Asma Othmani, a Tunisian singer, took an old traditional Tunisian song of the Mizwad genre called “Yama Lasmar Douni” (“Oh [why you say] brown is bad”) and made a new interpretation of it adding a piece of spoken word called “Tounes Alwen” (“Tunis of Colors”) written by Jihed Cherni, who also appears in the video that was released in mid-April. The traditional song laments the segregation and racial discrimination in Osman times through a love story of a young black man and the daughter of the Bey, who doesn’t approve of the liaison.
The refrain goes as follows: “Yama lasmar dooni, makom tgooloo ‘alesh lasmar dooni, mahbes gronfel fi jenan erroomi”, which translates to “Oh why do you say that brown is not good or not beautiful, when it is like the dianthus in the garden of an European”.
A famous version of the traditional song is the interpretation of Slah Mosbah famously performed at the International festival of Carthage about 28 years ago. The piece of spoken word Asma Othmani emphasizes the beauty of Tunisia and of its diversity. The text campaigns for a united Tunisia and for the appreciation of its cultural and societal diversity: a Tunisia for every Tunisian.
In order to raise awareness and create a national debate on the matter, Asma Othmani contacted M’nemty, a Tunisian NGO working against racism and racial discrimination, to collaborate in the making of a video and a national campaign against racism. Furthermore, she invited numerous well-known TV actors and artists, as well as the Tunisian fashion designer Salah Barka, to participate in the video and to support the campaign #Tounes_Alwen, which is currently being diffused on social media.
The idea for the song came after the march of the International Day Against Racism in Tunis organized by M’nemty in December 2016, initiated after an especially brutal racist incident that involved three young Congolese students being stabbed on December 24th in Tunis. However, Asma Othmani dedicated the song to her mother, who herself experienced innumerous events of racism and racial discrimination, and made it her personal goal to help work against bigotry and racial bias in Tunisia. In the conception of the video and campaign, the singer worked closely with M’nemty’s founder Saadia Mosbah and Zied Rouin, its manager, whom met with Words in the Bucket for an extensive interview on the campaign and the issue of racial discrimination in Tunisia. Rouin called for a collective Tunisian solidarity against racial discrimination and a love and acceptance of its diversity. “Tounes Alwen, this says it all.”
M’nemty, which translates to “My Dream”, was created in 2013 with the wish to help create an inclusive Tunisia appreciative of its diversity and its differences. In their work for M’nemty, Saadia Mosbah and her team, who Zied Rouin feels have grown to become as close as a family, work to campaign for equality, freedom, diversity, and dignity, as well as to denounce any form of discrimination in Tunisia. At the moment, the organization is involved in the recommendation for a law against racist discrimination, which is expected to pass in May or June. This will be a huge step forward for those fighting against racism in this country, since this is the first time such a law would be passed in Tunisia.
Such as the song “Yama Lasmar Dooni” laments, mixed marriages or couples are still widely discouraged in Tunisian society, if not clearly forbidden by parents, especially in the South, who tell their kids that they would not accept such a bride or groom. One case of a mixed marriage in the South was reported causing such an upheaval and violent tensions between the two families involved, that the municipality made the decision to introduce a segregated system in order to calm the tensions between the two communities. To this day, this small village called Gosba is completely segregated having even two different school bus systems.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to officially abolish slavery in 1849, although it continued in the South until 1890. However, the heavy heritage of slavery is still very apparent in Tunisian society, especially when it comes to roles and positions traditionally attributed to the black minority, such as the role of servants. Furthermore, members of the black minority in Tunisia, as well as immigrants, experience a variety of forms of racial bias, racial profiling, and slurs on a regular basis. This fact, however, is a taboo in Tunisian society and often denied when brought up in a discussion, despite countless reports and testimonies. Nevertheless, activist projects and campaigns, such as the campaign lead by Asma Othmani and M’nemty, have started to open up a space for discussion in the society, and things are starting to change, as Zied Rouin admitted, especially now with the law against racial discrimination and violence in the making. The existence of a corresponding juridical framework is known to facilitate the change of perceptions.
What is remarkable about this song and campaign isn’t only that artists and civil society agents joined forces to raise awareness and vouch for a united Tunisia in its diversity, but also that this is a creative and an incredibly important message made accessible to a broad public through this set-up. Asma Othmani and M’nemty have found a meeting point in this project to tie creative expression with activism and these might just be the right ingredients to find a way to reach a wide audience in a country in which especially racism has long been a taboo and with its existence continuously being denied. Therefore, this work of raising awareness and creating an open discussion about these issues in Tunisian society is of utmost importance. It is a creative show of love for the Tunisian diversity taking a stand against racial discrimination.