Tunisian Graffiti Artists Erased Torture and Unlawful Arrests from a Prison Wall

Tunisian Artist Karim Jabbari started a project called Toward the Light, which he hopes will pull young artists away from drug smuggling and violence in his impoverished homeland.

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Sep 24 2014, 4:01pm

Photo Courtesy of Karim Jabbari

Karim Jabbari is a 36-year-old street calligraphy artist with a small goatee, faint moustache, and short black hair. After Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, dreams of a better future gradually faded for many living within his country, and in July 2013 Jabbari returned home to Kasserine—an impoverished town in west Tunisia that is facing rising unemployment, drug smuggling, and threats of terrorism—and founded Toward the Light, the city’s first-ever street calligraphy festival. 

He is now planning the 2015 event, where Tunisian artists struggling with post-revolution unemployment and poverty will be able to come together to find renewed hope through their talent.

It all started in April 2013, when Jabbari was living in Montreal and a prison warden from his hometown called him to come back to Kasserine. The region has been historically neglected by the Tunisian government, and the warden wanted Jabbari to organize an event that would empower young people and help distance the prison from police corruption. 

The prison is situated in the heart of the town, behind a 260-yard-long wall that was destroyed by rioting on the final day of the revolution and rebuilt just two weeks later. Jabbari knew how to transform it.

“I wanted to design the longest calligraphy wall in the country,” said Jabbari. “I knew that since I was from Kasserine, the project could have a deeper impact.”

Inspired by the work of Abou El Kacem Chebbi, a classical Tunisian poet from the 1920s, Jabbari selected a verse from his writings to guide the project.

“'You have to struggle on the path of life because life doesn’t wait for those who are asleep,'” recited Jabbari in a small café in downtown Kasserine. “I wanted these kids to realize that they couldn’t rely on our government to help them.  They needed to take action for themselves.”

When Jabbari began his project, many young Tunisians dismissed him as an outsider who couldn’t possibly fix the community’s issues. That didn’t deter him, because he was no outsider. Not only did he grow up in the poverty of Kasserine, his father had also served two years in prison behind that very wall. 

Jabbari’s father’s affiliation with Ennahda—an Islamic political party outlawed under former dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali—led to his unlawful arrest, torture, and a prison sentence. Toward the Light represented more than a practice of community empowerment—it also provided Jabbari with an opportunity to attribute new meaning to the wall, which represented a harrowing time in his family’s past.

“I was anxious during the days my father watched me paint,” Jabbari told me while we drove down the streets where he grew up.

“Watching my son paint the wall helped disguise the memories of repression it inflicted,” Abdullah told me after welcoming me into his house.

As Jabbari’s story about his father spread, his critics came around. With the wall as the main focus, Jabbari also organized spoken word and calligraphy workshops to attract the city's youth. Within days, Toward the Light pulled young artists to the wall while dragging others away from smuggling and violence.

“When I first walked past the wall and saw the sound system turned on, I grabbed the microphone and started rapping,” said Hamse Ichawi, a 19-year-old-local MC.

Jabbari had been looking for Ichawi ever since the warden raved about the talented young rapper. Once they met, Ichawi became one of 15 teenagers who helped Jabbari paint the wall every day. Ichawi told me that all the sleepless nights working on Toward the Light were worth it; they didn’t only offer his peers an activity to occupy their time but also gave meaning to their lives. By attracting the community to a place that was often avoided, the wall became an icon of the city.

“Everyone working on the wall became a family,” said Ichawi.

“Together, we made this city come alive,” added Jabbari.

On August 25, 2013, the wall was completed, but the community celebration was bittersweet. Driven by their passion and a desire to bring a sense of continuity to the youth, Jabbari set out to organize another festival that December and to make it an annual event.

With the wall as the backdrop, young calligraphists styled the streets while local rappers staged opening performances for renowned MCs. Humbled by their involvement, and grateful to have built strong relationships with the youth of his hometown, Jabbari vowed to nurture the talents of a generation that had always been neglected.

“Anybody can break a wall down,” said Jabari. “It’s transforming it that’s a challenge.”

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