Tunisia’s Dirty Secret by Nada Issa

Five years after the revolution, Tunisia’s black minority has yet to experience the freedoms enjoyed by other citizens.

Al Jazeera’s People & Power sent filmmaker Nada Issa to investigate.

In January 2011, driven to despair by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, a lack of political freedom and poor living conditions, Tunisians ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and introduced democracy to their country.

As the celebrations of this remarkable achievement began to quieten down, people got ready to enjoy the benefits of liberty – especially those to do with fairness, human rights and equality.

And indeed, many of those benefits did follow; even though many Tunisians continue to feel economically marginalised and the country faces security problems, for the most part the repression that was such a feature of the Ben Ali years has gone. Tunisia is widely regarded as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring.

But not all Tunisians would agree. Five years on from the revolution, the country’s large black minority – roughly about 15 percent of the population – say they have yet to fully experience the freedoms that their fellow citizens enjoy. They say that racial abuse and discrimination are still widespread in a society that is supposed to have done away with inequity and prejudice – and that the authorities are failing to take action.



Racism is, to varying degrees, a problem for almost every society in the world.

In the West, Islamophobia appears to be on the rise, fuelled by public anxiety over the influx of refugees into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

In the United States too, politics appears to be ever more polarised. A year which has seen Donald Trump’s highly controversial and, some would say, openly xenophobic views edge him ever closer to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination has also borne witness to numerous reports and leaked videos of alleged police brutality against members of the country’s black community.

But what sets Tunisia apart from these examples is the fact that racism, though clearly evident at almost every level of society, is rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged. In Tunisia, racism is shrouded in a blanket of denial that rarely permits anyone to see it with clarity. A desire to remove this shroud and shine a spotlight on this deep-seated intolerance gave me the impetus to make this film.

As our investigation would reveal, discrimination is a shockingly everyday occurrence for black Tunisians. Although no official statistics exist, around 15 percent of the country’s population is believed to be black, while the majority of the remainder regard themselves as “white”. To some outside observers, this labelling might appear strange given the country’s unique and rich African-Arab identity, but it is part and parcel of the way Tunisians think of themselves and, apparently, compartmentalise those around them.

In 2011, Tunisia shook the world as daily street protests eventually led to the toppling of the government, a vanguard for the other Arab Spring protests that erupted successively in countries across the region. Black and white Tunisians stood shoulder to shoulder on the streets calling for the fall of the Ben Ali regime, demanding democracy and a new, more inclusive political chapter in their nation’s history.

But though revolution may have brought about change for many white Tunisians, the rights and freedoms of black citizens seem to have been forgotten – or at the very best to have been selectively granted and protected.

Among the legislative reforms of the past five years was Act 21 which states that all citizens are “equal before the law without any discrimination.”

On the face of it, this might appear to guarantee equal opportunities for all Tunisian citizens irrespective of racial and ethnic heritage, but many black critics argue that it falls woefully short in protecting them from prejudice.

They believe an additional constitutional or legal coda to criminalise racism, which remarkable is currently not defined in law, is now the only way to bring an end to widespread discrimination in public life – as well as silencing the casual racism which pervades the streets of towns and cities across the country. The lack of such a law, they say, means that perpetrators of hate crimes, even when such cases are reported, are never brought to justice.

Black Tunisians have long lived on the margins of their society. Although it was one of the very first territories in the world to abolish slavery and provide legal emancipation in 1846, traces of the slave trade’s legacy linger on. This is perhaps most visible in the south of the country, where many black families still bear the names of their ex-slave owners preceded by the term “Atig”, meaning “freed from”.

While filming in Tunis, we heard rumours that even cemeteries in the rural south were divided along racial lines. In one town in Djerba, for example, we were told that the graveyard for black Tunisians is known as the cemetery of the “Abeed”, meaning slaves. Meanwhile, the final resting place of the local white community is referred to as “Ahrar”, meaning free. It was also alleged that, in parts of the south, segregation along racial lines was so extreme that entire towns were designated exclusively for whites and others allotted only for occupation by black families.

To investigate just how accurate these claims were, we travelled to the region with one of our contributors, a prominent Tunisian anti-racism campaigner. Approaching the town of Sidi Makhlouf, we met fierce resistance from the local police who had somehow heard we were coming and clearly did not want us to document the realities of life in their community.

