TUNIS // Some people were perplexed when Khaled Ajimi, a town hall official in Midoun on the Tunisian island of Djerba, was promoted.
“What are you doing here! Surely you should be a drummer?” exclaimed one elderly man, referring to the bands that traditionally play at weddings and are almost invariably made up of black musicians.
Mr Ajimi, who now holds the second-highest post in the town hall’s birth and deaths registration department, speaks in measured tones as he recounts this and similar incidents, but a certain breathlessness betrays his anger.
Racism against black Tunisians has deep historical roots. Yet, until the revolution of 2011, it was airbrushed out of the picture that the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali presented to the world.
With the freedom of speech brought by the revolution, that is changing.
“We [black Tunisians] always used to speak of racism, but only among ourselves,” activist and sociologist Maha Abdelhamid told a forum on the subject in Paris last December.
Along with like-minded intellectuals, she is now trying to change attitudes.
Fellow activist Saadia Mosbah encounters frequent casual racism in her work as a Tunisair flight attendant. But she says it is in the south of the country, where old habits are most entrenched, that there is most work to be done.
The association she helped found, Mnemty (My Dream), focuses on outreach among preschool children there, as key to promoting a true sense of equality.
“Almost without exception, [black Tunisian] children who start kindergarten, as their first contact with the world beyond the family, are [verbally] attacked by other children,” says Taoufik Chiari, a former teacher and trade unionist who heads ADAM, another anti-racism association.
The children find themselves teased as “kahlouche” (“little black” in Tunisian dialect). And the widespread use of the word “wasif” (servant or attendant) by white Tunisians to refer to a black person is highly offensive, this new generation of activists emphasise.
In some southern Tunisian towns, residents of all backgrounds still use the words “abid” (slaves) and “hurr” (free) to refer to black and white people respectively.
This implicit linkage of black people with the status of slaves helps perpetuate racism, says Ms Abdelhamid. She cites the case of a young man in the southern coastal city of Gabes. Hired last year as a shop assistant, he found the owner asking him to carry out tasks at his home: putting out the rubbish, fetching bread. “It was a reproduction of the relationship with a domestic slave,” Ms Abdelhamid says.
The custom among southern Tunisian white families of having black people play traditional music at their weddings, or hiring them cheaply to prepare the meal or beautify the bride, is similarly suspect for this generation of the revolution.
White families believe that to have black people serving at a wedding lends it prestige and wards off the “evil eye”.
“This fetishises black people” as exotic objects that bring luck, Ms Abdelhamid says. “People go along with this tradition out of necessity. Many of them are still economically dependent on the descendants of their former masters.”
Tunis was once a hub for the trans-Saharan slave trade, dispatching sub-Saharan Africans to the Middle East. Tunisians are proud of having been the first Arab country to outlaw the trade, in a decree by the Turkish Bey Ahmed I on January 23, 1846.
However, not all black Tunisians are descendants of slaves, says anthropologist Ines Mrad Dali. Unsurprisingly, there have always been black people in this corner of Africa. More recently, the expansion in agriculture under French colonial rule, for example, attracted black workers from Libya in the early 20th century, she says.
Musical influences from sub-Saharan Africa, as in the Sufi Stambeli music of the cities or the wedding music of the south, have long been part of Tunisian culture.
However, nowadays no significant cultural differences distinguish black Tunisians from their fellow citizens, says Ms Mosbah. “I refuse the word ‘minority’, because I am at home in my country. I am a Tunisian citizen just like the next one.”
If equal rights among citizens has long been the official position, the day-to-day experiences of many black Tunisians suggest otherwise. There are many subtle ways, through words, looks or body language, to act disparagingly towards someone in everyday encounters, says psychologist Afef Hagi.
“To those people who say there is no racism in Tunisia, I say you only need to walk 100 metres with one of us [black Tunisians]” to see whether there is or not, she adds.
There have not been any studies on whether racism is a factor in Tunisia’s job market or educational system, nor are there official statistics on the number of black Tunisians. Some estimates put the number at between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the population, others are more conservative.
Even today, many residents in the north are unaware of the existence of a scattering of villages in the south-eastern regions of Gabes and Medenine where the majority of families are black.
The largest, Ghosba, is home to some 5,000 people. Here, ethnicity is often another dimension in a regional picture of limited opportunities. In Mdou village, Gabes, young men sitting near street art showing Che Guevara alongside Bob Marley were unanimous in identifying unemployment as the number one problem for locals, whether black or white.
Winds of change
Tunisia’s media has joined the debate. A filmmaker for Tounisia TV channel visited the village of Sedghiane on Djerba, whose segregated cemeteries are still referred to as “the cemetery of the slaves” and “the cemetery of the free”.
Another documentary filmmaker heard how young people in Sidi Makhlouf, Medenine, reject a relationship of deference that has the older generation of white people addressing black acquaintances as “Baba” (Dad) while expecting to be called “Sidi” (Sir) in return.
Among the 217 men and women elected to Tunisia’s constituent assembly in 2011, Bechir Chammam, of the Islamist party Ennahda, is the only black person. “My Islamic upbringing allowed me to get over some minor incidents related to the colour of my skin in Tunisia, which I attribute to cultural backwardness,” he told the Tunisia Live news website.
The country’s new constitution, approved in January, refers simply to the “Arab-Islamic identity” of the Tunisian people, without mentioning an “African” contribution.
Tunisian activists, as they lobby for school textbooks to improve their portrayal of black people, or for legislation to outlaw racist insults, for example, will have to rely on an article that states all citizens are “equal before the law without any discrimination”, or another that commits Tunisia on an international level to “standing against all forms of occupation and racism”.
Back in Midoun, Mr Ajimi recalls how, when he was six, he overheard some white neighbours ask his parents, “Why send your child to school? Isn’t he just going to work on the palm trees like his grandfather?” They added that they were, of course, “only joking”.
That was some 30 years ago. If the country’s newly determined activists have their way, the wind of change that is gently sweeping through Tunisia is set to bring about a real change in attitudes, plus measures to combat inequality, even in the farthest-flung townships of the south.