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We are Tunisians, a Mediterranean-African Community – Interview with Brahim (Member of the NGO Carthagena)

We are Tunisians, a Mediterranean-African Community – Interview with Brahim (Member of the NGO Carthagena)
September 16, 2018 Annett
17 min read

Brahim is originally from Bizerte, a coastal town a one hour drive north of Tunisia’s capital. We met at L’Agora, a chilled out coffee place and cinema in La Marsa. I felt really tired that night but Brahim’s story and how he told it to me kept me more than captivated.

He’s open-minded and really interested in people saying about himself that it’s his relationships that keep him going. Besides being an English teacher for adults, Brahim is working on Tunisia’s cultural heritage and identity as a member of the NGO Carthagina. When a friend told him about my project, he accepted without hesitation. I feel so glad that I met him. During the interview, he often started his answers with ‘this might sound silly, weird or funny’, but it wasn’t at all like that. I often feel the same and I think a lot of people as well. We do not only want to study, find a well-paid job, then get married, a house, a dog and some kids and then die. We are convinced that there is so much more to life!

Discover Brahim's Story

Part 1 Each person in unique – Brahim’s story evolving about Tunisian identity

Brahim is kind of modest. When I ask him about his story he tells me “there isn’t anything special to say. I graduated from high school and originally I wanted to study medicine, engineering or architecture but it didn’t work out. I ended up studying English and I discovered this whole new world – civilization, politics, and linguistics. I fell in love with linguistics and decided to pursue a career in linguistics.”

Life can surprise us and people can inspire us. “Honestly, in the beginning, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then one of my professors told me that I could make a good teacher and I should consider that. So I ended up getting a teaching degree from Cambridge University and moved to the US for a while. I wanted to do my PhD there but decided to come back to Tunisia. I want to actually make a change here.” He laughs and a bit timidly says “I know that sounds a weird ‘to make a change’ but my calling in life is to make a change, even just a small one in people’s lives”. With his job as an English teacher, he tries to positively influence his people as well. “It’s not just about teaching the language. For me, it’s about introducing students to the world. To give them the opportunity to open their minds to something new.”

About the NGO Carthagina 

When Brahim came back from the US, he started working with the NGO Carthagina. I am curious to know more about it. Brahim compliments my Spanish accent when I pronounce ”Carthagena” and tells me the story of how he got into it. His name, Brahim, is originally Hebrew. It used to be Abraham, then it was arabised and became Ibrahim. When Tunisians started using the name, they simply dropped the ‘i’. He tells me “as a teenager, I started asking myself ‘Who am I? Am I Arab? Am I Berber?’ Bit by bit I discovered that I can be just Tunisian”, he smiles relieved. “It’s rich enough to be an identity.”

Later, he decided to officially change his name from Ibrahim to Brahim but this got him into trouble and finally into the NGO in 2015. For a school portfolio of teachers, they wrote his name in the Arabic way which got him really upset. Brahim sent an angry email to the communication department that ended up being forwarded to the school manager who, by coincidence, was the President of the NGO Carthagena that works on everything that is Tunisian cultural heritage and history. One day, she popped up at his office and proposed him to collaborate on a new project planned with Wikipedia. Brahim accepted.

Making UNESCO World Heritage accessible for everyone online

In 2009, Tunis Medina was declared UNESCO World Heritage. Carthagena had the idea to write about all these protected historical monuments and make the information easily accessible online. Brahim tells me “collaborating with Wikipedia allowed to keep costs down. A website needs to be maintained and advertised. Also, who doesn’t know Wikipedia? We decided to have QR codes all over the Medina that people, whether Tunisians or tourists, can scan with their smartphones to directly access the articles.”

The project was the first one of it’s kind in Africa. Brahim tells me “to be honest, we thought ’Who would be interested in something like this apart from us? but we all started to believe in it so much! To our surprise, a lot of young people wanted to contribute. It was an amazing group and everyone from different fields. We partnered with the NGO ‘Sauvegarde de la Medina’ who gave us a gorgeous house in the medina called Dar Lasrem to work and access to their library. We met on the first Sunday of every month and divided the work between mosques, souks (markets), schools and houses. We started with the souks and then moved on. A year later we had finished.”