Once we managed to get past them, we soon discovered why. Hard though it is to believe, we found that in this town separate buses were used to transport white and black children to school – a practice that seems more reminiscent of 1950s America or even apartheid-era South Africa. Members of the local community we spoke to said this practice had begun some years ago when a local mixed-race couple got married and aroused the fury of the area’s “white” majority. Now they don’t want their children to mix with those from black families.

But this isn’t just a rural phenomenon. In the capital, Tunis, many of our black contacts told us that racism was evident in everything from “the looks people give you” to the menial jobs most black people were offered. On a number of occasions we ourselves witnessed white Tunisians addressing black citizens using derogatory terms such as “Wasif” (servant) or “Kahlouch” (blackie) – which are equivalent to the “N” word used by racists in the West, in their expression of bigotry and contempt. These words often weren’t muttered quietly either – in one football match we went to see, the black referee was unashamedly subjected to a loud barrage of deeply offensive racist insults from watching supporters.

Yet perhaps this is the moment when the shroud of denial is finally begin to lift. Racism in Tunisia has recently gone from something to be denied and ignored to becoming the subject of regular street protests.

Discrimination permeates school life, the workplace and the street, but there is now at least a glimmer of hope as Tunisia’s small but increasingly vocal civil rights movement gains momentum. Indeed we followed one group as they delivered a plea for help to Tunisia’s human rights minister. His promises to act – though a little light on detail – were at least a sign that some in authority are now beginning to listen.

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2016/03/tunisia-dirty-secret-160316153815980.html

CfP: Decolonization and the Politics of Wildlife in Africa

The establishment of European colonial rule on the African continent not only involved the colonization of nature, but essentially meant colonization through nature. Imperial politics of resource extraction, hunting, and conservation forged the upsetting and renegotiation of existing human ecologies and were often accompanied by the strict separation of the spheres of »nature«/»wilderness« on the one hand, and »culture« on the other. But in how far did decolonization across Africa south of the Sahara equally affect the sphere of ecology and relationships between humans and wildlife? What continuities and what changes can we observe in the transcontinental governance of wildlife and its concepts, practices, and actors? What role did animals play in all this and in how far did decolonization affect wildlife and individual species? Have Africa’s wild animals ever been decolonized?

International Conference  –  September 26-30, 2017

Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study, South Africa  


Bernhard Gißibl (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz)

Felix Schürmann (LOEWE research cluster »Animals – Humans – Society«, University of Kassel)

Funding: German Research Foundation, Program »Point Sud«

This conference seeks to address these questions in a trans- and multidisciplinary perspective. It aims to bring together senior and junior specialists in African and global environmental history, human-animal studies, human geography, political ecology, and the various conservation and wildlife sciences. Scholars based at African academic institutions are particularly encouraged to apply. We are interested in receiving proposals focusing on the transitional decades of late colonial rule and early independence. Ideally, but not exclusively they should address one or several of the following themes and topics:

Comparative and Entangled Perspectives on Decolonization and State Politics of Wildlife

Wildlife conservation and safari tourism were of varying importance to late colonial economies across Africa. We invite papers that trace the differing impact of decolonization upon the sectors of wildlife conservation and tourism and look at relevant policies and concepts, both in a comparative perspective and with a view to transfers and exchanges between African states. In which states did wildlife conservation become the nucleus of green, environmental state-building, and why? To what extent was wildlife used for strategic nation-branding as a green, conservationist state at the international level? And in what ways were wildlife policies in African states south of the Sahara interrelated? What role did, for example, the massive extension of protected areas in Tanzania during the 1960s, or the hunting ban introduced in Kenya in 1977 play for the wildlife policies in neighboring countries? Did these events attract emulation, or, rather, did they force other policies south of the Sahara to develop alternative strategies of utilizing wildlife as a resource? And what differences can be observed between states formerly under colonial rule, and those few countries that had escaped direct governance through European powers?

