Selim Ben Safia is a young Tunisian contemporary dancer, choreographer, and cultural activist. He wanted me to meet him in Abdellia Palace, built in the 15th century, in La Marsa. It was a Saturday morning, and Selim ran a bit late to our interview since he was organising the Hors Lits festival in the evening. I didn’t mind waiting in this beautiful place. I was tired as well, and after all, it’s Tunisia where people take their time, for everything and everyone.
Selim organises the Hors Lits festival several times a year in Tunisia. This cultural event brings together young local and international artists in 35 different cities around the Mediterranean and worldwide. (Read more about the Hors Lits network here.)
In the last years, Selim is trying to build up and strengthen the cultural scene of Tunisia. He has led several festival projects, works with different dance companies and created a new cultural organisation called “Albadil” in 2017 which means “The Alternative” in English.
Discover Selim's Story
Part 1 Each person in unique – Selim’s story as a dancer and cultural activist in Tunisia
From martial arts to breakdance
As a child, Selim dreamt of a career in martial arts. He took part in high-level judo competitions at a national level until doctors advised him to stop because of heartbeat problems. But what does a child not being allowed to train anymore do instead? He got restless, wandered through the streets of Tunis and met other kids that were doing Hip Hop and Breakdance. This encounter changed and shaped his life.
Selim was a quick learner taking up rapidly all the breakdancing tricks. “It really fascinated me. Later, I also took Hip Hop dance classes with a local company. They were recruiting new dancers and by chance, I got selected, and this was only the beginning!”. I notice a gleam in his eyes.
Becoming a contemporary dancer and a choreographer
At the age of 15 years, he took even more dance classes and decided to concentrate on contemporary dance. “Contemporary dance allows me to mix several quite different dancing styles. It allows me to tell people something – a story that can touch us deep within.” I silently agree with him remembering performances I had seen that captivated my senses and my soul. Over the years Selim created his own signature move and dance style based on hip-hop, traditional Tunisian dance, and everyday life. I would love to attend one of his performances and to actually see and experience it!
The rest of Selim’s story is history. “I started dancing in Tunis in 2000. I was part of different dance companies and then I decided to go to France. I signed up for a choreographer-dancer training at the French National Choreographic Center in Montpellier. During my studies, I created my first dance company called “Underground Skills” and I started to create my own shows. In 2010, I created my first solo dance performance. I was really lucky to travel a lot with it. I went to Africa, did some shows in Bamako and Ouagadougou, and I also managed to travel to Brazil. Wherever I went, I met amazing people! In 2013, I returned to Tunisia with the intention to animate things cultural wise and to create bridges with the people that I met abroad. My objective is to foster artistic exchange between Tunisia and the other side of the Mediterranean.”
I struggled to assume myself as a dancer
The passage from being a hip-hopper to becoming a contemporary dancer and to assume this choice was not an easy one for Selim. “When I started dancing hip-hop, it was great because it was great fashion. Especially as a teenager, it was super cool. When I started doing contemporary dance, it was very difficult for me to say ‘I’m a contemporary dancer’. I struggled to assume myself as a dancer. I had hard times saying it to people, especially to my family and friends. I tried to be as discreet as possible.” I can almost feel the rollercoaster of emotions that Selim must have been through at this time.
Thankfully Selim comes up with a little anecdote that makes us both laugh. He remembers, “I normally didn’t invite my friends to my shows, but there was a show where I played a woman and had to dance in a dress. My friends saw articles about the show in the local newspaper. When they asked me about it, I said ‘no, the show is canceled’, because I really didn’t want them to see me dancing in a dress”.
Later in his career, the difficulties changed. “In Tunisia, there are not many possibilities when you’re a dancer. Fortunately, I was selected by a dance company. Outside Tunisia, it’s also very difficult. There is so much competition, so many different companies, so it’s hard to win as a dancer.” I remark that he finally did all the things very good. He answers with a smile, “yes, I succeeded because I always try it anyway. I do different things and do things differently. I try to stay real. The idea is not to copy what is done elsewhere, but to be sincere on stage. You can see it when a person is sincere because he or she stands out, you can trust her, and that’s what is important I think.”
We have to foster arts and the reflection on arts
The evolution of the perception of dance in Tunisia surprised Selim a lot. “When I started to dance, it was very complicated to get people interested in seeing contemporary dance shows. It is still complicated today, but a lot has been achieved. We have a regular audience that comes every day to see the shows. In the beginning, everyone told me that, for example, the Hors Lits festival will never work. People told me that no one will grant access to their private house for artistic performances. But in the end, people are very open-minded and they want to discover the arts. When people don’t come to the shows, it’s not because they do not want. They simply do not have the opportunity to do so or they do not know what’s going on cultural wise. Therefore, we have to propose different things to them, ask if they liked it and if it triggers something inside them. We have to foster arts and the reflection on arts as well.”
