Layers of History: The Awakening of a Nation. A tunsi in the pursuit of self-discovery.

How one museum date revived my journey to understand national and individual identities.

Growing up, school represented the lens through which I got a glimpse of the outer world. Education helped me realize that life was much more than what the remote village I lived in had to offer. But it also helped me understand that I belonged to something supreme and metaphysical that I should believe in and feel proud of. It was my nationality. Over the very long 13 years of primary and secondary education, from the age of 6 to the age of 19, my understanding of who I am and where I come from grew with me. But it never exceeded the limits of the concept of nationality. “Tunisianity” was indeed very prevalent in my surroundings and very anchored in my identity. At History classes, the focus on creating national attachment was extremely tangible. The curriculum speaks of Tunisia as a continuity from the Carthaginian civilization of antiquity to the post-independence nation-state. As I grew older and encountered foreigners from different backgrounds, it occurred to me how uncommon the type of nationalism that Tunisia knew is in the region or anywhere else. So, where did Tunisia’s nation-state come from? What does it look like now, and how do I relate to it?

One time, not so long ago, cruising the old alleys of the Medina of Tunis with Noha, I started to progressively appreciate my date and the time I was spending with her. Exploring the Médina corners, we ended up in front of le musée de la Ville de Tunis, “the Museum of the City of Tunis.” It had unique architecture with traditional and European (Italian) renovation influences. Its interior walls were covered with paintings. However, only one caught our attention. It was of Hayreddin Pasha (Prime minister, 1873 – 1877) from the Husainid dynasty.

This 2-century ruling dynasty, through its reforms to administration, infantry, navy, and especially representative institutions, not only further deepened autonomy from the Ottomans but also paved the way for Bourguiba and the Tunisian progressive elite from the Destourian (constitutional) party and the labor union to envision a state through a nationalistic filter that would be established after ending the French colonization. Instead of following other rulers’ steps in implementing pan-arabism, Tunisians opted for a liberal and secular form of governance. As Habib Bourguiba stated in a conference next to Libya’s Gaddafi to justify withdrawing from forming a union with the neighboring country, “Tunisia has preserved, throughout the ages, a singular identity.” The latter can be traced back to the early 1800s when the Hussainids first adopted the national flag in 1831 still in use today, abolished slavery in 1846, 19 years prior to the U.S., promulgated in 1856 the famous Fundamental Pact (Ahd Al-Aman) declaring and establishing equality, freedom of worship, and unified dress codes for all Muslim, Christian, Jewish residents of the Beylik, and finally enacted in 1861 the first constitution in the Arab world, which was also secular, separating the three branches of power and guaranteeing the dismissal of the Bey in case of treason of the nation.

This concept of a Tunisian Nation, although persistent in history, has stayed moderate. Nowadays, it seems thin enough to be easily overlooked. One reason for that is the inclusive nature of Tunisian nationalism; it is rather an ideology that connects Tunisians not by ethnicity or religion but by the shared history and culture that the country knew for thousands of years. During the authoritarian rule of Bourguiba, the Tunisian “Ummah” was manifested in the political discourse and the official namings of government offices. When Ben Ali took power, the ideology slowly faded away to allow for a more widespread Arab, African, and Islamic perception of the Tunisian identity, all while continuing to disregard the Amazigh (Berber) dominant element. What is left today, in a political arena with miscellaneous ideologies and political colors, is a soft version that is rather perceived as patriotism, and pride of the country’s plural culture and heritage, uniting, for once, Tunisians in their demonstration of national pride in sports or in their celebration of religious minorities serving in government.

In constant efforts to pursue my self-discovery, I stay curious, exactly as I was with Noha that day, and I feel privileged because It’s uncommon for a country in MENA to have social peace and ancient religious cohabitation resilient to violence and political instability. When I wear my red handmade “chechia,” it doesn’t mean that I am Muslim because Tunisian Jews wear it, and it doesn’t mean that I’m a Tunisian man because women, although rarely, wear it too. It simply means that I’m Tunisian. But I feel more anxious and sad than privileged because I know deep down that such advantages, despite playing a role in avoiding civil war after the 2011 overthrow of the authoritarian regime, didn’t elevate the country from its current crisis. In sum, it rather revived my journey to understand my connection to a land with a multi-layered history.

Balcony view of the museum of Tunis

Living room and fireplace, remains of the old palace. In the middle is a portrait of Hayreddin Pasha al-Tunisi (Prime minister of Tunisia, later a Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire)


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