In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, young creatives are fighting for the future of their society, and that calls for optimism and staying power.
The air in the old town of Sidi Bou Said is heavy with the twin smells of sugar and fat. Today, the fish restaurants in the small town on the Tunisian coast don’t stand a chance with their grilled calamari and marinated shrimp; everyone wants bambalouni, the local version of donuts – a sugar explosion from the deep-fat fryer. Couples stroll through the streets, one hand holding their partner’s, the other, a pastry ring. Young men in cafés drink peppermint tea, and street traders ply their wares, jewelry and scarves, while at their stands, young women wearing red lipstick take selfies. It’s a cool winter evening, but the atmosphere is that of a balmy summer night.
There’s not much here, just half an hour’s drive from Tunis, the capital city, to hint at the upheavals Tunisia has experienced in recent years. It was this small country on the Mediterranean in which the protests began in 2010, which triggered the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that have since gone down in history as the “Arab Spring.” In 2011, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s ruler, became the first dictator in the region to be toppled. He had been in power since 1987, keeping an iron grip on the country and systematically plundering it for decades. Today, six years on, civil wars are raging in Syria and Yemen, and in Egypt, there’s an authoritarian potentate imprisoning and torturing his opponents.
And what’s happening in Tunisia? In Sidi Bou Said, kids are sitting in the street playing the Bob Marley classic “No Woman No Cry” on the guitar. Walk through the streets here, past the white facades and blue shutters with the sea always within sight, and you understand what it was that painters like Paul Klee and August Macke sought and found here. To this day, Sidi Bou Said attracts creatives.
Mounir Letaief, 56, black hair graying at the temples, is one of them. He paints, makes music and has the aura of a man who is accustomed to being heard. Since 2006, Letaief has been running a gallery in Sidi Bou Said that’s a meeting place for young artists; they drink wine on his roof terrace in the evening and describe Letaief as their mentor. “A small paradise” is how he describes the place.
After the revolution, Letaief wanted to open up his paradise to more people, “to invite the world,” as he puts it, and so he turned his gallery into a guesthouse. Each room is done out differently – sometimes red predominates, sometimes green. Lataief’s own works hang in all of the rooms: bare-bosomed Berber beauties, allegedly portraits of flesh-and-blood models. “Sidi Bou Said is a place for travelers who are eager to reacquaint themselves with Tunisia after the revolution,” he says. In other words, it’s a place for people who are interested not in all-inclusive package tours, but in the true nature of the country and its cultural identity.
“The revolution changed the way we communicate with one another,” Letaief continues. “Before, all the information we received came from state-controlled radio stations. YouTube, for example, was blocked.” Today he is observing a counterdevelopment: “We are visible as individuals again, not just as the masses.”
This difference can be felt in Tunis especially. The famous medina – the old town – is a mix of narrow streets and coffeehouses, while the new town has elegant, metropolitan boulevards that were built by the French colonial masters in the 19th century. Under Ben Ali, however, Tunis lacked the intellectual charm that makes a city a metropolis. The regime closed down theaters and literary and philosophical clubs. Now they are reappearing and movie theaters are being refurbished. Young people are making documentaries, and spurred on by the restitution of freedom of speech and opinion, dozens of initiatives are fostering the creative spirit.
Not far from Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the street where the voices raised against the regime were loudest, we meet Mohamed Ali Ben Jemaa, 46, an actor and musician. He is dressed entirely in black, with a scarf thrown loosely around his neck and a beret on his head. His sweeping, well-judged gestures are those of the seasoned performer. Ben Jemaa runs a small culture center in Bab Souika, a neighborhood he describes as the Montmartre of Tunis.” Steps lead up from a small café in the foyer to a showroom, where the walls are hung with posters of classic Tunisian films and Tunisian poets.
Back in the 1990s, Ben Jemaa was already appearing in movies that addressed police violence and writing songs about the state’s manipulation of young people. About how it kept them quiet with soccer instead of creating desperately needed jobs. He was successful as a singer and ironically enough, was set to perform at half-time during a soccer game, but then the police heard his lyrics – and the gig never took place. Today, he says that he never actually received open threats because of his work, but that the Ministry of Culture almost always refused funding. “It was tough,” he says, “but we were also very creative because we always had to come up with a way to work around the censorship.”
Censorship no longer exists in Tunisia. But many of the problems that paralyzed the country under Ben Ali’s rule remain unsolved to this day. It is still hard for young people to find work. Many are frustrated, feel that the young democracy doesn’t really represent them. Some 3000 young men are said to have joined the terror militia Islamic State over the past few years. Radical imams preach in the suburbs of Tunis, and their followers carried out a number of attacks last year in which tourists were also targeted.
