Tunisia’s culture vultures have called for an end to an ‘alarming’ government crackdown on the arts which has forced some of the capital’s best loved culture spaces to close their doors.
The recent clampdown has seen the closure of two of the city’s most popular venues due to a cocktail of poor funding and licensing beauracracy
Many inside the arts scene have expressed dismay at the demise of the Mass’Art and Whatever Saloon cafes, both of which provided a selection of cultural events and performances to an audience traditionally deprived of such opportunities.
Authorities claim that the venue was closed down after an inspection found the building unfit for purpose, while officials cited a lack of female toilets, a lack of working fire extinguishers, a lack of adequate lighting and complaints about the nature of the clientele from residents and business in the locale as reasons for the move.
However owner Wael Mhamdi, has hit out at the decision to shut the space. ‘If you want me to make changes, at least give me time. I wasn’t given any time to make improvements.
‘We’re used to holding events, and we haven’t had any trouble before. But I think there’s a drive to shut down cultural associations, such as the one I run. This kind of thing has become normal now, despite the revolution.
‘If the government wants to close it then it will, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ he added.
‘I was living outside the country for 11 years but I came back after the revolution because I feel we need a cultural revolution.
‘I sort of regret coming to Tunis,’
‘But at the same time I’m Tunisian and I feel like it’s my duty to try my best to open cultural spaces.’ he told Tunisia Live.
Worryingly Mhamdi is not the only victim of the country’s culture drain many observers see the targeting of cultural spaces as a growing problem.
‘It’s alarming. It’s as if there is pressure to close, a political will to close cultural spaces. You have to be 100% within the rules otherwise the authorities will find an excuse. You really have to pay attention to the contract. We need laws designed to protect cultural spaces,’ said Sonia Zarg Ayouna, co-founder of Tunis’ l’Etoile du Nord theatre.
In the months following the 2011 revolution many Tunisians hoped for a cultural reneissance following the removal of the oppressive Ben Ali regime.
Any such hopes were short-lived and four years on the capital has only a handful of venues left.
Ghassen Labidi, owner of the trendy Liber’the cafe in the city’s Lafayette district tells Tunisia Live that though his cafe has not encountered legal issues, he feels that shortcomings in the law are a particular issue.
‘There aren’t any legal structures or help from the authorities to support us. You can either be a cafe or have a specific purpose but a cultural cafe has no legal protection. We need new laws, which have to come from the Ministry of Culture,’
‘The government always talks about security and the economy and ignores other concerns. We’ve forgotten about culture. He added.
Ines Tlili, who works as an event organiser in Mass’Art, expressed dismay at the lack of government support for cultural spaces. Though Mass’Art used to receive 20 thousand Tunisian dinars of government support, Tlili feels that the government has gone back on its promise to open cultural spaces, especially in deprived areas.
‘It’s worrying and sinister. The government says one thing and does another. We don’t know where to go from here.’ she told Tunisia Live.
Some, however, see the willingness of the government to close cultural spaces as part of a general cultural malaise affecting the country.
Sonia Zarg Ayouna is particularly pessimistic about the situation. ‘The government knows they can get away with closing spaces down because for decades culture has been pushed aside. Nobody will protest on Avenue Bourguiba if you close down a cultural space – it’s just not seen as important. And yet it’s only by changing culture that you can change society.’
Liber’the owner Ghassen Labidi is more upbeat. ‘There is an interest in culture and cultural spaces. Our cafe is really busy, which is a testament to that. Tunisians spend most of their free time socialising in cafes, so why not give them the opportunity to access culture at the same time?’
However he acknowledges that culture has been pushed to the bottom of the political agenda. ‘The government always talks about security and the economy and ignores other concerns. We’ve forgotten about culture. Our cafe is not here to make money – we don’t sell tickets to our events – but to give young people the opportunity to come somewhere creative.’
As Wael Mhamdi, Whatever Saloon’s owner, laments, ‘We really need cultural centres. If we want to fight terrorism and try to create a cultural revolution, we need culture. So why are we being closed down?’
Sebastian Fagan is an intern at Tunisia Live and is currently pursuing a degree in French and Arabic language and literature at the University of Cambridge.