Tunisia’s Search for Identity

After the mass street demonstrations in Tunisia which brought about a change in government and inspired the Arab Spring, Alison Kieler revisits a country unsure about its identity and future.
Photo by Xavier Donut
Photo by Xavier Donut

Outside Tunisia, the newspaper headlines speak of turmoil, failure, clash, unrest, and crisis. They conjure up images of storms overhead, restlessness in the streets. In Tunisia, those headlines seem out of touch with reality.

In the city centre of coastal Sousse, a taxi driver recognizes a friend in the taxi ahead and speeds up to pull alongside him. He shouts a greeting through the open windows and the two dally for a moment, exchanging inquiries and well-wishes. Behind them drivers honk their horns. One throws his hands in the air. There is no rush though, not really. Everyone is late here and the sun is shining. A motorcyclist passes carefree in the opposite direction of traffic. On the side of the road, men lounge at a café, mint teas at the table. In their hands are cell phones and playing cards, cigarettes and shisha pipes. Smoke wafts around them.

The surrounding landscapes are at peace. Most days the sea is soothing; the countless rows of olive trees, once a source of wealth for the ancient Romans, stand steadfast.  Further south, the desert is a mesmerizing expanse of uninterrupted wilderness.

It is true – the air is tense since the revolution over two years ago. In many ways Tunisia is a progressive anomaly in the traditionally conservative Arab Muslim world, and the country is replete with cultural contradictions that inspire apprehension. Yet the unease is not always evident. One moment the tension is palpable, the next forgettable. Most days, amid the contradiction, life continues much as before.

There are fewer tourists these days and the role of religion has undoubtedly taken a more prominent position in society. But in lieu of turmoil, I find helpful passers-by, smiling vendors asking why I am here. Even the attendant of the nearby internet café who claims to be an Islamist is excited to discover I am an American. Our smiles defuse any tension. “You’re the first American I’ve ever spoken to,” he says after we’ve talked for a while. He adds, as though it were a surprise to him: “You’re nice.”

In time I notice the tension. It starts with bad news, isolated but ominous. An audacious rape, a ludicrous political speech, an attack by religious militants on law enforcement. The news never bodes well and occasionally sounds worse than it is. In late May, there is word of a clash in northern Tunisia that left one dead. Further inquiry reveals that the victim was an elderly shopkeeper who suffered a heart attack while others quarreled. The initial shock is nonetheless persistent. The next day is sunny again but the mood has shifted. People are taking note of the changes, the disagreements evolving around them. They wonder what is happening behind the scenes.

Some changes are clear. During the era of Ben Ali individuals were imprisoned for their religious zeal; now they demonstrate their convictions proudly. Men known as Salafists grow long beards and boast dark marks on their foreheads, demonstrating the frequency and passion with which they pray, forehead pressed to the ground in supplication to God. A minority of women don the niqab, the loose, drably colored expanse of cloth imported from Saudi Arabia that covers any hint of feminine allure.

Other differences are more difficult to discern.

In the beauty salon weeks after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a respected lawyer and political opposition leader gunned down one morning in early February, a lively conversation among women goes quiet.  There is broad consensus that Belaid, for all his patriotism, should be regarded as a martyr. Indeed, the thousands of people who took to the streets to denounce his assassination made up a demonstration even larger than any which took place during the Arab Spring in Tunisia. Yet not all demonstrate sympathy. A woman receiving a manicure listens to the others’ mournful remarks about Belaid before interjecting brusquely.

“He doesn’t deserve martyrdom,” she says. “He was not a person of values, and neither is his widow.”

The others fall quiet, finding no point in arguing. In the silence they question her allegiances, her sources of income. Which government, for which interests, paid her to say such atrocious things? All that is audible is the grinding of the nail file against the woman’s nails.

This is a struggle over a national identity that never organically developed and was never agreed upon by the people. This is a quest for the invisible strings that tie Tunisians together. And, indeed, the ideological divide appears so cavernous at times that a compromise seems impossible. This is an elite secular minority versus Islamism, topless European tourists versus the suffocating morals imported from Saudi Arabia.

According to foreign reports, the revolution that started the Arab Spring was successful. The people demonstrated the power of democracy, and they succeeded in toppling a greedy dictatorship. Internally, many who protested the Ben Ali regime now regret the passing of an educated power, however corrupt it may have been. At least then there was an understanding of how things would be. The powers wronging the country were known. The direction was known. Now, political prisoners held under Ben Ali for their religious views are politicians. Their vacillating attempts to appease both sides of the spectrum are disingenuous, and who knows what will really come?

Far from idealizing democracy, many Tunisians express concern about their newfound responsibilities. “We never asked for democracy, not really,” says a friend of mine.  “When we were in the streets protesting, we demanded freedom, dignity, and work. We were never ready for democracy!”

It is more than a matter of a population prepared to partake in debate and tolerate dissenting opinions. Rather, for many, it is difficult to imagine that others will not abuse democracy to install, paradoxically, a repressive religious state. It does not help that young people deeply distrust their politicians. Youth are raised on noxious stories of political manipulation and deceit by foreign power; now they view their political leaders as cronies of countries such as the United States, France, or Saudi Arabia. “Democracy came too soon,” says another friend simply, “too soon.”It is little surprise then that the country is replete with contradiction. On the beach, women lounge in nearly nothing. Others wade into the water covered from head to toe in hijab. Young men patrol the coast for une romance de vacances, flirting shamelessly with tourists until they receive a positive response. Their girlfriends and fiancées at home speak of the moral value of a chaste woman.

