification, under Article 27(1). Libya ratified the treaty in 1989, Morocco in 1993, Algeria in 1996, and Mauritania in 2001. While ratification of international treaties far from guarantees compliance it demonstrates a legal standard the state claims to uphold; however, it also provides an inscribed foundation of rights protection which may be manipulated to artificially proliferate a narrative of the existence of rights in potential that contradicts the actual environment of rights in practice.

The government of Tunisia, at the time of ratification still under Habib Bourguiba, issued two declarations and three reservations regarding Tunisia’s legal responsibilities as a state party to the Convention. The general declaration reads: “The Tunisian Government declares that it shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution.”

Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution lays out the general provisions. It begins with, “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the republic (Art. 1).” The first chapter goes on to guarantee a number of rights, including the freedom of expression and the freedom from arbitrary detention and torture. Despite the inscription of these ideals into Tunisian Constitutional law, reports by Human Rights Watch ((Click here to see list)) and other international human rights organizations clearly point to the disconnect between print and practice during the Ben Ali years. This phenomenon is not unique for Tunisia, of course, but it brings me back to the point under discussion: contrast between inscribed, narrative ‘reality’ and material phenomenon.

What has been a vocal point in the lead up to the election has been Article 1 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution. Article 1 presents a legal definition for Tunisian Arab-Muslim Identity. But what does this identity mean? And how will the interpretation or reworking of this chapter, or the meaning it is meant to reflect, affect Tunisia’s responsibilities under CEDAW; more specifically, how will women’s identity and place be affected?

“I have been harassed on the street. Men see me and they say, ‘why are you out in the street like that?” As she spoke she pantomimed eyes going up and down her full figure. This is a concern that has been expressed elsewhere. With the new found freedom and decreasing persecution of religious rights in Tunisia, a number of women have reported increased public harassment for not wearing a veil, or for their dress and presentation-or merely being in public. Reportedly the men who approached these women all identified themselves as supporters of Al Nahda.

Mouna continued, “They point at me and say I should be covered. They make a point to intimidate me. Sure it is okay to go out and work but I should not be dressed like this. A few days ago a professor was teased and shamed by several of her students because she was not wearing a scarf. This kind of thing didn’t used to happen (before the revolution?).” I pressed her on Al Nahda; the party has continually responded to its critics promising that it will continue to uphold the secular identity of Tunisia and will not push for a theocratic state. Recently, according to Reuters, Al Nahda’s leaders continued this promise, stating that they will focus on democratization and a free-market economy, leaving religion out of the constitution. Furthermore, they promise to uphold the status of women and will not promote any constitutional changes that will threaten the ‘modern liberal’ state of women’s rights. For Mouna, and many women, “Maybe they say this but they don’t mean it. I don’t believe it.”

Distrust of politicians was a salient feature leading to the elections, and persisted well after the blue ink had faded from voter’s fingers. Lingering distrust of political figures can be easily understood in a social space coming from decades of political abuse. As is the feature of authoritarian regimes built around the cult of personality of a deified leader figure, Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were the symbols of abuse and corruption, symbolized in the omnipresent posters and references to Ben Ali’s 7 November 1987 coup. Ben Ali’s visage presented a constant reminder of where this dominant power emanated. As much as rage over decades of abuse targeted these images with the revolutionary contention that ousted Ben Ali, and continue to deface his symbols, constructing metaphors of power, and resistance, has become a feature in these revolutionary times. In this sense, much of the dialectic of political participation has centered on discussing individual party leaders as much or more than the party platforms themselves. What this also means is that discovering the meaning of disparate parties has in many ways become a matter of discussing perceptions of those parties’ leaders, perceptions that have constructed a narrative reality of what the party represents. So, what the figures leading the party say in public, and what the party claims in its literature, is judged against the collective perception of what the party or individual will actually do. The dominant force of perception in translating political campaigns into ‘real’ planned policy, the disconnect between perception and promise, has continued the atmosphere of distrust of politicians. I don’t mean to reductively imply that all distrust of politicians is merely the result of an unjustified marriage of perceived ‘reality’ with accepted ‘reality,’ but I have noticed a particular discourse among the elite of Tunisia: regardless of what Al Nahda claims to stand for, claims that it will preserve Tunisia’s modern, liberal, secular freedoms, many people simply distrust the veracity of these claims. Hence the debate topic: “In their first free election Tunisians have nothing to fear from Islamists,” at the New Arab Debates (linked above).

