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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Dances With Spirits

Published at Brownbook Magazine
Though it’s not necessarily considered Tunisian, stambeli can only be found in Tunisia.

A ritual dance belonging to Tunisia’s Sub-Saharan community, stambeli can occasionally be seen performed on the streets of Tunis, when members of the community dress up in masks and costumes to wander the medina as they sing, dance and play the shqashiq.

Despite its gradual demise, there remains a few dedicated practitioners of the tradition, like at Dar Barnu – the last surviving house where those of Bornu origin continue to congregate in Tunis. Here, Belhassen Barnawi, the only son of Abdul Majid Barnawi – the late head of Dar Barnu – continues to perform stambeli as a musician and singer.
According to Barnawi, the word ‘stambeli’ is rooted in the Sub-Saharan term ‘sambeli’, and refers to the spirit possession ceremonies that continue to be performed in parts of Nigeria and Mali.
The ritual made its way to Tunis during the Ottoman Empire. Many Sub-Saharans arrived in Tunis in the 19th century, often for forced labour and against their will. A network of communal housing was established, consisting of numerous structures that served as a refuge where displaced individuals could find others who spoke their language and shared their customs. Many were of Hausa speaking groups from the areas surrounding Lake Chad.
It was within this community that the stambeli tradition was developed and spread, enabling both captive and free men and women to maintain their cultural and spiritual practices. Today, in Sidi Abdeslam, a bustling neighborhood on the periphery of Tunis, Dar Barnu continues the stambeli practice, seeing it simultaneously as a musical art form, an agent of healing, a form of communication, a performance of history and an implicit critique of society.
The term stambeli refers to the music as well as the ritual ceremony itself. ‘Music is the defining component and central agent in the ritual,’ Barnawi says, as he reflects on the different instruments. ‘The guembri, a sacred, bass-register plucke lute with three-strings, speaks to the spirits. Although similarly spiked lutes are found across West Africa, no instrument is identical to the guembri.’
Another instrument that’s integral to the stambeli performance, he says, is the shqashiq – iron clappers that look like concussion idiophones. The shqashiq is linked to the history of Islam, being firmly associated with Sidi Bilal, Islam’s first muezzin who was freed by Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Bilal is an important figure among the Sub-Saharan community in North Africa, with many claiming spiritual descent from him. Some even refer to themselves as ‘awled Sidi Bilal’, or children of Saint Bilal.
Karim Touwayma, a Tunisian contemporary dancer, choreographer and researcher of stambeli, revisits the dance form through his choreography spectacle ‘L’Arifa’. For Touwayma, an essential component of stambeli – besides the guembri – is the arifa, the dancer who directly connects with the spirits, and through her trance, recognises evil and cures accordingly.
‘There is a magic that is heard, seen, sensed and felt between the yinna – the master of guembri – and the arifa,’ Touwayma says. ‘The yinna must know what to play and how to play it. The singing does not reach the sprits until the guembri has drawn the spirit into the ritual space of the performance.’
Two coloured banners or cloths typically cover the arifa, says Barnawi. One is draped over her shoulders and the other is tied around her waist, with the fabric’s colour depending on a saint’s preference. He adds that the rest of the troupe is typically dressed in traditional Tunisian fabrics.
Others who partake in the musical performances can be seen wearing a leather mask, which represents stambeli’s legendary figure Boussadia, a mythical character who’s largely seen as the tradition’s first musician. According to folklore, he lived in Sub-Saharan Africa until he heard that raiders on a Tunis-bound caravan had captured his daughter, Sadia. Boussadia followed the caravan routes to Tunis and upon his arrival, wandered the streets, playing the shqashiq and singing lyrics that begged onlookers to help him find his daughter.
The masks worn today cover the entire face and drape over the shoulders. It has cutouts for the eyes and mouth, which are lined with cowry shells. Atop the mask is a conical headdress adorned with a tuft of feathers and the head of a bird with a long beak. An accompanying costume covers the body and consists of a draping, bright red vest that’s decorated with cowries and dangling amulets. Tied across the waist, too, is a skirt fashioned from dozens of animal tails.
Stambeli is not only a physical performance, but also an embodiment of cultural memory, narrating unrecorded history and stories, believes Touwayma. ‘The lyrics are sung in a manner designed to be incomprehensible. The language of the song is a mixture of Tunisian Arabic and Ajami – a form of the Hausa and Kanuri languages of Sub-Saharan Africa,’ he says.
Containing diverse religious, geographical and historical traditions, stambeli can neither be reduced to a sole purpose, nor to a single regional or religious foundation. Its rich history is one that is greatly varied and steeped in Tunisia’s long term balancing of racial and social boundaries.
While there are only a few priests of the stambeli tradition left today, Touwayma strives to spread awareness of the ritual. Having performed and facilitated workshops in Brussels, Greece, Germany and elsewhere, Touwayma is currently working on a documentation of the tradition. His dreams, he says, are for ‘the whole world to dance stambeli.’

