The Divine Comedy of Mohamed Ben Soltane: Commentary and Creativity in Tunisia

Image Source: La Maja Descalza

“Before the revolution, I think, the art scene was closed so artists couldn’t make art in public spaces. There was real fear from almost everybody. We can say that it was hell and it is now paradise.”

Image Source: La Maja Descalza. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

A few days ago I had the chance to sit down with Mohamed Ben Soltane. As an artist, writer, critic and currently the head curator at the  B’chira Art Center, the first contemporary art center in Tunisia, which opened in November 2011, Mohamed Ben Soltane is a leading force for creativity and social criticism in Tunisia. He has been called a ‘visual sociologist of our most repressed desires.’

He had just returned from a workshop in Cairo organized by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy. They explain on their website that they are a “regional, non-profit organization that seeks to support artistic creativity in the Arab region and to encourage cultural exchanges within this region and the developing world.” It seeks to liberate the imagination and stimulate progress, which it sees as social necessities. In 2007 Al Mawred had planned and organized a meeting in Tunisia to empower local artists but at the last minute the government revoked their permission. Why?

“They were helping young artists to make art projects. There was no link with politics because they knew that they can’t do anything political but in that period thinking is already political. They [the government] preferred not to help people that will make you think.”

He explained that before the revolution we would certainly have been monitored if we spoke together in public. We couldn’t have made our appointment in a public place without considering who would be there, who the waiters were, or who would be sitting next to us. Anyone could be an informant.

We met near the train station in Sidi Bou Said, at the Jasmine Cafe. As the waiter delivered our coffees Ben Soltane leaned in and, with a smile, informed me that before the revolution this cafe used to be called Trabelsi cafe.

Image Source: Visual Arts in Tunisia. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

I have been concerned with this issue of naming since I arrived in Tunisia. In the international press the revolution has been referred to as, inter alia, the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring and the Facebook Revolution. Knowing that when Ben Ali came to power in a coup on 7 November 1987 he called it the Jasmine Revolution, I asked Ben Soltane about the perceptions among Tunisians that their revolution is being framed by the international community.

“It is like other people that you don’t know giving the name of your son. It is not normal. It was really bizarre because when Tunisian people were called the Jasmine Revolution I was saying, ‘what the hell?’ Who gave that name? It was really from outside and you feel that some people just took it like that and the first thing that you imagine when you listen to Jasmine Revolution is the people who died, the people that suffered, the people that were for 20 years harassed by the police every day in front of their houses. I don’t think that for them Jasmine is a good name. And even the Arab Spring, I don’t know who invented those words. It was the revolution for freedom and dignity.”

Mohamed Ben Soltane’s artwork is about collaboration and exploration of everyday objects and phenomena, distilling the essence of the banal and insinuating new meaning to previously un-assorted forms. He works with many materials to form his artwork, from video and photography to plastics and paints. His writing on art has pointed out the flaws in the international art system that maintains certain hegemonies in which the voices of Southern countries are not given an equal place. For him art and politics are inextricably linked. He writes that political decision makers and art collectors in the global North prefer to focus on that which comforts their preconceived notions, of the Arab world and the global South.

However, thanks to the revolution in Tunisia, which has spread throughout the Arab world in one way or another, many new voices are finding a place for expression and creation. He is overall optimistic for the future of Tunisia but he is realistic that the transition away from a dictatorship will take time and that there are obstacles that still must be overcome. We spoke about these obstacles and Tunisia’s future, the role of art and social change, and the interstices of international perceptions and local realities.

Image Source: Susan Paiva. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

Michael Caster: What role do you see the art community playing in this? In many times, in many countries it is often the artists that push the limits, that encourage or force society to rethink, to look at themselves and their place, socially and politically in a different way.

Mohamed Ben Soltane: I think that we can demand much from the art society. There is a lot of people who also have to do their jobs. The civil society now is very important, in the legal and economic, the artistic. The artistic scene, the thing that they specifically have is to look at things from different angles. The most important thing that artists can do is to show people realities from different angles and that can make dogmatic thinking less important but it is work on the long term. In the short term maybe they can develop critical thinking. Caricature is a very important art. It must find its place.

