“The dictatorship lives on in the heads”


On Cultural Safari in Tunis

Developments in Tunisia’s cultural field go hand in hand with political shifts and (r)evolutions. Many twists and turns have taken place since the country gained its independence in 1955, and today Tunisians search, also through art, how to live their newfound freedom in an optimal way and to express their fledgling, fragile but multilayered identity. Everything seems possible and should be reconsidered: institutions, the government, society itself and the ways to develop it. 

After the revolution of 14 January 2011 - and the deposition of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - Tunisia finds itself in constant transition - an on-going ®evolution, a state of exception that demands a pile of work everyday. In mid-December 2014, a dozen cultural operators from Europe roamed through the capital and met lots of Tunisian professionals, representatives of authorities and cultural organizations. This ‘cultural safari’ organized by IETM, shed a very refined light on the current situation of the country, its people and its cultural challenges. 

December 23 2014, the day after the election victory of the moderate Nidaa Tounes party (often translated as ‘Call of Tunisia’ or as ‘Tunisia’s call’) and its leader Beji Caid Essebi, the headline of eurotopics.net stated that Tunisia became a model for the Arab world. The left-liberal Austrian daily Der Standard recommended that the new President should reach out to the defeated Islamists:

“Essebsi has scored a double victory: his party Nidaa Tounes has also won the parliamentary election. But the fact that supporters of Ben Ali have taken refuge in it holds the danger that those who see themselves as revolutionary forces - including the Islamists of the Ennahda party - now feel like victims of an on-going counterrevolution.  This is not about an ideological division but a geographical one: the Islamists remain strong in certain areas, particularly in the south. To hold out a hand to them now and integrate them would be a politically astute step on Essebsi’s part. Equally important are social, economic and constitutional reforms that instil trust in the new system.” (www.derstandard.at, 23/12/2014 (*))

Essebsi still has a long way to go. Although the majority of the people have chosen his side, it is not only the different parties that have to be integrated. Out in the streets a prevailing morale does not seem to exist: opinions are as fragmented as they are varied. Although this sometimes creates collisions, it also counts as a basic proviso for a diverse and variegated society.

It is only since the last few years, after the Jasmine Revolution, that Tunisians can freely express their opinions; that was impossible under the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali, the second President of Tunisia between 1987 and 2011. For a long time it was forbidden to pronounce Ben Ali’s name in public, and a lot of citizens still find it very difficult today. Just about all artists and cultural operators that we met on our journey have clear memories of this “suffocating but interesting” period.

Ben Ali’s regime was forcibly secular banning, for instance, the headscarf in public. Under his actions, numerous cultural initiatives also arose. After the revolution Tunisians sought to position themselves, which led to fractures in the social fabric: on the one hand, there was a tendency towards Westernization, on the other hand – but not necessarily opposed to this - many Tunisians wanted to position and manifest themselves as Muslim in a more outspoken manner. Also Salafism came into the light in Tunisia, a phenomena that mass media like to report about in a rather one dimensionally fashion as an ‘excess’. In reality this movement is diverse and heterogeneous and operates through a complex and ingeniously constructed network.

However in recent years, the so-called adherents of Salafism acted particularly aggressive towards artists and certain forms of artistic expressions. An exhibition of contemporary art with paintings expressing a feminist and anti-Salafist position for instance, was stormed and closed down (note: we are talking here about works such as a ludic image of a Salafist with vampire teeth and smoke coming out of his ears).  Furthermore, arson was committed in a theatre. Horrified, we listen to the story of a photographer whose face was reduced to a pulp because he took pictures for his artistic project of the old mosque in the medina quarter of Tunis (the old city centre).  A choreographer/video artist testified about an attack during her performance in a public space. Although police were present and witnessed the attack, the artist herself was accused. She would have taken a provocative position, consciously wanting to defy bystanders.

Going gently

Censorship stands firm in Tunisia. Worse than the terror of the Salafists is the ‘internal’ censorship: citizens who control each other or themselves out of fear for possible reprisals. A director of a theatre declaims with passion: “La dictature est encore là, dans la tête des citoyens.” In Tunisia, civilian control is a daily business: this population will not quickly forget the habits cultivated in the times of Ben Ali’s regime. Although the practice of civilians reporting to the police is no longer very common and a secret service officially no longer exists (at least not for this sort of thing), gossip has a very offensive and inhibitory effect on the behaviour of many citizens.

