Wajdi Borji is a psychology student, a cultural writer and member of the Doolesha collective. He meets me at the Zaituna mosque in the heart of Tunis medina. We will walk through the small mazelike streets until we reach a small café where some men are smoking shisha. When we start our conversation I don’t know that we will talk for over two hours until late at night.
Wajdi not only responds to my questions but also tells me a lot about Tunisian culture, the history of winemaking in Tunisia, the old heritage system that is unfair to women, religion and much more. You can find Wajdi in Tunis medina, just ask for him.
Discover Wajdi's Story
Part 1 Each person in unique – Wajdi’s story as a cultural activist in Tunisia
Wajdi is studying psychology in his third year, but his career as a psychologist has been interrupted a lot by his engagement in local activities. Rather than finishing his degree, he prefers to write, to engage in social and cultural volunteer initiatives, to play in the theatre and to give artistic workshops like calligraphy. One of his reflections makes me laugh a lot right from the start. Wajdi tells me “I always think that you need to be mature to finish something and maturity for psychologists is to practice to live.” He explains that you can’t just receive life experience from others, “you need to know about living actually for yourself”.
I had to repeat university years
All his activities make Wajdi a usual student. He admits “I had a lot of semesters when I didn’t even go to the exams so I had to repeat some years. It is not a very easy thing to do for yourself, your family and your friends. Imagine that I am now in a class without anyone from my generation”. All his artistic experiments and ideas make him think about their influence on society and on people like himself and their lives. Wajdi tells me “a lot of simple painting activities can turn into a social movement for example.” Immerging himself into different groups and realities allows him meeting new people, discovering new ideas and other points of view. He brings up his experience as an actor. They have really different life rhythms, norms and ways of living than psychologists. “Surrounding myself with people from different backgrounds is a good experience. For example, I was very touched by some German light artists performing at the Interference festival here in Tunis. They came on their own costs to offer light art to people who they didn’t even know and who don’t know anything about light art. These artists showed their humanity, offered their time and knowledge. In return, they received from us human relationships, being funny and being the Mediterranean.”
We lack cultivated artists and workshops
Wajdi then talks about the Tunisian perception of an artist. “Artists here are perceived like poor people. In Europe, an artist has a work schedule, meetings, and a workshop. Here we lack cultivated artists and workshops. Our artists are isolated in their houses and small working places. Nevertheless, the Medina is a medium for our art. People that come here take pictures of windows, houses, ladies with children, kittens, everything, and show it.”
About the Collective Doolesha
Wajdi also works for the Collective Doolesha. Doolesha is Tunisian word for having a tour without a purpose. “It’s coming from the Turkish word Dolesh which means you just take something to eat and stroll through the city. You may end up doing shopping or meeting a friend, but you don’t have a purpose. You just go.” He tells me that the collective Doolesha tours were initiated by three architects that walked around the city, shared their knowledge and talked about the stories of the medina. We now use to give these urban tours to our friends, family members, or university students from all over Tunisia. We invited historians, anthropologists, and sociologists to join the collective. In fact, all people interested in giving innovative and creative city tours can join the movement. Everyone can do it. The normal touristic history tours don’t teach you about today’s reality, but electricians or designers can. It’s not about your studies, it’s about what you can offer storywise and human-wise that touches people’s hearts.”
Cultural writing to build understanding
Wajdi then tells me about cultural writing like Montesquieu did during his time in France, comparing different viewpoints and opinions. “Nowadays, in 2017, in a modernized country with modernized people, cultural writing is the opportunity to show people for example that Germans are not alcoholic, even if they drink a lot.” He looks at me and I feel a bit guilty about my beer. He continues “It’s a cultural conception like we as Tunisians consume tea. In Tunisian tradition, we spend a lot of time in tea or coffee houses. In Germany, they go to a bar after work. It’s just cultural, take it easy. Nowadays, bloggers are not offering something like literature or pure perfect English, but they tell us about their culture and why they do things this or that way and are creative!”
Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Wajdi’s vision on Tunisia
Wajdi points out to the Tunisian school system that needs a change. “Nowadays, Tunisian students are good in mathematics but bad in behaving. In kindergarten, they should learn to behave instead of maths. Learn how to be polite, how to brush their teeth, how to cross the street, how to clean your classroom, how to take your bags, how to say hello, how to kiss your friend, how to play together and how to take care about everyone. This shouldn’t be a bargain because it’s important.”
