Abir Farhat

Abir Farhat

I believe in doing what I am passionate about

It is interesting to tackle the issue of identity from its very first root. In elementary school, students are taught one phrase, like a recitation, and they are supposed to learn it by heart. This phrase is to define how they perceive themselves for a lifetime unless they actually, and unlikely question it. It says: “I am Tunisian, Arab, Muslim, African and Mediterranean”.

As you might tell, the phrase refers to different types of belonging with capital letters: nationality, language (or origin, depends), religion, continent, and region. One who’s familiar with the culture in Tunisia would easily confirm that there isn’t much debate about us being Tunisian, African and Mediterranean. These are the nice parts of the saying. It comes down to the part where we must acknowledge full-heartedly that we are Arabs and Muslims, and that never fails to light a spark of disagreement that could go all the way to various forms of violence, sadly.

Unfortunately, every child is to be programmed. From a very young age, children receive thoughts, often ideologies that they haven’t asked for. This is the dark side of education. The nature of teachings and preaching they receive vary from a country to another.

In my country, the educational system narrates to young underage students which religion they belong to, while in parallel our constitution indicates that Tunisian citizens are free to choose whatever belief they desire. Now I do not critic the educational system itself nor the constitution, but I do see great contradiction in these two existing together in the same time with the same statements.

A child who is asked to recite repetitively “I am Muslim” will grow up believing that that is who he is and what he should be. Children would tend to develop loyalty towards such sacred statement and are very unlikely to question or analyze it: they are hardwired to believe it and their natural reflexes would constantly revolve around it.

It would be more adequate, I believe, if children were taught that they “are born in a country whose majority is Muslim” or “are citizens of a country which the constitution identifies as Muslim”. By stating that, the courses would remain in harmony with the constitution while informing the children of the common belief system of the country they live in.

There is great discrepancy in the fact that teachers and school manuals tell minors who they are supposed to be and which religion they are to follow while having the highest legislative power clearly stating that individuals are free to choose their beliefs for themselves.

Now I move on to the next identity issue in Tunisia that I perceive to be causing greater dissension in the public scene. “I am an Arab” recited by every student of my generation. The issue here is different and more urgent than that of telling children who they are supposed to be. Prior to whether or not it should be taught to children as an identity of theirs, being an Arab needs to be defined urgently. Afterwards Tunisians need to decide, willingly, where they place themselves in regard of this  definition. The definition, more like the definers, need to take into consideration the various connotations that the word “Arab” suggests.

Obviously, it insinuates language. Tunisians, in their daily life informal communications, speak a specific dialect of them that has multiple similarities with the official Arabic language, also called Al Fosha, in which the Quran is written. The similarities are undeniable but Tunisians use the Arabic words with often completely different pronunciations, and sometimes some letters are added or taken from the original Arabic word, making it specific to the Tunisian culture and dialect.

But there is no need to be an expert in linguistics to notice that a considerable number of words existing in the Tunisian dialect have nothing to do with the Arabic language. I mention the French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish (particularly Andalusia) languages as sources of these words along with many other languages. Of course, Tunisians don’t necessarily use the foreign terms as they are, they rather adjust them to their culture and therefore these mutated terms are again specific to Tunisia.

Most importantly, Tunisians use words that are rooted in Tamazight, the language of Amazigh, who lived in North Africa for thousands of years. So if you are to tell me that Tunisians speak Arabic daily, I’d say what a flagrant disregard to the other cultures from which the Tunisian dialect is derived.

Certainly, children are taught the official Arabic from the early age of 6. But let us suppose that a child receives unofficial education and doesn’t learn Arabic at school, while speaking the Tunisian dialect that is only partly Arab, can we call this human an Arab? If a Tunisian citizen is defined as Arab simply because they have learned the language at school, then I consequently have the right to consider myself as French, English and a beginner at being Italian…

Another aspect of being Arab could be linked to my country’s membership in the League of Arab States. I confess that mentioning the Arab League is inspired by a conversation I had with an American woman about identity. At some point I remember mentioning that I don’t consider myself as Arab, so she responded: “Tunisia is a member of the Arab League, which makes you an Arab”.

It was quite confusing to hear her statement. But it is clear that the league is a regional organization (whose name suggests that each of the member states is actually an Arab state, a labeling that I don’t understand the reasoning behind). No country could be granted an identity label solely for its belonging to an organization, regardless of its deep-rootedness.

We cannot discuss the Arab identity without referring to the origins of the locals. This is the most sensitive part of our subject, the hardest to discuss in my perspective. Common sense isn’t enough, sadly, in order to discuss this factor fairly and fruitfully. A great knowledge of archaeology is to be invested in order to debate our origins.

An understanding of the history of wars in which Tunisia has been involved since its oldest civilizations is crucial as well, since it is the only way to know the variety of cultures that formed the Tunisian society as we know it today. That is not enough, because knowing genetic facts about Tunisians, as well as individuals of neighboring and related cultures is mandatory.

It is already demanding enough to require this much of concrete information, but the struggle doesn’t end here. Some of the references that are supposed to provide such data are non-existent, which is caused by the fact that an important culture that once reined North Africa (the Amazigh culture) depended on orally exchanging facts and didn’t actually write them.

