It’s been a busy week – good for research, less good for blogging. So here’s a few observations on what’s been going on.
Waiting for Tariq
A week ago today I attended one of Tariq Ramadan’s public events. He was here for a couple of days to promote his most recent book, and to meet Tunisian leaders and the public. Also to do a little tourism, it turned out: his Sunday afternoon event started an hour and a half late since he was elsewhere looking around.
The event at the Palais des Congrès drew an overflow crowd – only those of us with advance tickets got into the main hall, although others were able to watch on a screen in an outer room. Audience members were of all ages, but predominantly young.
When the star turn finally showed up, he was introduced by the elderly Tunisian intellectual Mohamed Talbi, who fought to make himself heard over a less than stellar sound system and the impatient (and loud) reactions of a minority of the audience. The interventions from the floor weren’t helpful, but perhaps understandable as instead of introducing Prof Ramadan and his book, he attacked him as a ‘Salafi’ and ‘Wahhabi.’ Whether or not one agrees with Tariq Ramadan’s variety of modernist Euro-Islam – and plenty do not – it seems to me very difficult to sustain a position that he has much to do with Salafism or Wahhabism. Prof Talbi was clearly prepared to speak at some length on his theme, but the organizers asked him to cut short his introduction (he complained about this in the Tunisian press in the following few days). The whole thing was taking on the air of a circus.
But Ramadan is quite the showman. Once he took the microphone, his charisma was evident and he managed the audience well. Apart from a few religious formulas and specific terms delivered in Arabic, he spoke in clear and persuasive French throughout. Addressing young Tunisians in particular, he urged them to develop their political consciousness and ‘lucidity,’ including by tearing themselves away from their screens and educating themselves by reading widely – they must revolutionize their minds. He identified polarization as the great challenge facing Tunisian politics, yielding a ‘sterile’ debate between Islamists and secularists. Tunisians, having won the freedom of expression, must learn to listen as much as to talk. It was important that Tunisia preserve its diverse and multilingual heritage, making sure that future generations learned good Arabic and French, and even English, in order to be open to the world. Through education, Tunisians must reconcile themselves with their history.
His presentation touched on issues of religion, of course – on Sufism, for example. But he struck me as in some senses a missionary of democracy more than anything else, preaching the values of good citizenship in a newly free society. For the most part I found it a good message, delivered well. If it helped him sell some books also, more power to him.
The Old Team
Among my meetings during the week were coffee with the outgoing and incoming political/press officers at the British Embassy and, later in the week, a casual dinner with the Ambassador at the very grand official residence in Marsa.
I enjoy interacting with my former colleagues in the Diplomatic Service from time to time – they tend to be intelligent and well-informed, worth talking to. But I am glad to be out of that world and in the one I now inhabit. Diplomacy’s a great career for some; for me, teaching is much more fun.
I’m meeting all kinds of very interesting media people, of course. It was particularly fun to meet Slim Ayedi – Journaliste Citoyen – on Thursday when he gave a presentation to engineering students at the National Engineering School (ENIT). He was simultaneously sobering about their prospects in the Tunisian economy and inspiring about the possibilities of taking control of their own projects and finding ways to build a better future for their country. He does a lot of work these days with local and international non-profit organizations working in development and media training. His brand of video reportage is very self-effacing, concentrating on amplifying the voices of ordinary Tunisians rather than putting himself in front of the camera. I hope he won’t mind me including a photo of him here, nevertheless.
I made some time today for a little tourism, visiting the justly famous Bardo museum. The Bardo palace complex is also home to the Constituent Assembly that is tasked with writing the constitution for the second Tunisian Republic, so this was political tourism, too.
Sadly, the museum is undergoing extensive works, so there is only partial access at the moment (at reduced rates). Some things I would like to have seen were not accessible. Nevertheless, the mosaics I saw were quite incredible: beautiful work, and mostly very well preserved.
I’ve been watching quite a lot of television (this is actually work, given that I’m researching media). It has been exciting to see how lively the national debate is about fundamental issues such as the relationship between religion and state, about rights in the constitution, and about the role of the media itself. Both the national (state-owned) and private television channels give significant time to such discussions, in the form of interviews and debates as well as news programmes. It is particularly fun to see people involved in this whom I have met or will be meeting in my remaining time here.
Yesterday I was invited to lunch, to experience what I was told was real Sfaxian couscous. When Tunisians do lunch, they really do lunch. Extended family, neighbours dropping in, many courses. In this case, the couscous was served with three different kinds of fish. I fear I enjoyed the food too much – I could hardly move afterwards. The conversation was lively and, like so many conversations here these days, full of politics. And in three languages, of course.