Transcontinental Governance and the “Africanization” of Wildlife Sectors

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the conservation of wildlife in countries south of the Sahara was subject to structures of transcontinental governance in which conservationist advocacy groups located in Europe and North America and centralized state administrations largely determined the politics and geographies of hunting and wildlife. Therefore, the »Africanization« of wildlife policies became an imperative issue of nature politics in many African states after independence. We are interested in actual shifts in participation and responsibility not only in management, but in conservation more broadly. Did postcolonial policies of »Africanization« also entail greater inclusion and if so, in how far did these efforts draw upon policies that predated decolonization, e.g. the establishment of Controlled Areas for wildlife management aimed at greater community involvement in Kenya since the 1950s? What did »Africanization« mean in concrete terms, in what ways was it implemented in practical politics, in how far was it used as a rhetorical strategy to make international conservation agencies act comply with government agendas? Did African governments use wildlife to strategically attract outside expertise and funding to strengthen their wildlife sectors, and how did international organizations adapt their strategies, practices and framings of wildlife to changing political circumstances after decolonization? Who were the local counterparts and supporters of these organizations, and in how far did policies and framings of wildlife change with the increasing presence not only of conservationist organizations, but those specifically dedicated to animal welfare?

Wildlife Sciences and the Management of Protected Areas

Decolonization was accompanied by substantial and externally funded institution building to strengthen wildlife conservation. The 1960s witnessed, for example, the establishment of the Serengeti Research Institute as well as the colleges of wildlife management in Mweka (Tanzania) and Garoua (Cameroon). We are interested in the management and agendas of such institutions and their impact upon park and wildlife management across Africa, as well as in the role of science in the understanding of wildlife and the management of protected areas more broadly. What sciences came to develop an interest in Africa’s fauna and what role did the differing perspectives of e.g. ethology and wildlife ecology play in the evolution of conservation biology? Did veterinarians, a major voice in colonial controversies over tsetse and the possible coexistence of livestock and wildlife, retain their say in wildlife-related debates after decolonization? And in how far did science drive the management of protected areas or were it, vice versa, management requirements that dictated the agenda of science in parks? And did the evolution of conservation biology take different paths, for example, in internationally isolated South Africa under Apartheid compared to e.g. wildlife sectors with a greater openness to international science, such as in Eastern Africa?

Tourism, Hunting, Agriculture: Material Encounters between Humans and Wild Animals

Decolonization ran parallel to international developments that had considerable ramifications for the interaction between humans and wildlife. Among these were planning, the rise of the »scientific expert«, and a boom in long-distance tourism. The latter rendered the merely visual consumption of wildlife an attractive economic alternative to the consumptive utilization of wildlife by trophy hunting or the trade in tusks and horns. We are interested in papers that analyze the changing understandings of wildlife and individual animal species in the differing regimes of consumptive and non-consumptive tourism, and papers that focus on the corporeal encounter between humans and animals as mediated through hunting, safari, science, but also everyday coexistence in separated but shared local ecologies. How did both touristification and scientization of wildlife impact upon the possibilities of encountering them, and how did touristic and scientific frames of understanding wildlife shape these encounters? We are also interested in papers addressing the relationship, the conflicts and the arrangements between tourist requirements of seemingly authentic »wilderness«, the necessities of management intervention and the ecologies of non-disturbance required for continuous scientific monitoring.

Wildlife in Film and Popular Science

Bernhard Grzimek’s Serengeti Shall Not Die, James Hill’s film about Joy and George Adamson‘s intimate story with orphaned lioness Elsa (Born Free), and the wildlife documentaries by Armand and Michaela Denis are just the most famous examples of film and book productions dealing with Africa’s wildlife in the 1950s and 1960s. They were accompanied by a flurry of popular science books by expatriate wildlife researchers such as Jane Goodall, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, or George B. Schaller, who understood their science as applied conservation, blurred the boundaries between scientific analysis and popularizing description, and capitalized on a previously unknown intimacy with and individualization of the species under their study. In what ways was this development related to decolonization? Did these films and books have any reception in African countries and if so, what were they? What role did developments in scientific disciplines play, and in how far can these cultural productions be read as a means how Western scientists and audiences re-negotiated their relationship to Africa’s wildlife, and to Africa via wildlife? And what does the heretofore unknown degree of individualization and naming of animal personalities mean for human-wildlife relationships more broadly?

African Perspectives on Wildlife in Local and Global Perspectives

Finally, we invite papers that address decidedly African perspectives on wildlife and wildlife policies in their local and global contexts. How were such perspectives expressed e.g. in literature or oral histories? And how distinctive were these perspectives when compared to wildlife policies during and after decolonization e.g. in Asia? Is it possible to conceive of Africa south of the Sahara as a variety of a green, African modernity in which the larger fauna was not colonized away, as in most other continents, but, quite the opposite, became a contested and conflicting motor and driving force for tourism- and nature-based ecological modernization policies essentially built upon wildlife?