MC: Willis from Tunis has been a very popular comic. Of course there was no place for this kind of satire before the revolution.

MBS: Yes but we need at least one very good caricaturist in every newspaper. There are too few at the moment but there was an exhibition and books about caricature and that’s really good.

Image Source: Cartooning for Peace

MC: Cartooning for Peace?

MBS: Yes. This kind of art is more related to politics.

There is also art in the public space that can be very important. There are different art projects. There are art projects that make people interested and that make them participate, and art that doesn’t interest the people. I understand that. There is too much art in the public space that is the same kind of painting that you do in your home but you make it on a wall outside. It interests too few people and that is not art in a public space.

If you go to the municipality and take authorization to make street art it’s not street art.

MC: Before the revolution it seems that the only graffiti you might be able to find is reference to a soccer club. Of course this remains but the more politically engaged street art is confined to certain places. Can you elaborate on public and street art, how it is participatory and how it is engaging people.

MBS: I made a project from 2006. I presented it in 2009 and it was about inscription on the walls. I felt that it was really a space of freedom. It was not really street art because the people that were making the writings or drawings were not really established artists or did not present themselves as artists or even street artists but the street art is not really developed.

Ahl Al Kahf are doing a really good job but it is really new. It was not so developed until now.

Dream City are doing a good job. The idea is excellent but the projects selected are not all good. So maybe we need more time to make good projects in the streets.

MC: Dream City II was before the revolution. Is there a plan for Dream City III?

MBS: It will be next year I think. They are selecting artists now. The two organizers are very strong in cultural engineering and…

MC: Selma and Sofiane Ouissi?

MBS: They are very interesting because they present the new profile of cultural managers that we don’t have right now. They are young and I am sure that they will continue doing good projects.

In a conference in Istanbul two months ago I spoke about two experiences that for me are the most important now. These are Dream City and the Festival of Electronic Music…They present also digital art one time a year. It is festivals that have a larger public than the traditional exhibitions. They also help artists producing artworks and that is the most important thing to do for artists now, if you want to develop the artistic scene.

MC: I read about Dream City and it sounds incredible. The whole Medina is opened up to become the gallery and instead of a catalogue the people have a map and compass. What you see is how much energy and effort you put into it. It is a true discovery and an exploration and I spoke with some people who worked with Dream City. Mostly this was safe art, though. No one really put themselves in danger. Was this political art?

MBS: I think it was already political because it was for a large public. It was in the Medina, in a place that was not a priority in the politics but the interesting thing in the festival is that people in the Medina went to see and gave their opinion about the works…

It was really a cultural activity because it made new people discover art, not the same people who go always to the same exhibitions.

MC: It seems that there is a lot of interesting cultural events and art spaces in the Medina, with Centre Culturel Bir Lahjar, Club Culturel Tahar Haddad and Maison des Associations Culturelles. Old madrasahs converted into art centers. There is a lot happening, workshops for children doing silkscreening or photographs from the revolution.

MBS: I think it is a public space. They are state structures. So if they are from the state they can’t be really alternative. They do things. They did things for photography, for music. It was for a small public but interesting. The thing is, we forget too quickly that the state doesn’t do good culture. We think that the state will help us now making, I don’t know what, but it’s not true.

The state makes official culture and official culture is not the good one.

MC: I met a Jordanian artist, Abdel Qwaider, a surrealist, very much like Dali but he did a number of pieces after the revolution that were symbolic of Ben Ali, with the color purple and the chair. He liked the image of a purple snake tongue. You mentioned in your article about Nadia Jelassi who has worked with the image of the chair. Can you speak about these symbols. In semiotics we deconstruct form and meaning. With the meaning of the chair and the color purple, it has a specific Tunisian meaning. Can you elaborate on this?

MBS: In 2002 or 2003 I sent an anonymous letter to a newspaper about the color purple. Saying that ‘I don’t think the president loves the color purple so much so maybe people are doing too much and now all of them, all of us, hate that color. It would be good for the image of the president and for all the country if you make less purple so please…’ But they didn’t want to publish it.

The purple color was like cancer. And up to now we see purple.

If you opened a small store and you have the color purple then when you go to the municipality they will know that you are with the party.