The phases of creation shape my working day
So what does a typical working day look like for a dancer, I ask curiously because I never had friends that were engaged professionally in dance. Selim smiles and says “in fact, there are times, it’s not a day, because it depends on the phases of creation. For example, when I create a new performance I go to the studio to think about it first and then I create it as a choreographer. In my other role as a cultural operator, I have to find solutions, new ideas, and I have to create new initiatives like festivals.”
He takes the example of the Hors Lits festival and explains, “we are thinking about which artists we are going to invite, how to organize a workshop with a foreign artist, how to choose the private houses, how to find a budget and then you have to invite the public as well.” Selim continues that because of the two roles his working days are sometimes very, very long. “I often finish my days at 11/12 p.m. In the morning, I start at 8 a.m. and until 2/3 p.m., I do administrative work. I find budgets and places and I contact artists. In the afternoon, I repeat and meet dancers to create shows.”
My goal is to have one Hors Lits festival in every Tunisian city
When it comes to his future, Selim has ambitious plans. “I am working on the strategy for the Hors Lits festival for the upcoming five years. The goal is to find young people who want to organize the Hors Lits festival in their regions. We want to train them on ‘cultural management’, on how to organize a festival, how to find a budget, how to find sponsors so that they are empowered to organise the Hors Lits festival in their cities.”
Selim looks very determined when he says, “my goal is to have one Hors Lits festival in every Tunisian city. In all the 25 Tunisian governorates: Tunis, Ariana, Djerba etc. I want to democratize the access to artistic shows. It doesn’t mean that everyone must go there, but that everyone has the possibility to see a show and knows that there are artists like me doing contemporary dance, entertainment, comedy etc.”
There are no problems, only solutions
When asked about his philosophy of life, Selim smiles and says “there are no problems, only solutions”. He is convinced that there is always a solution somewhere. He points out to the name of the association ‘The Alternative’ he created. “Conditions for artists in Tunisia are far from being perfect. When you know this, just accept it”. He says “when we don’t have the technical equipment or materials we need, we look for a solution, an alternative, a plan B.”
He continues his explanation that sounds very familiar to me since I function in the same way. “Also, many people complain that we do not have this or that, no places to perform etc. Certainly, they are right, we have no places, we do not have much money, we have no status etc. It’s difficult for an artist, but if we continue crying it will change nothing. So what can we do to improve things? The Hors Lits festival is a creative solution for the ‘we have no places and no money problem’. We do the festival in private houses, we ask artists to perform for free, we ask people to contribute to a plane ticket for an artist to come. We find alternatives in response to what the Ministry of Culture cannot do today.”
Stay positive, little by little, the bird builds his nest
With this Plan B mentality, I ask Selim what advice he would give to people that want to engage in the cultural world. He takes a breath and says “you have to be positive, especially when you start because it is very complicated! You ask yourself ‘and how am I going to do all this?’ The answer is ‘little by little, the bird builds his nest’. You have to start on a small scale. If today you create a festival, it can last maybe just one day and in the beginning, only 20 people will come. But it’s a start and you can do it even without money. Nobody started to do very big events the first time. Start small, unite people, and the more people see that you are sincere and that you really want to do it, they will help you. But if we cross our arms and wait for help to come, help will never come.” That’s so true I think, you have to rely on yourself first. Self-reliance is the name of the game!
Selim continues saying, “you have to create, you have to help fate along a bit, nothing comes from the sky, you need to work a lot. In the beginning, settle for little things and have the ambition to improve things. The same applies to be a dancer. In Tunisia today, it’s not easy. You have to persevere a lot, overcome doubts, an aching body, and you always have to try again. Failures make you grow too and if we persevere, we will find solutions.”
Artists should be promoted on the whole Tunisian territory
Selim’s greatest hope turns around the promotion of culture in Tunisia. “I hope for a greater awareness of the Ministry of Culture on what is going on in the cities at a grassroots level. They don’t come to see what we are doing in the local communities. Instead, they build for example the ‘Grand Opera of Tunis’ with 8000 seats. It’s awesome, it will be the largest Opera House in Africa or even the Arab world, but so what? The question is which Tunisian artist can fill the 8000 seats today? Nobody. The Ministry of Culture has to realise that today nothing is done in the different regions to disseminate the work of Tunisian artists. Sometimes they support the creation of a show, but with just one date for the show, after that, it’s finished..! We need structures and funds to broadcast the works of the artists nationwide.”
He underlines with even more strength in his voice, “if we do not disseminate, the public is not aware of what is done, apart from people in Tunis the capital. In the regions, people will just come to see the great artists they see on TV like Lotfi Abdeli, a great actor and comedian, but they won’t discover the young artists who create things and who do great work too. In my opinion, we should not see things in very big like with the Grand Opera project, it’s kind of useless. We should work closer to the public so that they are aware of what is going on.”