Mouna explained, “They (Al Nahda) say ‘of course women can work. But it would be better if they stayed home and took care of the family. It is fine for women to work but they should take care of their home and let their husbands work. It is better for them, less stress, a better life.” She made these comments mockingly paraphrasing her understanding of Al Nahda’s position. But from her concern over the status of women we arrive at an understanding, regardless of whether the threat to women’s rights comes from an Al Nahda legislation or a social value, of perceptions of women’s rights in Tunisia, and how women’s rights fit into the changing political environment. Answering whether she felt that the situation has gotten worse since the revolution, or whether it has been a long time coming, she pointed to a growing trend of decreasing ‘experienced’ rights of women. Mouna’s perceived ‘reality’ offers a marked divergence from the narrative of women’s rights generally invoked when discussing Tunisia. Has it gotten worse?

“Yes. It has gotten worse. It was best during my grandmother’s years or maybe in the 1960s, 1970s. Since then it has been up and down but recently I am very concerned. And now with Al Nahda it could get even worse.” A number of political advertisements, commercials on television or kept to digital circulation, purportedly apolitical but obviously targeted at Al Nahda, have directed an accessible critical appeal on behalf of women, against an Islamic takeover of the political and social space left vacant with the flight of Ben Ali and the RCD. Not necessarily because of a particular enmity toward Islam, tout court, as religious rights must also be given a fair inclusion within any such discourse, but out of a precedent of doctrinal interpretation that favors a patriarchal power structure.

2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian human rights defender Shirin Ebadi, an outspoken critic for women’s rights within Islam who takes the antithetical position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali-who argues that Islam and human rights are inherently at odds-offers some assistance for this discussion. In a recent interview Ebadi gave to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates she expresses that women should “not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam…Getting to understand Islam well and encouraging women to learn different interpretations of Islam is important.” As one Tunisian woman told the Guardian in the lead up to the election, it is not only a concern of forcing Islam on the secular. “I am a religious woman. I pray. They want to impose the religion of An Nahda on me? I pray by myself. They are telling me to pray? Why do they impose things on me?”

Ebadi continues, speaking about women, Islam, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, stating that women in these countries  have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and have seen how Islam ‘hijacked the Iranian revolution.’ Essentially Ebadi argues that of course there are serious issues of women’s rights in many countries in the Muslim world but these inequalities do not stem from an enlightened interpretation of Islam; they stem from the patriarchal structures of traditional society, which have masked themselves in Islam and given women, and men, the false choice of voting with X party or government or against Islam. In the Tunisian case, it is part of a crafted narrative that Al Nahda represents Islam and therefore any vote against Al Nahda is a vote against Islam. It is part of the narrative that conflates concern over Al Nahda, a political party, with Islamophobia- an argument with as much reasonable, academic appeal as criticizing human rights reports on Israeli abuses in Palestine with anti-semitism or a critical approach to US Foreign Policy with treason. There are plenty of women, and men, that are fearful that future criticisms of Al Nahda’s policies will be translated by Al Nahda as an attack on Islam. The concern for the women of Tunisia will be how Al Nahda chooses to interpret Islam and how women will factor in this interpretation. And this concern has echoed, in varying degrees of severity, through the conversations I have had and the tweets, blogs, and Facebook conversations I have observed.

While these challenges may emanate most resoundingly from those among the country’s elite (or minority as some might argue considering the high numbers of voter support for Al Nahda who gained 41% of the vote, earning them 90 seats in the 217 seat assembly), any reasonably concerned observer must position these concerns and critical analyses within the universal dialectic on women’s rights and cultural values. The question that is most pressing perhaps as Tunisia heads into a new era of national, ideological, and social introspection is how cultural, religious, and political values will be judged, treated, and implemented. A number of women have expressed to me that the most important change needed in Tunisia, rather than the political or economic change many foreign media and policy perspectives have highlighted, is a change in mentality. As Tunisian artist and theorist Mohamed Ben Soltane notes in an article in Nafas Art Magazine, “We took possession of our country and we must build a model of living together that meets our needs. This is Culture. We must restore our confidence in our creative abilities and assume our responsibilities.”

Changing a nation’s mentality is a more complicated task than queuing to cast a vote for a constituent assembly. It requires creative engagement and a rearticulation of power and place.