One time I was in Algeria, in a workshop, and every group was presenting his work. There was a group that made a comic. The comic spoke about a king that loved purple flowers and one day he decided that all the country must have only purple flowers and he called everybody and told them that all the other colors had to be put off. Some of them made that. After that he called the army and said it is up to you to make only the purple colors and find people who are not doing this. People started resisting by making other colors in their houses. In the night they would go outside and put the colors. After years of repression the king knew that he had no chance to win so he took back his decision and left the palace. The Turkish guy who made the comic didn’t know that Tunisia is really like that. So I said to him, ‘It’s really political what you did.’ He said he will present it in Tunisia but I told him, ‘well it is up to you but it is not the best thing to do because they will find you.’

This color was really present and I don’t know, I think until now they have big containers of purple that they aren’t using anymore. Maybe they will give it to artists to make artworks. The other symbols, the chair is not specific to Tunisia.

MC: A symbol of Power?

MBS: Especially in the Arab countries.

Image Source: AP, "Tunisian ex-leader convicted in abstentia"

MC: What about the posters? Businesses, restaurants, the police made them hang posters of the president to force people to show support for Ben Ali but on 14, 15 January everyone was tearing them down.

Someone told me this fantastic story about coming back from Avenue Habib Bourguiba on the night of 14 January. He went to his restaurant and tore down the poster. He tore it up and ate it. He said ten minutes later he was shitting.

It has this amazing force. Everyone tearing them down, burning them, driving over them in their cars. How did this feel before the revolution when you were walking around on the street, everywhere you see these pictures of Ben Ali?

MBS: I think we were surprised. We know what is dictatorship. We know what is torture. We know what is authoritarian system but we thought the president of a progressive country couldn’t be so ill with his own image. People were saying, ‘okay it’s a dictatorship. He wants his image to be shown.’

For a lot of people it was a sign of weakness. We didn’t know why…

The authorities didn’t give authorization for a big exhibition about photojournalism. I think it was in 2007. The exhibition was okay; all the artworks were in Tunisia but they prohibited the exhibition because there was a president who was making hello to the people and he was very big and the people were really small and he looked like the president [Ben Ali]. So the authorities said no. ‘It is not only that photo that we will take off but we prohibit all the exhibition.’

They were really afraid about images.

MC: There was the demonstration in La Goulette with the giant poster of Ben Ali before the election, the campaign ‘Beware Dictatorship can return’ to get people to vote. It does have this power, the image of Ben Ali, people reacted so violently. Now it is something that nobody wants to see. It makes you ill.

MBS: Yes but it’s more than that because when, in La Goulette, there was the project of JR (See Daylight Magazine, The Utopianist, Hypebeast and Street Art News), the one hundred people, the photographs, those photos were put in the public space in all Tunisia. They put the photos in that place, in La Goulette, and the people instinctively took off the pictures.

It was in a lot of places. It was in the Port du France, in Habib Bourguiba, it was in La Goulette.

The people don’t want to see any more big images of one person. Even if it is a poor Tunisian, because the project was taking one hundred pictures from all Tunisia, and from all kinds of people: big; small; black; white; and all that. The idea of the project was good but they were not expecting that people would not be okay with a face they did not know.

MC: It was not received as well as the attempt?

MBS: It was not as well received.

And I think also because they didn’t make the work locally but in all the country. If they went to La Goulette and spoke to people, took one hundred photos and put them on the wall it would be okay. But coming in the night and putting the pictures there, very big, people said, ‘No. We don’t want to see no more faces on that wall.’

MC: Something that I have been thinking about is this project of JR’s but also the Zoo Project, with the images of the martyrs. These have received a lot of attention in international press, from Al Jazeera, The Guardian to others, (see also Tunisia Graffiti Project), and also  art magazines. I was quite curious how it was received here. The audience that it should be intended for is the Tunisian audience. Is there a disconnect between the attempt of these artists, the way it was discussed and viewed internationally to how it worked here?

MBS: Yes. It is an interesting question.For most people, they see objects. They don’t see artwork. They don’t have this idea of art as a big thing for intellectual people and all that. They see objects and they react if they like it or if they don’t like it. If you have the idea that art is a big value in the society maybe the artwork is not interesting but you see it and you say wow just because it is art. It is better that you see the thing, you don’t consider it as art or non art and you react.

