Tunisia: Empowerment through the Arts

Tunisia: Empowerment through the ArtsArtistic interventions on cars burnt during the Tunisian revolution
10 min 16Approximate reading time

The sufferance marking the legacy of sixty years of dictatorship cannot be felt, touched and expressed through the sophisticated speeches of politicians and government members. It is only through the stories of victims that pain and hope can be crystalized. The bridge between the darkness of the past and the lightness of the future can be truthfully and faithfully revealed in the honest tears of a mother who wants to bury her son, in the deep breath of a prisoner for whom torture became a matter of daily routine and in the harsh guilt of someone who witnessed the persecution of his friends but who was coerced to fake the circumstances of their deaths.

The paintings of the revolution on the walls


It is in their stories that victims turn into survivors. It is the deep meaning of their testimonies that shapes our collective memory and defines the landscape of the fight for justice.   Their testimonies are not just mere episodes of the past. They ―make sense of the world by telling stories. In that way all of us are like Scheherazade who had to make up stories in order to stay alive. This is why the first public hearing of the victims of Tunisia’s past dictatorship, organized by the Truth and Dignity Commission on the 17th of November 20163, was more than a political event. It was an historic moment for the country’s collective memory as well as for its future. The importance of such a hearing could be felt through these touching words of a mother’s victim saying ‘I know to God he's a martyr, to me he's a hero, but I want it written down in history.’ The echoing voices of the victims’ stories and their teardrop going down from time to time are still persisted in my mind, but the testimony that touched me the most was of a victim that succeeded to move on from being a passive subject of painful past memories and became an active actor in the reform movement. In his testimony Sami Brahem did not only speak about the physical torture that he suffered, but he also stressed that what hurt him more was the fact that the former regime played on the symbols through committing the most horrible torture sessions by persons who were supposed to be charged with reform and at dates that should be internationally and nationally linked to human rights and dignity. Brahem gave an account of how he was tortured on the 10th of December 1992, on the human rights day, after a session that had been organized in the prison on the respect and the fulfillment of human rights standards by Ben Ali regime. He was tortured right after the conference, in a room next to the conference place by the responsible on the prison himself, who was charged with a reform mission. Furthermore, he described how the political prisoners were horribly tortured and humiliated on the 20th of March 1994, which coincides with the national Independence Day. Brahem insisted that the symbolic aspect of these dates makes it impossible for him to forget such an attack on his dignity as human being and as Tunisian citizen. Despite of the pain that heavily marked his past, Brahem succeeded to turn the page of the past, to transform the dark memories into positive energy and to engage in the civil society where he is currently a researcher with the Tunisian Centre for Research and Studies on Terrorism. Another prominent figure of the scene was Gilbert Naccache, who suffered for years in prison from torture and inhuman treatment. Naccache transformed his torment into pieces of literature and he is currently well known for his publications. He wrote his first book when he was in prison on the papers of the cigarettes’ packages where he recited the resistance and the daily struggle of the political prisoners. The years he passed between the walls of prison inspired him to tackle the idea of liberty, fear and marginalization through literature. In his writings, Naccache is reconstructing the collective memory and designing the concept of freedom and justice from the perspective and the aspiration of a political prisoner. Through these eminent examples, we can conclude on the significance and the power of intellectual and cultural tools in the empowerment and the rehabilitation of citizens in general and victims in particular. Intellectual and cultural life should not be restricted to elites. It should engage all citizens from all backgrounds, social classes and generations.  


Empowerment and participation through arts and culture

Art in particular and culture in general, is in itself is revolutionary. After the outbreak of the revolution, citizens won back their freedom and started to develop and create new forms of arts. It is through art that public awareness is raised and that the ambitions and aspiration of people are expressed. In fact, as Edward T.Hall expressed ‘culture guides attention, helping us decide those stimuli to which we will pay attention’. Culture is the fundament upon which human societies have been built. Cultural and artistic tools have fostered a more dynamic civil society and attracted more citizens to take part in the creation of durable democratic institutions. One of the first artistic initiatives was lunched by a young artist who decided to transform the cars that had been set in fire during the first demonstrations to piece of art. Artists, students, employers etc. had participated in this project and the damaged cars had turned into blooming objects in bright colors, adorned with revolutionary graffiti. People from different social classes, ages and regions have participated in this initiative and have opened up an artistic front. On the other hand, the graffiti transforms the walls of rural neighborhoods into a public space for collective creativity. The murals reflecting the revolutionary symbols became the voice of marginalized people. The protestors claiming their rights made a dramatic change in the way they are expressing their anger. Instead of violence and destruction, they transformed their anger and hope into art and creativity. The peace of colors and arts has absorbed the volcano of popular frustration. Art in itself is a human right, it is freedom. Tunisian flag is a common icon in most of the artistic pieces. This means that art unifies people unlike politics that divides them. Art revives the feelings of nationalism and the sense of belonging to one country and shared destiny. It removes the differences and barriers of ideologies and social classes. Art brings people together around one symbol and one hope. They become united under the national flag instead of being separated under the flags of political parties. The human fist has been also a common feature of the popular artistic works. Such a symbol reflects people’s willingness to shape the identity of the new state institutions and to be the major actors and leaders in the reform process. This means that through this form of art people are expressing ownership of their country, identity and values. Streets are not anymore the sphere of politicians to make their sophisticated speeches and slogans. They become the common space of people to perform their poems, plays and songs. Theatre, poetry and chants become pivotal in communicating public emotions and in inciting people to peacefully protesting. This means that art does not only accompany revolutions, but further it raises the awareness of people and motivates their claims for justice.

The Tunisian theatre enacted the spirit of resistance, reflecting the spirit of revolution. Several plays have tackled the issue of corruption and the need for a fair distributive justice. The cultural project Street Poetry is an initiative to use the local dialect for performing poetry in the streets and the public spaces. Through the use of the popular dialect in their writings, poets seek to reach and to target people from all educational backgrounds, generations and social classes. It is a step toward unifying people and shaping the public awareness by communicating in the language that all citizens can understand. Through these examples which are by no means exhaustive but only illustrative, we can conclude by saying that art is not a mere manifestation; art in all its forms is deeply placed in the heart of justice process.