It’s Spring Break, and I finally have some time off. I had to go downtown because I really missed it.
I decided to attend the last day of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival (MQFF) at a movie theater downtown. For security reasons the location of the festival is only disclosed if you get in touch with the organizers via social media.
MQFF is organized by Mawjoudin (We Exist), a local LGBTQ+ association that is doing amazing work to protect the LGBTQ+ community and to fight against homophobia.
MQFF is the first festival of its kind in North Africa. It focuses on films directed by artists from the Global South. This is only the second edition of the festival.
The last day featured:
Four Pakistani shorts: Three of the films focused on growing up gay in Pakistan. One of them was about Khwja Sara (transgender) culture in the country, and the last one was a documentary about a poor gay Pakistani man. One of the most remarkable scenes in the film was when we see the protagonist teaching his mother to read the Quran in Arabic in the intimacy of her bedroom.
Tunisian Feminist Rap Band Honna: Nationalist, humanist, atheist, and erotic rhymes.
The world premiere of Marco (2019): a film written and directed by the novelist Saleem Haddad. The film is about a Lebanese gay man in London and the sex worker he hired for one night. The audience really loved the Arab-accented kissing scene and went wild over the foot massage scene. We had to shoosh each other.
Mr. Gay Syria (2017): I had no idea what to expect at first, but the film turned out to be one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. The film is set in Turkey and it documents the gay activist Mahmoud Hassinou’s search for Mr. Gay Syria. Hassinou, a refugee in Berlin, has made it his life’s cause to create more visibility for the Syrian LGBTQ community. The documentary is brilliantly written and directed by Ayse Toprak.
PS: I do not wish to speak in the name of the LGBTQ community in Tunisia. I speak in admiration of their courage, their art, and the colors their bring to our city.
Claire Belhassine, Hedi Jouini’s English granddaughter, only discovers that her grandfather is one of Tunisia’s most popular artists, at the age of thirty, while riding a cab in Paris. The radio was playing a song in Arabic when a curious Benhassine asked the driver if he knew the singer. His answer would set her on a long journey of self-discovery in which she interrogates her father’s silence about his past and, in the process, reconnects with Tunisia. In this sense Papa Hedi is both a biographical film about Hedi Jouini and an autobiographical film about Benhassine’s search for a sense of belonging in the midst of a complicated family drama. The director’s diasporic sensibility also allowed her to successfully weave together her feuding family’s history with the history of modern Tunisia.
The film situates Hedi Jouini at the forefront of the Tunisian cultural scene before and after independence. During the French occupation of Tunisia, Jouini appears as a rebellious artist and a member of the Taht Essur تحت السور intellectual movement. Later, he is portrayed as a leading nationalist modernizer in his role as director of the Tunisian National Radio and Television Organization. Benhassine tells us that despite his position within the system, Hedi Jouini remained a man of integrity, declining Bourguiba’s offer of a villa and never even hanging his two presidential accolades at home. The narrator who did not speak French or Arabic when Jouini was alive remembers a very humble grandfather and a very normal household with no signs of its proprietor’s fame.
According to Bingham, the charge of the biopic genre is “to enter the biographical subject into the pantheon of cultural mythology, one way or another, and to show why he or she belongs there (10).” Papa Hedi does the same with the figure of Hedi Jouini, but the mythologization of the singer is subtly balanced with a warts-and all narrative. In fact, much of the film is dedicated to exploring the cycle of violence that the artist perpetuated unknowingly. Jouini who comes from divorced parents renounced his father’s original name, “Benhassine,” and embraced a stage name instead. The artist’s father did not accept his love for music and even broke the child’s luth. This, the film tells us, damaged the child for good. Jouini’s childhood trauma turned him into an absent and controlling father. He forbade his partner and daughters from pursuing artistic careers, while allowing his sons to join music bands and travel abroad. His children remember him as always on the road and always bickering with his partner, Ninette when he returned from his tours.
Fred, the director’s father and Jouini’s first-born, knew early on that his father was a playboy, and as a result, developed a silent animosity towards him. When he left for England, he too, erased his father’s name from his new life, reclaiming the name Benhassine and hiding the albums Jouini gave him in the attic, away from his English family’s eyes and ears. He admits never even having listened to them. The rift between Fred and his family grew bigger after Jouini’s death when ownership of the artist’s music became a problem. Ninette gave her third son, Nanou, the exclusive right to manage Jouini’s legacy. Her decision pushed the director’s father to cut all ties with his mother and to sever his relationship with Tunisia all together.
