Black Tunisians — whether descendants of slaves, indigenous peoples or immigrants — have always lived on the margins of Tunisian society. Even though slavery was abolished in Tunisia in 1846 (a decision that was reaffirmed in 1890), the image and status of black people, or rather the way the Tunisian people perceive them, has remained intact.
Political marginalization aside, black people have continued to be excluded and discriminated against socially and economically because, in regard to poverty levels, they are said to be the poorest in Tunisia. In fact, the majority of the black population does not own land or houses.
How can the absence of this issue from the media, cultural, artistic and political scene since the era of the late Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba be justified? Aren’t there any black people with expertise capable of assuming significant positions? It’s not sufficient to list two or three examples of black Tunisians taking command. This is about a group of people who represent 15% of the Tunisian population and are, despite this fact, completely absent from the political scene. Paradoxically, they are quite visible to the eye as they are black among a majority of white people; however, a blind eye is deliberately turned to them, their needs and their rights.
Prejudice regarding the lack of expertise among black people is espoused by those who believe that black people do not hold high academic degrees. Indeed, they are right about one aspect: More than 80% of black people [in Tunisia] do not pursue higher education. Yet we must understand the reasons for this. Who is responsible for their marginalization? In fact, ghettos, which are economically separated from the rest of the country, were established in the south. There, transportation is subpar and ghettos are only inhabited by blacks.
Tunisia’s black people, “invisible residents”
Who is responsible for this mentality that treats black people as second-class citizens? We all have a hand in this: intellectuals, the media, researchers, the regime and of course, black people themselves because they unconsciously or against their will have acceded to the situation. In this regard, financial and economic factors play a leading role. A black family struggling to provide its livelihood is more concerned about managing the affairs of daily life than demanding rights. Moreover, black people have no clue what course to take in order to achieve these demands.
Have black people willingly taken a decision not to be engaged in the scene? Most probably, it is not a choice, but rather a voluntary, conscious exclusion that is favored politically. Bourguiba was clever; he knew that black people are a fragile, marginalized demographic. Despite this, he did not include them in any of his development projects or speeches. Bourguiba stood against tribalism and chauvinism; he supported women, the middle class and the poor in one way or another. Yet, he did not support blacks, even though they are Muslims who speak Tunisian Arabic and despite the fact that he was able to understand the different fabrics of Tunisian society, the nature and mechanisms of racism, and discrimination against blacks.
Bourguiba himself held prejudices against the black population. He was reported to have told jokes about them, as is the case of many Tunisians who see them as [no more than] a bunch of servants and clowns, good for nothing but making them laugh.
Was Bourguiba racist?
The Senegalese thinker and President Leopold Senghor was the closest “slave” friend of Bourguiba. Bourguiba could never get his head around the fact that a black person such as Senghor could be all that smart and enlightened, with a remarkable political, diplomatic and literary record. Bourguiba considered Senghor a “white man with black skin.”
Bourguiba strived to hide his racism against blacks. Some might point out that he even assigned a black minister — Taib Sahbani. Yet Sahbani remained in the shadows and was himself a victim of racism. Bourguiba was influenced by Ibn Khaldun, who degradingly portrayed the blacks, similar to the way colonial anthropology portrayed black Africans who were seen as “beasts” lacking human intelligence.
If Bourguiba had used his eloquence and charisma to lecture about black Tunisians as an integral part of the population, their status would not be as is today. Instead of acting in their favor, Bourguiba vehemently opposed their attempts to demand their rights in the 1990s. Selim Mazrug, dubbed General Selim, is one example of this unjust ostracism.
Despite all of this, I cannot criticize Bourguiba’s policy in its entirety, because, to a large extent, I would not have been able to write this piece if it were not for his policy of democratizing education.
The movement of black Tunisians that is led by intellectuals who hold university degrees is on the rise. This movement tackles the issue of the living conditions of black people within Tunisian society. It also sets forth a critical review showing sociological, economic and anthropological evidence and arguments. This movement comes five generations after the first abolition of slavery in Tunisia in 1846.
“Normal” racist terminology
The penchant for denying that racism exists in Tunisia is strong these days. Yet the terminology used to describe black people reveals this racism: “Wasif” (a house slave), “Kahlush” (degrading description of blacks), in addition to other terms that liken them to coal are commonly used.
Expressions like “You are not Tunisians,” “You are living in peace with us,” “I let my daughter marry a slave,” “We used to buy and sell you in kilograms,” “You were slaves and a disease” and “I will not accept a black MP to represent me” have become commonplace. These widespread expressions constitute stark evidence of racism in Tunisia, which has been there for ages and will remain unless something is done about it.
The intention of some political parties and regions to take advantage of the cause of black people is disappointing. It makes us believe, more and more, that racism in Tunisia is taken lightly and that racist behavior and its terminology have never been bothersome to the Tunisians. Oppression results from a lack of desire to analyze the facts and understand their intricacies, simply because society is not yet ready to bring about any change.
Translated by Al-Monitor