Postcard from Tunis: Underground cultural scene gives youth space for self-expression

Young Tunisians tell The National how they want to create a better reality for themselves and those around them

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At a small music studio in the popular neighbourhood of Dar Fadhal in Tunis, Yahya Mastouri, 17, stood for the first time in his life inside a recording booth to make his first rap song.

After years of writing songs and singing alone in his tiny bedroom, Yahya decided to take the leap to performing to the world.

“Every time I pick up a pen and decide to create a new track, I feel at that moment I entered my own world,” he told The National.

Like many other young Tunisians in the underground art scene, the teenager feels that music has been his refuge to express his thoughts and defy reality in his country.

Yahya, who was originally born in Tozeur – a southern city 465km away from the Tunisian capital – believes that his music inevitably reflects the concerns of his people.

“I have principles that must be reflected in the music that I create," he said.

"I cannot let myself feel ashamed that I did not defend a just cause that needed standing up for at a given moment of time."

Tunisia’s underground music scene has become a way for youths to reflect the struggles Tunisians face, and sometimes even criticise and defy authorities.

Rappers produced popular revolutionary songs during the political uprising in 2011 that overthrew Tunisia's long-standing dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Through music, young Tunisians were able to tell the world about the regime's oppression.

The rap scene has evolved and flourished since then, ushering in a new and rich political and cultural scene involving young people like Yahya.

Topics covered by rap artists today include the issues faced by Tunisians since 2011.

Aziz Rezgui, 21, another rapper from Tunis, says music is his comfort zone and has saved his life.

“Music has saved me from delinquency," Aziz told The National. "It saved me from wasting my time in bad places."

Like Yahya, Aziz says that rap is the medium through which he can share his life experiences and ordeals, and those of others.

“We chose rap both for fun and to defend the causes we believe in,” he said. “Some people were robbed of their rights, faced injustice and never got the chance to speak.

"We saw those people, we lived with them and felt for them.”

Aziz and Yahya share the same goal of not only speaking for themselves but also letting the world hear the otherwise hidden and repressed stories of their communities.

“If we had a country that could give us comfort, there would not be any people that are homeless, cannot go to school or die on their way there, freeze or starve to death," Yahya said.

"Speaking about this is a cause in itself and we must talk about it."

Cafes turn into space for debate and sharing revolutionary art

Walking through the narrow streets of Lafayette neighbourhood in downtown Tunis, a visitor might feel that every single cafe looks the same.

But one clearly stands out, even for first-time visitors.

Biblio'The is one of Tunis's rare so-called cultural cafes.

Cultural cafes became more popular after the Tunisian uprising and were mainly created as an alternative to the state’s official spaces, such as youth and culture centres, for young people to express themselves freely in a country that is still a nascent democracy.

Speaking to The National at his coffee shop, Biblio'The founder Kalil Lahbibi says he aims to create a space for people to come together and speak their mind.

“We wanted to create a safe space that is not exclusive to one community but one that brings different communities together at one place, regardless of their differences,” Mr Lahbibi said.

Cultural cafes have served an important role as places of free debate and creativity in Tunisia.

“What matters for us for example in the debate events we organise is the rhetoric and discourse, rather than the cause itself," Mr Lahbibi said.

"You cannot use hard and wooden language to reach 17-year-olds and make them aware of what’s happening around them."

The young cultural entrepreneur, as he likes to present himself, believes it could have been easier if the state had better understood the needs of younger generations.

“Officials are supposed to be in charge of creating such self-expression places for youth but the problem is that they are incapable of understanding the younger generations or reaching them in the first place,” he said.

But Mr Lahbibi is wary of attempts to turn underground and free cultural spaces into a mainstream and profit-driven industry.

“Some people [cultural cafe owners] are starting to treat each other like enemies instead of working together, and that is all because of how financial support from certain foreign organisations or official cultural entities became more frequent,” he said.

In recent years, Tunisia-based foreign civil society organisations and embassies and their cultural bodies, such as the British Council or the French Institute, began providing and sponsoring cultural projects.

Because of this, some people have begun to feel that the spaces they usually go to express themselves are no longer independent or genuine.

Changing mindset through dance

Tunisia is a relatively conservative society and has historically resisted foreign dance styles.

Many older Tunisians regard hip-hop and similar dances as mimicking the West and untraditional.

But some Tunisian enthusiasts are trying to change this by embracing these forms of dance.

A year ago, dancer Jed Kitar, 35, decided to open his own studio.

His goal was to not just teach simple techniques, but also change conservative mindsets and open up Tunisia to different forms of dance.

“I looked at myself and found that I have the necessary knowledge and experience for me to create a comfortable space where I could present my vision and share with my culture with others, regardless of age,” he told The National at his dance school in Soukra, in the capital’s northern suburbs.

Mr Kitar, who is originally from the coastal city of Monastir, started break dancing at the age of 11, and since then his passion has only grown.

One of his goals has been to teach people the culture behind dance and raise awareness about how it can transform their lives.

“Dance is a culture that needs to be studied in order for you to present yourself and make people respect you," Mr Kitar said.

"Society is already rejecting you, so being knowledgeable of what you’re doing is as important as knowing the basic techniques of dancing.

“It is an art that could bring people closer and create friendships.

"Creating a community is one of the strongest aspects of dance, people start learning from each other and this eventually makes them love each other."

Updated: April 19, 2024, 6:00 PM