The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

This piece was republished by the World Uyghur Congress. It is also available on their website.

At 6pm on Tuesday, the 28th of February violence erupted in the desert town of Kargilik, between Kashgar and Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Armed with knives or axes (depending on the report), whether desperate or deranged, several men unleashed a short spree of bloodletting. The violence resulted in between 12 and 20 dead. The Washington Post, noting 12 deaths, reported,

Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei callled the attackers “terrorists” and said they attacked innocent civilians, “cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner.”

This event is happening only days before the National People’s Congress is set to meet in Beijing, on 5 March. This is important in that the NPC will spend time passing into law the revised Criminal Procedure Law, which stands to potentially legalize a number of draconian policies for dealing with security, and terrorist-framed issues. Senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, points out that, in particular, Article 73 of the CPL poses considerable concern for human rights activists and members of Uyghur or Tibetan groups who are often framed as violent threats to the state. Understanding the violence in Xinjiang is part of a greater discursive battle, with physical and structural ramifications.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project reports that, “The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to view official Chinese statements about the reported deaths with extreme caution until independent observers are allowed to investigate the incident.” And within reason.

Edward Wang’s piece in the New York Times points out that, “As with virtually all such events in remote parts of China, there were competing accounts of the violence on Tuesday… A report on a Web site run by the propaganda bureau of Xinjiang said Wednesday that 13 people were killed and many others injured when nine “terrorists” armed with knives stabbed people in a crowd… police shot dead seven attackers and captured the other two… Global Times, an officially approved newspaper, reported that attackers killed at least 10 people… Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the police shot dead at least two attackers.”

As information about this episode of violence unfolds it is important to keep in mind Wang’s critical remarks, and understand the complexity of the politics of representation. The following examination is meant primarily for those with a limited knowledge of Uyghur history and aims to elucidate some of the situation in Xinjiang and provide a background for understanding the unfolding accounts of violence, and the framing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although it is geared more as an introduction to the unfamiliar, it also presents information and ideas that those more accustomed to examining and analyzing the region will no doubt find informative.

Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim minority group which are culturally and linguistically distinct from the majority Han, trace their ancestry to the geographic region known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The word Xinjiang in Chinese, (新疆), means new territory or frontier. However, many Uyghurs, both inside the XUAR and abroad, tend to perceive this word as synonymous with colonial power. Perceptions that range from economic or political marginalization to victimization by an organized campaign to stamp out cultural identity and autonomy are best explained through a narrative analysis of the subjective meaning of name of the province for those who are purportedly autonomous within.

When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power. (A Uyghur student who has been living outside of China for five years, for safety reasons names will not be included.)

We hate that word. We don’t even have the right to say our hometown in our own language. (A Uyghur youth with whom I spoke in Kashgar, 2011)

This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region as Xinjiang. But how do we call it? But we don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money. (A Uyghur who has been living outside of China for two and a half years, and has since renounced Chinese citizenship out of fear of persecution.)

In this brief discussion, it is neither my intention to challenge nor certify the word Xinjiang but for consistency I will refer to the region as such. I do acknowledge the significance it has for many Uyghurs as a symbol of oppression or discrusive target of claim-making within a broader framework of resistance and cultural re-articulation.

The preferred name, once Uyghurs are more free to express discursive resistance outside of China and for those more daring who still reside inside China, is East Turkestan. In China, however, it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan,and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a blue field, is forbidden from public and private space.In December 1999, for example, two men were arrested and charged with 15 and 13 years in prison for merely hoisting the East Turkestan flag in place of the Chinese Flag at a courthouse in Xinjiang.

The reason for China’s response to the ‘East Turkestan’ frame, from central government perspectives, is clear. It presents an implicit history of an independent Uyghur nation which challenges the official Chinese history. Therefore, the Chinese government routinely conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and, particularly after the establishment of the US led War on Terror, with terrorism (Dwyer, 2005). The use and interpretation of the ‘East Turkestan’ frame has become a constituent of domination and resistance, when protests, non-violent or otherwise, flare up in the region the government hastily blames it on the influence of ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist groups or foreign interference, as it does with blaming the Dalai Lama for any contention among Tibetan groups.

