Testimonial narratives are an essential feature of intellectual life in post-totalitarian societies. Post-Soviet Eastern Europe, post-dictatorial Latin America, and post-Apartheid South Africa all witnessed a proliferation of autobiographical accounts by victims of the ancien régime, seeking to reclaim their public voice.
Currently, post-Ben Ali Tunisia is witnessing the same phenomenon. More and more activists and intellectuals have begun reflecting on the past, in order to forge the country’s future. What is remarkable about this wave is the increasing number of women, including both activists and intellectuals, who have written autobiographical accounts of the uprising and its aftermath.
Most of these reflections were written retrospectively after the fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime and in the middle of the transitional period leading up to Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011 and the first free presidential elections in November 2014. There is no Tunisian equivalent so far of Egypt’s Tahrir Memoirs, like Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo, My City…Our Revolution or Mona Prince’s Ismi Thawra (Revolution Is My Name), in which activists recount the daily happenings leading up to the toppling of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Still, Tunisian testimonial narratives manage to reflect a revolutionary, albeit post-euphoric, urgency. For Tunisian activists and intellectuals, the urgency of remembering the past, in order to make sense of it, has been driven by the realization that authoritarianism can easily return in a different form.
During the early transitional period in Tunisia, there was a “superficial national unity” forged by popular anger focused solely on Ben Ali and his wife’s family, the Trabelsis, who collectively controlled 30-40 percent of the Tunisian economy. But, soon, events took a violent turn, as talk of a sixth caliphate in Tunisia, attacks against artists, and political assassinations of leftist leaders inundated the public sphere.
As violence was increasing on the religious right, politicians on the secular left were encumbered by internal disagreements and unable to muster an appropriate response. As a result, the “old left’s” weakness and concomitant rise of the Islamist right have figured prominently in the testimonies of Tunisian women activists and intellectuals. Indeed, the testimonies published so far have mostly been triggered by a fear of an Islamist takeover of Tunisia’s newly-liberated public sphere. This fear has pushed activists to recount their perspectives about past and current affairs and reflect on their personal journeys under authoritarianism, in the hope of preventing a return to autocracy.
The following is a survey of four of these testimonies by activists, Lina Ben Mhenni and Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek, and intellectuals, Emna Belhaj Yahia and Najet Abdelkader Fakhfakh.
Tunisian Girl: Blogueuse pour un printemps arabe, Lina Ben Mhenni (June 2011)
(Tunisian Girl: Blogging for an Arab Spring)
Lina Ben Mhenni’s Tunisian Girl: Blogueuse pour un printemps arabe (Tunisian Girl: Blogging for an Arab Spring) is the earliest testimony about the Tunisian uprising. In this very short book (only thirty-two pages), cyber activist and internationally-recognized blogger, Lina Ben Mhenni, combines and expands upon a number of posts from her blog “A Tunisian Girl,” to create a cohesive narrative about personal and collective resistance to Ben Ali’s regime. Published in the first few months after the 2011 uprising, Ben Mhenni’s book is the most euphoric of the four testimonies. Much of the narrative is a celebration of the power of cyber dissidence, which Ben Mhenni defines as a combination of citizen journalism (blogging and filming events) and on-the-ground activism.
Ben Mhenni’s testimony attempts to outline a genealogy for the 2011 uprising. She begins in 2008, pinpointing the revolt of the Gafsa mining basin as the start of large-scale resistance to Ben Ali. Spearheaded by regional unionists, the revolt demanded an end to the glaring nepotism in the hiring practices of the Gafsa Phosphaste Company and a fairer distribution of the wealth it generated. The protest grew in scale and led to three deaths and multiple arrests (for an excellent dramatization of the Gafsa Revolt see the documentary Cursed Be the Phosphate (2012)). Ben Mhenni’s genealogy places the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) at the forefront of resistance to the dictatorship. Ben Mhenni bemoans the fact that social media was not as prevalent in 2008 as it was in 2011, and argues that Facebook and Twitter would have helped circumvent the media blackout imposed at the time on Gafsa, by Ben Ali.
