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Tunisia’s former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country on 14 January 2011 to find shelter in Saudi Arabia, after the series of uprisings that overthrew his government. Censorship was relaxed after the change in leadership and debates on previously taboo issues spread in the media and the academy. Racism against black Tunisians was one of them.
Before 2011, Tunisians did not speak about ethnic or religious differences. After the achievement of independence in 1956, Habib Bourguiba’s nation-building policy (1957-1987) stressed the belonging of all Tunisians to a common past as well as their religious, ethnic, and political homogeneity. Nonetheless, the painful reality of racism and social segregation continued, and many Tunisians still use the words wassif (servant) or ‘abid (slave) to refer to blacks.
There are no statistics on the percentage of blacks in Tunisia’s population, but black rights associations consider even 15% to be too low. We also lack data on the employment profiles of black Tunisians, but again their advocates say that they are predominantly in the lowest social classes. Intermarriage between black and white Tunisians remains taboo, and even today black people in rural areas refer to their former white masters as ‘sidi’ and ‘lella’ (master and mistress). In my analysis, this reflects the past of slavery in the present, and the continued socio-economic disparity between black and white.
The ‘end’ of slavery in Tunisia
Even though not all black Tunisians are descended from slaves, one cannot understand the history of black Tunisians without understanding slavery and the trans-Saharan slave trade. The importing of slaves into what is today Tunisia from Sudan, ‘the land of black people’, reached its peak during the Ottoman Empire. And slaves were employed widely as servants or farmworkers.
These slaves were formally freed in 1846 when, uniquely for the Maghreb and Muslim world, the then ruler, Ahmed Bey (1837-1855), abolished slavery and the slave trade before being pushed to do so by the colonial West.
The trajectory of slaves in the north south of the country diverged sharply after abolition.
Yet the trajectory of slaves in the north south of the country diverged sharply after abolition. In urban Tunis, on the northern coast, many freed slaves ended up in situations of deprivation, impoverishment, vagrancy, prostitution and peddling, since most middle-class families refused to employ them as servants. Emancipation for them was purely juridical, making little difference in socio-economic terms.
By contrast, in the rural south, former slaves often remained in the households of their erstwhile masters as ‘ousfane’ – domestic servants. And as a result, slavery in the south slowly morphed into another Islamic institution, wala’, a patronage relationship in which freed slaves adopt the name of their former masters, often adding ‘abid or shwuashin (the more politically correct term use to refer to freed slaves) to distinguish themselves.
The prestige of tafya
Despite these differences, a convergence existed for some time between northern and southern post-abolition black trajectories – and that was in their music. Freed slaves from all over the country embarked on careers in music, as music was a profession that remained open to all blacks both because it was widely required at ceremonies and because it was low status in the eyes of whites.
Black singers and groups would often sing during weddings or pilgrimages to the saints’ tombs. In the eastern region of Mednine, for example, the musical accompaniment of tayfa was sought out for weddings, funerals and other gatherings, including by white families. Tayfa players improvise songs praising the bride and groom and also tell social stories reflecting social or cultural history.
For some, and particularly for older black Tunisians, this musical legacy is a source of great pride. “The south is characterised by special things”, said Ali, 80, proudly. “It is characterised by poetry. People here are poets”, he continued, “and they sing at marriage ceremonies”. In his village of El Gosbah, tayfa groups are still going strong despite the fact that the art itself is fading. Fathers pass their skills on to their sons and teach them how to drum, sing, create poetry and improvise.
Tayfa players from older generations still attach a great value and prestige to their singing. “We sometimes sang for president Bourguiba on his birthday in Monastir”, recalled Dhaw, now in his 80s. “Songs about how he brought independence to Tunisia, about how hard he worked and how he was modest and brave”. Singing for the president was regarded as a great privilege, not least because he occupied a respected place in their historical memories. Pride too came from the sense of being entrusted by God with the task of remembering and recounting past events, and for having been able to use tafya to provide for one’s family. As one man pointed out, “I managed to send all my six boys to school and to university because of tafya”. Tafya players earned respect in the black community, and they invested their earnings in social improvement.
But today Tayfa is perceived differently by the younger generation. Where once it was a source of pride for post-slavery blacks divided by class and by region but united by low social status, the younger generation now see it as part of the structure that perpetuates inequality and underpins the paternalistic relationship that exists between white and black.
Today Tayfa is perceived differently by the younger generation.
Yassin, for example, is 29, and he refused to become a tafya singer even though his father was one. “White people ‘look after’ tayfa because they still perceive us as slaves”, he said. “They want to be praised by us…sometimes the songs say ‘look how lucky you are, to marry such a white man’”. And Yassin rejects this subservience, he rejects it as undignified. As one tayfa player lamented, “Younger generations just don’t want to sing tayfa any longer”.
Once, tayfa players and other black musicians created an occupational niche for themselves which was socially inferior but also economically profitable. The economic and social gains they made were reinvested in their families and communities, translating into strategies of emancipation that have empowered today’s younger generations. Yet these generations now reject that strategy. They see the shadows of past slavery in it, and they see these as continuing to disempower and marginalise black Tunisians. Now they want something better.
Research for this piece was carried out in the framework of the ERC GRANT 313737 - Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a Historical Anthropology (www.shadowsofslavery.org).