Before we can even begin to grasp a more profound understanding of the last few years’ episodes of conflict within the province we must develop an understanding of the significance of the words ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘East Turkestan,’ and the social-historical context from which the phenomenon derives its meaning and force.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the region in what had been a long history of territorial conflict (Millward, 2007). China has at times admitted this history but used it rhetorically to state, “that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth to counter Uyghur claims to a 4000 year history of multiple independent kingdoms, as noted on the World Uyghur Congress Website. While the predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Han Chinese rule for centuries (Beijing, 2003; Shandong, 2010), others have suggested that the region was not incorporated into the empire until 1821 (Gladney, 2004: 215).

Conflict throughout this period was protracted. In 1864, Qing administration was jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria (Gladney, 2004). However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized anti-Qing resistance; and, although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to this point, it was shortly thereafter officially made a province in 1884 (Millward, 2007). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 sank China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent (Gladney, 2004) as the region was split between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Guomingdang (Nationalist) and Communist party of China (Bovingdon, 2010; Millward 2007; Gladney, 2003, 2004).

Millward (2007) provides a vivid account of rapidly shifting power dynamics during this period. On 12 November 1933, the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. Its leaders were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. A year later the ETR would fall to the infamous warlord Sheng Shicai. On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in this time, and remain as Uyghur heroes.

The hope of lasting independence went down in flames on 27 August 1949. Although the negotiations for an independent Uyghur nation had essentially already been resolved much earlier, for the CCP had agreed to this in exchange for Uyghur military assistance against the Guomingdang, Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghurs were invited to Beijing to meet with Mao on the issue of independence. However, somewhere en route their plane mysteriously crashed. Their deaths would be kept secret until several months after the Chinese Army had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for the region’s Uyghurs. This lesson has not been lost and, although it is a strictly taboo subject to discuss in public both the two independent republics and the mysterious plane crash are well known and hushed topics.In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop (Kadeer, 2009; 11).”

Despite this history of indigenous resistance to perceived foreign—Qing, Russian, CCP—occupation, Chinese sources tend to represent the independent republics as the result of abusive foreign governments (Chen, 2009). Official media sources in China go as far to relate that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkestan’ and fabricated a history which had not even existed. While Chinese officials and scholars may have referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference (Bovingdon, 2010; 39).” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse within China and diverging from this discourse became a crime tantamount to terrorism. However, it has been continually contested by the Uyghur diaspora, and many third party scholars.

Because the Chinese government frequently blames domestic contention on the manipulation of foreign organizations, framed as violent separatist groups with no authority in China, it is important to quickly examine Uyghur deterritorialization.

Yitzhak Shichor (2003, 2009) provides a rich history of Uyghur diffusion. In 1949, Alptekin and Buğra led the first major wave of a Uyghur exodus from Xinjiang to neighboring Kashmir. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the US and the UNHCR Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri. This marked the second phase of Uyghur migration. By a decade later a sizable community had also started to form in Istanbul. The third phase of Uyghur migration can be divided into two separate waves. The first began with post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, with greater flight from China, mainly to Central Asian countries and Turkey. The second wave was composed of Uyghurs migrating from host countries such as Turkey to a third host country in North America or Western Europe (Shichor, 2003: 285). The global headquarters of the World Uyghur Congress is in Munich. Still, the diaspora is relatively small. The majority of Uyghurs still live in Xinjiang. There a different migration, Han moving from inner China, encouraged by uneven access to opportunities at the expense of Uyghurs, is perceived by Uyghurs as a direct economic and cultural attack.

