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Posts Tagged ‘Tunis

A time before the pillage – what North Africa should mean to us

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The ugly triumphalism of the decade of 2000-10 is being held aloft again, as the fighting in Libya continues. As before, it is the scandalous regimes conventionally called western liberal democracies which are blaring out their triumphal tattoos, all over the media and across the Internet. The bankers, financiers, arms dealers, oil barons, fuel traders, commodity speculators, land grabbers and their cronies in government (many governments) are already counting their superprofits.

L'Afrique, ou Lybie ulterieure - This map of Africa by Nicolas Sanson, royal geographer to Kings Louis XIII and XIV, and commonly known as the father of French cartography, was published by Sanson’s own house in 1679 in Paris. The map was based, according to Sanson, on a composite of information drawn from other maps as well as “upon the observations of Samuel Blomart.” It also may have drawn on the Dutch writer Olfert Dapper’s work of 1668, Naukeurige Beschrijvingen der Afrikaensche gewesten (Description of Africa). The continent is presented as “Greater Libya” and the map concentrates on the Saharan region of north Africa and the surrounding land of west Africa, stretching from Guinea and the black coast to Nubia in the east <;.

The Maghrib that is North Africa is being readied for an even more intense period of plunder and pillage, of that there is no doubt. The very idea of ‘rebel’ had been perverted, as it has been the past year from Morocco to Syria. Amidst this savage celebrating, there is a need to turn to history and its many threads, to rediscover and hear again of the luminous nature of that which is now being ridden under, to reflect on the carefully constructed fruits of civilisations that inspired and instructed the thinkers and doers of western Europe.

From ‘The spread of civilization in the Maghrib and its impact on western civilization’, by M Talbi, extracted from ‘Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century’, Volume 4 in UNESCO’s General History of Africa, Heinemann-California-UNESCO, 1984.

The century of the Almohads – It is hard to decide just when a civilization reaches its peak, when its influence is greatest. For the Maghrib, was it under the Aghlabids in the ninth century, when the armed might of Ifnkiya threatened Rome and ruled the Mediterranean? Or in the tenth, when the Fatimids made Mahdiyya the seat of a caliphate which rivalled that of Baghdad? Or should we opt for the Almohad era (i 147-1269), when for the first time, under a local, authentically Berber dynasty, a vast empire was united which extended from Tripoli to Seville? We have to recognize that there were several peaks, and among all those peaks that of the twelfth century was certainly not the least.

And Spain? It had certainly fallen from the political greatness it had known of old under ‘Abd al-Rahmän II (912-61) or under the ‘reign’ of the dictator, al-Mansür b. Abï cAmir, the redoubtable Almanzor of the Christian chronicles. But the case of Spain and the Maghrib was comparable with that of Greece and Rome : Spain conquered its uncouth Berber conquerors, Almoravid or Almohad, twice over, and by giving them the age-old treasures of its artistic and cultural traditions made them into builders of a civilization. So from the twelfth century onwards, the civilization of the Muslim West was a fusion of the culture of Spain and the Maghrib, even more than it had been in the past.

This photograph of a street scene in Tripoli, Libya, is from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress. Although little information about this photograph has survived, it most likely was acquired and distributed by Bain in connection with news of the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War in which Italy wrested control of Libya from the Ottoman Empire <;.

It was a civilization built in part — although how great a part is difficult to say – by blacks who came from the regions south of the Sahara. They were to be found in large numbers in Morocco and throughout the whole of the Maghrib. Intermarriage, against which there was no prejudice whatsoever, was common and naturally had some biocultural influence, the nature of which, however, is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty or accuracy. There were also blacks to be found in Spain, principally in Seville and Granada. As slaves for a time, or as free men, they played a considerable role in the army and the economy, and they also brought with them certain customs of their native country. Some of them, such as Jean Latin, a university professor in Spain, attained the highest levels of the intellectual world and gave a stronger African flavour to the Spanish Maghrib.

Art and architecture – In the period that we are interested in, this civilization was centred in the western half of the Maghrib. Kayrawän had declined greatly and Ifnkiya had lost its primacy. We should note that the century of the Almohads was also that of the Almoravids (1061-1147). Apart from the religious aspects, which do not concern us here, there was no break between the two dynasties as regards their civilization. Almohad art, in particular, was merely the flowering culmination of processes which had been developed or introduced from Spain under the Almoravids.

The Almoravids were great builders. Few vestiges remain of their civil architecture, more exposed to the fury of men and the ravages of time and weather. Of the palaces they erected at Marrakesh and Tagrart, nothing is left; of their fortresses, very little; nor do we know much about their public engineering works, in particular their irrigation. But some of the finest religious monuments are still there for us to admire. The most characteristic of those extant today are in Algeria. The Great Mosque of Marrakesh, unfortunately, disappeared under the tidal wave of Almohadism. At Fez, the mosque of al-Karawiyyïn is not entirely Almoravid, but a building of the mid-ninth century, altered and enlarged.

