Tunisia: Entering the Aquarium


The sky was the first thing that attracted my attention when we were departing from Carthage airport in Tunis the capital. The Tunisian sky was pure, exhibiting several and progressive degrees of blueness while containing very visible autumn clouds which defined the warmth of the day and made us realise once again that we don’t have a sky in Cairo. The high buildings, smoke and dust keep us distracted from sky, in a way that for Cairo inhabitants, the sky is forgotten until they get out of Cairo, or when there is a power cut.
But why compare? Comparison might hurt one party and block the right vision, but we see the world from backgrounds that allow us to arrange things according to our vision. Comparison here plays a further role in detecting what we and others have.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumThe coldness of marble
The sky of Tunis was not the first contact. The first encounter happened a few moments earlier, inside the airport hall when we went to change some money. We asked the employee about the price of the Dinars against the dollar, which we intended to change. I asked him if we could change Egyptian pounds. He looked at me and replied wryly, “The Egyptian pound is not a currency!" The reply was so dry, prompting my colleague to halt the process and demand the employee to give back the dollars which we wanted to change, but the employee retorted with the same degree of dryness: "Neither Egyptian pounds nor Tunisian Dinars are currencies". The remedy offered by the employee did not completely erase the effect of what he had said earlier, neither the scene of his hand strongly striking the marble counter in front of us when he gave us our money back. We withdrew amazed by the aridness of the guy and his mighty stroke, but we found the same brusque blow when we wanted to change some money elsewhere... At first we thought it was the employee … then we thought that perhaps Egyptians were not welcome here.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumThe Egyptian legend
Somehow the Egyptians think that their colloquial dialect is understood everywhere in the Arab world. Given all the known songs, movies, TV, radio, the famous ‘Voice of the Arabs’, Umm Kulthum, Abdul Wahab, Jamal Abdul Nasser and other famous figures who played different roles throughout the twentieth century particularly during the second half of the last century. However, the moment we entered the taxi, the result of the first test of this hypothesis was not in our favour. Almost every phrase we said to the driver had to be repeated, especially when we came to bargaining the price.
Despite the initial stereotypical idea of Egypt, as stated by the driver, "Taxis in Egypt do not have counters. You charge us a lot of money", he said while pressing the buttons of the counter to raise the tariff. Nevertheless, thanks to the signals we were able to understand his game and pay a reasonable price at the end, but we were afraid of the image of "Egypt” that the locals had.
A touch of urban modernity

After roaming in the streets of the city, I wondered why Tunisia is called green, because the dominant colour in the city is mostly white. The architecture of the city is calm, in general buildings are not high, five or six stories mostly - except for government buildings which rose much higher, but frequently in separate patches., With its wide spectrum, the whiteness prevails in the streets making them noticeably luminous throughout the day whereas night is not pitch black.

The European building style is mainly evident in the central part of the city. Metal balconies and adornments covering the facades of houses remind the country’s recent history. Consistency in building styles creates a visual harmony in the street. Other details like motorists respecting pedestrians and traffic lights tell you that there is a pervasive extension of modernity in the daily behaviour of the Tunisian citizen.

Even the alleys of Tunis are characterized by the colour white and by their distinctive composition. Houses seem small and contiguous and form an endless network of white alleys.

The city sleeps early like most European cities. Shops start closing at eight, followed by coffee shops and bars. By ten o’clock the city is almost empty -except from some accelerating cars- waiting to begin a new day in the early morning.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumIn Search of the Revolution
“Revolution” … I walk in the streets looking for the traces of the revolution on the walls, in the chanting of a demonstration that I approach or in an ongoing debate between two people in the tram, or with a taxi driver. It did not look like a “revolution” in the sense of a clash with “authority” like the Egyptian one because the revolutionary wheel in Tunisia has already turned to another point. The army in Tunisia is different from the army in Egypt; here, elections have been held and resulted in a Constituent Assembly. Even if several people were not pleased with results, everyone recognized the fact that elections were democratic and transparent. In today’s Tunisia, the main debate focuses on the Council, the “Nahdha” political party and the completion of the democratic transition. Despite the latest violent clashes in “Al-Qasrain” and “Gafsa” last week, direct clashes are not on the agenda. They don’t seem to occupy the ongoing daily debate.

