Tunis conversations: Coffee, Om Kolthoum and the post-revolutionary landscape

Tunis conversations: Coffee, Om Kolthoum and the post-revolutionary landscape
5 min read
14 Jan, 2015
This is a series of articles based on conversations on streets and in cafés across the region investigating Arab identity – who we are and who we would like to be – from a local and subjective perspective.

Unlike a lot of young Arab men and women, Nader still thinks of his birthplace as home. Nader wants to live in Tunis. And like any non-Tunisian conversing with a post-Arab-Spring Tunisian, I can spend both of our coffees talking about the revolution.

Tunisia gained hero status among struggling Arab countries after the triumph of the secular in its latest elections, yet it was obvious that this conversation was more exciting for

     Om Kolthoum’s infamous handkerchief is the only viable proposal for a unified Arab flag.

me than it was for him, “The only thing that changed for me after the revolution is that politics became part of my life,” Nader says politely with an obvious, ‘let’s move on’, undertone.

I can see his point. In recurring cycles, something extravagant happens that flips our lives as young Arabs from our childhood innocence to a sudden, premature political adulthood. In Lebanon, there was the Civil War, the Israeli occupation, Syrian mandate, the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and so on. Nader laughs, “Don’t get me wrong, but I’m really proud of Tunisia when I look around,” he says, “The rest of the Arab world is a much, much bigger mess!”

We are a big mess. Nader credits Tunisia’s escape from the grips of authoritarian regimes into a rather progressive secular government to the nature of the Tunisian people, “It’s not in our culture,” he says, “The Tunisian people are pretty sensitive, so fighting and violence are a big deal.” I’m not sure I agree, but I was surely more interested in the people and places that make him so committed to staying in Tunisia.

A timeline of Tunisia's revolution. See here

“Marina café, by the seaside in La Goulette, the port of Tunis,” answers Nader when I ask him where he would take me for coffee in his city, “Not too fancy, very popular, and the sunset is amazing from there. You get a view of the sea, the mountain, the canal, fishermen, cats, all while hearing a tantalizing medley of Om Kolthoum songs.”

As politically incorrect as this may sound, music has been the only ligament of Arab identity since the 1940s. Egypt’s film industry’s pan-Arab reach, for example, is in large part due to the fact that most productions were musicals. One can easily say that Om Kolthoum’s infamous handkerchief is the only viable proposal for a unified Arab flag.

“Fairuz wins the streets in the morning here,” Nader continues, “But only for a couple of hours, then the day is for Om Kolthoum.” The notorious diva, save from being the generational link between Arab youth and their parents, defines the generalities and penetrates the specifics of each of our nations. In Tunis, Nader tells me that there’s a specific verb for people who are entranced with Om Kolthoum’s exalting music, “Zatel,” explaining: “It means getting high.”

Nader, an architect currently continuing his studies in Stuttgart, is eager to go back home to not be an architect – at least in the traditional sense. It’s a happily recurring scenario with young Arabs educated as architects but are not interested in practicing the profession conventionally.

“For starters, I see myself teaching,” Nader says, “but not the kind of architecture I was taught at school. There's a lot to do in Tunis, on an experimental level. We have different landscapes that are loosing their authenticity and aura due to bad architectural practice. I want to change popular tendencies, so school is the right place to do that.”

His interpretation of architecture and his role as a young architect in Tunisia is a regulatory, academic responsibility as opposed to an intrusive practicing architect. Arab cities could use a break from construction. As cities race to the sky, the grounds are shriveling within dark shadows of unsustainable futures.

Conversations are good ways to start a proper, contextual architectural awareness. Nader tells me a story of an ‘architectural’ survey he did for El Safsaf, a very old square in La Marsa on the northern suburbs of Tunis, “I have an older friend that I met for coffee every Monday in a café near my university when I was studying architecture. People used to make fun of him, dubbing him mad because he acted different.”

The Tunisian town where anarchy rules ok. Read more here

This man, Moncef, interested Nader for the same reason others considered him mad. His alternative perspective inspired Nader to survey El Safsaf through the eyes of Moncef instead of the usual technical approaches for his university assignment. The experiment yielded a satiating, unsettling video depicting “an indescribable place” concluded by an existential interview with Moncef himself.

Nader’s future Tunis could be a lot of different things, all of which he is candidly aiming to participate in making different in a better way. His trust in the people of Tunis is nothing short of heartwarming, in a region whose unraveling narrative is based on superimposed images of hate. Beneath the media, mobile notifications and news alerts, there’s a lot of unrepresented goodness. It is this goodness that we need to harness to fertilize our future. It is very ‘Arab’ to talk, to debate, converse and socialize, and it’s time we use this babbling over coffee as a tool to understand and push each other forward.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.