Modernity and the museum: after Bardo

A week after 24 people lose their lives in an attack at the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia, Norbert Bugeja visited the site to find that liberal Islamic thought still stands defiant.

Bullet holes around the case displaying The Infant Bacchus.Bullet holes around the case displaying The Infant Bacchus.

It is March 25 and I find myself strolling along the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis with Möez Majed, one of the country’s finest poets. Barely a week has passed since the carnage at the Bardo National Museum.

The deadliest jihadist attack in the country’s independent history claimed 24 lives, and dealt a severe – if momentary – blow to the country and its fledgling political morale.

I am here as a guest of Tounes wal Kitab (Tunisia and the Book), an association established in 2012, a year after the revolution, to promote writing and reading culture in Tunisia, across all genres.

Together with other poets from Belgium, Morocco, Tunisia and France, I have been invited to read my poetry at the third edition of Poètes en Fete, an annual soirée of poetry recitals that this year, silently but surely, has thrown its weight behind the public defiance of what happened at the Bardo.

This is a busy week for Tunisia. Besides the Poètes en Fete, which takes place at the Ennejma Ezzahra, Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger’s stunning palace in Sidi Bou Saïd.

The country is also hosting the World Social Forum, the Foire Internationale du Livre in Tunis, the Artists for Palestine initiative, and a massive anti-terrorism march for which French president François Hollande is also present.

Despite the fears triggered by the attacks, artists, writers, intellectuals and non-governmental organisations have flocked to the Tunisian capital, in evident defiance of the jihadist threat.

At the Café l’Univers, something of a communist, intellectual and artiste hangout, patrons are discussing Bardo over a late afternoon aperitif.

In the distance, closer to the kasbah, hip hop artist Zied Nigro can be heard singing his popular Douza Douza as crowds mill around the old souk. Even as people here get on with their lives, the atmosphere behind the show of unity remains somewhat tense.

A free Tunisia soldiers on and our poetry stands right behind it

I stop in front of the building that houses Tunisia’s Ministry of the Interior – the Dakhleyya – notorious during the Ben Ali years, when it also served as a torture outfit to silence political dissidents.

The Avenue, Möez points out, is where he was three years ago, among tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the Dakhleyya with a single message for the President: Dégagée! Irhal! Leave!

Today, the Dakhleyya is festooned with hundreds of Tunisian flags celebrating the country’s national day, which takes place on March 20 and commemorates the anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France.

And yet, there is heavy security all around – it is impossible to sit down for kahoua anywhere in the area without endless coils of barbed wire hampering your view.

I try to take a picture of the festooned building, but an armed police officer rushes over to stop me: il est interdit, monsieur (it is not allowed, sir).

Fear and freedom

Back in Sidi bou Saïd after Friday prayers, children line up for their sugared bambalouni under the watchful eyes of armed officers.

We sit at the historic Cafè des Nattes and talk about Bardo and its meaning for Tunisians, a week after its happening. In Béji Caïd Essebsi’s elderly but able hands, Tunisia is slowly trying to strengthen its political path through a model known as pensée destourienne, or constitutional thought.

More bullet holes go all the way from the ground floor of the museum to the first floor.More bullet holes go all the way from the ground floor of the museum to the first floor.

In the European and American media we hear a lot about ‘secularist’ politics in Tunisia, but here this term does not carry the same weight we attribute to it.

In reality, the liberal, social-democrat and reform-minded groups of Tunis would rather speak of embracing pensée destourienne as a political way forward.

This is an inclusive coming together of liberal Islamic thought as it originated in Tunisia in the 19th century, European Enlightenment values and an important roping in, today, of left-wing and social-democrat beliefs.

It is a fluid politics that understands Islamic identity as itself a means for attaining political and cultural modernity, social reform, emancipation and economic growth, without giving in to the restrictive demands of Islamist politics.

Drawing on the thought of early 20th-century politicians, scholars and reformers such as Tahar ben Achour, Abdelaziz Thaalbi and Tahar Haddad, Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba had adopted this model as a means of bringing national modernity to his country.

Many are now hopeful that, after the political abyss left behind by Ben Ali – who, among other things, flattened the country’s educational system – a fresh return to pensée destourienne today, as a broad alliance of liberal, left-wing, reformist, centrist and other beliefs, can provide a working model to take Tunisia forward.

Norbert Bugeja reciting his poetry with Greco-Tunisian actress Helene Catzaras.Norbert Bugeja reciting his poetry with Greco-Tunisian actress Helene Catzaras.

Fighting against the fear

As I tour a sombre Bardo hours after its reopening, I begin to understand why Tunisia, while not without its internal difficulties, has become an object of envy for other Arab states that continue today down the path of dictatorship and social repression.

On the second floor of the museum, the bullet holes are everywhere visible, in walls and shattered vitrines.

This was, I thought, a conspicuous space where the country’s fabled antiquity meets and, in its historic elegance and diversity, encourages the country’s effort to bring about its own form of modernity.

My museum guide, himself a survivor of the attack, showed me around the statues in the magnificent Salle de Carthage and its adjacent rooms, stopping every now and then, with a deep sigh, to show me:

“These steps are where the Belgian woman fell”, “This entrance was strewn with bodies,” “this is where the Tunisian died”.

There has never been a more sobering moment for the thyrsus-wielding statue of an infant Bacchus, itself dented by a stray bullet.

An equally youthful Tunisia has paid for its political modernity in blood, spilled by those who want today to divide its people and to imprint the anxiety of bullet-holes and fractured glass in the minds of Tunisians from different walks of life.

The people of Syria and Libya are struggling to survive their conflicts as both their Arab neighbours and the old and new world powers mani-pulate their misery to their own ends. Egypt has descended once more into what is effectively another Mubarak-style dictatorship.

The message to their own people of those who continue to profit today from political division, subservience and oppression is loud and clear, and it is a message of fear: this is what happens to those who dream of ridding themselves of their masters, rulers, kings and pharaohs – freedom doesn’t really work.

But a free Tunisia soldiers on, and our poetry stands right behind it.

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