Other references have been destroyed, and the burnings of major libraries such as the Library of Alexandria are main causes. Also, some books were written so long ago that their understanding is a hardship to modern generations due to the complexity of the content, notably in terms of language. And here is a bizarre/depressing  fact: some books are out of reach, the few existing copies in public libraries are considered by authorities as too precious and valuable to be provided to the public (yes, they actually keep them exposed and locked behind glass, just like in museums, as if they wanted to tease information seekers.)

Having said that, and knowing that I am ages away from mastering the facts I mentioned above, I allow myself to recall a couple of rather popular and mainstream facts. Arabs originated from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They invaded Tunisia hundreds of years ago to spread Islam. The Arabic Heritage is strongly present today, often linked with Islam.

Nonetheless, the culture of the Amazigh has succeeded to find its way to us, with language, gastronomy, clothing, landmarks etc.  If we had to draw a timeline, Arabs arrived after the Amazigh and used force to take control. There is no need to judge any previous actions as moral or not. But the question is, are we being reasonable in attributing to the country the identity of the later arrivals? Is it fair to consider a culture as dominant and as that of the majority, only because those who spread it had enough strength and power to almost eradicate the one that already existed?

I leave you to reflect upon this while mentioning a potentially interesting fact: At no point of my education did I study anything about Amazigh. The ancient residents of Tunisia, if mentioned, were often referred to as Berbers (a term often confused with a similar French term meaning cruel, vandal)

 

The history manuals were/are so subjective to the point of using very pejorative terms to describe the Amazigh warriors who opposed Arabs, such as Dihia, a female fighter for the land she reined. 

In few months I will leave forever the sacred age of 20. I am therefore living the last months in this very special number, 20. Maybe it is a women's thing that we care much about age, and maybe it is a youth thing, and maybe neither.

I value for my youthful years so much that I feel enormous guilt about every day I spend without having been productive or having witnessed/made something particularly special. Every day before sleep I scold myself: “there you are, another day of your precious youth wasted doing nothing but futility, while others would kill for your youth. Such an ungrateful person you are”. And it goes like that.

To be fair towards myself, I do try to make my days something to be remembered. I join some community activities which mostly turn out to be vain and disappointing for reasons too long to be explained. I do read. I am proud to be one of the few youngsters in my country who actually read. But I am not quite happy with my reading choices which tend to be mediocre sometimes: I keep clinging to fiction which is lovely for a youngster's mind but far from enough.

I turn determinedly to the much more dense and classic books, only to discover that I don't quite assimilate their depth. Sometimes I find myself searching for the meaning behind metaphors, which should come naturally without such effort. This is discouraging and frustrating.

I have been reflecting lately upon all the special things that occurred to me during my 20 years. In my first days of being 20 I had my first “official” job. I had worked before that, jobs that mostly lasted a week and that didn’t require much responsibility or serious effort. But this time it was different. I worked in textile sales for a very popular national shop that makes a fortune every day.

I endured this job for the full tiring month of August (it was the peak of sales). I had to remain standing for 10 hours a day in the workplace, dealing with grumpy, stressed clients that were often impolite and mannerless. I hated that job, only worked for the financial outcome. Now I realize that taught me enormous things and gave me priceless observation opportunities. It gave me an insight into the cruelty of capitalism, especially how it literally abuses its human resources in order to achieve and mostly, exceed the desired outcomes.

I worked during summer sales when prices are lowered by specific percentages. Being inside the wheel of sales, I got to observe how the owners would play the customers into believing that they’d get a better deal. I have seen these customers going mad over a baby outfit. The amount of energy they’d invest into trying to benefit themselves and have a moment of luxury at the expense of the owner is incredible.

Little did these frenetic poor customers know how many brain cells they were exhausting in vain for the sake of a piece the same machine would tell them it is old-fashioned 2 months later.

 

In my dear 20s, I volunteered in a huge international event. This event made me discover one thing about myself: it’s how much I wanted to feel useful. My job consisted of solely giving directions (which was an unpleasant surprise given that I was told my job would also entail interpreting, documenting, mentoring guests.

Nonetheless I do feel like I have made a difference because directions were quite important at that event, given the vast place in which it was held. In this event I saw humans from all corners of the planet marching in the streets of my country, supporting it against terrorism.

I was honored to volunteer with hundreds of Tunisian youth who never failed to inspire me with their passion for life and change. What amazed about them was how varied they were. Given that I come from a conservative community, I saw in these volunteers everything I haven’t seen in my city’s youth. They embraced different styles of thinking, dressing, expressing… I had conversations with some of them on themes I have never dreamt of discussing.

Their distinguished styles left me rethinking everything: why should one manifest themselves as ordinary, standardized and go with the flow of norms when the essence of our existence is to find out and show the pride of our special, distinct and absolutely unique selves?

However, I left the event with doubt. I doubted whether or not my contribution to this event that had a great cause had made a significant difference. What added value have I brought?