According to him, the new generations don’t learn about what is valuable because they are over-consuming and are allowed to do everything. He underlines “Maybe your friend is more valuable to you, so make it valuable, make the things valuable because it’s about living. You need to live even if it’s not easy. I know a lot of people that are 50 or 60 years old that don’t remember anything. They could have read a small book in two hours gaining 300 years of life experience. Books offer you age, life and time. In Arabic, there is this saying that the book is your best friend”.
Teach students about your country’s history and culture
After this little excursion on books, he continues on education. “You need to give students time and everything they need to know about their history by visiting museums etc. If you don’t do this, it pushes them desiring to live in another Mediterranean country because they see on TV that Italy or France have a history. In our national television, there is nothing about our cultural heritage. It’s like we have nothing, but actually, we have a lot of things. Therefore, when we finish primary school, students should have visited at least some important regional and national monuments like in Tunis, Kairouan, or Sousse. We have big palaces and fortresses. Students should absorb our culture as well.”
Social challenges like in Europe
The social, security and medical system are also not great in Tunisia. When you lose your job you have to go to your parent’s place again. We once had big families that helped us. Today, our family and relatives also support us, but just maybe two months. For the elderly, it’s the same. Ten or twenty years ago, retirement houses were like a curse for our culture. ‘Ooooo… They put their parents or grandparents in a retirement house… ‘ Now it is normal. As in Europe. We are not heartless, it’s the consequence of cultural change and modernity.” I totally agree thinking of my own grandparents.
Wajdi also mentions salaries that are a problem, especially for women with less education. “They finish working in a manufactory or sewing something but what do you do with a salary of 350 dinars? What can you offer? You cannot offer if you are poor, only your time and effort like cleaning the house or having a chat.” Which is more worth than money because it’s much sincerer.
Problems exist to make you change something
When I ask him about the difficulties he encountered, he tells me “problems are made so that we take them seriously, but they are not negative.” He takes the example of our interview conditions “Like now, we can have no battery, we can have a lot of wind, a lady can stop here and start singing, everything can happen, but those are made to help us to change something. Maybe we change the situation, maybe we take our micro closer, whatever. If we are saying about our countries “we have problems”, also Germany, France, the USA have problems. So, for us, we need to concentrate on solving those problems. Everyone has its own problems. Like, when you are poor, you wish to be rich. So when you are rich, what to do? You have a new problem – who is loving you for your money, who is with you, who is against you?”
In Tunisia, there are a lot of pressing issues like the economy, culture or difficult social situations and unemployment. Wajdi says “yes, they are not easy to treat, but they are treatable. You can also learn from other countries like Albania, the US or Congo. We can get inspiration from them and customize it to our country.” He takes the example of post-war Germany, completely destroyed, but they rebuild everything from nothing and “they showed to the world this is a democracy, but we need to judge. Everything is a valuable experience and we need to take it seriously.”
Today we talk about things that before were tabu in art and in daily life
Wajdi loves speaking about the surprises he met in his life. He brings the example of the Cultural days of Carthage, an event centered around cinema, theatre the music. “There were a lot of theatre and music groups, a lot of films and theater plays that normally were forbidden in our country and our culture. Now, after the revolution, together with the artists and cultural workers we started to embrace new things. So we have films talking about homosexuality or the status of women, even films with smoking women, barely accepted in our culture!” he laughs. “It’s a very interesting time for me. Now we are treating and talking about things that before were tabu in art and in daily life. This surprised me and made me happy.”
About constitutional transitions
Wajdi adds that he just was talking about this with a friend today. “There is this movement called “Minichamsad – I am not pardoning”. It’s a social and democratic movement about the constitutional transition to see if we judge the people that worked with the dictator or not. The Nazis had this as well. A lot of people ask to kill them but we are asking to judge them so that maybe in another generation they will know that we have to work for the country, not for the dictator. This movement is very refreshing for my heart. The people that started and mainly work for this movement are women. A lot of them, and I know them, are students, artists, very educated women, old and young.”
