19. September 2012 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Tunesiens graphische Revolution · Kategorien: Tunesien · Tags:

*Tunisia’s Graphic Revolution*

The graphic novel Sidi Bouzid Kids attempts to articulate the realities and concerns
of the Tunisian youth who mobilised in last year’s revolution. But while the graphic
novel is warmly received in Tunisia, the real town of Sidi Bouzid is tense with
post-revolutionary skirmishes. Tunisia’s recent history is continually re-drawing
itself in art – from graphic novels to rap – but the lines of free speech are also
being re-drawn, and not always in artists’ favour.

“Youth is finally moving.  It’s beautiful,” says Fouad in Sidi Bouzid Kids to his
friend Mohamed, who is dying after setting himself on fire in December 2010.  This
optimism in a moment of personal agony hints at the unreal times Fouad and his
friends are living in, and the graphic novel Sidi Bouzid Kids draws us into their
world: their frustrations at the corrupt, decaying regime of Ben Ali, the normal,
sane, humanness of their cry for ‘karama’  (‘dignity’) in the face of its
authoritarianism, and the excitement and tensions of the revolutionary fevour that is
unleashed as Mohamed sets himself on fire.  Eric Borg worked with Alex Talamba to
produce Sidi Bouzid Kids as the dust was still settling on what became known as the
Jasmine Revolution – although whether the dust has settled yet in the real town of
Sidi Bouzid is debatable. Just last month over a thousand demonstrators gathered in
the worn-down town to protest the detention of a young activist by the new
Ennahda-dominated government.

Mohamed in Sidi Bouzid Kids is drawn from the now-famous Mohamed Bouazizi, who set
himself alight outside the local municipal office to protest his humiliation at the
hands of the clawing bureaucratic tyranny of Ben Ali’s regime, triggering protests
that culminated in revolution.

But while Sidi Bouzid Kids sought to articulate the desperation and desires of the
Tunisian revolutionary youth, a year after the revolution, the screening of a film
based on another bande dessinee –French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated 2007
film Persepolis – has highlighted the continued tensions in the country. After the
television station Nessma broadcast Persepolis in October 2011, the station was
stormed by Islamists – who some progressives and secularists fear are gaining a
foothold in the wake of revolution – and the television station was fined for
‘insulting sacred values’.  At the trial, the director of Nessma reportedly described
the situation as “the trial of ten million Tunisians who dreamed of having a
democratic country.”

With the Tunisian constitution still far from completed, how Tunisia writes this
revolutionary period into its history – which stories it tells itself, and how much
space it allows for stories and art to speak – will echo around the region, just as
Mohamed Bouzizi’s self-immolation sparked the cataclysmic worldwide events of 2011.
What are Tunisia’s stories now, and will the new gathering forces allow them to be told?

Tunisia in literature has often been a series of conversations that speak little to
one another, with the country as a terrain for the colonial literary imagination.
Reeling from the French public’s reception of Madame Bovary, Flaubert turned to
ancient Carthage – the ruins of which still coexist with revolutionary graffiti in
modern-day Tunis – for his work Salammbô, a novel set just after the end of the first
Punic War, which may have spoken less to Tunisians than to contemporary European
fashion, its subject matter fuelling the sensibilities of Art Nouveau.  It was a
honeymoon in Tunis that, in recovering from tuberculosis, Michel in André Gide’s The
Immoralist is fundamentally  changed, desiring now to peel away conventions to find
“the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there.”  But literature that
speaks – in different ways – to forms of Tunisia itself, bubbles up in, for instance,
the writings of French-language polymath Abdelwahab Meddeb, whose non-fiction
Printemps  de Tunis (Tunis Spring) was one of the first books to attempt a first
draft of what was, in 2011, being referred to as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.
Similarly, Hassouna Mosbahi’s A Tunisian Tale, published in English translation in
2011 after its initial publication in Arabic in 2008, evokes the chaotic, gossipy,
violent and tender worlds of the Tunisian slums from which revolution was born.

The dynamics of bandes dessinées  are a little more egalitarian than French
nineteenth century literature – the graphic art form popular in France, Belgium and
parts of North Africa has lent itself to voicing the realities of contemporary
Tunisia.  Sidi Bouzid Kids, though written and illustrated by French and Romanian
artists, seems to have found itself in tune with post-revolutionary tastes,
advertised in bookshops and referenced in the media.   In 2012, though, spoken word
poetry performances similarly seem one of the prime mediums through which new
realities are expressed and reborn.  Rap/ hip hop has often been turned to, after the
Arab Spring, to find how the epochal-shift on Arab youth has expressed itself in art,
but in Tunisia it bubbles up equally in poems, bandes dessinées and street art.

In the wake of revolution, Tunisia’s art scene seems, to many, to be reborn – the
high-profile exhibitions of Tunisian art in both Tunisia and France in the last year
speak to the idea that spaces are opening up to explore identity, history, and
multiplicity so often trodden-down, like daily dignity, under the Ben Ali regime.
But how does this sit with the fact that, since the revolution, artists have been
detained for “disturbing public order”?  How does the freedom from authoritarianism
hard-won against the Ben Ali regime in 2011 segue into the events, last month, in
which Salafists attacked cultural events they deemed ‘un-Islamic’?

Salafist extremists are not particularly renowned for their developed sense of irony.
 But there was something a little funny-sad, if not straight out funny, at how they
attempted to shut down a screening of Persepolis – a film which, famously, tells the
story of an Iranian girl’s initial excitement with a new, revolutionary world of
multiplicity and justice, only to see it corroded cruelly, encroachment by
encroachment, by Islamic extremists.

There’s a similar duality to Sidi Bouzid, as symbol and reality.  Sidi Bouzid Kids
depicts the potency of the ideas, desires and demands that came together in
revolutionary protests in 2011.  One year on, the real town of Sidi Bouzid is tangled
in strikes, demonstrations and – in part – resistance to the now-ruling Ennahda
party.  Like Persepolis and the attempts to shut down the Persepolis screening in
Tunisia, the Sidi Bouzid Kids is also a loaded document, a snapshot of an unfinished
story, as the demands of the ‘kids’ continue to manifest.

André Gide and Flaubert appropriated Tunisia as static backdrop, but in their works
the land was also the site of transformation, both for their characters and for their
writing’s tone and style.  And in this transformative time for the country, there are
surely many stories yet to come – the question is whether the space can be carved out
in which all are given a voice.

Heather McRobie is a writer and journalist.  Her non-fiction book on literary freedom
will be published later this year and she is completing her second novel.  As a
journalist she has reported from Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia, Bosnia,
Croatia and Germany for publications such as the Guardian, the New Statesman and
openDemocracy.  She is also completing a PhD on transitional justice in the Arab
Spring and works as a contributing editor and gender columnist for openDemocracy's
gender and equality section, 50.50.  Follow her on Twitter @heathermcrobie

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