Most of the Graffiti in tunnels and tram stations are related to the period of the first revolution and revolve around Ben Ali corruption rather than issues that followed his fall. Tunisians apprehend “what will happen next”, “what will the new rulers do?” Besides, everyone is anxious about the “share” that political parties will have in the future government.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumTunisian fear
“The wearing of the veil has spread after the revolution” is a statement I have heard several times. The veil in Tunisia is the normal “Isharb” in Egypt, whereas the “Khimār” is rare and mainly worn by elderly women. However, the “Niqāb” remains a completely new and remarkable phenomenon. After a week in the city, I only noticed one or two women wearing a black Niqāb. Passers-by looked at them with the same degree of strangeness with which we look at women wearing mini-skirts in Cairo. In contemporary Tunisia, the “Hijāb” is perceived as a new threat to the rights modern Tunisian woman have obtained.

Leader modernity
Undoubtedly “Al-Habib Bourguiba”, or Borgibah, as Tunisians say, was the most influential leader in the history of modern Tunisia. In a way Borgibah was like Abdul Nasser in Egypt. He is the father of Independence. He is also the godfather of the most radical modernizing decisions in the history of the country. The difference between Nasser and Borgibah is that Nasser remained trapped in the battle of Arab nationalism in Yemen, Syria and Algeria, up to the defeat of 1967 and the lack of clarity of the updating model that Nasser wanted Egypt to follow. On the other hand Borgibah was focused on resolving internal issues first. National development comes at later stages. As from the beginning, Borgibah realized that Tunisia is a resource-poor country so he decided to invest in “education” as he believed it was the only capital of Tunisia. Besides, unlike “Nasser”, Borgibah saw in Europe, a model of modernization to follow.

Sanim Ben Abdallah, professor of sociology at the University of Tunis does not agree. He rejects attributing Tunisian modernization to Borgibah and argues that the process started much earlier. Tunisia banned slavery before the US, and the first constitution in the Arab world appeared in Tunisia in 1886. Moreover, during the 19th Century, the Sadiki College played an important role in changing the vision of the development of Sharia among the community. The status of women was already advanced. Islamic jurisprudence acknowledged what is known as “The Dowry of Arwa” who was the first woman -from Kairouan- to introduce the possibility of divorce if the husband marries a second wife.

In the early 1930’s, Tahar Haddad’s book “Our Woman in Law and Society” shows that seeds of modernization had been planted in Tunisian society, so when Borgibah issued the Personal Status Law in 1956 - the year of independence – banning polygamy, the Act was not met with community opposition except for slight resistance from Al-Zaytuna traditional jurists. Tunisian society in general was prepared to receive such a law. In 1958, Borgibah’s decisions in the field of education, especially free education and gender diversity were also adopted without any violent resistance.

Ghannouchi... how close to the people you are?
The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia was held last Tuesday. The Assembly affirmed the allocation of key positions to major winning parties in the elections. Outside the House of Representatives, leftist and secularist forces organized a huge demonstration aiming to send a strong message to the Islamist Nahdha Party and show that the people will not give up what they have achieved over history. The majority of demonstrators were women as they feel threatened. They led discussions and disputes with Nahdha activist groups who attended the event. The voice of Tunisian women seems to be very strong. Moreover, Islamist activists did not reject debating with a woman because she is a woman. They discussed openly and their voice rose with their slogans without any reference to gender. It was a debate between two “citizens” who have the same rights and duties. The physical distance between men and women show that the woman is considered as a “citizen” and not only as “female”. It made no difference whether the speaker of each side was a man or a woman.

Assurances avowed by the Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Nahdha Party do not seem to reassure the Tunisians. At least this is how it is perceived in Egypt. Alternatively “Muslim Brothers” and “Salafists” are seen as threatening monsters. People are afraid of the past experiences of Islam in Algeria and Iran. On the other hand, al-Nahdha leaders make conflicting statements. For instance, shortly after election results were announced, Hamadi Jebali, the Tunisian Prime Minister member of al-Nahdha, said: “Now we celebrate the establishment of the sixth Righteous Caliphate!” promoting a state of fear. The manipulated statements of party leaders and the divergent and contradictory actions of the party’s members do not reassure the Tunisian population.