The cycle of abandonment was only broken, we are made to believe, thanks to the film itself. The quarrel over the ownership of Jouini’s music fragmented the family into different factions for three decades. Only when the director began soliciting testimonies for her film, did the different factions finally meet and reconcile. Benhassine even managed to have three of Jouini’s six children, including her own father, sing Jouini’s songs together in Carthage, where Jouini once sang to a full auditorium in 1987. The children had the stage all to themselves, but they only sing in the stands in a re-enactment of their childhood memories of the 1987 concert. This re-enactment is very therapeutic for the family. Carthage in a sense becomes the therapist’s couch, but a couch that’s out in the open, a couch carefully chosen for our voyeuristic eyes. In this cathartic scene, the silenced and feuding children of a controlling father become a choir and singing the father’s songs in unison, thus “finally laying his ghost to rest.”
The scene is theatrical in every sense of the word. Not only does it convey the family’s love for drama and the arts in general, but it also calls attention to the staged narrative of reconciliation itself. It was Benhassine’s camera that brought the family together. Would they have been reconciled without Papa Hedi? Does it matter? Has a post-uprising Tunisia entered the postmodern “era of the testimony,” to borrow a term from Holocaust studies’s foremost scholars, Shoshanna Felman and Dori Laub? If we were to read the film as a national allegory, the way Frederick Jameson would want us to, given the film’s postcolonial undertones, we would perhaps read it as a scene of national reconciliation in which the sons and daughters of the nation make peace with their history and reclaim the microphone from the father. The film does indeed open itself up to such a reading, but such a reading does not do it justice. Focusing on the national allegory quite often leaves no space for the poetics of the film, especially if the film highlights the poetics of the everyday, like Papa Hedi does.
Papa Hedi juxtaposes documentary footage from a Tunisia in the throes of Nazi occupation with funny home videos of a Muslim-Jewish family at the dinner table. It celebrates the fact that Tunis was “the first Jewish community to be liberated by the Allies,” but also the beauty and strength of interfaith love. It does so without romanticizing cosmopolitanism or decrying its loss like many diasporic and Tunis-centric films do. In fact, it is thanks to the poetics of the everyday that the movie manages not to fall into that kind of nostalgia. The narrator’s family shares stories of being bullied at school for being half Jewish. They frame their mother’s desire to immigrate to Israel, not as a political decision, but as an inherently emotional one, i.e. as a reaction to Jouini’s failure as a partner. It is these stories that keep the narrative from becoming an elegy for cosmopolitanism.
The film’s focus on Tunis’s nightlife and music scene back then, and right now also performs the same balancing act. Papa Hedi highlights the youthfulness and liveliness of the capital today and thus counters “the narrative of loss” that characterizes much of the discourse on “Arab” cities. Benhassine zooms in on the faces of young Tunisians singing Jouini in the bars of the suburbs and in the cafes of the medina to show us how “integral his music is to the texture of everyday life in the country.” In one scene, we see a young fusion band playing her grandfather’s song Zine Ezzine (The beauty of all beauties) to a joyous crowd at a bar, and as the credits roll, we hear a bilingual adaptation of Taht al-Yasminafi Ellil(Under the Jasmine Tree) by the young Swiss-Tunisian singer Soraya Ksontini and the British singer Mike Kelly. Both adaptations revive Jouini’s love for blending Western and Eastern music and stand as a testimony to the cultural richness of Tunisia’s indie scene.
In their study of American biographical films in relation to American nationalism, Epstein and Barton write that “biographical narrative of whatever kind has traditionally been an ally of dominant structures of socioeconomic authority, as have the film industry in general and the industrial, technical, and aesthetic practices of biopics in particular.” Does the same apply to Papa Hedi? Which dominant structures of socio-economic authority does it support? The film does indeed advance a Tunisian nationalist agenda, one that is critical of Arab nationalism, and favorable to multiculturalism. Jouini, we are told, did not win the competition for the creation of a Tunisian national anthem because he used to dress in Western clothes, as opposed to his competitor Salah Mehdi, who dressed traditionally. There is also a hidden bitterness in the scenes where the interviewed artists make fun of Benhassine for wanting to make an English-language film about an Arab singer.