This treatise by the prominent Shafi’i theologian Muhammad al-Amidi (died 1233) deals with questions of original existence and mental existence. The manuscript copy shown here was made in 1805 by an unknown scribe. It is from the Bašagic' Collection of Islamic Manuscripts in the University Library of Bratislava, Slovakia.

On the other hand, the Great Mosque at Algiers, built around 1096, is a genuinely Almoravid foundation which has not suffered unduly from the alterations made in the fourteenth century and again during the Turkish period. There is also the mosque of Nedroma. But the most beautiful building is undeniably the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, an imposing monument measuring 50 m by 60 m, begun about 1082 and completed in 1136. It united the vigour and majesty of the Saharans with the refinement and delicacy of Andalusian art. Marcáis writes: ‘There is no need to emphasize the importance of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen. The peculiarities of its design, and still more the juxtaposition, even the close association, of the Andalusian ribbed dome with the Iranian-inspired corbels [projections] in the form of mukarnas [stalactites]… give it an eminent place among Muslim works.’

Literature – The twelfth century was also notable for brilliant literary activity. The initial reservations of the Almoravids and Almohads concerning poets and profane works in general soon dissolved under the hot sun of Spain. The princes of both dynasties lived up to the tradition that an Arab sovereign should also be an interested and enlightened patron. They encouraged culture and gave their patronage to men of letters.

Here, too, the western part of the Spanish Maghrib held the place of honour. Ifrîkiya did not make much of a showing. Almost the only writer to be mentioned during this period is Ibn Hamdïs (c. 1055-1133), who was a genuine poet with a widespread reputation – and he was born in Sicily. As a youth he had to leave ‘his Sicilian fatherland’, which had been conquered by the Normans, and ever afterwards he dwelt on his memories of it with an engaging nostalgia. After a short stay at the court of al-Muctamid ‘ala ‘lläh (more properly called Muhammad b. ‘Abbäd al-Mu’tadid) at Seville, he spent the greater part of his life in Ifrîkiya. The Muses were cultivated more successfully in the far Maghrib and above all in Spain. Among the more talented practitioners of the art were Ibn ‘Abdün (who died at Evora in 1134); Ibn al-Zakkâk al-Balansî (d. c. 1133); Ibn Bakï (d. 1150), who spent his life journeying back and forth between Spain and Morocco and whose muwashshah (a genre in which he excelled) ended in a Khardja in the Romance tongue; Abu Bahr Safwän b. Idrîs (d. 1222); Abu ‘1-Hasan ‘Abï b. Harïk (d. 1225); Muhammad b. Idrïs Mardj al-Kul (d. 1236); Ibn Dihya, who left Spain, travelled all through the Maghrib, living for a while in Tunis, and died in Cairo; Ibn Sahl (d. 1251), a native of Seville, of Jewish origin and great poetic sensibility, who entered the service of the Governor of Ceuta after his native city fell to Ferdinand III (1248); and Abu ‘1-Mutarrif b. ‘Amïra (d. c. 1258), who was born at Valencia, served the last Almohads in various cities of Morocco and ended his life in the service of the Hafsids of Tunis.

In this constellation two stars shone with particular brilliance: Ibn Khafadja (1058-1139), uncle of the Ibn al-Zakkâk mentioned earlier, and above all Ibn Kuzmän (b. after 1086, d. 1160). The former, without quite being a court poet (he came from a well-to-do family from Alcira, in the province of Valencia), did the conventional thing and eulogized the important men of the day, among them the Almoravid prince Abu Ishäk Ibrahim b. Tâshfin. But it is mainly as an inimitable poet of nature that Ibn Khafadja has come down to posterity. In his sensuous and romantic verse he sings of the joy of living, the water of rivers and ponds, gardens and flowers, fruits and the pleasures of existence. He was called al-Djannän (the gardener) and there is no anthology old or new that does not offer a selection of his poems. He is one of the classic Arabic poets.


Tunisia’s political struggle as documentary graffiti

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The ‘Zoo Project’ is a Franco-Algerian graffiti artist based in Paris, and who visited Tunis in March and April and created images of political struggle. As well as a series of murals, Zoo Project created 40 life-sized figures representing some of the 236 people who were killed in the uprising in Tunisia earlier this year.

This is a gritty, truthful, considerate and refreshingly public way to illustrate what happened in Tunisia, and the questions that remain. Here’s a selection from a terrific, socially highly carged gallery of street art. [Thanks to The Guardian global development news for posting this.]

Zoo Project created 40 life-sized figures representing some of the 236 (according to official numbers) people who were killed in January's uprising. This has been called the martyrs series, Tunis. This creation was found in the Bab-Souika district. Art: Zoo Project / Photo:

The Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD) was swept from power on 14 January 2011, after 23 years of repressive rule. Mass protests in Tunis, and in towns across the country, were sparked when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate, set fire to himself in front of government buildings in his home town of Sidi Bouzid. Art: Zoo Project / Photo: Elissa Jobson

Tunisians are adjusting to the realities of free political speech. Politics, human rights and the justice system are now discussed openly in the cafes and bars of Tunis. But some habits are hard to shake and people can still be heard speaking in hushed tones when the conversation turns to the police or the Ben Ali regime. Art: Zoo Project / Photo: Sondos Belhassen

The popular uprising that unseated the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January grew out of chronic youth unemployment; social and economic disparities between the affluent coastal regions and the impoverished interior; and a lack of political freedom. Art: Zoo Project / Photo: Elissa Jobson

How will Tunisia now find itself?