I will offer a cursory example.

A few days after I arrived in Tunisia, a friend and former classmate, Yasmin, invited me to attend Amnesty International Tunisia’s new ten point country plan for human rights. Of the issues presented, the death penalty and women’s rights sparked the most animated conversation among the twenty-nine party representatives and five private citizens who responded. A few party representatives went so far as to ask “If there is a ministry of women’s affairs, why isn’t there a ministry of men’s affairs?” Or to state that “We are placing women at the level of God.” But a number of representatives defended women’s rights noting that “Women need a ministry because they are discriminated against.” But what presents a deeper view into the ‘mentality’ of Tunisian social space came after the conference, when Yasmin and two friends of mine, Graham and Brandon, went looking for a cafe to discuss the day’s events.

I suggested a cafe where Graham, Brandon and I had gone several times. They have a good café allongé, espresso served with water. As I was suggesting the cafe Yasmin noted that the majority of Tunisia’s many cafes are for male clientele only. This had not occurred to the three of us. However, after Yasmin’s comments, and looking back, the gender segregation of cafe public space had been glaringly obvious. What does this mean exactly? In part, the cafe represents an open forum, a caffeinated agora, the salon of political engagement, where actors may participate in the dialogic process of negotiating place and meaning. One is left to consider the culturally accepted place of women in the activity of negotiating ‘reality’ in a cultural mentality where custom is to segregate this sort of public participation. Of course there are bars and clubs were this gender segregation does not occur, but these are the venues frequented by the country’s elite, again that word with its complexity of meanings. The point however is learning how to treat the cafe as an analytical model for perceiving social space. There are volumes of potentially analyzable data that can be drawn from the cafe, as a metaphor and material substance, but for our purpose here this simple example will have to suffice.

Returning from the precipice of the metaphysics of the cafe, a subject I will return to in a later post, I offer what appears to be the recurring sentiment of many men in Tunisia. “Women are weak.” I will elaborate. Women and Islam has also been the thrust of a number of conversations I have had with several men, resting in a cafe in Tunis, sitting in a living room, or, most recently, walking through the streets of Gabes. There is a disconnect between the equal status afforded to women in Islam and the practice of implementing this status, as alluded to by Shirin Ebadi above. That patriarchal structures of power manipulate partial interpretations of Islam is an inconceivable fact to a number of these men. For them, Islam is pure, or it is not Islam. One of them, a 21 year old Tunisian who has studied in France for two years, told me that he would not vote Al Nahda. Not because he was worried about Islamists in government-a situation it seems he would prefer- but because he did not trust Al Nahda was a true Isamist party. This is a point for another post. I return to women and the cafe as a social indicator of gender mentalities.

In Gabes, for example, the night of Eid-the Muslim holiday of sacrifice meant to symbolize Abraham’s trial by God- I was walking back to my rented apartment with Sammy, a Tunisian male friend of mine. We passed many open cafes, despite the rest of the town being closed for the holiday, and, since Yasmin’s comments, I have been keen to observe the gender make up of cafes. Sure enough it was a men’s world. Sammy began to complain, noting the high amounts of young Tunisian men who spend all of their time in cafes. The concern of too many men in cafes as an indicator of employment malady was also expressed to me by two women, the executive assistant and chief designer, at a small fashions textile factory in Nabeul during a visit before the election. If too many men in a cafe can be treated as a barometer of an economic phenomenon then it should logically serve, ceteris paribus, as a barometer of a gender phenomenon.

The problem, Sammy said, was that these young men didn’t have anything else to do, jobs are a problem, hobbies other than watching football are a problem, etc. I mentioned that there are no women in the cafes, “Where do women go to socialize?”

“There are separate cafes for married couples and families,” replied Sammy. “Okay, but what about women who are not married?”

“What?” He didn’t understand.

“What do women who are not married do? Say there are three or four friends, all girls, where do they go if they want to hang out and chat?”

He reiterated that there are cafes for married couples, to which I pushed, “So unless a women is married she cannot go out?” This quickly turned into the old standard, ‘it is for their protection; women are weak. Men might say some bad things or make her feel uncomfortable.’

“Shouldn’t the society be more concerned with correcting the bad behavior of the men than in keeping the women locked up?” I asked.

“They are not locked up. Look, Tunisia has about 60% women in universities.” This may be true but where are they after the classes end? Where are women, represented in the public space? How does this public representation filter into private conceptions of value?