Moreover, in the version of the film circulating in Tunisian cinemas right now, the English dialogue is subtitled in the Tunisian dialect, not Fusha, and French is not even translated. The narrator’s subject position as a diasporic half-Tunisian half-English woman warrants a narrative of infitah, especially given how excluded from Tunisian culture she has felt all her life, but on the other hand, this narrative is still worth examining critically, especially in relation to Tunisian state nationalism. I have to admit that my thoughts on this question are not fully developed yet, as I am unsure of how we would describe the agenda of the two ruling political parties or of the Tunisian constitution itself in relation to “Tunisian identity.”
Ps: I had the opportunity to discuss my reading of the film with Claire Ben Hassine (a very humble and very talented artist) after which I realized I was a bit harsh in interpreting Hedi’s character. I can’t wait to watch this movie a third time and to explore it even further.
 Dennis Bingham. Whose Lives Are They Anyway: the Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Rutgers UP, 2010.
In September 2018, the Taher Haddad Cultural Club hosted the Voices of Memory Exhibition, “a unique museographic experience that incorporates the testimonies of nine Tunisian women” activists and survivors of the past two dictatorships.
The exhibition was organized by the University of Birmingham, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and Museum Lab.
Voices of Memory is an interactive exhibition based on oral testimonies, and personal narratives of women whose partners or family members were imprisoned by Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
We do not see any narratives by actual women prisoners. Women’s presence is mostly conceptualized through the trope of the “Koffa” (the basket), which stands for the food they brought to their imprisoned relatives. The Koffa, we are told by the guides, was also used to smuggle books and other forbidden items.
The exhibition contained artwork by contemporary Tunisian artists, such as Najah Zarbout’s video installation, “From Hand to Hand.” Zarbout’s work reproduces the disfigurement of the Koffa at the hand of the jailers, who would cut and crush the food in search of secret messages, thus transforming the food from an offering of love and care to a suspicious and dangerous object.
At the exit, visitors were invited to share some of their thoughts about the exhibition on a piece of paper that they hung afterwards on a clothes line.
On the day I visited the exhibition, there were two parallel artistic events: the first, a mini-concert by the young artist, Tiga Black Na, a former inmate and a victim of Tunisia’s draconian drug laws, and a screening of الزندالي.. نشيد السجون التونسية, a documentary about Zendali (Tunisian prison music) in the presence of the director Alaeddine Zaatoura.
After Tunis, the exhibition traveled to Sfax, Kef, and Redeyef.
Most of the UV artwork will be on display in the gallery until July 22, but some of it will continue to negotiate its place in the city beyond the event. Since many of the artists chose to paint large murals or glue giant stickers around the city, the question now is:
Will this artwork be vandalized or will it be lovingly kept and protected?
Despite the fact that some works were vandalized and others were even completely erased, I remain hopeful.
My hope is “neither loud nor naive,” but I have seen how local residents, especially children, participated in painting some of the murals that now grace the walls of Gabadji Sud. I have seen how they stenciled playful geometric patterns on the abandoned Rose Blanche (الوردة البيضاء) factory in the same neighborhood. I have heard the men thank the artists enthusiastically, and I have heard the women complain about vandalism. I know that the murals are loved by many.
I hope to return to the Gabadaji projects in more details some time in the future, but for the purposes of this blog, I would like to focus on the work of the Tunisian artist and ISBAS professor, Hela Lamine.
Hela Lamine’s contribution to Utopies Visuelles consisted of a mural entitled, “Shqaff al-Hurriga.” The mural can be seen on the sea-facing wall of the Comptoir National de Plastique (CNP) in Bhar al-Zibla (literally, the sea of garbage).
Bhar al-Zibla was originally called Borj Khadija. The area acquired its new name after parts of the neighborhood became a municipal landfill and (allegedly) a dumping ground for the National Sanitation Utility (ONAS). The Sousse municipality organized multiple cleaning campaigns in the area in recent years, but the neighborhood continues to have an insalubrious reputation.
