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Tunisia: A Time of Uncertainty

By Cécile Oumhani

As we board the plane just before sunrise, a police car pulls up on the tarmac. Hardly have I reached my seat, when I hear a man yelling at the back. He sits handcuffed between two policemen. “Let me be,” he shouts in the intervals of his long mad screams. Who is he? Why is he being transported from Paris to Tunis on the early morning flight? Whether he is an illegal immigrant or guilty of some crime I know nothing about, the scene is full of pain. Why should anyone scream on going back to their native land? Silence weighs upon the passengers as the flight attendants nervously walk up and down the aisle. Mothers ask to change seats, so that their children may avoid hearing him, if this is possible. It takes forty-five minutes for the man to fall silent, his head lowered in shame under his navy-blue cap. Has Tunisia become such a terrible place to be in that he should dread returning so much?

When we arrive on February 18, 2013, the whole country is still reeling with the shock of the assassination of Chokri Belaïd, a highly respected leader of the secular, democratic opposition, barely two weeks before. Such violence does not belong to the history of Tunisia, people keep repeating, deeply attached to the peaceful, tolerant image usually associated with their country.  Belaïd’s funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners onto the streets, and the country ground to a halt after a call for a general strike.  Breaking with tradition, large numbers of women followed the coffin to the cemetery with Belaïd’s widow, Basma Khelfaoui, a person of exceptional courage and dignity.

Gray and white shreds of clouds scuttle across the noon sky, as we drive on the country roads of the northern part of Tunisia I have known for several decades. On either side of the road, olive trees, cypresses, and orange trees loom on the horizon, as far as the eye can see. Groups of teenagers in black winter anoraks are walking back from school.

"The situation is simply disastrous.  A catastrophe!” exclaims our friend, the high-school headmaster. A solemn figure in his dark woolen coat, he sits behind heaps of paper, piled all over his desk. He pauses, lifting his hands in despair. I have just asked him about the Revolution, the Arab Spring that lit hopes across the country two years ago.  I take one sip of the bitter coffee we have started drinking. Meat has become an unaffordable luxury. The price of milk has doubled. “How are people going to feed their families?” Foreign investors are turning away from Tunisia, made wary by a time of uncertainty.  “What work can people find for a living?”

I take another sip of black coffee, searching his eyes for a tiny light of optimism. “But what about schools? The curriculum? Teaching methods?”

“Nothing has changed, nothing,” he replies grimly.

“You are not telling me you are still teaching History classes on the achievements of the former president?”

“Of course not. But the books are still the same; except for a few chapters we now skip.”

In the garden outside his office, the rosemary bushes are in full bloom, dotted all over with blue specks. The whitewashed walls are covered with graffiti. “Never give up, bear up till you succeed!” “When the pressure-cooker boils on for too long, it ends up exploding!” The slogans are different from what they were two years ago. Such words as “revolution” or phrases like “power to the people” seem less omnipresent.  But whatever their disillusionment and fears for the future, Tunisians have certainly not stopped thinking or expressing themselves.

As we take leave, our friend mentions Salafists sometimes hanging around, scaring everyone with outfits and manners foreign to Tunisian tradition. Salafists, extremist Sunni Muslims, believe in a return to the origins of Islam, or rather to what they think it was. Some of them are ultraconservatives, but others are also jihadists and thus violent and aggressive. Never, he says, will he let them intimidate him.

Shepherds dressed in thick brown kachabias stand on hillocks gazing at their flocks of sheep and goats, seemingly oblivious of the turmoils of the present. Women in bright red dresses are busy picking broad beans in the fields, a feature in the landscape, unchanged in all the years I have been here.

We stop at the pharmacy for a medication. B. addresses the pharmacist in French, as he knows of no Arabic translation for the substance he is looking for. A Salafist waiting at the counter says loud enough for him to hear: “Can’t he speak Arabic?” An unexpected confrontation with the reactionary trend now openly running through Tunisian society . . .  For Islamists, using a language other than Arabic is nothing short of linguistic pollution. Taken by surprise, B. chooses to ignore him. Will rejecting foreign languages solve the social and economic problems in Tunisia, any better than imposing an extremist version of religion Tunisians consider alien to them?

M. is a retired schoolteacher, who has always had a passion for literature. She folds her legs against the sapphire-blue cushions on her sofa and turns her dark sensitive eyes to me. As she has several times over the years, she evokes her paternal grandmother, who abandoned the family in the early 1900s. Rather than live with her husband’s second wife and accept polygamy, she left him to settle with her brothers in a large town north of Tunis. In reprisal, her former husband never let her see her son again. The child grew up missing her. M. always wondered about a woman brave enough to resist the  restrictions of her time. She sighs, telling me of her long, sleepless nights. “I am not worrying about my own life. I keep thinking of my four granddaughters. They are so sweet. I love them and I would hate it if they had to go back to the sort of life my grandmother had. I did not imagine women could lose the rights they obtained in 1956.”