The result: information about 150 monuments, over 400 articles online in 7 languages (English, French, Standard Arabic, Spanish, Italian, German, Ukrainian and Japanese). Over 250 QR code signs financed by funding. Today, Carthagena also moved on to other Tunisian cities like the gorgeous town of Dogga (one of the biggest historical sites in Africa), Beni Khaled in Nabeul, and the medina in Sfax, Monastir, and Djerba.

About expectations of how you are supposed to live your life

After hearing about this impressive project, I ask which kind of difficulties he encountered along his way. “I guess expectations; I don’t know if it’s the same in Germany but in Tunisia, there are certain expectations of how you are supposed to live your life. Basically, society prepares the path for you and expects you to follow it. For example, in high school, I really liked biology, physics, and mathematics. I read books just for my own pleasure. I was expected to study medicine because people believe it’s a field where you actually can get a job. I studied English and there is this stereotype that you end up jobless. So fighting through that kind of pressure that if  ‘you’re not going to do anything with this degree you better think about something better’.”

Brahim also tells me that Tunisian society is kind of a conservative society which is challenging as well. “Evolving, changing and moving in different directions as a person isn’t really appreciated. When you question things and when you’re trying to find yourself instead of going with what you’re told to do, you don’t really get a lot of encouragement. So between these two things, it’s difficult to move forward in your career even though you believe in yourself. You feel like if I fail I’m going to get the ’I told you so look’ from everybody you know.” I smile since I know this look but I always do it anyway.

Brahim continues, “every time I had to move forward in my life, I had to deal with that voice in my head, that part of me that believes in what I was raised to believe and what society told me to do. Moving past that, doing what I felt was right for me and doing what I felt was going to add to me as a person was difficult.”

A Cambridge diploma, who cares?

To illustrate his doubts and difficulties in Tunisian society he brings the example of when he did the Certificate of English Language Teaching for Adults offered by the British Council and Cambridge University. He was 21-years when he applied and thought he got rejected. “I just got my Bachelor degree but I was accepted as one of ten people. I was the youngest and the only one with no experience. Instead of believing in myself, I kept thinking ‘what am I doing here? I’m going to fail’. Then, when I got the degree I thought ‘okay, I’ve been successful, now I’m going to get the job that I want’. I started applying at pretty every private school in the country. I got a ‘no’ from every single one of them. One of them actually kicked me out because saying ‘you have this degree that we have no idea where you got it from. It’s Cambridge, but who cares?’ Only one school desperately needing a teacher accepted to give me one late afternoon class for four hours a week.” It’s a story that also could happen in Europe I think, some adults are not smarter than young people.

The difficulty of doing something new in Tunisia, something that was not fully recognized yet, was a major difficulty. Brahim acknowledges “I had to keep convincing myself that I can do it, that I can actually succeed despite the fact that I’m going in the direction where no one basically has gone before.” He finally got the job and the salary was good but decided to go to the US with a Fulbright program scholarship. “My family didn’t know what that was and they thought I am giving up a well-paid job to go to school again, unpaid. It’s like going backwards for them. For me, it was like getting ahead in my career doing something nobody in my field had done before.” He adds with a smile “I had to actually convince people, no not people, myself that they were not right, that I’m going to make it.”

It’s never going to be easy

Brahim continues saying, “you know, it’s never going to be easy. You realize that the first time you try doing something new. You get rejections and people telling you ‘no, you are not going to make it’. The surprise of succeeding every time is never old. Even if I do not 100% believe in myself, but I’m doing it anyway. I’ll give it my best shot. I do it as if I believe that it’s 100% going to work out for me because that’s what I feel.” I totally understand him. There is as well the citation of Rumi “Do everything as if life is rugged in your favour”. All the rest is destiny.

I want to have my PhD

When I ask him about his future he laughs and says “5, 10, or 15 years, that’s a lot of time to think about. Honestly, I don’t know, I don’t have a plan,” he smiles and adds “but I have ideas, ambitions, and hopes of what I want to be in a few years and what I want to achieve”. I understand his answer, I would be the same, but I am happy to receive some hints on his future plans. “I want to have my PhD in Applied Linguistics – whether that’s going to happen is a different story. My mind might change..” I also always go with the flow and stay flexible because you never know which opportunities life brings to you. 