Fear of hurting her father’s or brother’s reputation has kept at least one female acquaintance of mine from allowing me to visit her hometown unless I did so without connecting with her. Concern that her behavior will reflect poorly on her family, in this sort of scenario, is that the perception is that she is a commodity of the family and must remain within a conception of purity if she is to be accepted as a bride, etc. etc. It is an old analysis. Hoarded away into homes and families after graduation is no way to bring women, hence women’s rights, into the salience of the public sphere to encourage a robust engagement with understanding and improving women’s rights. The cafe plays a very important social function in society. A drastic gender imbalance in the most prominent public space of the country, the cafe, has a symbolic value which arguably has a psychic affect on how society perceives women.

I offer a quote from a Guardian article by Angelique Chrisafis. She quotes Jamila Brahid, a woman in Kairouan. “The men are all sitting in cafes. The women do all the work, in the fields, as well as the home, earning money, making bread, providing for and taking care of the whole family… At least now we’ve got freedom of speech. Who says poor rural women aren’t interested and won’t vote? We’re mobilized. We’ve been oppressed for too long.” And what with this voice? How will this freedom of speech be factored into the conversation on shaping Tunisia’s future?

Speaking on the gender parity in the constituent assembly, Nejib Chebbi, president and founder of the PDP, discussed in an earlier post, had this to say, according to an article in the Huffington Post, “There is the obligation of getting results… Parity is one thing, but the reality is another.” Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Paul Schemm, the authors of the Huffington Post article, continue, “The new assembly will write the country’s constitution and groups like the Association of Democratic Women worry that their long-held rights may not be explicitly protected in the new document.”

As I mentioned, a number of women, and men, with whom I have spoken highlight the necessity of a change in mentality. Those whose concern over the rights of women, and other human rights in fact, stem from a perception that abuses of women’s rights stem not from political or religious doctrine alone may be less moved when Al Nahda president Rachid Ghannouchi’s daughter Intissar Ghannouchi- who is usually clarified as a student at the School of Oriental And African Studies at the University of London- states that “Al Nahda is clear on women’s issues, respects women’s rights and will not impose theocracy but believes in equality.” For Al Nahda’s critics these announcements are treated as the manifestation of double messages, the duplicity of discourse and feed the distrust of politicians. But if the meaning of a demand to change mentality is to sink in we must realize that what many Tunisians are skeptical of is not only the promises of politicians but the potential of fellow citizens. Of course, much of the anti Al Nahda criticisms have come because of what Al Nahda supporters have done.

Ellen Knickmeyer pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article, “As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.” What she is describing is the difficult task of reaching a consensus in a value-pluralist social space, to which acclaimed sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has noted, “[n]ot every difference has the same value, and some ways of life and forms of togetherness are ethically superior to others; but there is no way of finding out which is which unless each one is given an equal opportunity to argue and prove its case (Bauman 2001: 79).” With this in mind I would elaborate on Knickmeyer’s analysis. Secular and fundamentalist identities came together during the revolution, to reach perhaps what political philosopher John Gray (2000) would call a shabby consensus, and now the commingled identities that have been subjugated under the tyranny of Ben Ali have found freedom to compete for a consensus The question is how will this space be kept free to allow for an equal opportunity where all actors and identities may argue and prove their case.

I am not negating the fact that what has taken place in Tunisia has been positive. Of course the promise to shrug off domination and collectively negotiate a national political and social autonomous identity is a powerful experience. My concern is that, in the state of elation, the domestic and international community does not allow the euphoria, and the existing narrative of rights, to obfuscate a critical phenomenological engagement with the established narrative of women’s rights, the political environment, and the material or experienced phenomenon of women in Tunisia.

Election Day, 23 October, voters leaving a voting station in Bab Souika, Tunis

Bauman, Zygmunt, (2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, UK: Polity

Gray, John, (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, New York, NY: The New Press

Two Significations of ‘Sebsi’

This article was inspired by graffiti.