Monday, October 26, 2015

Salim Salamah's Keynote speech at 9th UNESCO Youth Forum

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On the flight here to Paris, coming from my exile in Sweden where I have been a political refugee since 2013, I was thinking... which story I need to tell you? for my own story as a stateless Palestinian from Syria, refugee again in Sweden, I now feel lucky and privileged to stand before you today.  Crossing borders, mobility and checkpoints were a constant reality and fear in Syria, now as I have a Swedish travel document, I can be with you to deliver the untold stories about Syria.

So the question now what story? Do I tell you the story of nearly half of Syria's population who has been uprooted for the past 4 years? or the story of children out of school, girls abused and people struggling to survive?

Unfortunately, stories of terror, barrel bombs and massacres have acquired an awful familiarity. But young people of my age have turned these hardships into drive for social change.

like the story of a movement of over 80 Syrian civil society groups who formed Planet Syria Campaign, asking for One, immediate ceasefire and  Two, serious peace talks that include young and emerging leaders from all over Syria and especially women. So, let’s not forget the story of Syrian women on the frontline. According to “Peace-building Defines Our Future Now” report: 45 women organizations, 35 activists and 100 women focused groups all have a unified voice : peace is a process that starts only when women are at the negotiation table.

and I also need to tell the story of 15th Garden, a farmers' solidarity network supporting besieged areas in Syria to grow their own food, in houses, on rooftops and in between buildings, including Yarmouk camp, where I was born and raised and where more than 200 people starved to death.  One of my childhood friends, Abdullah Al Khateeb, remains under siege in Yarmouk since three years, he used to work for UNRWA and now is a farmer and educator, helping people secure their food, water and making sure that education is provided to kids in the besieged camp.

The stories of Abdullah and other heros are endless but they are untold and even my short speech cannot do them justice. Those are the syrians, who keep life going, who protect their communities, the syrians who are always there to act when international aid cannot make it.

Few weeks ago, Tunisia’s civil society has won the Nobel Peace Prize, a recognition to civil society and to the people, in the region and in the world , as a key actor in peacebuilding today…. a crucial role the Syrian civil society, as we speak, is also playing in promoting peace and coexistence, saving lives, saving the planet and creating alternative systems under conflict.

Honorable guests,

It is a rare moment for me to stand here today to fulfill what I consider the obligation of a survival of war to tell these stories. UNESCO community, I invite you to stand by the vibrant Syrian civil society, to support young men and women to thrive despite war, these should be your stakeholders, those who cannot be among us today, are the sustainable partners for a better Middle East and a better world.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hard times for Tunisia