But the change is coming. We were amused with the story of a choreographer/ dancer whose neighbours advised him not to practice any longer in his living room –this would be unchaste. Like many artists, the man dismissed their opinion and continues dancing, now in front of the window of his room, the curtains open.  Subcutaneous resistance appears to be a popular strategy in the arts and cultural sector. But programmers of the major festivals and theatres as well as the media go very gently to express their substantive positions: the possibility to be blacklisted by the government is a reality. Whoever gets ‘caught’ on an ‘erroneous’ creation or programme should openly apologize and renounce their profession. An example? In May 2012 Nessma TV broadcasted Marianne Satrapi’s animated film ‘Persepolis’ (2007) and was convicted of blasphemy and disrupting public order. Although then-President Marzouki expressed in the press his regret regarding the sentence (he said this event would place Tunisia in a bad light internationally), the television station was heftily fined and the director resigned.

Many artists respond quite negatively to these ‘moderate’ organizers and festivals: these types of events are dismissed as ‘safe’ – too conventional thus uninteresting –even as cowardly and counterproductive for the common good. In addition, ticket prices for these events and festivals are sometimes twice the wage of a worker, farmer or artisanal craftsman. The artistic scene of Tunis grinds it teeth while looking down on this cultural ‘midfield’. The symbol of all this is probably a brand new cultural complex, plumped right down on the edge of town. Including an auditorium that can accommodate more than five thousand people, this never opened futuristic-looking building is already run down. This is clearly not what Tunis needs.


Although some more radical artists consciously look for shock value, in the scene there lives a deep-seated belief in the arts as an engine of democracy. “Culture exists to ensure that people do not confuse democracy, anarchy and freedom,” whispers an older actor, looking me straight into the eyes. “To create awareness about the state of the environment and the dangers of extremist thinking.” There are many exciting projects that try to reconcile the artistic field directly with the social. Our host in Tunis, the artists’ collective l’Association L’Art Rue, has since 2006 been developing artistic projects that communicate closely with the territory where they occur.

November 2007, in the streets and squares of the Medina, the first edition of the interdisciplinary arts festival, Dream City, took place. Remarkable detail: this was on November 7, the anniversary of Ben Ali, a day that the police have their hands full with official festivities. In the meantime, this biennial festival became an important happening in the arts world where prominent African artists from a range of disciplines gladly take part in (note: because of the revolution, the past four editions took place in a mangled rhythm). Although about half of Dream City’s artistic participants have been threatened with death - mostly via SMS and email; from one circulates a montage video in which she gets beheaded - no one wants to stop creating. These artists are more afraid of indifference than of opponents. L’Art Rue also works with so-called ‘laboratoires’: workshops in public space where international experts and artists collaborate with local populations. For instance, the organization launched the project Laaroussa in 2010, in the rural region of Sejnane, northwest of Tunis. For them, a collective of a dozen contemporary artists collaborates closely with some sixty female potters/ ceramists. Thanks to the help of the contemporary artists, today the women’s craftsmanship finds its way to shops and galleries in the cities where it is sold for a fair price.  Another example of a both socially and artistically exciting project we find in Mass’Art, a tiny organization in a suburb of Tunis, that programs (largely due to the enthusiasm of volunteers - the organization has only two paid employees), an ongoing series of activities by and for local residents. Unofficially founded in 2007 and officially in 2010, during the revolution this place was a refuge for young people and dissenters before it grew into a community centre. Today Mass’Art literally builds on the future by conducting modest artistic experiments on a small scale. Here toddlers, children and teens learn for example how to make a movie, to write or act out a scenario: precious seeds for a possible creative future.

Ive Stevenheydens

This ‘cultural safari’ through Tunis took place from 10 to December 13 2014 and was organized by IETM - International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (www.ietm.org). Another, Dutch version of this report was published in the magazine Metropolis M. (www.metropolism.com).

Thanks to all the artists and organizers. Special thanks to Sofiane Ouisi, Béatrice Dunoyer, Moufida Fedhila, Bahri Ben Yahmed, Zeineb Farhat, Hélé Beji, Sana Tamzini, Souad Ben Slimane, Nourredine El Atti, Elena Polivtseva, Michel Quéré and Nan van Houte.


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