On 7 October Barack Obama welcomed Beji Caid el Sebsi, interim Tunisian Prime Minister, in the Oval Office. During the meeting Obama commented, “The United States has enormous stake in seeing success in Tunisia and the creation of greater opportunity and more business investment in Tunisia.” This focused language on US economic regional involvement echoes recent comments by John McCain who on a visit to Libya at the end of September noted that American investors are eager to invest and do business in Libya. This kind of discourse inevitably produces a cringe from anyone familiar with American neoliberal economic foreign policies. But the meeting between Obama and Sebsi was about more than just economic cooperation. Obama also took the opportunity to hail Tunisia’s progress toward democracy and praise the country as the “inspiration” of the Arab Spring.

Afterwards the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House released The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia. The document outlines a myriad of non-security assistance including investments in private sector development; education, culture, and media capacity building; transitional justice; and democracy and civil society. In line with the final two themes Obama commented during the meeting that “Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual, man and woman, has certain inalienable rights.” Obama’s vocabulary elicits the language of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Furthermore, the White House praised Tunisia for increasing transparency in governance.

The high level meeting has symbolic force in a number of analyzable trajectories. Namely, by meeting with Sebsi the White House is certifying Sebsi as the referent object of state-based transactions with not only the interim government but the social and political transformations taking place in Tunisia. Certification, explains sociologists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, is an external authority’s signal of its readiness to recognize and support the existence and claims of a political actor (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007: 215). Certification is important for both domestic and international actors and can have distinct and lasting signification for the evolution of discourse on a given phenomenon, in this case the meaning of Sebsi as a signifier of two distinct signified concepts.

The signification Obama addresses is the legitimate representative of Tunisia to the White House, the Prime Minister of Tunisia. It is that of a bounded political person. The second signification of Sebsi is the social and political significance he has for the people of Tunisia themselves, of course further dissected with the myriad identities and interests of the Tunisian population.

As with other names and symbols, Beji Caid el Sebsi is an abstract assortment of letters that are only given meaning when placed in relationship to other symbols within a given social space. I believe it is important to examine this because it allows us to analyze the language and symbols at work in the evolving reality and political meaning of the current social space under discussion.

When Obama says that Tunisia has been an inspiration to those who believe in inalienable rights, while meeting with the interim political representative of Tunisia, the certification broadcast from the White House is that Sebsi is, in terms of the symbolism of international parlance, the Tunisia being praised. For example we often speak of the Obama White House, the Ben Ali years, the Tony Blair UK, etc. A given country is generally referred to based on the political entity at its helm. Again, the White House is certifying Sebsi as the deserving recipient of praise. We should examine Sebsi in this light.

In a recent New York Times article David Kirkpatrick asks the interim Prime Minister to explain his go-slow approach to addressing popular demands for jobs and political freedoms. The response: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs. You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.” He continued: “Sometimes the proponents of freedom have demands that go beyond logic and it is more difficult to protect freedom from the proponents of freedom themselves than from the enemies.” Still, his approach has, according to Kirkpatrick, lead to broad support generally but also a number of comparisons with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. As a former member of Ben Ali’s party, and a long time political figure Sebsi’s position has enraged those who demand a complete rift with the past.

The 84 year old Beji Caid el Sebsi studied law in Paris before returning to pass the bar in Tunis in 1952. He was an early member of Habib Bourguiba’s administration following Tunisia’s independence in 1956. For the next two decades he served in numerous positions including as Defense Minister and ambassador to France from 1970 until 1972. In 1971 and 1972 he is reported to have advocated for greater democracy in Tunisia. In an article he submitted to Le Monde before leaving Paris in January 1972, he attributed his resignation to frustrations over continued democratic deficiencies. He resumed politics in 1981, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs until 1986. Until 1994, when he apparently retired from politics, he served a number of other key roles within the Constitutional Democratic Party, Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s party. On 27 February Sebsi took over the mantle of interim Prime Minister from Mohamed Ghannouchi who was forced from this position by popular protests to route out all former members of the Ben Ali regime.

It is fascinating to observe that the Beji Caid el Sebsi Facebook page description of his political career ends in 1986, one year before Ben Ali’s Jasmine Revolution swept Habib Bourguiba from power. Of course public figure pages, fan pages and the like are not necessarily affiliated with the individuals themselves but that the designers of the facebook page decided to conclude Sebsi’s political career before the former dictator’s coup is indicative of a trend to distance Sebsi from the ancien regime despite a clear history of eight years of involvement. This distancing is a logical political strategy, considering it was anger over Ghannouchi’s affiliation with the former regime that forced him from office a month after Ben Ali. That Sebsi has remained could be analyzed from a number of perspectives, of which there is not enough room to develop all of here.

