Black Tunisians breaking taboos

Fatima-Ezzahra Bendami
Lina Benabdallah

Tunisia’s denial of its African identity persists today. Black Tunisians are fighting to change that.

Image credit Dimitry B. via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In Tunisia, racism is a well-kept secret that the revolution partially unveiled. This society, which still thinks of itself as white and Arab, has a hard time confronting the discriminations suffered by a good portion of its population.

In June 2020, on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a major artery in downtown Tunis, tribute was paid to George Floyd. Emotions and grief over the death of the African American, murdered by the police of Minneapolis, reverberated all the way to Tunisia. More than 200 people gathered in front of the municipal theater, chanting slogans and waving placards.

There were protesters of all ages and genders. Maya, 14, was possibly the youngest in the crowd. On her placard were written the names of recent victims of police violence in the US. Also on the list was Falikou Koulibaly, the head of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia (AIT), who was killed in Tunis in 2018 for speaking out about racism. “In Tunisia, there is just as much racism against black people as in the United States,” Maya said. But not everyone agrees. A passerby asked what the protesters were denouncing: “Racism? It does not exist here,” she replied. Hers is a common view.

On that sunny Saturday in June, many in the gathering  answered the call of M’nemty, a Tunisian anti-racism association. M’nemty was established in 2013 and is currently headed by Saadia Mosbah, 60, a retired flight attendant. As Mosbah spoke to the crowd about George Floyd, she could not hold back tears. “It resonates with black people all over the world and here too,” she said. “It is pretty much the same condition, more or less, to some degree. What’s particular about racism in Tunisia is that it is silent…It is an unbearable social hypocrisy.”

Two months later, we met Mosbah again, in a big villa in Bardo. Built by her father, an architect, and steps away from the parliament, it also serves as the headquarters of the organization. “M’nemty is a dream, a dream of equality for all of us,” she says, explaining the meaning of the organization’s name.

The struggle, for Mosbah, began after the revolution. The change in regime brought with it new  freedoms of speech and civic organizing.  “Before (the revolution), there were only a few movements,” Mosbah says. She recalls the activism in her own family, the work of her brother and sister, in times when freedom of speech was not granted in Tunisia: “For example, there was the singer Salah Mosbah, who celebrates and sings his negritude. He fought hard and still fights today. There was also Affet Mosbah who wrote a column, “Being black in Tunisia,” in July 2004.

The column that her sister wrote for Jeune Afrique magazine was censored: “I walked to the newsstand to pick up copies of it, I could not find anything,” Mosbah says. “The seller told me that they were all removed. Tunisians were only able to access the article after 2010 on the internet. Nobody was able to see the paper version from 2004. We bought a copy in Paris and we read it at home. I then saw the emotions and pride of my father. I think somehow she wrote what he had always thought, but never said loudly.”

Abdessattar Sahbani is a sociology professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences University in Tunis, and  an honorary member of M’nemty. Sahbani argues the state has rendered invisible, for several decades, black Tunisians, making it hard to even raise the question of racism in the country.

At independence, “there was an interest in molding Tunisia in the image of a modernist, open country,” Sahbani says. “This Tunisia was not black. This was due to the rhetoric of [Habib] Bourguiba,” Tunisia’s first president. In Bourguiba’s view, Sahbani explains, the Tunisian was “the most developed and progressive of all Africans, by far more developed than Muslims, by far more developed than Arabs. The Tunisian aspired to be European.” The resulting absence of black Tunisians in positions of power in government, politics, or the economy, he explains, resulted in marginalizing the entire community—and sidelining the question of racism.

The silence of the state on the issue of racism in Tunisia has very concrete consequences. In Tunisian society, one can be a victim of a variety of discriminations that are generally accepted as a fact of life. Saadia Mosbah worked with the national airline for 30 years, and was a cabin crew chief. One time during boarding, she recalls, “A lady halted her kids telling them they must have gotten the wrong gate; that it could not have been a TunisAir flight. I said to her, ‘you can very well see that I am wearing a uniform with the company’s badge.’” Later, during the flight, the woman asked to speak to Saadia. “She was asking me ‘But how are you Tunisian, black and a flight attendant at once?”

In Tunisia, Saadia says, “A black person is not supposed to get an education, be well-dressed, or have a car. It’s fine if they are a waiter at a café, or if they do little jobs such as shoe shining or working as a porter, but the moment they have degree, they want a professional job or to pursue higher studies, then it’s really a problem.”

It is this violent but terribly ordinary racism that Anis Chouchène tries to unpack and explain. He is a poet and a singer, so he knows the power of words. “Words have a greater impact than weapons,” he says. “A bomb’s reaction is felt in a matter of seconds, but words last longer… Words such as Kahlouch (dark-tanned), degla (date), oussif (slave), kahla (black)…I do not talk back when I am called these names.” Sometimes it hurts even more, as when people assume he is a foreigner and speak Arabic in front of him thinking that he won’t understand.

Now, Chouchène won’t let this casual racism pass. “Sometimes, I argue with my black friends, telling them to demand respect,” he says. “It hurts me to see my friends say, ‘no big deal, they didn’t do it on purpose’ when I tell them not to remain silent.” Indeed, many Tunisians consider such terms to be part of everyday language, and don’t question their pejorative meanings. “Insults have become like folklore, accepted without being questioned and adopted as a way of integrating social groups” says Sahbani.