Brahim continues also wants to continue his interesting work at Carthagena. “I want to play an instrumental part in having a Tunisian society that sees itself as Tunisian instead of being torn between different identities such as Arab, French or Berber. I want to be part of having us as a society believe that all of that is actually part of one big thing that is the Tunisian identity. I want to be part of having people believe that we are Tunisians and that means Africans, Mediterranean primarily, Maghrebins on a smaller scale, and that includes all of our histories. Being colonized by the French, the Arabs, the Romans, and the Turks. Acknowledging all of the immigration waves that took place in Tunisia and acknowledging the fact that all of that made us who we are today. A Mediterranean-African Community that has its own uniqueness and that means it’s Tunisian. I want to be part of that.” he concludes by saying. 

I’ve always been scared of being going through life unnoticed

Brahim adverts me that his greatest fear in life might sound silly, “I’ve always been scared of going through life unnoticed. Going through life not doing something that has meaning. A lot of people get a degree from a good college and they get a job where they get paid well enough to have the cute apartment in the suburbs. You know, I get a car, get married, have babies to carry their names, and that’s it. I have nothing but respect for that but I hate the fact that most of us, in the world in general, fear that it’s our mission in life. I think that most of us are not born to do that. We are way more than that. We have a lot of things that we can actually contribute within the world. If that is your calling in life that’s fine, but if your calling is something different do not kill it and do what sounds like a good life. I’m one of those people who believe that my calling is not to make sure that we as humans reproduce and have a quiet life. I think that I am more effective and more beneficial to my society if I’m doing the kind of work I’m doing now.” I totally agree and in all the interviews in Tunisia, I met these amazing people that feel different and the urge to impact society positively.

Some of us were born to do something different

Brahim says in a convincing manner that some of us were born to do something different. “I believe that I was born to do something different – it’s not something necessary better by the way – but it’s just different and the difference should be appreciated and respected. My biggest fear is that I don’t do what I feel that I was born to do and instead go through life doing what it’s supposed to be right, what is supposed to be a good way to live. That is and that has always been my biggest fear. So far I have been successful in staying away from that, but you never know. Sometimes people crack under pressure and try to please and that’s my fear.” He laughs, “here you go, my fear is recorded on camera”. Something for eternity.

I want to go through life learning about myself

Brahim smiles when I am asking about his philosophy of life. “My philosophy is ‘you never really know what comes to your life’. I think it’s really pretentious and snobby to say this is the way. You should always be open to learning something new about yourself and how you live your life. After a few experiences in life, after a few ups and downs, I’ve learned that I want to go through life learning about myself as much as possible. I think that’s one of the things that I really enjoy doing. A lot of people spend so much time trying to figure out other people around them. They’re trying to understand them, but I believe that the person you should spend the most time trying to understand is yourself. I feel that we can never cease to surprise ourselves. There are sides of you that are hidden and they will be hidden for as long as you don’t fight to uncover them.” 

Meeting people is one of the greatest things in life

Next to trying to understand who he is himself, Brahim tries to make things as simple as possible. He tells me “I like trying to be a nice person to others. Sometimes it’s not easy given human nature and given that some people don’t make it easy. But seriously, I like meeting people. It’s one of the greatest things in life. You always find out more about humans. You always say something that is even more impressive than what preceded. Learning about them, trying to see how they live their life, even to share things with them, that’s something really precious and something that you should be really really thankful for! Being able to meet someone on a daily basis and someone from that comes from a completely different angle in life.” I completely agree and part of this interview project is exactly about this and what motivates me the most.

If you love someone, let them know

He adds a last thought. “A few rules that I try to follow: if you love someone, let them know. If you find someone impressive, let them know. Do not stop at every problem because if you do, basically you’re not able to live your life. Give yourself time to feel sad and feel a little depressed, respect your feelings, but do not dwell there for a long time. Appreciate this moment, seriously. Moments like for example making your breakfast in the morning, smelling the coffee, sharing breakfast with a good friend or your family, a good meal etc. Personally, as a teacher, when one of my students gets it and they start using a language point that they weren’t able to use before and you see that, a small or great achievement, I am happy. That’s how I try to go through my life.”

Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Brahim’s vision on Tunisia

When I asked him about his experience to live in Tunisia, Brahim asks me if he should be objective. He tells me “a lot of people would say I’m proud of being Tunisian, I’m proud of being Mexican or whatever. I never felt that I need to be proud of being Tunisian for the simple reason that it’s not an achievement. I just happened to be born here. I grew to love being Tunisian. I grew to respect the history of my country, the history of my people, and I try to be as involved in it as possible.”

