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Williams College

Publication Date

Spring 2012

Program Name

Tunisia: Emerging Identities in North Africa

Abstract

Dear Reader:

This project was inspired by a series of encounters that I had when travelling with my significant other around Tunis, Sousse, and Kairouan. After being directed to the overlook of the tourist bureau in Kairouan as an introduction to our adventure, happening upon the (well-signed) Panoramic Café in Sousse, appropriated from a turret installed in the city’s ancient fortifications, and subsequently being taken up to view the panorama atop the Berber carpet cooperative in Tunis souk, we began to see a pattern. After visiting Yasmine Hammamet, an overlook in its own right, this pattern transformed from a quirk to a tragically amusing social commentary. The following are but a few reasons that the panorama and the simulacrum provide the opportunity for Tunisians to see themselves through a foreign lens as well as the chance to explore some of the specific issues in Tunisia’s post-colonial and transitional society:

  1. The panorama provides a literal concretization of the figurative above-below dynamic that describes the police/government and the people, the colonial and the colonized, and in the unique case of Tunisia, the Arab (Oriental) and the Berber, while the simulacrum acts this out in archetypical terms
  2. The panorama and simulacrum are nexuses of an economy of superiority, built on the ability to escape and “look down” upon the fray.
  3. The panorama creates an economy in which the vendor is valuing and marketing something that he/she does not own, and in which the consumer is not consuming a good or service. Rather, the consumer pays to see but not to have, and the vendor assesses the value the gaze. This relationship between seeing and having, and the distinction that separates them and criteria that are used to value them have vast implications in Tunisia’s changing religio-political environment, where the values of seeing and having are being overturned. As women cover themselves more and resign different types of agency, and the citizens take political control but vacate physical public arenas in favor of virtual ones, to have and to see take on different meanings, and indeed different positions in the hierarchy of what is desirable and necessary as a member of Tunisian society.
  4. The simulacrum and panorama provide a quasi-private space that acts in contrast with— and in the case of the Tunis panorama specifically, upon— the quasi-public spaces of mosques in a country that allows limited access to these buildings to tourists and which is also home to religious minorities who are implicitly not part of “the public,” an issue of particular gravity in Tunisia’s current political situation.
  5. The panoramic comes with its own rhetoric of mystery and forbidden-ness in the way vendors allure people to its heights, and as such operates in a fashion not dissimilar to issues of self-concealment and self-celebration performed by citizens and souk-goers, whereas the simulacrum provides a framework of clarity and “security.” The tensions between adventure, exoticism, and security and accessibility describe not only the experiences of foreigners in Tunisia but also the journey upon which Tunisians themselves have embarked in seeking stability and identity after the revolution.

In writing a critique of voyeurism in a country in which I myself am a voyeur (though I fancy myself a sympathetic one), some obvious methodological issues arise. I am fairly certain, were I a native Tunisian, my interviews would have gone quite differently, and not least because it would have obliterated the language barrier. And yet, I am fairly certain that were I Tunisian I would not have had occasion to access these spaces or be struck so by them when I did. What began as a project aiming to understand why and how Tunisians value the gaze quickly morphed into a project about whether Tunisians understand and appreciate the gaze. What strove to be a piece that dispensed with the arcane rhetoric of orient-occident conflict became a meditation on binaries and opposing definitions of private space and freedom. It’s been a fascinating journey. I will end by paraphrasing the New York Times, in saying that the use of space is a theatre of war, and there’s no fault in that. “Our task is to make the conflict fruitful.”

Disciplines

Arts and Humanities

 

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