I try to reassure her, insisting that only half of the population of voting age participated in the 2011 election, which means around 20% of the Tunisians actually chose Ennahdha, the Islamist party. She sneers, bitter. An illiterate woman in a remote village not far from where we are was offered money in return for a tick in the “right” box. How many more “voted” for the party in power in the same conditions, she asks herself?

A sensible, down-to-earth man, L. works for the Tunisian railways. He joins in our conversation. “I have heard of notorious drunkards who voted Ennahdha, convinced that a religious party would be more honest than the others. I can tell you they won’t give them their vote next time.”

The old Tunisian farmers’ calendar says that spring starts at the end of February. Indeed it now takes only a gentle breeze to scatter the winter clouds. Outside the village, by the main road, men are bartering among piles of yellow plastic crates filled with oranges. Children are merrily hurrying back from school.

We drive past Sidi Abdelkader’s mausoleum. I have known the place for over forty years and this is the first time I have seen its bright green wooden doors closed in the daytime. A few dozen Sufi mausoleums across the country have been recently attacked, burnt down by Salafists, who regard them as places for the impious. Tunisians are deeply attached to these places of meditation that have been part of their history and identity for so long. Sidi Abdelkader was under threat too and the population promptly organized the protection of the monument of a saint they have worshipped for centuries, in a town reputed as being a center for Sufism as early as the seventeenth century.

Further on in the street, the jewelers who had removed their goods from sight during the Revolution, in fear of burglars at large, have returned necklaces, earrings, and bracelets to their shop windows. Next door glamorous sequined bridal dresses are on display, beside a dummy wearing a black niqâb, a sinister, unprecedented vision for me.

Joyful S. embraces us warmly. She is wearing a beautiful long velvety plum-colored dress. This is her day off and she has prepared us delicious hazelnut tea. She tells us about one of her students, a seven-year-old girl, who comes to school wearing a hijâb. “Imagine. She’s just a kid.” Her Salafist father prevents her from attending the sports and music classes. There is nothing S. or the headmaster can do about it. She describes the child’s sad eyes when she has to leave the rest of the class, because they are engaged in activities forbidden to her. “They believe a woman should not be allowed to sing or practice sports, that doing so is indecent.”

In Hammamet, a renowned seaside resort, grayish-blue waves crash below the ochre ramparts. Elegant young women are cheerfully chatting away as they take an afternoon walk. A few European tourists are relishing the landscape, photographing the boats on the sand. The souvenir-shopkeepers try to get their attention, all the more eagerly as tourists have become rare over the past two years. One Tunisian out of four depends on tourism for a living. Any further decline in the sector would be dramatic for the country, already plagued by recession and unemployment.

Many Tunisians feel their Revolution and its ideals of liberty and dignity are being confiscated by the religious party in power, keener to promote a puritanical lifestyle than tackle social and economic problems, quicker to take intellectuals, journalists, and artists to court than to crack down on Salafists attacking people or monuments.   Nevertheless, people remain as determined as ever to defend what they fought for. Almost every evening, debates on television, interviews of citizens in the streets show how vocal they are.  “We want a new agenda,” says a young woman in sports gear. “Politicians in power keep moving chairs around and we, the people, are caught among the chair-legs,” complains an old man. “We no longer even watch TV,” sneer a mother and her daughter.  “I am fed up. Fed up. And please don’t cut what I have said,” exclaims a middle-aged man.

The country has been struggling through a major political crisis since Chokri Belaïd’s assassination. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned.  Ali Laârayedh, the former Minister of the Interior, was appointed to replace him, news that led to large protest demonstrations in Tunis on February 23. Echchaâb yurîd qâtel Belaïd, protesters chanted.“People want the man who assassinated Belaïd,” they shouted, complaining about the slowness of the police investigations.  And they will go on taking to the streets, as long as necessary, many tell me. They will go on demanding all the truth about the assassination. They will be adamant about the drafting of the new constitution, which was supposed to be finished within a year of the October 2011 election of the constituent assembly. They will make sure the legislative and presidential elections are scheduled.

Such determination is undoubtedly a reason for hope in an otherwise very difficult context. One of the independent TV channels, El Hiwar, has recently been in serious financial trouble.  A campaign was organized this week to help them weather the crisis. Bunches of parsley were priced at 20 Tunisian dinars instead of the normal 350 millimes. People from all social backgrounds, rich and poor, stood in line to buy them. The official minimum monthly wage in Tunisia is 180 Tunisian dinars. The parsley sold out within an hour.  A powerful sign that the Tunisian people are unwilling to let go of their Revolution.

Published Mar 13, 2013   Copyright 2013 Cécile Oumhani

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