Tunisia is as great as any other country

Brahim tells me “Tunisia is considered an underdeveloped country. To be honest, growing up I always focused on that fact and that we might be a little less because of that as a society. Nevertheless, after a few experiences in different countries and in Tunisia, I realize that my country is as great as any other country or any other society. I came to the conclusion that it is what it is. As a society, we have a history that made us who we are today.”

He explains himself a bit more “We have conditions that led us to this moment in history. It’s perfect as it is – and I’m using perfect imperfection – and I’m going to explain why. Perfect not in the meaning of having perfect schools etc., but perfect in the sense that it is functioning the way it is now. We do have problems that we should acknowledge and work on but at the same time. We have to admit that even these problems are part of who we are. They are existing now, but we need to make it work for the future. We need to change.”

I admire the good and bad things about Tunisia

Brahim tells me that right now he admires everything about Tunisia, the great and the less than perfect. He brings the example of not being exactly on time. “A lot of people would look down for that as bad and it can be annoying. It annoys me myself but I always think ‘you know, what makes being on time perfect and what makes it the standard we need to live up to’. Being, for example, emotional or loud or not believing in personal space, you know, things like that I really appreciate and to be living in this moment in this society.” 

Then he refers to the Tunisian society that managed to destroy a dictatorship as gracefully as possible. “Now Tunisia is a baby democracy where people are trying to get their human rights as citizens. We keep things moving forward. If you talk to any of us 6 years ago no one would believe that this would be possible.” Brahim adds “I feel really privileged and grateful to be part of this and to be a member of a society that has lived through all of the difficulties to get to where it is today.” I completely agree. Tunisia is perfectly imperfect. I feel like I could sign every word and feel proud of the Tunisians as well.

I see a lot of opportunities in tourism, a different kind of tourism

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, where he does he see the opportunities? ”In Tourism, but Tunisia has more to offer than just a nice beach and the sun. It’s a small country with so much diversity that even Tunisians don’t know how diverse our country is. I’ve been working on Tunisian Heritage and history for two years now and I only keep discovering new things every time.” 

Tunisia has great human potential

Brahim also sees a lot of opportunities in people. “Being a Mediterranean person – and particularly being Tunisian because Tunisia is in the heart of the Mediterranean where there have been many civilizations – I think that one of the greatest areas in which Tunisia can improve is the human potential. We have a lot of potential as individuals. I hope that one day we will start appreciating ourselves for that. In recent years, there has been a great movement of Tunisians coming back to Tunisia trying to invest their time to make a change. It’s an opposed trend in comparison to the years before. Unfortunately, a lot of Tunisians are still leaving the country for better opportunities abroad..”

Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Brahim’s message for the Mediterranean

What is the Mediterranean for you?

“To be the Mediterranean is part of who I am. It’s one of those things that is not the identity of one country. If you say the Mediterranean, you can’t really pinpoint it but it exists somehow. It’s a feeling. I grew up on the Mediterranean sea and studied history at school. You’re told about how your country had been part of this environment, this exchange and movement between the cities of the Mediterranean. You can actually see that all of the coasts have had a lot in common.”

“When I started to travel and to meet people from other places in the world including people from the Mediterranean or people who grew up on the Mediterranean as I did, I started seeing similarities between us. I started seeing how different we are from people who even sometimes are from their own country. For example, if I meet someone from France who grew up on the coast of the Mediterranean and someone from the north of France, I would have a lot more in common with them. I would see the difference between these two people even though they’re from the same country.”

“I would also see a lot of common things between myself and those people and it didn’t matter what country we are talking about. It could have been in Spain, Italy, France, Lebanon, Egypt, people from Alexandria – there would be things that we have in common. So putting everything together made me see how the history of the Mediterranean created the soul of this identity. It wasn’t just like a mirror movement from one place to another, it wasn’t just colonization, it wasn’t just trading, it was all of that that created what is now the Mediterranean identity.” 

Brahim’s message for the Mediterranean

“Let’s try to get to know each other more. Let’s try to find out more of the common ground that we have as people who share that part of our identities. Let’s do more travelling across the Mediterranean.”

Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Brahim’s insider travel tips for Tunisia

Tourism

“We have more to offer than just beautiful beaches but I would still take someone to see beaches in Tunisia. I grew up on the coast, in a beach town, and that’s one of the things that I admire in life. More important than that I think is the history of the country. I’ve been to countries where history was not as interesting or as diverse as the history of Tunisia but they gave so much value to it. They invested in it so much and they put it forward for tourists to go see it. This is something that Tunisia should do. We have a great history. We have monuments that do not exist elsewhere and we’re talking about almost 3000 years of history! I’m talking about dozens of different cultures. Each one of them left their print, each one of them left something for people to see here. Separately they are interesting, but the combination of all of them is just mesmerizing.”