We’ve always been creative – it was the only way to evade censorship
The young generation’s difficult situation is the reason he targets young people in particular with his work says Ben Jemaa. He organizes graffiti projects for kids, shows films, and holds acting classes, all with the aim of firing their imagination and encouraging new ideas. “We’ve come through the darkness. And now that the possibilities open to us are endless, we shall have to see whether we can really change society.”
Asma Mansour thinks along the same lines as Ben Jemaa, but her area is business. In 2011, the now 31-year-old set up the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which supports young startups in the social sector. Since then, she has been involved in setting up over a dozen companies in Tunis and countless more across the country.
She’s a young woman who has come a very long way. Mansour was born into a conservative family, and as a child, would rather have been a boy – and she acted like one, was wild, played football and got into fights. “I hated that girls were supposed to be quiet and behave,” she says. Her father, however, brooked no disobedience and used to beat her mother. He believed that women should be virgins when they marry and accept a homemaker’s existence. “My relationship to him was based more on fear than love,” says Mansour.
Her father did permit her to attend university, at least, where she majored in accounting – the course of study stipulated by him. She began working pro bono with NGOs, and then along came 2010 and people all over the country took to the streets. Mansour did not. Her father locked her in her room. However, the days when old men could cling to their power in Tunisia were over. After ruling for almost 25 years, Ben Ali fled the country. Then Mansour thought to herself: If the people can rid themselves of their dictator, then I can free myself from my father. She moved out. “It was tough,” she says. For a time, she was homeless, sleeping in parks and at the airport.
Today she lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Tunis. Travel guides and books with titles like Talk like TED – the 9 secrets of the world’s best speakers are leant against the world. She has traveled a lot in the past few years and spoken at conferences. You can sense that she wants to absorb as much of life as she can. She speaks loudly and fervently, swears a lot and takes great delight it in. Hard to imagine that this woman with her mop of black curls could ever have come to terms with a stay-at-home housewife’s lot.
Mansour is also well aware that Tunisia still has a long way to go. “The important thing is that we take the whole country forward, not just the capital,” she says. That’s why she is also working to bring her ideas to smaller towns and villages. “It’s not easy, but we’ve made some good beginnings,” she says.
How they look can be seen deep in the desert at the end of a seven hours’ bus ride south that first passes by olive groves and herds of sheep, then later through villages where ceramic vases and handmade carpets are sold on the street. The landscape grows increasingly barren until we finally spot the oasis of Tozeur finally on the horizon. Once upon a time, tourists in their hordes would come to view the backdrops George Lucas built here for his first Star Wars epic, but today, many of the luxury hotels in the oasis town stand empty.
The world appears to have all but forgotten Tozeur, but Salam Mlik, 33, isn’t about to let that happen. After all, his hometown also brought forth one of the country’s most famous poets, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi (1909–1934), who is still celebrated as a national poet today. And Mlik naturally also has a few lines at the ready – also because they were heard the length and breadth of the country during the revolution. “ If, one day, the people wills to live, Then fate must obey, Darkness must dissipate , And must the chain give way,” he recites. “Easy, everyone here knows it,” he adds with a wry grin.
Mlik sits amid date palms; his family owns hundreds of them and is well known in the region. And that was probably what saved him when the police turned up on his doorstep in the middle of the night back in 2009 because of the pirate radio station he ran on the Internet. “Why are you criticizing the government?” one police officer asked him. “But I don’t,” Mlik replied in his defense – but then one of the men produced tapes with recordings and blog entries.
“Honestly, man, I’m no hero,” says Mlik, a big man, shrugging his shoulders. “I stopped straight away.” The police let the matter drop. From then on, Mlik concentrated on his job in IT. And then came the revolution and Mlik’s life also changed immediately. “I love the desert and unlike most people, didn’t want to go to Tunis. I wanted to set something up here.” He began broadcasting again, and since 2014 his station, Djerid FM, has also held a license. Today, Mlik has 12 employees, some of them women. There’s still much to be achieved on the equal rights’ front. “We want to get the message across that women have the same dreams as men and that they must be granted the same rights and opportunities as men.
Dictatorships don’t disappear from one day to the next. “A system can only be changed little by little.” That’s why he plans to concentrate on young people, too, on everyone “with minds that are still open to new ideas.”
Salam Mlik, Asma Mansour, Mounir Letaief and Ben Jemaa – all four know that a democracy does not automatically work just because it’s the official form of government, but that everyone has to pull together and that progress can be slow and frustrating. Spend an evening talking with young, hopeful Tunisians over tea and spirits until far into the night, though, and you will become an optimist. In the early morning, when the cool breeze wafts a breath of fresh air across the country, it seems easy to believe in the possibility of peaceful change.