Festival helps Tunisians beat post-revolution angst

Reuters, Friday 29 Jul 2011

In a suburb once firmly controlled by the family of the ousted president, young Tunisians are singing and dancing in a break from the months of tension and fear that have followed their country's revolution

Rap, reggae and house music boomed out through the old Tunis port of La Goulette as the International Festival of Carthage opened for the first time since the violent overthrow six months ago of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The festival, based around the ancient ruins of Carthage, near Tunis, gained a reputation as one of the country's most important cultural events and became a major draw for tourists visiting the north African country.

While the "Jasmine Revolution" lit a fire that has burned through much of the Arab world, Tunisians have since had to contend with political uncertainty, seemingly endless demonstrations and fear of crime.

Political reform under the new interim government is making slow progress, with elections to an assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution put back to October 23.

But as groups of young musicians got the latest edition of the Carthage festival off to an ebullient start earlier this month, culture minister Ezzeddine Bachaouch said he hoped the event would "bring joy and happiness to the hearts of Tunisians who had not been able to rejoice after their revolution."

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after violent street protests in which more than 300 people were shot dead by the police.

Since then, many Tunisians have experienced feelings of fear despite their pride at having ousted the dictator who dominated their lives for 23 years.

People are reluctant to go out at night as they used to and shops in central Tunis close early. Fear of crime has risen following several well-publicized jail-breaks while the police presence in some neighborhoods has been weak.

So, in an effort to cheer people up, the Ministry of Culture put together a varied festival program of music, dance and theater from Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia, Italy, Spain and Syria.

In La Goulette, Hameda ben Amor, a young rapper known as the General, entertained hundreds of young people with his songs of freedom and revolution.

The General became the voice of thousands of disadvantaged young Tunisians before the revolution when he used his songs to criticize Ben Ali, who had him thrown in jail.


Last December, just before the revolution, the General released a song on the Internet entitled "President, your people are dying" that addresses the problems of youth unemployment, a major factor behind the revolution.

A girl dancing and singing in the audience told Reuters: "These are great moments ... We forgot all our fear and we went out to celebrate. We are tired of staying at home because of the fear that we have lived with for months."

With a large security presence, the evening was quiet with no incidents reported.

"It is fun to sing for the people in the street and give some joy .. I'm happy because I see happiness and joy in the eyes of the people and we sing for free for people who do not have money to buy tickets," singer Sofian Safta told journalists.

Girls and young men danced and sang "Glory to Tunisia," waving the national flag in an expression of pride that the Arab Spring revolutions had their origins in Tunisia.

"It is good to celebrate victory. The memory of our victory over a tyrant will not be erased from history," one young man named Ayman Nasseri told Reuters.

"We do not feel fear today. We forgot fear when we overthrew Ben Ali," he said. "And while we are waiting to finally clean up the country of his ideas, let's relax a little and celebrate a great victory which impressed the whole world."

Under the old regime, an event like that held at La Goulette would not have been possible.

Under Ben Ali, politically activist singers, whether from Tunis or abroad, were discouraged.

Events took place in closed venues surrounded by national flags and pictures of the former president and his wife, while singers were encouraged to include numbers that praised the modern development of Tunisia.

Now, the culture ministry says: "Festivals after the revolution will give opportunities to artists who were marginalized previously."

As the Carthage festival music fades, however, Tunisians are facing an uncertain future. The October 23 election is expected to set off intense competition between secular parties and the Islamic Ennahda movement.

That, many Tunisians fear, might trigger further violence that could return the country to where it was six months ago.

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