In her childhood home, Mosbah draws on her a cigarette and recalls old memories. She was eight years old when her best friend in school called her “oussifa,” she says. “To my mother, like many other people, the word ‘oussifa’ was a word used to describe a color. To me, for whatever reason, it felt like an insult. It was something I could only feel, not describe. It’s only used toward black people and in a sanctioning tone, like a red card in football: ‘Be careful, don’t forget who you are.’”

Even as an activist, Mosbah has had to find accommodations with the ambient racism of her society. At a younger age, she often had to pretend it didn’t exist:

We denied that we ever felt discriminated against because it was so hard to talk about it, we didn’t want to say or hear anything about it. It’s a reaction that I know, it’s a reaction that I adopted myself. I was athletic and was on the national basketball team. When I entered the court, I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t hear anyone. In a match, you can miss 10 shots, even 20 shots, just imagine if each time you are called oussifa. It’s something!

Zyed Rouin, too, for a long time preferred not to face reality. The 30-year-old became involved in anti-racism work in 2013. Today, he is a pillar of M’nemty, as well as a consultant for the NGO Minority Rights Group International. Rouin says it took him a long time to realize his enforced otherness and what it meant. An encounter with Saadia Mosbah was decisive. Dis-agreeing with her at a conference, he maintained that there was no racism in Tunisia, and that he had never experienced discrimination. “She said ‘take your time, try to cobble your memories together and we’ll talk about it later,’” he now recalls. Her message struck him like an electric shock. He thought about memories he had long suppressed and realized that he had always been the only black Tunisian in his group: “At school, with my friends, I felt obliged to out-perform everyone in order to be accepted, I had to have the best grades, crack more jokes…” Rouin says. “I never had black friends. When I got on a bus, for example, if I saw a group of black people, I avoided them.”

Memories he had learned to bracket and ignore, began to flow back, for instance, from his first day of school. “My mother encouraged me by saying that at school I was going to meet new kids, that we were going to play together, that I was going to have fun,” he recalls:

I was looking forward to meeting my first new friend, but as I arrived at school, I found myself to be the only black Tunisian. It was the kids who made me understand that with expressions and phrases that I heard for the first time then. They said things like ‘What’s the matter, are you burned or what?’ or ‘You are black, it’s because God doesn’t love you,’ and I was okay with it. I found myself in a reality totally different from the one promised to me at home. The six-year-old that I was had no way of defending himself, and already children my age had arguments to explain to me that I was black and different.

For Abdessattar Sahbani, the sociologist, this denial functions as a “defense and integration mechanism…I have to protect myself and accept racism in order to fit in.” It constitutes a form of “social immunity,” he argues, that black Tunisians develop from childhood to protect themselves in a racist society. The result is a level of psychological acceptance of the idea that being black, one is not “in the same situation as other children.”

During the Tunisian revolution, Saadia Mosbah was struck by the absence of black Tunisians in the demonstrations. This too helped to spur for her own political commitment, she says:

They didn’t consider themselves to be Tunisians—or more precisely, they didn’t consider themselves to be citizens. M’nemty was formed to meet this need for belonging, for citizenship first and foremost, and then for equity. It was unacceptable that someone should be a Tunisian yet feel afraid to join the movement, to take a stand, to march in the crowd.

This problem runs deep, Mosbah says. It is entrenched, she argues, in the society’s refusal to acknowledge itself as multi-ethnic and multicultural. “Tunisia gave our African continent its name, yet it rejects its Africanness,” she says. “That’s what’s embarrassing.”

Nouri Boukhchim, a historian, shares this view. It all starts with the denial of a basic fact, he says: that Tunisia is located in the African continent. Tunisians’ gaze is turned to the Mediterranean, to the North and not the South. This is how we moved away from our Africanness, in the name of the unification of the Tunisian people,” Boukhchim says. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bourguiba launched major reforms to “modernize the Tunisian people: Everything must change, the way of life, the habitat …” All this, Boukhchim argues, led to an overhaul of the Tunisian identity, a rupture with Tunisia’s African identity that persists today. “There is a problem of denial in the Tunisian society where the African is viewed as the ‘other’.”

Boukhchim’s research, conducted with a team of colleagues in the southern regions of Tunisia, shows a different reality. The population of the region has very diverse origins. “We took 80 DNA samples from three localities,” he says. “The results were a mixture of East African, West African, and Arab. We must not forget that in the past there were no national borders, people used to move around a lot.”

As long as questions of race and racism in Tunisia are not addressed, black Tunisians will be forced to live with discrimination. In the meantime, when she’s out and about in the city, Mosbah refuses to be bothered: “I have blinders and I can’t hear anything anymore,” she says.

Because our ears have been polluted by racist remarks, by men who say things like: ‘the oussifa purifies the blood.’ They fantasize about your appearance, about your body that you want to hide; it makes you want to run away; you no longer even want to wear colors because of the annoying remarks people make on the street. Sometimes people say to me: ‘I called you, you didn’t answer me, you were in front of me, I was waving at you, you didn’t see me.’ Well, no, I can’t see anything, I can’t hear anything.

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