Tunisia: Empowerment through the Arts

Tunisia: Empowerment through the Arts
Artistic 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.


Tunisian Revolution Graffiti


The need for a transformative cultural policy  

Tunisia have demonstrated a commitment to change and reform by implementing significant transitional justice mechanisms such as the adoption of 2013 law on transitional justice and the creation of truth and dignity commission in 2013, in addition to the establishment of other commissions of enquiry and the enactment of relevant legal texts. However, although transitional justice mechanisms should encompass state-lead practices, the concept of justice needs to be more transformative. Such a transformative approach implies the focus on the role of local actors and the initiatives lunched and absorbed by the concerned community. It is in this scheme that transformative justice seeks to radically reform its politics, locus and priorities and entails a shift in focus from the legal to the social…and from the state and institutions to communities and everyday concerns. Transformative justice mechanisms go beyond the legal and criminal process within state institutions and truth commissions, to include a larger range of stakeholders and a wider approach which takes into consideration cultural, educational, social and economic perspectives. [1]In fact, there is no deep and effective change without a cultural revolution. This implies an intellectual reform that targets the pre-established norms and values, the traditional and anarchic principles, and the profound stratums of mentalities. These goals should be adopted by the state policy. The state should provide and implement a recognized institutional frame for such cultural initiatives that have been spontaneously lunched by the local civil society. As intellectual and artistic projects have succeed to prove its effective capacity to unify citizens despite of their social, educational and ideological backgrounds and to offer them a peaceful sphere to express their claims and dreams, and with regards to the testimonies that have been introduced in this article, such a cultural agenda should be adopted in order to empower, rehabilitate and reintegrate victims of dictatorship into the society. As art is mainly and firstly the manifest of human feelings, victims can revive their dignity and gain the recognition for abuses they suffered by expressing and exposing to their communities the painful experiences they went through. Art can be the bridge of communication between the victims and the society that had excluded and marginalized them for decades. It is hard to forget but it is harder to suffer alone and to keep the dark memories within oneself. Truth should be disclosed. It should become part of the national history and the collective memory. The community should honor the victims who had enough courage to raise their voices when everyone else was silent, and to suffer on behalf of the population. The past should be revealed and victims should get their dignity back as citizens and as parties to the community. Since the torture has psychological impacts, not all the victims are able and ready to speak loud and to confront the community. Art is the first step toward breaking the wall of trauma, to reintegrate them in the society and to revive the positive energy within themselves. Rama Mani argues that art is life and that creativity is survival. Art transmits invisible messages from local… If they ignore arts, policymakers lose vital clues from local populations. However, state institutions have always been centralized bodies that do not involve all citizens. It have been used as a tool to promote the state ideology. Thus, there is an urgent need for the adoption and the implementation of a new cultural policy The state institutions should be the framework of the artistic production and should assist and support the development of new forms of culture and art to transform the society, to implement an agenda of empowerment and reintegration of victims and to contribute in the success of the transitional process. As art is intimately linked to education, if people are not used to practice artistic activities in their educational curriculum, they would neither understand the essence of art nor believe in its power. Hence, it will be easier for the extremists group to target them and to convince them of the idea that art is against religion and against god’s rules. The creation of such extremist movements has a dangerous impact on the stability and the social peace of the fragile society. The solution is to establish a new educational culture in order for the citizens to be familiar with art. The state should adopt new educational policies that engage students more into art. Additionally, investing in art is not only beneficial for the social peace and the restoration of justice, but also for the economic development of the country. Art can contribute in financing the budget of the state. Such an initiative has been applied on the level of the civil society. In fact, Art for Tunisia is a project initially lunched by an artist who drew the portrait of Mohamad Bouazizi, as he was a principal character behind the revolutionary demonstrations. The artist divided the portrait into pixels to be colored by people. Ten million protesters participated in completing the piece and created a collective artistic work. This portrait in addition to other paintings inspired by the essence revolution has been exposed for sale. The money coming out of it is going to be used for the sake of financing and implementing development and investment projects in the marginalized and rural regions. Such a solution, which has been implemented on local level, could, if supported and adopted by state institutions, fit into the reparations for practices of social injustice. Further, it goes in line with the starting suggestions proposed by Rama Mani, on the implementation of workable solutions for these injustices that would be acceptable to the population and actionable by the government. In fact, addressing social and economic rights should be one of the major priorities of the state in a transitional period in order to tackle the root causes of the problem, especially in the Tunisian context where the socioeconomic inequalities were the driven factors behind the revolution. Thus, through a transformative approach, justice would not be a trade-off of sorts between justice or development but it would rather promote development with justice.


Artistic interventions on cars burnt during the Tunisian revolution



Transitional justice mechanisms and in particular state-lead practices should engage substantively and over time with victims in new ways. It should not only bring a radical change in the way victims are participating and engaging in the process, but it should also transform the positions of affected people from victims to positive actors. It should transform their skills, potential and energy, through achieving their empowerment and reintegration. This could be only done by supporting and building on local initiatives that people deeply take part and believe in.

Participation becomes a key element of empowerment that sees the marginalized challenge, access and shape institutions and structures. By referring to Pablo De Greif, cultural intervention contributes in presencing in making present people who were previously not just neglected but abused. Culture is constantly evolving and adapting, responding to changes within the internal and external environment. It is here that art, as the spontaneous expression of the local community’s claims and ambitions, should not be distant, disengaged, exclusive, and occasional, but rather transformative and ongoing‖. [2]Artistic expressions have been important to the awakening of a political consciousness while the revolution has also further awakened the need for expression. Thus, transitional justice institutions should include in their mandates the responsibility to implement the required transformative reform and to address the questions related to injustice, reintegration of victims and participation of all citizens in the transitional process. This could be achieved by the recognition and the support of the local initiatives in particular in the area of arts and culture.


Artistic interventions on cars burnt during the Tunisian revolution

The writer is pursuing a Master of Advanced Studies in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law at Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. She is also  doing a research internship on amnesty in post-conflict societies with the International Center on Transitional Justice.