JR was a very good example. If it was before the revolution people would not be really interested in the project. People interested in art would say it is a great project and it’s okay but it showed that the situation has really changed. In my exhibitions I like very much to present works to people who say ‘I am not interested in art and I don’t know anything about art.’ And normally the reaction is more open to new things than others who say, ‘I know very well art.’… It is normal that there is a lot of attention outside than inside. Maybe there are local small projects that even I don’t know about that are even more interesting than the JR experience.

Photo by Author

MC: What about the Zoo project? With the life size caricatures of the martyrs. One of my favorites is an image of a group of children playing hopscotch to Democracy. How were these projects received?

MBS: I think it was a good project because it was really direct. You see human shape.

I don’t know the reaction. I was not present. I saw them in the gallery so it is really different. I saw pictures of them in Tunis. I feel that it is a project that could have success because it is a human shape you could recognize, speaking about the martyrs. It is a really good project.

MC: The end of Habib Bourguiba, the murals, a number of the artists said it was an important location because so many people passed that area everyday.

MBS: Yes but it was the same thing that I told you some times ago. They were making the paintings that they do in their homes and it’s not street art. I don’t know. They have the authorization of the municipality.

MC: It’s public but not radical street art?

MBS: Yes. For me it is an example of a misunderstanding of art in the public space.

MC: Can you speak about that. What is the role of art in the public space.

MBS: Art in the public space is designated to a large public and especially to a public that is not especially interested in art. You have to pay attention to those conditions. You can do art in the art space for artists or the artistic art scene. It is important that your work touches people with discussions, maybe with collaboration, with interactivity. I think art is designated to make people think and reflect and give their opinion. The role of art in the public space has to give a place to people. That is art in the public space in my opinion.

MC: Is there a big difference between what has been going on between public art and studio art, in terms of engagement and taking advantage of the newly opened public sphere that encourages exchange and discourse? Where does public art and studio art overlap or diverge in Tunisia?

MBS: I think there is good art and bad art.

If you are in your studio doing good art, it’s great. The artwork that we are speaking about is good art in a studio but it is not good art in a public space. There is also a bad understanding from the people toward the art scene or artists in general. For them, artists are privileged. They benefited from the old regime but it is absolutely not true. Two or three of them or a small part benefited but not in plastic arts or visual arts, more in music. The people are a little bit aggressive with artists. We can say that it is not the fault of artists. Maybe they had to do more than they did but I think there is that impression. That makes artwork in a public space difficult.

There are also methodologies and psychological work or how to make those kind of collaborations. For example, if you are not from the Medina and you do artwork in the Medina it is not easy. If you don’t go to speak with people before… Sometimes when I take pictures in the Medina I don’t say I am an artist.

MC: Otherwise you are seen as an intruder?

MBS: Yes. And it is a normal thing. Even when I was taking pictures I take pictures very quickly, without being there. You feel that people are waiting for you, ‘Why are you photographing my wall?’ There is a methodology and also a kind of elite and normal people here… Art must be less specific to a certain part of society.

MC: What is the best way toward that? You mentioned the notion of participation in art. What do you see as the way forward, to both create something that is not specific, that encourages people to participate, to share and grow together?

MBS: I think artists have a key role in that by education, especially.

There are solutions that don’t cost money, that can help artists, that can be very practical. Which is, artists make their books and the Ministry of Culture pay them to go to schools and present their works or make small projects with making children participate. It is really easy to find ten artists with very good projects who can do one school every week. It will be spread. It will be popular and very effective. Also, working with high schools or things like that. I think education is very important to show people that art is not only doing painting in a studio but it can be imagining new collaboration between people or new modes of curating things or finding solution.

I don’t see art as only art. It can be thinking in new ways. Never say it is impossible. Always find a solution. I work a lot with the material I find. For me a good artist is, they put you in a place and you are okay to make art. You don’t need materials or things like that. It is an exercise of creativity and creativity helps you in all fields.