Tired of treason
A few days are not enough to “know” a place. They may be sufficient to form a few impressions but “Egypt” seemed to be a rather heavy concept for Tunisians. The ‘presumed’ Egyptian ‘dominance’ is not real for them. Football competition seemed to be quite important as the first question asked by many people when they hear Egyptian accent was: “Are you with al-Ahli or Zamalek?” The question does not seem to be intended as a greeting but a way to open a dialogue to talk about the victories achieved by the “Tunisian Espérance” or “The African Club” over any Egyptians team.

During a demonstration of the Constituent Assembly I was talking with a Tunisian journalist, who spoke “a compromised language” something between Tunisian and Egyptian. Crossing from behind, a young man stopped and told her, “Why are you talking to him in Egyptian? Speak Tunisian, so that he can understand us”.

According to Sanim Ben Abdallah, Tunisians are tired of the stereotypical images invented by the Arab Mashrek headed by Egypt. Sanim believes that in many cases, this picture has nothing to do with reality. While Taha Hussein once said that the Arab people who pronounce Arabic letters most accurately are the Tunisians, the most prominent of these images is that the Tunisian is westernized, and speaks more French than Arabic. Ben Abdullah adds that during a scientific conference, an Egyptian can speak freely in English without facing any charges of estrangement, while when a Tunisian speaks a word in French, he or she faces the accusations of being an expatriate and unable to speak Arabic.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumRacism in football and politics
When I asked Ridha Tlili, university professor and a veteran unionist: “why do Tunisians dislike Egyptians?” “Listen ...” he said, “In his last days Borgibah, as well as the Ben Ali regime, played with the ‘populist trends’ of Tunisians. What does it mean when we hear that “Egypt is the Mother of the World” when it is a poor country suffering from Islamist control, when the language of dialogue is violence? This is why in Tunisia, the new generation grew up with a so-called “Tunisian pride”. One should not forget the role played by the Mubarak regime during the World Cup on the occasion of the match between Egypt and Algeria in Cairo. Egyptian media described all Maghreb people in general as “Berber”, “barbaric”, “uncivilized” etc. This clearly fuelled populist conflicts between the two countries”.
I ask him: “What about the revolution? Didn’t it play any role in erasing this misunderstanding?” He answers: “The revolution in Egypt is still facing many difficulties. The Islamists’ control seems very scary. The violence and the position of Christians… This is why Tunisians look cautiously at what is happening in Egypt”.

The Egyptian Revolution
The contrast between the Egyptian revolution and its counterpart in Tunisia is like having two relative disciples, the first one went to premium schools and excelled in his studies, while the other one went to a regular government school and still finds difficulties in overcoming educational stages. The picture transmitted to Tunisians through the media only shows the violence taking place in Egypt between Muslims and Christians, or the sporadic incidents between the police and public. Most of those I met believe the revolution in Egypt as being lost and believe that the Islamists will take control.
During a demonstration of the Constituent Assembly, Tunisian popular actress Raja Ben Ammar, commenting the events taking place in Tahrir Square, told me: “Egypt has taught us that the revolution can be resumed”. The fact that Tunisia was the first to move and that its revolution was the least bloody when compared to Libya, Syria, Yemen and Egypt, pushed Tunisians to return to their normal lives merely watching what is happening in the neighbourhood, even though the country opened its doors to nearly one million refugees from Libya.

Tunisia: Entering the AquariumReassurance
Tunisia looks like an aquarium. The fish got used to their basin so any outsider would raise the ire of those at home. It’s like when a stone is thrown into an aquarium; the fish will continue to look at it dreadfully until they feel safe and get used to it.

Tunisia’s history, its remoteness from events in Egypt and Syria and the approach followed by Borgibah in developing the country independently, in isolation from the surrounding countries, have contributed to boost Tunisian pride. Besides, the surrounding countries never acknowledged the Tunisian values and qualities; Tunisians feel “wounded” by lack of recognition, they are very protective.

A Tunisian needs to be reassured before being generous and welcoming. The revolution put Tunisia at the heart of events. Tunisia was the detonating spark and the first to accomplish the first steps to freedom. This is how we see Tunisia: green, white, red, brave and revolutionary. Egyptians and Tunisians both need to see each other from a different perspective, far from the old stereotypes.


Mohammed Faraj
Translated from Arabic by Walid Nabhan

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