Selim continues, “for example, people should discover young artists like those that we have programmed in the Hors Lits festival. We invited a great Tunisian dancer for this Hors Lits edition and she is not known in Tunisia. Also, Dhamma, a music group that has been spotted by the biggest festivals in Europe whereas nobody knows them here in Tunisia. The Ministry of Culture should help these artists to go to the regions and show their work. Tunisians should be proud of the artists who represent Tunisia elsewhere. I hope that in the next 5-10 years, cultural dissemination is not only centered in Tunis and the Greater Tunis area, but throughout the whole Tunisian territory.” I hope so too, especially after listening to Dhamma the same night. Such great music, what a potential there is in Tunisian artists!
Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Selim’s vision on Tunisia
Where does Selim see the challenges in Tunisia? For him, the challenge is to initiate a real cultural revolution. He says, “today, we experience a political revolution. The cultural revolution will be to allow people to open up to culture and open up to new arts like visual arts. My dream is to exchange opinions with the public, that many different Tunisians come to ask me ‘why do you do that?’. After my dancing shows we always do round tables. I am always told ‘I did not understand the show but I liked it’ or ‘I felt that’. For me, creating an intellectual reflection on arts is very important.”
When it comes to the opportunities, Selim points out the importance of creating links with the other end of the Mediterranean. “Today in Tunisia, the major difficulty for an artist is to get a visa. It’s very complicated to cross the Mediterranean because an artist has no legal status as in France. We cannot have social security, we cannot have a payslip etc. If Tunisian artists cannot travel to the other side of the Mediterranean, we must encourage artists or programmers from the other shore to come and see us. I think that this opportunity can be done with programs like yours, with people who are sincere and who believe in the potential that there is in our country and who, when returning to Europe, say ‘Tunisia is not what you believe, there are really some great artists! It’s not because they are Tunisian that the quality is lower. I prefer what I saw in Tunis to what I’ve seen in Hors Lit Barcelona for example.’” Selim concludes, “we want to be recognised for the quality of our work.”
Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Selim’s message for the Mediterranean
What’s the Mediterranean for you?
“The Mediterranean for me is the crossroads of cultures and of two different continents, Europe and Africa. Historically, there has been so much exchange between the two. Still today, we have a lot of Italian and French words in our language and a lot of Tunisians who speak them.”
“I have the impression that we are losing this intensive exchange more and more, unfortunately. With all that what happened lately, the world has begun to change. The migratory flows which for a very long time were in the opposite direction – for a very long time it was the Europeans who came, either in terms of protectorate or colonization, call it as you want. They came to live here and they changed things. Today, it’s the opposite, it’s the other side that wants to go, but I have the impression that the reception is not the same. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult. There are many people who cannot get to the end of this crossing. You have to be aware of that. “
Selim’s message for the Mediterranean
“I think the Mediterranean is very very rich, it’s not always easy, but there is this multiculturalism that is really beautiful. In terms of different languages and different stories. I think it’s a very beautiful region. People are extremely open here and I hope that this exchange between the two shores will continue.”
Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Selim’s insider travel tips for Tunisia
Places to go
“As a tourist, I think there is a lot of great architecture. Tunis as a city tells a lot of different stories. Each neighborhood is different. The city center has many beautiful Haussmann buildings of the period of French colonization. You just have to take a walk and lift your head to see all these great buildings. We also have very beautiful different architectures in Sidi Bou Said. If you walk in its small streets, you can discover Arabic architecture with the vault species for example.”
“You should also go to the artists’ studios in the Souks of Tunis Medina. Talk to them and don’t think that they only want to sell you something. Speak with them about the situation of the country and about their art and their passion, because it’s a real passion for them to create silverware or tapestry. I recommend foreigners who come here to look with the eyes of a true Tunisian and not with the eyes of a tourist. It is very beautiful to go to meet real people. Real people are in places where the Tunisians go every day. For example, go to a bakery or a hammam, a meeting place for Tunisians. They are very beautiful places and every time a friend comes here to visit me, I try to take them there.”
“I really like the Hammamet festival in summer, because the organisers take risks in programming less known artists. The festival goes on for two months. The place where it is happening is very beautiful too – it’s in a huge green park called Dar Sebastien.”
Part 5 Discover new books, films, and music groups – Selim’s cultural recommendations
Authors & Books
“I read a little bit of everything. For example, I like “Poetry in a Poem” by Abu Kacem el Chebbi who also wrote the Tunisian national anthem. I recently discovered a Somali poetess called Warsan Shire who wrote “Home”, a poem you definitely have to read. She speaks of migration and its necessity. Sometimes it’s not a choice, because the suffering to cross is much less painful than the suffering of staying in the country. I used this poem for my last show.”
“I love Tunisian culture and history. I also love the cultures of the Arab world and its sounds which remind me of my childhood and my family. I grew up in the city center of Tunis with sounds from very different worlds. A Tunisian artist that I love enormously is Anouar Brahem. He is an outstanding musician who plays the lute. His music is very minimalist and so beautiful it gives me shivers and makes me travel in my mind.”
“I also like artists who work on their own culture like for example the choreographer Akrem Khan. He is English but of Malagasy origin. He does performances all over the world and talks a lot about his Malagasy culture and life. I love to discover other cultures and when an artist offers another window to the world, I think it’s beautiful.”