MC: Now with the fear that some people have in Tunisia, and internationally, with Al Nahda, women’s rights is a big issue that a lot of people are concerned about and freedom of expression of course, with protests over Persepolis or other films to counter protests. The Ministry of Culture made a a statue of a naked women to be placed on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, to draw attention to freedom of expression in the days before the election but people reacted so violently that it had to be removed. Do you have concerns that before there was this pressure, this control from the government but that now this control will come from the people?

MBS: Yes, yes. That’s true. The story of that sculpture is more complicated because there were groups on the Avenue that didn’t want people to be together for a manifestation so they are not from the police but they work with the police and they terrorized people. One journalist that was there told me that he knew the faces and it’s not normal people. They work with the police and they decided to stop the event.

But many people, I understand them. For the first time in their life, the street and the walls are their walls. You come with an authorization; it’s like you come in their houses. It is exaggerated but I can understand it. For the other things I think we have a lot of work to do. Especially with young people because with old people it is more difficult. The things will get better I am sure. I don’t think that a dictator will be here again. It will be difficult for several years but we saw that Tunisia, that when it was really, really difficult the people made the right decisions. Like the two days after the 14th of January where it was really organized. The cars were circulating with no problems. There were no policeman. It will take some years but we are in a new process that will be better than before, if we don’t have the third world war.

For the first time in their life the street and the walls are their walls.

MC: Some people have said that with the reclaiming of the Trabelsi family homes, first there was the destruction, windows smashed, furniture stolen but then a number of collectives came in, like Ahl Al Kahf and brought life back into these places with color and words as a reminder. Maybe it is idealistic to say that this will have an effect. Some people might say that it doesn’t mean anything. What are your thoughts in terms of the cars and houses that were painted? Do you see this as a constructive step in that direction or is it just expression tout court?

Photo by Author

MBS: The things that I find very easy is to take one canvas. If you are a painter and you find one canvas you will draw on it. With the same reflex, if you find a car you draw on it, you find a wall you draw on it, a house you draw on it. It doesn’t give a lot of new ideas. I think it is easy. It is okay. It’s good. It’s entertaining but we have to do more elaborative things.

MC: Such as outreach at schools and spreading a message to more places and more participation?

MBS: Yes. And also the democracy in the municipalities that will have a cultural budget for the people that live there, the people that have projects, so the local democracy is also very important. We suffer from centralization like a lot of things that we imported from France. Maybe it is time also to work in other directions, to see other cultures, other languages, to be more open to experiences.

MC: Tell me a bit about Fatin Roussi and her project Art dans la rue, Art dans la quartier (Art in the street, Art in the neighborhood).

MBS: She was the promoter of the cars that were painted but I don’t know the other part of the project.

Image Source: Nafas Art Magazine

MC: Tell me about Ahl Al Kahf. They are elusive, one could say, but what they are doing seems powerful and exciting.

MBS: I think that they were doing a good job. One time in that exhibition with the sculpture they had their name on the invitation as though they were officially participating and I was really upset about that but one day after they published a communique saying that they are not participating and that they never participate in an official or an established manifestation. And I found that the thing to do. I hope that they will continue and there will be other groups that will make good art in the public space.

MC: Often those who become active with public art are more radical politically. There is a connection between anarchist political ideas and street art. Has there been a place for Tunisian anarchists? What has been the connection between politics and art?

MBS: I think that good art is always in relation to politics and with social issues. We couldn’t make that kind of art before. We made a little bit of it but it was closed in the galleries for too few people and now I think that it will develop. The state will not give money for that but I hope that it will develop.

MC: What about internationally? In terms of funding from international galleries, collectors, organizations, have you seen an increase in interest in Tunisia?

MBS: It is clear that there is interest. A lot of people are coming from outside to see what is happening. The Arab associations, three of them, very big, came to Tunisia after the revolution to promote their programs. I think it is normal. Everybody who is giving money is giving money for a purpose. If the purpose goes with your ideas then you can participate in that. So there is money from very different regions.

For me the money that comes from the Arab regions is, it can be coming from the United States but going through these organization, for me it is very important because we are very connected with Europe and we are not connected with Arab countries and the idea we have of Arab countries is very bad. Egypt has bad ideas about Tunisia. Tunisia the same about Egypt but there are good artists and good people in the two sides. Really we have to meet and to work together. I am very interested to do those kinds of exchanges and to participate in those kinds of projects, more than Europe.

