How Tunisians Are Fighting Free-Speech Limitations with Slam Poetry

Although the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly have improved significantly since Tunisia’s revolution—an uprising that toppled former dictator Ben Ali in 2010—police have continued to target and beat outspoken artists at public...

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Jun 26 2014, 6:23pm

Photos by Mat Nashed

Amine Gharbi is a bald 30-year-old man with glasses. The Tunisian hip-hop producer was born and raised in a low-income district in Tunis during a time when any explicit criticism of the state seemed unimaginable. Plainclothes police officers would stroll these neighborhoods to repress any political activity. Before the revolution many local artists alluded to this in their work, but no one spoke about it outright.

“We had to be careful,” Gharbi told me as he smoked his cigarette on the patio of a little café in Bardo, the neighborhood where he grew up. “Artists didn’t even mobilize in private spaces.”

Although the right to free speech and freedom of assembly have improved significantly since Tunisia’s revolution—an uprising that toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011—police have continued to target and beat outspoken artists at public demonstrations. Inspired by the Black Panthers, Gharbi said that Tunis needed a movement that could reclaim the streets from the police and transform them into a place for culture.

His vision and prominence with local artists drove Gharbi to organize a slam-poetry gathering in the streets of Tunis on July 25, 2012. He made an event on Facebook that called young artists from all parts of the city to meet and read their texts in Place Pasteur, a district with a public park located just outside of downtown. 

“It was magical,” said Majd Mastoura, a 23-year-old Tunisian poet who had attended the first slam-poetry event. “I felt like I discovered an entire new world.”

Only 40 people joined the first slam-poetry meeting. After Mastoura’s recital he approached Gharbi and told him that he wanted to help expand the movement. They didn’t make it to the end before two police officers intervened.

The officers told Gharbi that he needed to notify the district police before hosting other cultural events. Gharbi abided, and he and Mastoura created a social media page for slam poetry that same week and hosted a second event in the old city of Tunis.

More than 200 people attended the second event. Artists expressed their social and political concerns such as sexual harassment, state-corruption, and unemployment. When Mastoura recited a poem about police brutality, two unmarked officers approached Gharbi again.

“The officers accused me of lying. They told me poetry is not supposed to be politically related,” said Gharbi. “I told them the poets are free to express whatever they want.”

“Freedom of speech and the right to public space are the only things we have acquired from the revolution, so far,” added Mastoura. “This movement is our struggle to keep it.”

A 1969 law lingering from Ben Ali’s regime still regulated freedom of assembly until June 2013. This regulation stipulated that authorities must receive at least three days’ notice before any public event, but new laws ensuring greater freedom of expression restricted the officers from taking any action. Ironically, police interference inspired many more to participate in the movement.

In the first week of August 2012, Gharbi said that more than 40 artists shared their texts over Facebook and in the public gatherings. The more recognition slam poetry received, the more the movement’s social and political direction took shape.

“Tunisian slam-poetry was coming to the streets,” said Mastoura. For poor Tunisians who couldn’t afford to see a movie, slam poetry offered an alternative.

Anyone could read their poetry. The only condition was that it had to be performed in the Tunisian dialect. Because most mainstream cultural production in the country is performed in classical Arabic or French, Gharbi said Tunisians feel disconnected from commercial artists.

“Classical Arabic can’t express what the Tunisian poet want’s to say,” said Mastoura.  

“Performing in our dialect allows us to produce intellectuals who are part of the people, not beyond the people,” said Shams Radhouani, a 22-year old slam poet who has steadily gained public recognition.  

After discovering Gharbi’s slam poetry movement through Facebook in August 2012,  Radhouani  seized the opportunity to read her work publicly for the first time. While her poetry has addressed women’s issues and skepticism over the electoral process, she said that it’s nobody’s place to dictate slam poetry’s political direction. But anyone who chooses to politicize their art now has a platform to speak.

This platform has connected over 8,000 people to Amine’s slam poetry Facebook page while mobilizing hundreds more in public streets. Although officers might continue to intimidate activists and artists like Weld El 15—a rapper arrested for calling the police dogs in a Tunisian concert last year—slam poetry has emerged to resist police control.

“Our movement is threatening,” said Amine. “It’s not easy for the police to accept that the streets are no longer theirs.”

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