Whether Sebsi should be interpreted in relationship to the former RCD party and Ben Ali himself or as a reform minded, advocate of democratic rights, or any other interpretation should be left to the people of Tunisia. But I will present two partial treatments of Beji Caid el Sebsi as a symbol for further discussion. First I will examine Sebsi, as the source of the analogous treatment of spoon feeding the hungry (see quote above) in relation to achieving democracy and human rights.

Human rights are universal. The preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that they are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person. They do not originate from the capriciousness of sovereign largess. Article 3 of the ICESCR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both state that the States Parties to the covenants undertake to ensure the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights, and all civil and political rights  set forth in the Covenants. Furthermore, article 50 of the ICCPR and article 28 of the ICESCR reads, “The provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.” Tunisia has both signed and ratified these international human rights treaties and is held legally responsible for them. They are clear in their wording, and there is no mention of sparing the human being by not extending too many human rights at one time when they are not accustomed to being afforded them due to years of oppression.

It is unarguable that within certain state structures these treaties receive varying degrees of compliance. It is furthermore clear that the transition from an oppressive, human rights abusing, dictatorship to a free democratic state that respects the human rights of all its citizens is an arduous task. But the sort of language that Sebsi is employing creates an institutionalized vocabulary for accepting protracted human rights violations masked with the intention of protecting those very people who are being oppressed. Furthermore, when this rhetoric is certified by powerful foreign governments, such as when Obama praises Sebsi for the developments of democracy and freedom, it creates the potential for the entrenchment of this sort of vocabulary, which translates into material social reality. It provides a symbolic force and precedent for a possible “Sebsiism,” or some other such political strategy.

In a situation where many are apathetic or distrustful of politics, the potential of established elites seizing control of the discourse is high. This is among the worst results as it runs the greatest risk of leading to protracted social unrest and anger over the failure to follow through on the hopes of establishing an open and democratic country.

In the hopes of engaging with a diversity of narratives I will conclude with a treatment of an alternative interpretation of Sebsi than the one that has received White House certification. An interpretation that is being positioned within the battleground of public space.

These pieces of graffiti construct a parallel between Beji Caid el Sebsi and Leila (Ben Ali) Trabelsi, the wife of the ousted dictator who in many circles is more despised than Ben Ali himself. She has been compared to Imelda Marcos, the extravagant wife of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Trabelsi is a symbol of corruption, nepotism, abuse, and oppression that received certification through the Western dominated double standards of shallow political and economic security, known in other contexts as imperialism (as the graffiti above notes). The parallel signification is potent artistic activism.

Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe encourages us to understand the political character of certain varieties of artistic activism as part of counter-hegemonic interventions with the objective to occupy the public space and disrupt the dominant (Mouffe, 2007). For Mouffe’s Radical Democratic Theory, the political is the public space, the public sphere of discourse.

When individuals feel that political lines are blurred or that their participation is meaningless, alienation and disenchantment occur. When individuals are disaffected with political parties, or feel alienated from traditional forms of political participation they often turn to more exclusionist forms of collective identity such as forms of nationalism, religious fundamentalism or other comprehensive exclusionary identities that only foster antagonistic conceptions of friend/enemy, ‘us’ ‘them’ and perpetuate violent conflict.

Radical democratic theory holds that the more empowered and involved individuals are in the institutions and programs that directly affect their lives the more they become civic spirited and connected to the polity: belief in the viability of discourse severely limits violence as a bargaining tool.

Mouffe’s theory can be partially summarized as, when consensus is sought through public deliberation, by embracing the inherent conflicts of social life individuals become more public spirited, tolerant and knowledgeable of the values of others and often more analytical of their own values and motives. In this sense we can interpret acts of artistic activism as part of a process of opening up a radical space for democratic participation where previously there was none. It affords the agent with a degree of power to engage in counter-discourse formation through inscriptions in the public space. But it must be given an equal chance to contribute to the evolving vocabulary by which social and political transformations are scripted. This artistic activism is part of the process of interpreting a meaning for Beji Caid el Sebsi within not only the domestic social space of Tunisia but also the evolving international narrative on Tunisia.

Mouffe, Chantal (2007). “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 1. No. 2. (http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html)

Tilly, Charles and Tarrow, Sidney (2007). Contentious Politics. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers

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.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 130 other followers