Published at the German Magazine D+C Development and Cooperation

If the nation looses too many of its marginalised youth to Islamist extremism, it cannot gain stability. Security measures alone will not do, because economic development and social equity matter just as much. 
On 18 March, the international community was shocked by the terror attack at Bardo Museum in Tunis. 21 people, mostly European tourists, were killed. On 26 June, the international community stood shocked again with the tragedy of Sousse, where a fanatic murdered 38 tourists. This attack occurred in the holy month of Ramadan.
Sadly, terrorism has been haunting Tunisia since early 2013.  Attacks occurred during Ramadan in 2014 and 2013 too. The Islamist hardliners want Tunisia’s young democracy to fail.
After the revolution toppled the Ben Ali dictatorship in 2011, I think terrorism started with the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February 2013. A few months later, Mohamed Brahmi, another leftist leader and member of the National Assembly, was also killed. Obviously, religious fanatics hated the secular politicians. In view of the assassins’ impunity, unrest grew.
Since early 2013, over 40 Tunisian soldiers have been killed in terror attacks. One of them was deadliest on the Tunisian Army since the country’s independence in 1956.
Recently, terrorists have been shifting from military and security targets to civilian and urban ones. Because the victims of the Sousse and Bardo massacres were mainly foreigners, travel warnings have been expressed, and fewer tourists are now spending the summer in our country.
Tourism is a vital sector of the national economy. Its revenues reduced the country’s trade deficit by 50 % last year. Sousse is one of the main tourism sites. It contributes about 14 % to gross domestic product and employs about 12 % of the work population.
Most people in Sousse directly or indirectly depend on tourism, and terrorism also affects related sectors, such as food and beverage, transportation, crafts, banks and archaeological sites. More generally speaking, the business climate is deteriorating. Foreign investors appear to be loosing interest. But investing in Tunisia at this crucial time is actually investing in strengthening our democracy.
No doubt, national security, the democratic process, macro-economic stability and efforts to improve socio-economic equality are at risk. Nonetheless, the country has witnessed poorly coordinated government strategy in response to the escalation of terrorist operations and propaganda. The root causes have not been tackled.
Instead of looking for long-term solutions, public debate is focused on who is responsible for the country’s vulnerability. This was a polarising issue in recent election campaigns. Yes, the security forces look overstretched, underequipped and unable to master the problems. Nonetheless, the security sector in itself cannot provide the solution.
Because of terrorism, government expenditure on education and infrastructure is being cut, so funds can be used for security purposes. Hyperactivity, however, does not help. In the three months after the Bardo Museum atrocity, the government claims to have carried out 7,000 security operations, arresting 1,000 people and stopping 15,000 people from travelling to fight jihad abroad. It is impossible to verify such information, and effectiveness is not guaranteed. The heroism, however, of the Sousse hotel staff has been the story of many survivals.
Tunisian attempts to improve security, however, did not stop the UK government from ranking Tunisia in the same danger category as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. After Sousse, it urged all British tourists to leave the country, and some 2000 did so.
The underlying problem is that economic recession is radicalising young people. Jobless youngsters in marginalised towns are attracted by Islamist rhetoric. They consider themselves victims and even martyrs of a secularist regime, rather than criminals threating the democratic progress. Young people do not get the needed support and leadership opportunities, so ISIS looks attractive. Police repressions is a problem too.
Rap star Emino traded his career to join the ISIS militia after being arrested for political lyrics and experiencing police brutality. An estimated 3,000 young men have joined ISIS. If Tunisia looses too many of its alienated youth, it cannot gain stability. European partners should take note. Failure to support the region’s first real democracy will come back to haunt Europeans.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

People Powered Accountability Discussion at the AfDB Annual Meetings #AfDB2015

The Forum for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) has been just an idea few years ago. However, last week, during its 2015 Annual Meetings in Abidjan, the African Development Bank hosted a full day of panels and discussions dedicated to CSOs. The CSO Forum is aiming at promoting closer cooperation and engagement among CSOs, the Bank, and regional member countries in order to optimize development results and sustain development impact.

About 50 participants representing a diverse group of CSOs attended the event. Different sessions have provided a platform for learning and exchange on how best to cooperate with CSOs.

