22. Oktober 2012 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Rassismus in Tunesien · Kategorien: Tunesien · Tags:

Anti-Black Prejudices in Tunisia: Breaking Down Taboos

Afifa Ltifi | 19 October 2012

“Blacks are our brothers and friends. They are good luck charms for me, a source of blessing,’’ said Walid Ezzaraa, a Tunisian TV presenter, on Monday’s “Bila Moujamala” program.

Such a statement is perceived by some as treading the slippery slope of racial generalization, deeply ingrained in the Tunisian culture. A black is reduced to a good luck charm that blesses people when their paths cross.

Among the stereotypes foisted upon Tunisian blacks are their societal roles as evil repellents and talismans as well as their sexually potent, lazy, and unmotivated personality.

“I went to a neighbor’s marriage, and during the ceremony one of the white relatives of my neighbor came to me asking if I wanted to ride the horse in the feast (the horse is always present in southern traditional marriages over which they put the dowries of the bride). I refused as I became aware of my mother’s warning,” said Abdul Malek Tayeb, a young man from Gabes.

‘Never say yes to them if they ask you to ride the horse, they will be looking for a black to ride it, this is part of their traditions’ was the admonishment of Tayeb’s mother.

“In fact, they were looking for a black to do that in order to meet their racist traditions,” he stated in regards to the incident.

In southern Tunisian weddings, blacks are considered as part of the decorations of the ceremony. A Black woman is needed to dye the bride’s hands with henna, take care of her, and accompany her in order to cast away and avert evil.

Racism for many Tunisian blacks is a daily routine. Bullying and name-calling with epithets like Wsif, Zombak, Kahla, Shoushen, Guira Guira, and Negrita are recurrent incidents for almost all Blacks.

“I was standing in the street of Kheireddine Pacha in Tunis, waiting for a taxi, and a man came to take a cab too. A taxi came, and the man tried to take it before me, though I had been the first one raising my hand to hail the taxi. The taxi driver told me blatantly that he would prefer having his Tunisian brother in the cab than a black woman,” said Sarah Intitoury. “I couldn’t react. I just let them go,” she added.

Blacks in Tunisia are mostly thought to be former slaves. Yet, according to historians like Habib Larguesh, there are indigenous blacks native to North Africa, who were never displaced or enslaved.

“Slavery is not uniquely related to blacks. There were many white slaves, who were called Mamlouk, but after being freed, those Mamlouk went from being former slaves to acquiring a social category while Black former slaves went to a racial category, which is as freed slaves,” said Salah Trabelsi, a Tunisian historian.

“166 years now since the abolition of slavery, yet still, the Tunisian society is soaked in racism and intolerance,” said Trabelsi.

Today, many Blacks in Tunisia still bear the legacy of slavery in their identity cards. Some have written in their cards “X, emancipated slave of Y,” or, for instance, Ahmed Atig (freed slave of) Ben Yedder.

“Why should this past keep haunting him (the slave) and his grandchildren?” asked Sana Bent Khayat from Djerba. Many blacks in Djerba still shudder at this anachronistic reference in their identity cards.

Marouen Mahroug, a white Tunisian from the island of Djerba, denied any kind of racism in his island. “I think that the issue of racism in our island is approximately absent in general. In terms of color, it proves to be totally absent since we do have a good atmosphere where white and black Djerbians co-exist without any problem. On the contrary, I think we enjoy our life together, especially if we remind ourselves that “black” Djerbians really have a specific sense of humour,” said Mahroug.

Trabelsi traced the problem to a whole social ailment that is due to the lack of freedom of individuals in a country that is still looking for its identity, autonomy, and true self. “Stripped out of its primary sources, Tunisia is still under construction, and now  after the revolution people still did not fully grasp the meaning of who they are,” stated Trabelsi.

The racial climate in Tunisia can be summed up in the problem of an identity crisis. Asia Turner, an African-American woman who lived in Tunisia for 4 months, came to the conclusion that it is all about “a singular and close-minded ideal of what it means to be Tunisian.”

In her four month stay, she managed to see how people reduce the richness of their culture to believe that Tunisians are Arab people or they try “to align themselves with a more European identity, but it doesn’t really cross their mind that Tunisians can be black people too or Tunisians can be Asian or anything other than Arab and white.”

“I think that Tunisians are receptive to the idea that other Tunisians may not be Muslim… So in that way, they acknowledge religious diversity in their country, yet I doubt they acknowledge the racial diversity in the same way,” said Turner.

Tunisians, Trabelsi says, are stuck in a mental “ghetto” that fixes both whites and blacks in a certain rank to which a majority of both blacks and whites subscribe. “Many blacks now do not encourage other blacks as they believe that they are not meant for a certain higher class and thus will try to hinder their way,” stated Trabelsi. In such a way, black Tunisians may be doomed to not rise above the social class that is preset for them.

Being black and beautiful, black and smart, or black and rich are controversial combinations that mostly shock white Tunisians. According to some Tunisians, blacks ought to remain inferior to whites. “For blacks to be smarter than them (whites) is an offence in Tunisia. A white person can accept that another white person is better than him, but if this man turns out to be black, that is very offensive and can be very frustrating and insulting in their mind,” said Ali Rahali from Gabes.

Turner recounted that during her 4 months in Tunisia, Tunisians always questioned her, thinking that she must be from Senegal or Nigeria. At first, she thought it was so because she did not speak the language, and therefore people could tell that she was not Tunisian.

“But then in my talks with black Tunisians, they shared with me that even though they speak the local language and some even wear the headscarf, they are still perceived to be foreigners in their own country. So, with this said, I believe the root of the problem is a singular idea of Tunisian identity,” stated Turner.

“I lived with two host families, and they socialized often and brought people to their home, yet I never saw a black person welcomed into their home. Tunisians I spoke with always said they had black friends they went to school with, but honestly I think those black friends were just classmates and they probably don’t engage with them much outside of their classroom, university setting. There’s an issue of denial. Blacks are to a degree well-assimilated into the culture, and I often heard people say that there was no racism because blacks are in the schools and universities,” stated Turner.

Despite her different language and style, which clearly marked her as different, Turner said that being black added another layer to her experience in Tunisia and made her a target to racist remarks in public spaces.

“I can’t necessarily say that every incident was racist (…) I think I had some different experiences as foreigner compared to all my other classmates that were not black,” she said.

According to Trabelsi, instances of racism are used by their perpetrators as a method to affirm their own identity.

“In the struggle of the individual to establish his identity, some Tunisians are creating binary oppositions to establish themselves as individuals,” he concluded.


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