The first artistic meeting for the promotion of equality and respect of black minority rights in Tunisia kicked off in El Teatro space in Tunis on October 5 and will continue until October 2o. The event, entitled “Être Noire Dans la Verte” (Being Black in the Green [Tunisia]), aims to shed light on the contribution, history, and issues of black Tunisians.
One of the highlights of the event is the premiere of the first play about the slave trade in Tunisia and the role of former colonial power France in the period leading to the abolition of the slavery in 1846. Tunisia was the first Arab country to take the bold step in ending the bondage of black people. The play was shown to an audience of around 200 spectators on October 11.
“Desperately Looking for Saadia” is a play directed by Tunisian director Naoufel Azara. The play’s protagonist Saadia is a black Tunisian girl, who as the legend goes was the daughter of a West African king and was abducted by French slave holders. Saddened by the loss, Bou Saadia (father of Saadia) left everything and set out looking for his beloved daughter. He looked for his daughter Saadia eveywhere in Tunisia wearing a mask made of animal hide and colorful, tattered clothes with feathers as well as playing with metal castanets. He would dance intensely and fall into a trance to release the evil spirits.
Malak Zouaidi, who is a circus artist and teaches in the School of Circus in Tunis, takes on the role of Saadia. She said that when the producers chose her to play Saadia, she immersed herself in the character. “It is impossible not to feel what Saadia went through, the moments of suffering are authentic. I truly cried on stage. Her story is true although our families often recounted her story as a myth. My father died, and she brought me back to the years when I was unable to visit my father’s grave [in the town of Hamma in the governorate of Gabes] – memories of the father, who is gone and will not come back,” Zouaidi told Tunisia Live.
In the play, Saadia recounts the loss of her father, her alienation as a black woman in Tunisia, and how she was sold as a slave. The motif of the loss and alienation in the play haunts Saadia and other characters, who like her find a common ground in their slavery. Their shared stories of bondage transcends the skin color stigma that Saadia has suffered from. Saadia today is a proud young woman freed from the yoke of slavery but still living daily with the disdainful looks of passersby on the street.
“Saadia is like any girl, who sets out looking for her father, trying to know who her father was,” said Zouaidi. “She speaks about her mother, who brought her up and told her about her father. She took a French ship to set out on her journey to search for her father.” “The journey was that of suffering,” she added.
Another character of the play’s protagonists is a mixed-race young woman shackled to the French ship’s mast, struggling throughout the play to set herself free – a symbol of eternal bondage. She gave birth to a baby while still in shackles and had the newborn thrown in the sea by the French captain. She then endured the state of being exhibited in public to be sold to Arab merchants. The character epitomizes the Hottentot Venus character.
Ferid Boughedir, a Tunisian movie director famous for the Tunisian blockbuster “Halfaouine, L’Enfant du Terrasse,” attended the performance. While he saw much to like in the play, he was also critical of some elements.
“This play is not courageous enough. There is still racism between Tunisians. [The play] shows that the bad white guy is French,” he stated. However, Boughedir liked the character of the Arab slave merchant, who according to Boughedir “shows he has no principles.”
“This is good because it is close to self-criticism. It did not go far enough though,” he emphasized.
The play also touches on the role of the French in the slave trade in the Arab world. The French slave master plays the villain, selling a European slave woman and Caucasian boy abducted by Turkish slave ship owners to be sold to white Tunisian families from Tunis. Set up in El Berka market in the medina of Tunis, the play highlights the role played by Tunisian merchants in the trans-Saharan slave trade with West Africa from the 16th century until slavery’s abolition in 1846 by the king of Tunis Ahmed Bey, who himself had a European slave mother.
When asked about the lack of visibility of black actors in Tunisian drama in general, Boughedir denied the existence of “social taboos” in arts. “Ten years ago, Othello play was reproduced by Tunisian director Taoufik Jebali and the actor, who played Othello was black,” he insisted. Boughedir recognized, though, the presence of social stigma around blacks in Tunisia. “[It also] exists between the bourgeoisie and working class in Tunisia. It is worse for blacks because of the color of their skin. It is common to say, ‘I have nothing but at least I am white,’” Boughedir concluded.
The characters speak different dialects and languages, such as Tunisian Arabic and French, which are mixed in a way that transcends the interlocutors’ cultural differences, leaving the audience bemused and feeling as if they have traveled through time.
The play ends with the tragic deaths of the slave boy from the Caucasus at the hands of the Arab slave merchant, the shackled West African slave woman, and the French captain, murdered by the European slave woman. The deaths herald the emancipation of Saadia and her redemption through her father’s clothes that are given to her by the Tunisian narrator of the story.
People who attended the play were mostly white Tunisians with some black Tunisians as well as other Sub-Saharan African spectators. All expressed satisfaction with the play and how it portrayed the theme of slavery, discrimination, and racism in Tunisia.
One lady admitted that she cried during the play at the scene of the newborn baby being taken away from his mother. Her friend added that after watching the play, the message that struck her the most was “that the ‘people of color’ were in fact white people. The message behind [the play] is that whites have no right to be racist against [what they call colored people or blacks], ” she said.
The play concludes with the white European slave, who was sold in Ottoman Istanbul and brought in the ship, witnessing all slaves coming before her eyes, with Bobby Breen singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Stambeli music.
The play was produced by Elteatro and Assos-Carré D’art/ El Teatro Studio and lasted for an hour and ten minutes.