Peaceful social movements dominated by women
He continues speaking about social movements. “Before the revolution, we didn’t have sittings, movements or manifestations but now people explain their opinion, without killing each other, without burning something or themselves, without doing nothing. Now there are millions in the main Avenue here in Tunis. Nothing is burned, nobody is hurt, nothing. This is good. This is the blessing of movements. So maybe it is all going to change on the political map. Maybe we will have the first president girl, maybe we will have other good things. So it is interesting. When you go on Facebook you see the movements and their ideas and up to 70% are ladies. Also at the universities, 60-70% of students are ladies. It’s showing the world that it’s not about gender, but maybe we are still imprisoned inside this idea of male figures…”, he sighs.
I want to work in local events with international outreach
Despite all his cultural engagement, Wajdi still sees his future in psychology. “I want to be doing research in psychology but I also would like to participate in events in the world. I believe that I need to work locally, but in events that also do have an international echo. Maybe I can foster change in the future but I don’t like to talk too much about the future. Let it come”, he laughs and takes another sip of his beer.
Don’t be a god, be a human
Which philosophy of life guides a philosopher? Wajdi says his philosophy is “Don’t be a god, be a human. Because we are aiming to be as good or perfect as possible but finish being human. So whoever you are, musician, writer or I don’t know, it is good to be human. Humans cry, laugh, do everything, just do it.” I really like his philosophy because it takes the social pressure away. We are what we are with all our flaws and we are doing the best we can.
Discover yourself, and let other discover you
What would he recommend other people? Wajdi smiles and says “Discover yourself and let others discover you. Be patient. Be human. Read, talk with others and get to know them. You can talk with a friend, or maybe read a book, or maybe live an experience but none one of those is the source of everything. Everything has its own soul. Discover it! Create and be poetic! Don’t work for others standards but adapt yourself. Adaptation is not about losing yourself.”
Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Wajdi’s message for the Mediterranean
Wajdi’s message for the Mediterranean
“I am part of the people of the Mediterranean. All the people from all parts of the Mediterranean are important. We should meet, sit together, work together and exchange. Everyone is trying to be the best but maybe we need a cultural, more popular and social way to share our experience. For example, maybe we could take old ladies or children from Mediterranean countries like Tunisia or Greece to visit each other to share their traditions, discover their songs, dance together. I think this is a human pragmatic workshop in the sense that it gives goals and opportunity for change for generations.”
Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Wajdi’s insider travel tips for Tunisia
“Life in Tunisia is awesome. I especially appreciate the life in the capital. People from other more traditional parts of Tunisia may experience a little shock but I adore it. The way you talk, the way you behave, the way you eat, is very new and distinct from places where people kept their traditions. In Tunis, there is a lot of diversity. In history, Tunisia was even more diverse. We had Jewish, Italians, Christians, everything in the Medina of Tunis. We have a church and synagogue inside the Muslim medina. In North Africa, it was not very common like in the Middle East where it is normal to have Christian Arabs. We need diversity, it’s good.”
Part 5 Discover new books, films, and music groups – Wajdi’s cultural recommendations
“I like Gregorian church songs from the Northern part of Greece because of the deepness of the sound. I like a lot of Gitan music from France and Spain, Andalucian music with their different schools like Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian or Lybian. There are our faces of beautiful African music. I like a group from Soudan “The noubaphones” or “The noubaland” because they have this deepness and willing of life like we can find in traditional Tunisian songs, even if strangers might depict them as sad. I am always interested in a lot of Arabic jazz groups like the Lebanese “mashraou aleila” that I also see as a social movement because they share also their political opinions but in an artistic way.”
“I like artistic movements like those ladies doing that traditional pagan poetry called Siachen poetry or puppets that represent fauna, flora, and god that Berbers produced to decorate houses. The thousands of ladies that create these puppets are artists for me like the Italian ladies that do broderies in Italy.”
“I love Rumi, a poet from Turkey. He said the one offering life is the one who can’t embrace it. For me it means, the one who tried to embrace the whole life is finally the one that knows that you can’t hold it inside a bottle. You need to be the bridge. Life goes through you to other people. Like if an old lady just puts something colorful on her window and a tourist takes a beautiful picture of it…