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After enduring more than two decades of Ben Ali's rule, Tunisians became fed up with the stagnant social order and the president's tight grip on power. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

After enduring more than two decades of Ben Ali's rule, Tunisians became fed up with the stagnant social order and the president's tight grip on power. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

The always reflective and eminently readable Al-Ahram Weekly has several commentaries on events in Tunisia. Its writers have discussed the tricky socio-political questions in Tunisia which seem to have remained unasked, they have touched upon the 20th century history of coups and uprisings (and also what the Americans are used to calling ‘regime change’), and on the difficulties of bringing democracy back to a country that has been ruled by a despot for 23 years.

“It is not so much the events leading up to this climax that are revealing as the subsequent developments, which various media personalities were perfectly prepared to ignore, caught up as they were in the “thrill” of change, revolutionary fervour and the application of the verses of Abul-Qassem Al-Shabbi,” wrote Abdel-Moneim Said. “In one television interview after the other one could not help but be struck by how familiar it all sounded. We saw it all before, in Iraq where there was an opposition that knew exactly what it opposed, which was the rule of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, but that had no clear idea as to what should come next. Also, as was the case in Iraq, the Tunisians did not possess the means to come to terms over an undeniable fact, which was that the order whose façade had just crumbled has its roots in the nature of the Tunisian state.”

“Simply put, the revolutionaries in Tunisia did not differ greatly from their Iraqi counterparts over, firstly, what to do with the “old order”, and secondly, the need to replace it with a “new order” that would be just and democratic, even though they were far from being in one mind as to what these terms meant. What surfaced was a profound spirit of violence and vengefulness.”

“If the revolution broke out because Mohamed Bouazizi couldn’t find a job, how will the new regime create employment for men like him and the 60 others whose deaths ignited and fed the process of change that has swept Tunisia? Of course, the uprising was not only about unemployment. It was also about corruption, poverty and destitution. There were also more obscure factors, though all pointing to rights that were abused and needs that were unfulfilled by a failed regime. However, will the new revolutionaries be able to alleviate these grievances whose very real existence was confirmed by a whole month’s worth of audio-visual testimony? Curiously, no one in Tunisia seems to be asking that question, let alone venturing an answer to it. There is great euphoria because a brutal man has fled, but there is not a single guarantee that an even more brutal one will not replace him.”

Para-military was called out but the demonstrators would not budge. Instead, they demanded that their president step down from power. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

Para-military was called out but the demonstrators would not budge. Instead, they demanded that their president step down from power. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

“For observers chronicling revolutions, the implications of the Tunisian uprising will not be lost on other people who continue to suffer the same agonies in Arab police states, or on their tormenting regimes,” wrote Ayman El-Amir. “The first message from Tunisia was that successful revolutions are now more likely to be undertaken by the masses than by the military. When the military intervened they did so to back the people, not the regime. They better understand their role of safeguarding the country against external threats and, domestically, of preserving the established constitutional order, not to protect the dictator who abused it.”

“The Tunisian people’s revolution would have taken a different course if General Rachid Ammar, chief of staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces, had obeyed the orders of Bin Ali, the commander-in-chief, to crush the uprising. Bin Ali’s paramilitary police had already shot and killed between 60 and 90 demonstrators in different cities but failed to quell the rebellion.”

Within 29 days, Tunisians were able to force their president out of the country from a position he held on to for nearly 23 years. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

Within 29 days, Tunisians were able to force their president out of the country from a position he held on to for nearly 23 years. Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP

“Some political analysts wonder if the Tunisian people’s revolution could be replicated in Arab countries with similar grievances. After all, the 23 July Free Officers’ Movement in Egypt is said to have been the precursor of similar army coups in Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all embellished by the term “revolution”. Everlasting dictatorships chew on the same worries, although their surrounding cronies assure them their countries are far from it because their people enjoy freedom, stability, rising standards of living and are averse to revolutionary violence – the same slogans the Bin Ali regime fed on.”

“It’s not going to be easy to turn Tunisia from a police state into a democracy,” wrote Salah Eissa. “As we have seen in recent years, countries that get rid of their dictators don’t become democracies by default. Two things make me argue that the democratisation of Tunisia would be difficult. One is that the people that took to the streets acted voluntarily and without leadership. Their protests took place in the absence of guidance and participation on the part of organised parties and political movements. As soon as Bin Ali left the country, they went home. The protesters were common people, not versed in the art of politics. They are the average citizens of a country that hasn’t seen democracy for decades. Without the help of the country’s political parties and movements, public discontent may not turn into sustainable democracy.”

“The other thing is that the political parties and movements of Tunisia seem to be out of practice. After years of authoritarianism, Tunisian parties are disconnected from the public and estranged from each other. They need to find something in common, some goals for the entire nation to agree upon, and to pursue them. This, too, is not going to be easy.”