MC: Generally speaking, what are your thoughts about the future of Tunisia? Not just in art but in religious, social, political ways?

MBS: It will be hard for several years but we have to work hard, all of us.

MC: What will be the hardest?

MBS: I think the economic crisis will be the hardest. A big part of the revolution was economic and when you have economic problems you have more radicalization in religion and thoughts. We have to make the difference between the two. That will be very hard…

Maybe we have to find new economic solutions. And we are not the only ones responsible for the economic crisis so the solution must be global. It will be a third world war and can be destructive for all humanity or it will be a decision to make the whole system more normal, less injustices.

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).

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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.

EID al-Adha: A Photo Essay

Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is among the most significant religious observances of Islam. It is a several day performance imbued with intense symbolic forces, representing God’s test of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The sacrifice is held to conclude the time of Hajj (The pilgrimage to Mecca), during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Those who make the Hajj are called Hajji. The Hajj is the final of the Five Pillars of Islam, which also includes Shahadah: the recitation of faith in monotheism; Salat: performing ritual prayer five times a day; Zakat: giving charity to the poor and needy; and Sawm: fasting during Ramadan. According to Islamic practice, every able-bodied Muslim man and woman is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if he or she can afford it. However, some have begun to point out that it has become over-commercialized, Hajj packages being advertised the way luxury holidays may be presented in glossy high end magazines. Outside of advertisements and articles, the Hajj is almost as mysterious to Western audiences as it is holy to Muslims.

In an article earlier this year, The Places In Between, modern travel writer Paul Theroux notes that the pilgrimage was perhaps first made more aware to Western audiences by famed British explorer Sir Richard Burton, who had himself circumcised, learned Arabic, and posed as Afghan dervish Mirza Abdullah to make the holy journey in 1853. He published an account of his experiences in a three volume series Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. The last non-Muslim to reportedly make the Hajj was Arthur John Wavell who made the trip in 1908-1909 and later published his A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca in 1912.

The Hajj concludes with the Stoning of the Devil, Ramy al-Jamarat, where Hajji hurl pebbles at three walls in the city of Mina, east of Mecca. The ritual derives its signification from the Biblical and Quranic story that on his way to sacrifice his son, Abraham was confronted by the Devil three times and three times Abraham was commanded by the angel Gabriel to ‘stone him.’ On the third and final confrontation the Devil withdrew. It is performed to signify the adherents’ defiance of the Devil, and to signify the repudiation of one’s own devils. Ramy al-Jamarat is generally only performed by those on the Hajj. Ramy al-Jamarat is followed by the Sacrifice, which lasts for three days and marks the conclusion of the Hajj. Eid al-Adha, is performed by all Muslims, who can afford the practice, across the globe. The Guardian has a photo series of Eid being practiced around the world.

I traveled to Gabes, in Southern Tunisia, to observe the holiday with a Tunisian friend of mine and his family.

During the last few weeks leading to Eid the streets of Tunis were transformed into a veritable menagerie of bleating, wooly creatures. Corners were converted to sheep pens, hey strewn across asphalt, fluff and horns, children playing, tugging, parents bartering, buying. Many times I witnessed sheep being pulled by red leashes down the narrow alleyways wrapping around my Bab Souika home, the bleating cries of unwilling and unsuspecting sheep echoing up through my open window.

This year Tunisians complained about soaring prices. According to a survey held by the National Institute of Consumption 49% of Tunisians buy their sheep with available money from their salaries, 55% of them are obliged to borrow money, 19% resorted to saving, 4% buy the sheep by installment, and 9% supply themselves. According to an article in Tunisia Live, rising sheep prices are often blamed on greedy middle men trying to increase their profit. While at the height of the conflict in neighboring Libya, sheep were imported and sold cheaply, and despite the fact that sheep production was up by 15% this year, the price is now far higher in both Libyan and Tunisian markets. A second article relates one man’s account, “I can’t afford such prices…we need the government’s intervention to lower them so we can feed our children.” The sheep for my celebration in Gabes were purchased for 350 dinar (about 175 euro) a piece.