Ben Mhenni also traces the gradual transformation of cyber dissidence into street resistance, and highlights a number of anti-censorship campaigns in which she participated, such as “Free Arabicca” and “Nhar 3la Ammar.” The Free Arabicca campaign, which began in November 2009 as an online petition demanding the release of the blogger Fatma Riahi, propelled discussions of censorship into mainstream radio and TV outlets. Building on this momentum, Tunisian cyber dissidents launched a Facebook page called Nhar 3la Ammar in preparation for the country’s first street protest against censorship on May 22, 2010.
Ben Mhenni recounts her own personal journey, from blogging under the name “Nightclubbeuse” to becoming the more politically conscious “Tunisian Girl.”
While acknowledging how her parents’ history of resistance as members of the UGTT prepared her for a life of activism, Ben Mhenni attributes much of her political development to the “real-world” friendships she established with cyber dissidents in the Tunisian blogosphere.
Je Prendrai les armes s’il le faut…Tunisie, mon combat pour la liberté, Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek and Valérie Urman (January 2013)
(I will take up arms if I must…Tunisia, my Fight for freedom)
This narrative of “digital awakening” reemerges again in Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek’s testimony. Two years after the uprising, in 2013, French journalist Valérie Urman interviewed Msaddek, a Tunisian lawyer and civil rights activist, to document Ben Mbarek’s experiences of the revolution. The result was Je Prendrai les armes s’il le faut…Tunisie, mon combat pour la liberté (I will take up arms if I must…Tunisia, my Fight for freedom). This testimony is more chronological and personal than Ben Mhenni’s. It constructs the author’s life teleologically as a journey from bourgeois indifference in suburbia to grassroots activism in the country’s downtrodden interior. It also documents Ben Mbarek’s co-founding of the civil rights network, Dostourna, which marked her renewed faith in “the power of citizens.”
The narrative begins with Ben Mbarek’s earliest memory: her father’s arrest by police during the regime of Habib Bourguiba. An activist in Perspectives, a radical leftist collective, her father was detained for hiding a dissident caricature artist in his house. His subsequent, decade-long imprisonment in the notorious Borj Erroumi prison initially made Ben Mbarek disdain politics. She maintained this aversion until adulthood, when she saw videos of police brutality against protesters on Facebook in 2011. As Ben Mbarek explains in the book’s second chapter “le premier choc” (“the first shock”), the videos inspired her to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations against Ben Ali’s regime.
Like Ben Mhenni, Ben Mbarek celebrates the politicizing power of social media, crediting Facebook for encouraging the rise of citizen journalism, which sparked her political (re)awakening. As she argues, it was thanks to citizen journalists from besieged cities that she finally felt connected to the leftist cause long championed by her father.
Much of the rest of the book is dedicated to Ben Mbarek’s attempt to build Dostourna, a decentralized, grassroots civil network in 2011. Convinced that the stultifying bureaucracy of political parties made them incapable of meeting the demands of the leaderless Arab Spring revolt, Ben Mbarek sought to create autonomous regional cells of civil rights activists throughout the country. Their job would be to address each region’s specific political needs.
From the beginning, Ben Mbarek, her co-founders, and the members of Dostourna have faced ideological clashes with “the old left,” as well as violent attacks from right-wing Islamists. Ben Mbarek uses her testimony to diligently record these attacks, documenting in great detail the aggressive social media wars and the sabotaging of leftist meetings that occurred in the days immediately following the uprising when feelings of euphoria began to fade. Most notably, Ben Mbarek recalls the attacks against Dostourna’s regional meetings, in which individuals hurled anti-Semitic slurs at Gilbert Naccache, a founding member of Dostourna and a veteran member of the left, and beat up her brother Jawhar Ben Mbarek. Ben Mbarek maintains that when confronted, some of the saboteurs confessed they had been paid by the Islamist Nahdha party.
Tunisie: Questions à mon pays, Emna Belhaj Yahia (February 2014)
(Tunisia: Questions to my Country)
Of the four testimonies, Professor Emna Belhaj Yahia’s Tunisie: Questions à Mon Pays (Tunisia: Questions to my Country) is the most introspective narrative about the uprising. As a professor of philosophy, Belhaj Yahia champions the values of the Enlightenment and believes in the vital importance of dialogue. Accordingly, her text probes the origins of the discord between Islamists and secularists, in order to understand the tensions marking the post-Ben Ali period.