At fundamentalist mosques, men gather to listen to fiery sermons filled with political significance. Nearby, young people dance salaciously and drink liberally in the clubs; they stumble home just before the first call to prayer begins. In response to a decline in tourism, some resort to theft, while others do all they can do make visitors feel welcome.

With the contradiction comes uncertainty. This is the Tunisia of warm Mediterranean hearts and tourist beaches, endless hospitality and large, dramatic families. Yet paradoxically, for all its vibrancy, there is a sense of hopelessness. If the young generations of Tunisia could be described in one word it might well be lost. Young people who protested because there were no jobs now face an even more troubled economy. They are not used to imagining what might make this beautiful country great; rather, they imagine everywhere else is better. They pine for the life they see and hear about in American films and music, not imagining other places have social problems of their own. They dream of escape.

They may be young men who were forced to quit their studies and sell cigarettes. They may be privileged children who stand so far above the rest that they scorn an association with others more “Arab” then themselves. They may be women struggling with strict traditions. Their stories are varied, some more desperate, some with fairytale endings. But all seek self-validation and an identification to be proud of.

Young people with their eyes cast outward apply for visas so they can live in France. They get scammed by phony U.S. Green Card sites. If they cannot leave by conventional means they climb onto boats that go to Italy in the dark of the night, knowing full well that some boats do not make it.

With no legal recourse, some endure terrifying work experiences. Abroad they are astounded by how much they do not fit in. The racism is not necessarily blatant, but a persistent sense of being judged: in France, it is in the way others regard them on the metro, the sound of their Arabic names from the mouths of others, the reputations of the immigrant-filled banlieues in the outskirts of Paris. They learned French in school as children, but suddenly their French seems so unrefined.

More lost overseas than they were before, many turn to an extreme version of their religion. It is as though it had been designed just for them:  it provides an identity, condemns the world’s wrongs, and promises the allure of an ultimate justice.

The elite protected by the former regime are still elite; they only put more locks on their belongings. They put their children in private French schools and build new businesses that their children will one day inherit. Their children never face failure. They thrive off the security of their parents’ status. They drive nice cars and live in fancy homes and presidential suites. They make grand gestures of generosity with their friends and lovers, always taking the bill at the end of the evening. Beyond a grand front of confidence they flounder in personal inquietude. There is little comfort to be found in the luxury they will always know. Their appeal is in their status and not in their strength of character.

Women, meanwhile, face increased social pressures. “Sometimes I feel like I am missing something when I leave the house,” my friend told me once. “Then I realize I am missing nothing. It is just that I am feeling pressured to cover my head.” She takes a long drag on a cigarette. “I resist,” she says.

But more women are covering up. “Just to avoid being hassled,” some say. Others wear veils out of respect for their families, or at the request of a brother, father, or husband. They may cite the Koran. Some claim that they would like to wear the veil but do not because of political instability.

“What if things changed again and I had to take it off again after I started to wear it?” says one girl.

Those who resist veiling dismiss any notion that the practice is necessary, even for the most religiously devout. They point to a deteriorating educational system devoid of critical thinking, a poor understanding of the Koran, and the importation of Saudi Arabian values to their country. “N’importe quoi,” they say, after hearing the reasons why their Muslim sisters are veiling. Nonsense.

One young Tunisian, a girl named Amina, sparked a heated controversy by joining the feminist group FEMEN, a Ukrainian-based organization known for its topless protests against repressive social trends. Amina posted a photograph of herself online in which she appeared bare-breasted, reading a book and smoking a cigarette. Scrawled on her body in Arabic is: “My body is my own, and is not the not the source of anyone’s honor.” Her family promptly denounced the girl and her actions. Even my resisting friend was shocked. “Too much,” she said sorrowfully after seeing the news.  “She went too far …”

It was another instance of the contradiction.

In late July, during the holy month of Ramadan, another opposition leader, Mohamed Brahmi, was gunned down. Soon after, several Tunisian soldiers were killed in a horrific ambush on the Algerian border. All around the nation, people hung their heads in mournful disbelief. What had this nation come to, and where was it going?

The tension in the air was thick.

No one has forgotten, but with time, the shock has dissipated. The tension will surface again soon, and moods will turn edgy – it is inevitable. There is too much division, too much uncertainty, too many young people yearning for escape. But in the moment, amid all the contradictions, things are well. The sun is shining thanks be to God, hamdullah. Life goes on.

Alison Kieler

Alison Kieler

Alison Kieler is an international development practitioner and a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She currently resides in Italy and has previously lived in Tunisia and the country of Georgia. She is originally from Kansas, USA.

Alison Kieler is an international development practitioner and a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She currently resides in Italy and has previously lived in Tunisia and the country of Georgia. She is originally from Kansas, USA.

One comment

  1. Taief3 says:

    (y) 80% representative of the situation (objective approach +1) , but here we were tired of politic
    nothing can realy shock us anymore , everything is trivialized ..

    Both extreme left and right squabbling for power, none of them come to understand the expectations of the people and the people are simply “lost” .

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