Due less to migration of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang than to steady Han migration into Xinjiang, from 1947 until the present the demographics of Xinjiang have dramatically shifted. The majority of Uyghurs with whom I have spoken have brought this up as one of the gravest threats to their cultural survival. The Han population in the region has increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000 (Millward, 2007: 307). Information for 2010 from the National Bureau of Statistics in China reports the percentage of Han as 40.1 per cent and conflates the remaining 59.9 per cent to an amalgamation of the other ethnic groups. This census representation, I would argue, is done in part to stifle ethnic based mobilization and to legitimize official histories of Chinese presence in the region.

A few years ago, in Korla, I was asked by one Uyghur how many Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang. When I told him that I knew that the given number is usually around 9 million he replied that the number is actually double but that, “the government will never say there is more than 10 million Uyghurs. Because when a nation has more than 10 million,” he choked with emotion, “they have to get their own country.” This sentiment is illustrative of the perceptions of repressive intentions behind various forms of representation, including the census. Representing or misrepresenting population figures is a way to dominate a given group but it can also be transformed into a counter-discourse if the population claims greater numbers than official figures. Uyghur sources report from 15 to 20 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Admittedly, the history of this conflict has been represented in opposing narratives by Chinese, Uyghur, and third party historians. This is understandable considering actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases (Bovingdon, 2010: 23). At times, it becomes difficult to disentangle the opposing representations. It does appear, however, that some accounts (Bovingdon, 2010; Gladney, 2003; 2004; Millward, 2007; Shichor, 2003; 2009) are more resonant with Uyghur narratives. This is important to separate from narratives obedient to Chinese cultural and historical hegemony. Understood from an analysis of the literature and discussion with Uyghurs, official Chinese accounts can be seen as representational repression. It is important to keep in mind as news and representations of the violence in Kargilik unfolds.

We should keep in mind that prematurely conceptualizing cycles of violence in terms of dyadic ethnic clashes distorts the complexity of the phenomenon as to render analysis facile. Conflation of contention to one category whether male/female, rich/poor, or in-group/out-group fails to take into consideration a multiplicity of influences and identities, as noted by Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Similarly, be wary of attempts to present some definitive sketch of ‘Uyghur.’ There is none. On this, it is worth quoting Gaye Christoffersen in length.

“Western and Chinese discourse on ‘the Uyghur’ tends towards making essentializing arguments that assume there is a ‘Universal Uyghur’ with an unchanging essence and fixed properties, whether living in Xinjiang, the Central Asian diaspora, Afghanistan, Turkey, Germany or the United States. Uyghur identity formation, difficult to begin with, is complicated further by outside forces attempting to construct a monolithic identity that would fit their particular vision. It is their essentializing imagery that victimizes Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate to alien visions. The vast majority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have no voice in world affairs, instead becoming the object of the politics of representation by outside forces (2002; 3).”

PART ONE IN A PLANNED SERIES ON UYGHURS AND XINJIANG

Kashgar Old City, 2011

This article was republished on the Website for the World Uyghur Congress.

Works Cited:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2010). The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chen, Xi (2007). “Between Defiance and Obedience: Protest Opportunism in China,” in Perry,Elizabeth J. and Goldman, Merle (2007), Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 253-281.

Christoffersen, Gaye (2002). “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity in the War on Terrorism.” Strategic Insight White Paper: Centor for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Gladney, Dru. C (2003). “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly, No. 174, Religion in China Today.

———- (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Kadeer, Rebiya; trans. Alexandra Cavelius (2009). Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China. USA: Kales Press, Inc.

Millward, James A., (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, London:  C. Hurst & Co.

Sen, Amartya (2007). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Shichor, Yitzhak (2003). “Virtual Transnationalism: Uygur Communities in Europe and the Quest for Eastern Turkestan Independence.” in Allievi, Stefano and Nielsen, Jorgen S. (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe.  Leiden: Brill. 281-311

———- (2009). Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations. Honolulu: The East West Center.

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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.

Two Significations of ‘Sebsi’

This article was inspired by graffiti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.