Unlike Ben Mbarek, who refuses to believe Islamists can become a democratic entity like the Christian conservatives in Europe, Belhaj Yahia attempts to understand and deconstruct the psychological, regional, and class-based foundations of Islamist and conservative ideologies in Tunisia. Through her investigation, she analyzes the “schizophrenic” discourses of her diasporic family members and the “narcissistic wounds” of old dissidents, who are now mimicking Ben Ali’s authoritarianism. She also critiques the regional and class disparities perpetrated by the old regime.
Together with her investigation of the ideological “other,” Belhaj Yahia asks herself a series of questions aimed at examining her bilingual education, her fascination with the European Enlightenment, her class privileges, and the specific notion of Islam instilled in her from a young age by her family of clergy members. Belhaj Yahia believes she is the product of a moderate and worldly national education, which is currently under threat in Tunisia. She locates this threat in the state’s gradual abandonment of public education and the resurgence of conservative ideologies.
While lamenting the deterioration of public education, Belhaj Yahia attributes much of the ideological tensions that have gripped Tunisia since the uprising to the loss of what she calls “la belle jomla moufida” (the beautiful and meaningful sentence), the decline of bilingualism, and the devaluation of reading in general. Her book ends with a call for other Tunisians to publish their own self-reflections, in the belief that writing and reading autobiographical accounts can pave the way for more understanding between the different factions comprising Tunisian society.
La Liberté en héritage: journal d’une tunisienne, Najet Abdelkader Fakhfakh (November 2015)
(The Freedom that we have inherited: A Tunisian Woman’s Diary)
This attention to personal history, as opposed to the grand narratives of party politics, surfaces in the work of our last writer, Najet Abdelkader Fakhfakh, as well. A professor of French literature, Fakhfakh has been interested in women’s history for quite some time. This interest motivated her to write La Liberté en Héritage, a fictionalized account of the Tunisian uprising that emphasizes women’s role in society. Dedicated to an imaginary granddaughter, Yassmine, Fakhfakh’s book is a fictionalized diary written between January 14, 2011, the day of Ben Ali’s ouster, and May 18, 2015.
Each diary entry is comprised of two parts. The first part is a summary of national and regional events with a brief commentary from the author; the second part is a biography of a pioneering Tunisian woman.
The diary is constructed as an alternative history to the grand narratives produced by the state. As the author notes throughout the book, state attempts to propagate an institutional-form of feminism have devalued women’s history. These state-sanctioned biographies have included those of the mythical figure and founder of Carthage, Elyssa-Didon, as well as the award-winning movie international film producer, Dora Bouchoucha. In contrast to these state narratives, the genealogy Fakhfakh seeks to establish is one that accounts for “the endangered heritage of Tunisian women’s freedom.” The author worries that women’s achievements are constantly erased, in order to accommodate the ego of male leaders, like Bourguiba. She is also concerned that the rise of political Islam may eventually obscure Tunisian women’s “legacy of freedom” even further.
Interestingly, Fakhfakh references both Lina Ben Mhenni and Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek in her book. Ben Mhenni is celebrated as a symbol of a young, connected generation, and a free voice, protesting against censorship. Fakhfakh interviews Ben Mbarek and gives her the chance to retell her life narrative once again. This effort highlights the intellectual connection between the two women, as well as the solidarity that binds them in their struggle against “regressive forces,” seeking to devalue their experiences.
Throughout the book, and in her dialogue with Yassmine, Fakhfakh embraces the narrative of “Tunisian exceptionalism,” in which Tunisian women are presented as the most progressive in the Arab and Islamic world. This nationalist mythology about Tunisian women is common, even among Tunisian intellectuals, and is used as a means of differentiating and elevating Tunisian women above Arab and Muslim women more broadly. The inherent divisiveness of this narrative is problematic, and is left unexamined in Fakhfakh’s book.
While each of these narratives is written in French, instead of Arabic, the voices of these four women are needed in as many languages as possible. They not only open the way for acts of transnational solidarity, but also represent perspectives underrepresented in the public sphere.
In a political world shaped by pundits promising objective treatment of the Arab and Islamic world, these narratives are a refreshing reminder of the more intimate, and unapologetically autobiographical texts that are necessary to broadening the debate on the culture and politics of post-revolutionary Tunisia.
*CORRECTION (9-19-17): A previous version of this article stated that Najet Abdelkader Fakhfakh included a biography of a pioneering Tunisian woman, from her imagination, in her testimony of the uprising. In fact, the biography is historical and not fictitious.