“I would like them to actually see the real country. The tourist destinations are nice. They’re beautiful, but to actually go to the country and to see what this tiny Mediterranean country is like from the inside is something that I want people to see. I don’t know how that can happen, but to actually present the culture and the Tunisian people to the tourists. I would want to see how a regular Tunisian person lives her life here. When I travel, I like to see the tourist destination but I want to also live with people from that country. I want people to invite me to their houses, I want to see what they’re like. That’s to me what travelling is like. The historical monuments in the tourist destinations are nice but the real culture is what matters.”

Festivals 

“Hammamet Festival is probably one of the best festivals, if not the best, in Tunisia. It’s a music festival. The choices they make whether it’s Tunisian music or from other countries is amazing. The festival experience is gorgeous because they use the Roman Theater and it’s on the beach. They did a lot of work on the lighting. It’s a very small and intimate theatre so being there is just something that is so surreal and mesmerizing.”

“There are also other great festivals – for example the Jazz Carthage Festival. There is the JCC, the Tunisian movie festival that has a great cinema. There is Sicca Jazz in Kef, the Douz Festival in the South and Tabarka Jazz Festival. In Tunis, there is also the Light festival which is amazing.”

Part 5 Discover new books, films, and music groups – Brahim’s cultural recommendations

Books

“There are two books that I really love. One of them is “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. If I try to put my philosophy of life in a few words it would be Gibran and “The Prophet”. I love the way it presents the life and the difficulties we face as human beings and with everything that comes with us as humans, whether individually or as members of society. I love the way Gibran writes. His way of creating beautiful images, the choice of his words, the way he describes things and how emotional he is. That’s one of the things that we Mediterraneans have in common – being a little too emotional, a bit too carry about feelings.” 

“The other book “Diwen” is a poetry collection by the Tunisian poet Abou Kacem Chebbi who died at the age of 27 years. There is no one else who depicted what it means to be Tunisian with all of our issues and all of our positive sites the way he did. A lot of people, when they write about society or people in society they do it whether in a very liberal, very religious or very conservative way. It’s always very subjective. He did it from all the angles. He was religious at times and an atheist at other times. He was very progressive but also conservative. He presented all of our struggles as a society in a perfect way.”

Music 

“I love music. That’s one of the things that keeps me going in life. I grew up listening to what my mother listened to. A lot of radio and classic stuff like “Om Kalthoum”, “Warda”, “Dhekra” or old Tunisian music.  Growing up I started developing this interest in music that wasn’t necessarily mainstream. I have such a fascination with genres like Flamenco, Sufi music, Blues and Jazz. A genius musician is Dhafer Youssef. He mixes Tunisian and Sufi music with jazz using a lot of international instruments like the louth from the Middle-East. He works with international musicians and the result of what he does is just a mesmerizing mixture of jazz and Sufi music. His voice is something from another world.”

“In Flamenco, there’s this amazing Spanish singer Buika. She does of a mixture between rock and roll, Jazz, Flamenco and a little bit of Blues. Her voice is something that comes from the heavens.”

“An amazing Tunisian musician I like is Mounir Troudi. He takes old Tunisian folk songs and modernizes them. The result is always so beautiful. There’s something about him when he sings. It feels like he’s singing from every side of his body. In terms of classical Tunisian musicians, there’s Dorsaf Hamdeni. She is as good as a singer could get.”

“For mainstream music, I recommend Mohamed Jamoussi, considered one of the best composers in the history of Tunisia. There’s also Hedi Jouini who started bringing international music and instruments to the Tunisian music scene. The first real lady of Tunisian music is Saliha who established actually the Tunisian music. There was also this Jewish Tunisian musician, his name is El Afreet, which repertoire I really.”

Films

“There’s great cinema in Tunisia. It’s becoming more popular but keeps its identity which is that of Cinema d’auteur. JCI, the biggest Tunisian film festival, played an instrumental role in bringing more people into the movie theatres.”

1 Comment

  1. Petra 4 days ago

    Thank you for your input and comment. Thank you for voicing your thoughts and thus encouraging those around.

    Petra

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