Not far from the CNP building is a sales depot for alcoholic beverages frequented by the city’s poorer residents. The ill-kept houses in the neighborhood stand in stark contrast to the luxurious hotels a few hundred meters away. For Hela Lamine, no neighborhood could have been better suited to host the mural than Bhar al-Zibla. She tells me, “le lieu est pile-poil ce qu’il me fallait.”
“Shqaff al-Hurriga” is a tribute to the 150 lives lost in the undocumented migrant trip in Kerkennah this past June. Lamine’s mural is essentially a re-imagining of Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-1819), exactly two hundred years later.
Just like in Kerkannah, the victims of the Medusa shipwreck were also 150 people.
Just like in Kerkannah, the victims were the poorest of the ship, the ones that the French captain chose to abandon in order to save the dignitaries and the politicians.
However, unlike the Kerkannah victims who were headed to the southern coasts of Europe, the French Medusa was headed to the western coasts of Africa to reclaim Sénegal from the British and to appoint a French governor on African soil. Two opposite routes. One long entangled history.
Lamine kept all the dimensions of the original painting, but radically changed the aesthetic. Unlike Géricault’s dark and dramatic rendition of the shipwreck, Lamine’s “Shqaff al-Hurriga” is a cartoonish re-interpretation of the tragedy. Perhaps a nod to the childhood dreams that sunk with the 150 lives we lost. Upon a closer look, however, the cartoonish pastel figures of the raft appear to be ghosts with hollowed eyes. Their bodies are malleable like jellyfish (hurriga). They melt into the background and disappear into the sea, replicating the fate of the harraga (undocumented migrants).
The choice of the simple line can also be an abstraction and a generalization of the fate of the migrants. As Scott McCloud tells us,
Lamine did not keep the rescuing ship that we see in Géricault’s work, but she did keep the iconic flag-waving figure of the original painting. The flag, a plea for recognition and a threadbare symbol of hope beckons the passers-by, the drinkers, the swimmers, and the alt-tourists to stop, contemplate, and remember.
The artist also says that she seeks to establish an “impossible dialogue between Géricault and the famous Medusa mosaics in the nearby Sousse Archeological Museum.” The Medusa with its petrifying gaze is _according to Herodotus_ a Libyan monster. Representations of her face in Roman Sousse were meant to prevent evil from entering one’s home. However, as the contentious history of the Mediterranean has shown us, this evil is impossible to prevent. All we can do is re-work and perfect our (shared) mythologies.
Shqaff al-Hurriga is an itinerant and participatory project. Three more versions of the mural will be painted in the next two months in Hammamet, Paris, and Geneva. More reproductions will be scheduled soon. With each new copy of the copy, Lamine wants to exhaust the meaning of the original painting. Each time also, new participants will help the artist color the mural. Locals, visitors, and passers-by will all be invited to take part in Shqaff al-Hurriga ‘s journey around the world.
Heard while working on a public arts project in Sousse:
-Taxi driver: Do you want to smell this jasmine?
-Man: You don’t look thirty. You look like a twenty-six year-old who has been through hell and back.
-Man: Can I really talk to you? Can I ask you a question? Is there still love in this world? Noooo. There is no love in this world. I loved her and she betrayed me. I married her when she was in a wheelchair. I went to jail for twenty-two years because of her. I killed her lover. What do you want me to do? I had to. I am only human. I am not an animal. Do you think animals have feelings? They don’t. We do. I was sentenced to life in prison. I got out after serving twenty-two. Peace be with you.
-Man: Here are the Fine Arts!
-Man to his wife: No. Don’t talk about the future. That’s when he comes in. Satan comes in when you talk about the future. It is idolatry. You lose your grounding when you think about the future.
Man: Why do they pretend like sex doesn’t happen here?
Man: Did you see my new profile picture? Did you like it? Did you guys want to eat me?
Woman: I don’t look good in pictures.
Man: Is that the kissing police?
Woman: That’s how desire works.
Woman: Shoot me from the back. I don’t look good today.
Woman: I don’t need you to explain the context. I can interpret the paintings the way I want.
Woman: Why are they outside? They will be vandalized. I understand, this is supposed to be public art, but there is literally a man peeing behind your artwork right now.
Woman: Awww you said we were young artists!!!
Child: I want to be an artist. I don’t know what kind of artist yet.
Child: You mean this art is based on an autopsy? What if I mess it up? Will his ghost come after me?
Child: Take a picture of us.
