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Multiple identities, where do I belong?

By Aya Chebbi - 01 November 2014

Blog-Tribe01I grew up with multiple identities that I questioned throughout my teen years. The strongest identity I was brainwashed with, is being “Arab”. Since primary school, my education, which curriculum I didn’t choose, has been mainly about the Arab civilization and the invention of the zero! My library has been full of books of Gibran Khalil Gibran and Mahmoud Darwish.

I actually loved Arabic, which I believe is my native language. I used to write a lot of poetry and short stories and have always been top of my Arabic prosody class. I lived in a country that has always been portrayed as part of the larger Arab region, with which it shares a language and many cultural elements, including a political identification.

I then learned French since the 3rd grade, which cultivated my Mediterranean identity. But French, as my Algerian friend mocks, “is just a bad habit”. The sense of national identity is constantly maintained by reference to recent national history, particularly the struggle against French colonialism (1881–1956) and the subsequent efforts to create a modern society. This narrative is persistently rehearsed in the sequence of public holidays, in the names of streets, and in the subject matter of films and television shows, but especially in history classes.

Regional dialects are also tending to disappear under pressure from mass media centered in Tunis where French is the language of the “elite”, because massive French investment ensured that the business elite valued French speaking employees.

My Maghrebine identity surfaces naturally though, by frequent contact with our neighbors. In the summer, Tunisian coastal cities fill up with Algerian tourists and regular trade flows on the borders with Libya. My Muslim identity also rises strongly from memorizing the Quran in preparatory school to religious classes in primary school and Islamic festivals throughout the year. But there was always a confusing mixture between culture and religion and that’s probably why the world also confuses all Arabs as Muslims!

In the end, I chose to embrace these complex identities because all of them undeniably make me who I am today. However, unlike the majority of Tunisians, if not all, I’ve never felt that I belong to the Middle East because I’m Arab Muslim, or to Europe because I speak French or to the Maghreb just because we make couscous. These identities were attributed to me as I was born Muslim. I was told to be Arab, my education system taught me one side of my history and my political system tied me with Europe and the Maghreb.

At the age of 13, while living in a southern city called Medenine, I visited neighboring cities, among which a small town called Matmata where I found out about “Tamazight”. I thought people were speaking a very hard southern accent I couldn’t understand, but then the children I was playing with told me that Tamazight is the native language of North Africa. Kids younger than me - some of them dropped out of school - knew the history that I’ve never read in books or studied in school. I realized then that our beautiful history of thousands of years is manipulatively summed up in our school studies, as general as “Tunisia's geopolitical location was a crossroad of civilizations”.  We’ve been taught that by the end of the nineteenth century, Tunisians comprised Moors, Turks, Jews, Andalusians, Arabs, and various sorts of Europeans but no clear mention was made about the original population of Amazigh.

A certain article mentioned that you can only find “one sentence on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in textbooks in Japan. Well, I might understand why China teaches a different history to its children than what Japan teaches its citizens, clearly based on their relationship. However, what I cannot understand is why Tunisia’s textbooks will totally remove the beginnings of our recorded history where Tunisia was inhabited by Amazigh. Instead it was narrowed to a glimpse about Phoenicians, Romans and the Vandals, then a closer look at the seventh century when the Byzantines were replaced by Muslim Arabs – when Tunisia became Arabic-speaking and Muslim. We end up at the medieval Hafsid dynasty and 1574, with the incorporation into the Ottoman Empire, then a bigportion on the French colonization.

So, education played the major role in growing the Arab identity, strengthened by international categorization describing our region as “Arab Africa”. But, education is based on policies directed by certain political orientations.  Our politics since independence, with the support of Europe, aimed to tie us with the other part of the Mediterranean and thus disconnected us from the continent.  By the end of the day, there is no clear feature of the Tunisian society - a very attached society to the Arab culture with family values on the one hand and very independent citizens with well-established principles of the Modern State, on the other hand. The missing picture was the African identity, denied or ignored by the greater majority of Tunisians. By doing so Tunisians even deny their ignorance of their own history, their racism towards other Africans and discrimination towards Amazigh. Instead, they claim living in “one Tunisia for everyone in coexistence” from the lens of pan-Arabism.

Reading more about different narratives and having Amazigh friends, I constantly learn about Tamazgha, Ifriqiya and how Carthage has been the metropolis of Punic civilization in Africa and capital of the province of Africa in Roman times. I learned more about Africa listening to Senegalese and Malian students, most of them who had terrible racist experiences living in Tunis. My quest to learn more about my vanished African identity has only intensified. Still, I couldn’t even find African literature on our library bookshelves or African courses at our colleges. So, I decided to go out to explore Africa for myself, outside the boxes of my education and political systems - a place from which I believe I’m totally disconnected while born and raised inside it!

Life just paved the way for me to be all over North and East Africa, most of the West and few countries in the Southern part. I then met Nubi friends from Egypt, learned about Swahili in East Africa and the Bantu across the African Great Lakes. I found out that my identity lies even deeper and it’s not only the dilemma of Tunisia, but also North Africa at large, a region in denial of its Africanism. To bridge the widening gap of the North with the rest of the continent, we need to open an honest discussion about our Africanism, transfer vanished knowledge, re-read our history and connect the continent by celebrating its diversity from both the North and Sub-Saharan Africa. While strengthening our understanding and self-discovery within the continent, we need to strongly face the world with their enforced division of Africans ethnically, culturally, economically and politically.



Aya Chebbi

An award winning Tunisian blogger and activist.

Read her personal blog Proudly Tunisian at http://aya-chebbi.blogspot.com


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