"People-Powered Accountability" Panel ignited an interesting discussion. Aloysius Ordu, the director of partnership for Transparency, gave a presentation on People powered accountability. He showed the 2014 Index on Corruption highlighting that “Information is power but more importantly is what you do with information”. He raised the questions on how do we scale up as many of the CSOs operate on accountability traps so they can’t scale it up nationally or continentally. Countries, indeed, “look good” but they are trapped in low accountability. Ordu used an interesting metaphor of voice and teeth to emphasize the tide connection; voice being the citizen capacity for collective action and Teeth being the accessible accountability institutions.

“Corruption is a not a myth it’s a reality”, commented Neil Cole, the Executive Secretary of Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI) “. He raised the question “what is that still causes corruption in governance as if none of those laws is in place?” He stressed that even within countries that have wonderful constitutions, the question is about the systems that are not robust enough to eliminate and detect corruption when there is a corrupt act.
I was glad also to see the bloggers voice at the panel with the Ghanian blogger, Kinna Likimani. “It’s not just corruption or bad governance, it’s everything else in the environment from disrespect, lack of human rights, lack of inclusion to silencing voices”, she said. Kinna has given many tangible examples of corruption in Ghana suggesting that everyday life is a negotiation of an environment of corruption because “you will not be accorded your rights”. So we eventually buy our respect as citizens, and the leadership takes advantage of that. The solution for Kinna is to educate the people because she is tired of “policy, policy, policy with no implementation”

It was fair enough to bring the voice of the Bank itself, represented by Anna Bossman, the Director of Integrity and Anti-Corruption Department (IACD). Her intervention started by stressing that “Corruption is real when you look at the map, statistics and indicators, but at the end corruption is about people beyond that jargon”. As the moderator directly asked her “What makes the bank a non-corrupt institution?”, Ms.Bossman explained that “the ADB promotes integrity and accountability by strengthening its rules and regulations, investigates, gives trainings to the staff and has recently launched the Citizen Charter”.

Then she directed her talk more towards the collaboration between the bank and CSOs “We need you but you also need the bank, you are the people on the ground who can tell us where corruption is taking place and we have facilities, information and platforms through which you can engage”.

As the moderator started getting questions from the audience, Ms. Graca Machel entered the room. She has been then given the floor for a final word by the end of the panel, where she stressed on regional collaboration. "We are playing the game in a very unequal environment with government, business, parliament and judiciary institutions that have resources which CSOs don’t. CSOs have to be strong enough to face all these institutions to be taken seriously". She raised the question on how to strengthen the institutional capacity of CSOs as strong to play their role on equal basis. She continues "African institutions, including the bank, are not realizing that the citizen voice is fundamental to strengthen democracy". She ended by calling on the CSOs present to work regionally and unite to make "our voice heard". She gave an example of her organization New Faces New Voices which operates in 15 countries.

The panel was interesting indeed but not much time has been given to the CSOs representatives actually to talk and challenge the panelists and themselves. There has been a long silence about the constriction of the civic space, before a shout out came from the audience that the space of civil society is shrinking.“While we are here, civil society activists are imprisoned in Egypt and Ethiopia and internet has been shut down in Burundi, you might be afraid of governments (towards the bank) but you need to call on them when they violate those spaces”. There is a need to have more shout outs like this from the CSOs on the Bank and other institutions to call on countries to give us back the civic space because without that space, CSOs cannot thrive. 

CSOs act as intermediary at all stages and play key role. They should be the ones that raise community awareness of their rights and empower citizen groups for collective action. So, CSOs need to get organized to challenge and to deliver.

The session ended with a clear message that the bank has to do its homework on how much it is taking CSOs seriously and supporting them as much as it supports business and governments. On the other hand, CSOs need do their own homework on how to work together in this unequal space and collaborate on strategic issues so that their voices are much stronger.

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