Child: Why are you taking a picture of this grey wall? It’s ugly. Delete it. And this car too. Delete it. It’s ugly.
Child: I know what you are. You are a cleaning campaign. Oh you aren’t? Oh I know I know what this is about. This is about art.
Woman: They only cleaned up this neighborhood so that their murals look good.
Woman: Honestly, why are we so repressed? We should be lying next to him right now.
Ballerinas of Cairo is a new Instagram project launched on March 26 2016 by Mohamed Taher. The project features pictures of ballerinas performing multiple dance moves in the heart of the city. Ballerinas of Cairo is similar to Humans of New York in the sense that it celebrates a city and its people together.However, unlike Humans of New York,which portrays city-dwellers in a more or less everyday setting, Ballerinas of Cairo insists on the staged and the performative. All captions are invitations to dance and calls for movement. All pictures are celebrations of strong and athletic female bodies. The project re-enchants the city with the vibrant colors of the tutus and the elegant gestures of the ballerinas. It injects the mundane with a long-awaited dose of art.
In this short autobiographical narrative, Kaouthar Khlifi tells us about her flaneries in downtown Tunis and in the suburbs where she was born and raised. Khlifi takes the time to linger in the Avenue Bourguiba (now Avenue 14 Janvier) and to write about her errances. A Baudelerian figure, she follows in the footsteps of strangers, gazes at the monuments and buildings of the Avenue until she defamiliarizes them for herself and for the reader. Facing a dull life, where nothing tragic or exciting happens, the narrator seeks inspiration in the streets of Tunis, in the undecided weather, in her alienation from the Arabophone culture of her fellow city-dwellers, in the eccentric figures she encounters during the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (commonly known as the J.C.C.).
Mon père n’est pas encore mort. Ma mère non plus. Manque de pot, meme qu’ils sont lettres et capables de me lire. Je n’ai connu ni mort, ni viol. Ni misère, ni guerre, ni exil. Quand on sort plus, on ne voyage plus, on ne s’aventure plus, on se demande de quel mirage on s’enivrera pour donner le la. Puis on se dit que les mirages, ça ne frappe peut-etre pas que les voyageurs. Ca peut aussi frapper entre quatres murs, entre deux feux, et que si la machine a écrire se mettait, elle aussi, à rouler aux énergies nouvelles, on ne lui trouverait pas, en ces temps très moderés, meilleur carburant que l’effet de consternation que génère la platitude (19-20)
Je marche dans tes rues, qui me marchent sur les pieds (I walk in your streets, which in turn step on my feet)
Her nocturnal flaneries lead her to encounter stray cats, inebriated men, prostitutes, and tired waiters.
To a Tunis that is full of life and theatricality, the narrator opposes the suburbs of her “petit bourgeois” upbringing. The suburbs are artificial, materialistic, harmful to nature, empty of history, devoid of art. Its women are plastic and “french jusqu’au bout des ongles.” The narrator’s hatred of her suburbs stems mostly from the suburbs’ lack of “memory,” and “rootedness.”
Je regagne ma cité sans mémoire, à milles périmètres du coeur de Tunis. Dehors, rien ne rappelle rien et le pouls est faible. Tout est pierre, tout est construction, tout est luxe. Ma cité n’a pas de théâtre, ni de cinéma, ni de galeries d’art, ni de cimetière, d’ailleurs. L’amnésie précède parfois la constitution meme du souvenir.
Overall, this narrative reflects a period in the history of Tunisia, where one could sense something in the air, but that something was not there yet. The flaneries happen in the fall, a transitional period, in which, nothing is decided. The narrator does not mention anything about the Ben Ali regime, but we can feel that an important part of the “dullness” and the void that the narrator finds herself in, is due to a political suffocation.
The narrator feels imprisoned even in her flaneries. She tells us that she is extremely frustrated by her inability to communicate “the right kind” of sympathy when she is asked to react to what is going on in Lebanon and Iraq. Her lover demands that she feels the burden of pan-Arabism, the burden of the shared history, and accuses her of living in “geography.” I read this as the narrator’s desire to reconnect with her country of birth, first. This connection seems to be out of reach, as the title of the narrative indicates. The narrative, however, tries to make Tunis, speak by engaging with all the details that other city-dwellers forgot about, all the beauty and the darkness that became mere background.