Several volunteers along with participants noticed that something was going totally wrong, especially logistically speaking. It was very hard for me, as a clueless volunteer, to tell a bunch of excited musicians that they have to perform in a hall without the logistical resources they needed, because the auditorium they booked doesn’t exist (I salute these youngsters for not letting go and literally performing opera in a hall).

Being 20, I had a delightful surprise: being selected to take part in an international meeting that took place in my country and that gathered youth from the Euro-Arab region. I found the concept of the meeting captivating, the theme a bit intriguing but I still went for it. It was a thrill to meet people from such various backgrounds. They were fun, open-minded and mostly accepting. The place that held the meeting was quite aesthetic, with an architecture special to the city, green grass (something I rarely come across!) and a location 3 minutes to the beach.

Some wouldn’t relate to how much I find this place peculiar: I come from a highly polluted region with weak aesthetic care from the authorities. A clean area with a small garden and some animals hanging out is more unfamiliar to me than the eclipse.

I felt overwhelming happiness being in perfect harmony with nature. So far so good, isn't it? Well I must bring up my great disappointment with the theme of the meeting. It was a weak theme, I tried to see it as valuable but I failed. The whole time I felt like the meeting had no cause, nothing serious and meaningful enough to fight for. Realizing this was a sad moment to me.

I felt like lack of a mighty issue to debate made the sessions futile and the only interesting time was spent outside sessions, which is not what we came for to be truthful. The Meeting allowed me to observe a more serious issue than its official theme: the obsession of youth with smart phones. There were more than 25 nationalities present, and it was alarming and eye-opening for me to discover that no matter the background, the individuals are in a relationship with their smart phones.

The venue of the event had a very weak Wi-Fi signal. There was a scene that is still stuck in my mind and that I wish I photographed: a group of 12 participants who, after discovering a spot from which the internet service was better, sat on the ground for an hour or more “connecting”.

Not a word was spoken, I even jokingly threw a remark about their investments into their smart phones, but few seemed to even hear me. I understand the need to respond to emails, “socialize” on social media, post updates… But if you were in such a beautiful place, with the most stunning views, around youth from peculiar cultures, in a city you’ve never been to, I picture that internet should not be on the top of your priorities.

It was challenging for me to make friendships when basically everyone around me checks their phones every 5 minutes. The attachment to smart phones was a phenomenon that I have witnessed among Tunisian youth, and that I see people denouncing on social media (the irony) but in this event its presence around me made me understand one thing: it is universal.

Moving on to my next adventure, I took part in a 7-day arts camp. The camp was aimed at defending minorities’ rights through theatre, dance and slam (street poetry). I was in the slam workshop. Writing slam was challenging in every way possible. On one hand, I struggled to find a quiet place in the camp in vain. At some point I remember almost crying because of constantly failing to write in noisy places.

On the other hand, at some point we were asked to learn by heart and perform texts that were written by other people. This, I do not exaggerate, was torture to me. I failed terribly and I do not blame myself because I tried for hours and I couldn’t genuinely perform what I do not feel deeply or relate to (and I believe that if I tried more, I would have had a mental breakdown).

But when it came to dealing with my own texts,  I can say I am so damn proud of my performance. I entered the camp not knowing what slam was and I left after having my texts involved in the ultimate show text (the show that the camp is mainly working on).

I wasn’t selected to perform in the show, though. It definitely hurt me. The whole time I was looking for answers as to why I wasn't selected though many had praised my discipline and hard work. But I am not angry, at all (especially not at myself). I am just incomplete. And I am gloomily wondering what I will be missing. The camp was the kind of experiences that left me with bitterness for being prevented from carrying on the adventure, but with no guilt whatsoever because I gave it all of me and more.

And my greatest personal achievement so far is leaving the studies I disliked, that were the idea of some insisting relatives. I know, it was my choice and I should hold full responsibility for it. But I am trying to forgive the 18-year old girl for surrendering to the pressure of family and society, and choosing something “practical” (I hate that word).

Now I am 20 and I do not believe in practical anymore, I believe in passion. This is why I am planning to study English as a major and later involve sociology as a minor.  I am content with my “unpractical” field of studies, if “practical” means suffering while studying something you never liked in order to get a well-paid, highly-recruiting position you never wanted.

Now, I make it my mission to convince newly-graduated students to study something they simply love, no matter how society might dread it. I somehow feel like a prophet who has a very important message to convey, a crucial life changing one. To be completely honest, I don’t have a clear idea on what I want to do later in life. Do I want to be a teacher? Possible. Do I want to become an interpreter? Why not. Do I sometimes madly think of my odds of becoming a successful writer? Yes I do.

All these events and more have happened when I am 20. And I am sitting here thinking they are far from enough! None of the events mentioned I can consider as life changing.

None of the people I have met this year turned my world upside down (yes, I aspire to meet people with such effect). None of the books I read made me change my view about life, or look at it from a completely different perspective.

 

At no point have I felt that I was making a significant change in my country. As it might be noticed, I yearn for extreme, strong deep feelings. But I guess that in order to have these, one should do extreme actions as well. So I guess I know what to do! Change my actions, I believe. That is the only way, I think, will honor my youth.