The Constant Dilemma of Identity in Tunisia


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 latest to arrived? 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 to Arabs, such as Dihia, a female fighter for the land she reined.

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