Street poetry returns to Tunis

Friday 07/08/2015
Safa Borji reading her text.

Tunis - A young man stood at the centre of the crowd near the historical Dar Las­ram palace in the Tunis medina. People sat on the palace steps and others stood watching the young man, budding poet Hamdi Majdoub, as he asked his audience to repeat after him the opening sentence of his text. With those words, street poetry had re­turned.
Street poetry comes back at a del­icate time for Tunisians as earlier on the day of Majdoub’s reading, Tunisian President Beji Caid Esseb­si announced a state of emergency for the country, a week after the ter­rorist attack in Sousse.
However, exactly at 10pm, the palace was crowded with poetry fans as well as Tunisians out for a stroll. The place, despite fear and tension, was buzzing with life and energy.
Starting in 2012, street poetry — “the words of the street” — began as an initiative of three young Tu­nisians.
“The idea of street poetry started back in July 25, 2012. I was joined by Majd Mastoura and Hamdi Ma­jdoub,” said Amine Gharbi, one of the street poetry organisers. “The three of us constituted a founding cell.
“We would love to have more people join so the idea of the pro­ject does not depend on people only and should continue if the three of us are not available.”
That is what led to the hiatus as the three founders were involved in other projects and the need to get other people involved.
“A lot of people asked why the event stopped,” Majdoub said. “Perhaps there was the feeling that this experience needed to evolve beyond just being a spontaneous gathering of people. We felt we needed to evolve ourselves which also explains how each one of us got involved in different projects to have a new breath.”
But the central reasons for the event never faded and so in July, new gatherings came about.
“The main objective of street po­etry is to promote writing in Tuni­sian dialect and to use the public space as a space for cultural activi­ties,” he said. “We chose to work in the street for many reasons. First, the choice is symbolic as the streets and public spaces in Tunisia used to be ruled and dominated by the police. We did not have the right to use the public space before.
“We also wanted to take a differ­ent direction of approaching cul­tural scene in Tunisia, which is to go to the streets, attract passers-by instead of staying in a theatre or a cultural centre and wait for people to come. In our project, the specta­tor can also be a participant with his texts and observations. The meetings are highly interactive.”
The organisers envisioned street poetry as a promotion of the Tu­nisian dialect in prose and poetry. The Tunisian dialect has gained popularity among young Tunisians, who wanted to explore the beauty of the language.
“We still encourage using the dialect because it wasn’t given its rightful position. You can feel that the spirit of the Tunisian dialect still needs to be encouraged and promoted,” Majdoub said.
“It is true today that we see the Tunisian dialect accepted in the media… but the dialect of the youth is still marginalised. It is constantly evolving and it is important to keep this evolution going. That can only be possible if we provide space for this dialect to be exposed.”
As more people stepped to the centre to read their texts, passers-by stopped to listen. Most seemed to interact and enjoy the themes that the texts covered.
One 60-year-old woman ap­peared to greatly enjoy the show.
“I am following their stories since they started tonight and I really ap­preciate that they use the Tunisian dialect. You can‘t tell many things unless you express them in the dialect you identify with,” Khadija said.
“This reminds me of a ritual we used to have. There used to be a storyteller who would come to the medina and gather people around him to tell them stories about the people who live here, about the streets and about the alley. These young people are doing something similar, which I really enjoyed.”
Despite the success of the event, the organisers expressed apprehen­sion concerning the future of street art in Tunisia.
“The future seems difficult for movements that work in the street. First, these movements require in­dependent management, which is financially difficult. Second, the current context of the country makes it hard for people to gather in a public place for a cultural activity especially with the recent terrorist threats. The government would not authorise meetings in similar cir­cumstances,” Gharbi stated.
He added: “We have encountered harassment by the police in the be­ginning but we tried to communi­cate and explain to them the spirit of our activities. It is understand­able to receive such a reaction for our police are not used to having a crowd at a public cultural event. In the mentality of police, any gather­ing of people is that of opposition and an attempt to overthrow the government. It is a reaction deep­ly rooted in their minds but they became more understanding and even secured some of our previous meetings.”
Street poetry continues to ani­mate Tunis and other parts of Tuni­sia. Perhaps its success stems from its appeal to different categories and its inclusion of all different types of writings on the one con­dition it is expressed in Tunisian Arabic.
“I have only started writing a couple of years ago in Tunisian dialect and I feel more comfort­able expressing myself that way. It is original and unique and the Tunisian dialect will be revived and preserved,” Yasmine Allouch, a 17-year-old student and partici­pant, stated.