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    Tunsi Street Poetry: Identity and Other Tales

    By Roua Khlifi | Aug 20 2012 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

    Tags: Arabic poetry , majd mastoura , medina , Ramdan , street art ,

    The alleys of the Medina were adorned with Tunisian traditional carpets. Tables and chairs were set on the sides of the walkways, playfully tempting passers-by to a mint-flavored tea or Turkish coffee. It was a typical Ramadan night, with people flooding the streets after breaking their fast to enjoy the summer breeze, and the company of their loved ones.

    As I walked down the alley, we reached a crossroad. Frost’s “The Road not Taken” began ringing in the back of my head. “Two Roads Diverged,” and, following Frost, we took “the road less traveled,’’ leaving the noise behind.

    The street started plunging into a rather melancholic darkness, with only the echoes of the reveling Tunisians drifting on the breeze, enticing us to go back. The temptation of our destination, and our love for poetry grew stronger as we continued walking forward. There, in the middle of a deserted and dimmed courtyard, stood a young girl, with a sign she was struggling to hold as high as possible, that read “Street Poetry /talk’’. The sign was meant to guide people into another courtyard, facing Palais Kheireddine, where crowds of poetry-loving Tunisians gathered.

     

    “As we all know, Tunisians often associate the expression ‘Klem Cheraa’ (street talk) with vulgar and rather inappropriate language since it is in Tunisian Dialect. But street talk can be beautiful idea. It has words that are laden with layers of meanings. Not a single word of our Tunisian Dialect is an empty linguistic unit. Our street talk has words like Tounes (Tunisia), a word that people and activists like Farhat Hachad died for. The Tunisian dialect has a lot to offer,’’ said Amine Gharbi, a poet, rapper and one of the organizers of the street poetry event. Gharbi made the pronouncement while standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd who had turned up for the second meeting of Street Poetry.

    Every Wednesday, young poetry-enthusiasts gather in a public space to celebrate their shared passion for both poetry and Tunisian identity by reading  poetry written in Tunisian Arabic. Anyone who has a text to read is welcome, as long as the text is written in Tunisian dialect. Musicians are also invited to play their songs. The initiative started with an event on Facebook created by Gharbi, along with Majd Mastoura, a poet.

    “What amazed me the most was that people, who didn’t know each other, were eager to participate and co-organize to make this event a successful one. We shared an interest in Tunisian culture, and a devotion to Tunisian dialect, which is often marginalized and frowned upon, especially in the literary and cultural scene,’’ said Mastoura.

    A group of young artists and intellectuals run the event. These include Gharbi and Mastoura, along with Yasser Jradi, Mariem Rabhi, Khwala Ayari, Nihel Jafar, and Laila Galai, as well as Tunisian Academics like Hajer Bouden and Insaf Macht, both university professors of French language, and Oum Kalthoum, an Arabic literature professor and director of the Klibia Festival of Young Writers.

    Mastoura explained, “Our goal is to give recognition to Tunisian dialect, which could be more expressive for Tunisians than any other language or dialect. We also want to show people that Tunisian dialect can be as artistic and poetic as any other language. It is not necessarily vulgar as many tend to believe. This won’t be at the expense of other artistic forms of expression. We aim to put the limelight on serious artistic experiments to revolutionize artistic movement, and to rise above trivialities and commercialism.”

    According to the organizers, the initiative consists of two parts, an artistic front of poets who write in Tunisian dialect, and a second part which concentrates on Tunisian dialect, and ways to improve its apparatus.

    The poetry event started late as many people lost their way trying to find the place. The Medina can be a maze for those who don’t know its nooks and crannies.  But the organizers included a phone number on their Facebook group so that people could call for directions. Then they waited to start until they were sure everyone had found their way.

    Around 10 p.m., the much-anticipated event finally started as people formed a big circle around a street lamp. It felt as if we were gathering around a campfire to tell stories about our ancestors. Some chose to sit on the floor while others stood or leaned on the walls. The unusual gathering drew some attention from people living in the surrounding buildings. Windows were opened wide, with families sitting in their balconies, waiting for the show to begin.  Children, running around playing and riding bicycles also stopped to see what was happening. All was silence!

    With shaky steps, a young girl walked to the microphone and volunteered to start the evening of Tunisian poetry. Before she started reading her text, Amel said with a quivering voice, “I used to write only in French. Writing in Tunisia is quite the experience for me.”

    Following Amel‘s recitation, the crowd started calling for Saber Zammouri to read his verses. Zammouri has, by now, become a crowd favorite. His words brought beautifully-crafted images to mind and won the audience‘s appreciation as they clapped and demanded more. Azyz Ammami, a Tunisian blogger and activist also participated as did Anis Chouchene, a Tunisian slam poet, or slammer. With his poignant words, and sharp sense of sarcasm, Chouchene managed to raise interesting questions regarding the controversies Tunisian society suffers from, and got the audience to laugh as well.

    The event has been garnering attention from different Tunisian intellectuals who believe in the importance of Tunsi as a means for Tunisia to thrive against all the elements that might threaten its identity.  Tunisia, patriotism, culture, freedom, and resistance were some of the themes that occupy the minds of these young artists and were voiced by their words.

    Music was also a part of the celebration of Tunisian dialect, as Nouveau System performed in between poetry readings. Their reggae songs dwelt on questions like the notion of citizenship as the audience clapped along.

    Wael Meskini, a singer and guitarist also performed. “I appreciated the fact that these meetings take place in public spaces. That is what we need the most in Tunisia now. We need people back in the streets again, whether to animate the cultural scene, or as part of political activism,” said Meskini. As I left Meskini talking to another fellow musician about his new compositions, Nihel Jaafar took the mike to launch a debate on whether Tunisian Arabic can be considered a language or not, linguistically speaking.

    People shushed each other as words in Tunisian Arabic flew, replacing the silence of the night. The crowd seemed completely disconnected with the life outside, which continued its festive pace. Children riding their bicycles, women going back from grocery stores, and some seemingly lost tourists all passed by, took some time to ask questions, and listen to the musicality of Tunisian words evoking some of the most celebrated tales of our country.

  • By Roua Khlifi  / 
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