Wajdi, my host for Eid, and his brother Sami explained that every Muslim family or couple will get their own sheep. However, Islam does not require the practice of Eid. If you cannot afford to purchase a sheep you are not obliged to do so but around 90% of Muslims perform the sacrifice. Those who live in apartments will slaughter in the bathroom. Wajdi continued, “My mother learned how to carve a lamb and cook from her mother. My father learned how to slaughter by watching his father and I learned by watching him. But this is my first year to participate.” Wajdi is 21 years old and has been living in France for the last several years. While he grew up observing his father and older brothers perform the sacrifice this is his first year to get bloody, so to speak. He went on, “Some people will buy the sheep but don’t know how to slaughter. It has to be done in a certain way you see. They will pay a butcher to come to their home. It costs 10 dinar for the butcher to kill the sheep and another 10 dinar to skin it. Actually we should not say slaughter or kill but sacrifice… In Mecca during the Hajj people also sacrifice camels and cows. A camel is for 7 people, as is a cow. When the sheep is sacrificed we pray for our family members. We ask God for their protection. Afterwards we give 10 per cent and the best part to the poor.”

We woke early on the day of the festival. Wajdi and his father picked us up on their way back from making the morning prayer. We crossed the distances of this town, with its frontier emotional lines carved into the psychogeographic and architectural edifices and structures, dusty corners, errant piles of refuse, meandering youths, chipped paint and unfinished building projects; in Gabes there are few open shops after dark. We crossed from street corners with the names of ancient scholars and military leaders, waited at stop lights with others eager to demonstrate their piety and feast. We sat in the back seat.

In the early morning desert-cold sunlight without the salvation of coffee pulsing through my veins the passing topography morphed into deep poetic sentiments paralleled only by the knowledge of what the day would yet present. We turned off a paved street onto the uneven dirt and callused surface of unfinished country roads, with tufts of grass protruding from the monochrome of earth, the pallid faces of houses hued with the vibrant Tunisian blues on shutters and door frames. We passed a few remaining sheep, confused, calling to their friends in yards, gardens, and tiled rooms. We passed a burnt out, looted, red and stocky skeleton of a creature that might once have been a Volkswagen. A couple boys scrambled through the yards. A few women walked back from a shop. A man might have been grinning from his balcony. We parked in front of a walled home and entered past a massive lemon tree. Grabbing a few bright, young leaves on the way by our host handed us small crumbled, scented nests of citrus leaves to dab our necks, noses, and senses.

Little time was wasted. The prayers had already been made. We were told that the one who cuts the throat must be the one who makes the prayer, the main prayer for the family. The father’s traditional role. The mother seldom takes this role, we were told. The incision was made. The crimson spilled onto the pavement; the sacrifice was made, piety ensured, practice maintained, to strip the animal of its objects of distinction and usher the metamorphosis of living, breathing flesh and blood into morsel of stewed meat and remembrance of mercy.

Only male sheep, and other animals, are used for the sacrifice. One might assume the reason owes to the symbolization of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, and then a ram instead, the male, the promotion of the family line. But when I asked Sami why only male animals were used his answer was different. Not because of the above hypothesis but because, “The male is better in animals, like in humans. The female is not as good. But also, you can kill hundreds of male sheep and if you leave the female alive you will have more sheep the next year. However, if you kill female sheep who will have new sheep?” The meanings behind the male sacrifice are multifaceted and beyond the scope of this rambling entry. One might prepare a deep philosophical and historical investigation of the sacrifice. In some customs it is the female virgin which represents the paragon of sacrificial substance while in others it is the male. Throughout history the virgin sacrifice presents a strange conception of purity. What gendered predilections for the object of sacrifice have to reveal about a cultural or religious performance presents an interesting direction for further study.


 

An incision is made and the animal is inflated like a balloon. This makes removing the pelt from the tissue easier. The internal organs are pulled out and hallowed, washed, and prepared. The heads and feet are torched to burn off the hair. The animal is carved and hacked into pieces. The offal is salted and hung to dry.

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

Tunisia’s Jackson Pollack

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

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

We stop a moment to examine a large wall painting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee Observations and LabLabi Contemplations on The Constituent Assembly Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunisia: Testing ground for Western companies’ censorship software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to sign the petition.

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.

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