How my Tunisian grandfather rejected Arabness : understanding a post-colonial identity

by Nour Regaya

One of my most prized possessions is a Larousse French dictionary my late grandfather gave me : an impressive collectible weighing no less than two kilograms, its leather cover worn by time and the curiosity of a child running her hands through its pages looking for the next word she was going to learn by heart. 

This dictionary serves as a full fledged insight into my grandfather’s character and our relationship : he was an intellectual man and an avid reader, a lover of all things french. He’d stress to my dad  that I had no real benefit from focusing on Arabic in school and that I had to work on my French instead. He was filled with pride whenever he saw me reading a french book and even as I grew fonder of the English language in my later years, he was content with that, as long as I was not reading any Ahlem Mostaghanmi. 

He was a caricature in his hometown : the ever so loud, passionate Hmed, speaking in old French with the rolled r’s, correcting everyone’s mistakes in “la langue de Molière”.

Everyone in our family was quick to brush it off as old age hysterics and blamed it on his naturally obsessive personality, but as many of his musings were funny, some bordered on the offensive.

Hmed confessed his hate for Arabs without a bat of an eye…ironic since his ancestors were more Arab than Amazigh. His (predictable) idol was Tunisia’s first president Bourguiba, a man he imitated in many ways: in mannerisms, speech and most importantly ideology. He especially enjoyed recounting Bourguiba speeches in which he charismatically rejected pan-arabism and pushed for a separate Tunisian nationalistic identity. But how seperate can it really be?..

The ghost of France lingered everywhere in our country. It lived on in my grandfather’s psyche so much so that he equated everything French with intellect and civilization and he simultaneously crucified anything Arab. He believed that the Arab identity itself was a recipe for disaster and that the only way up the social ladder was to assimilate to the French. 

It was his influence that pushed me further from identifying as Arab, hiding behind a claimed Amazigh origin, I refused to be Arab for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s only now that I realize this was not a genuine connection to the Amazigh identity but rather an active avoidance of the Arab in me. An experience I share with many of my young Tunisian peers.

Recently, when Najla Bouden became the first woman prime minister of Tunisia and the first in the MENA region altogether, the days following the announcement were a theatrical show of the internal identity wars our country suffers from.

While many Tunisians happily shared on social media, in all capital letters, “FIRST ARAB WOMAN PRIME MINISTER”, I saw beyond the cheering an obsession with claiming Tunisia to be the most westernized country of the region and an almost condescending way of talking of other Arab women. The only time we spoke of other Arab women was when we wanted to claim our prowess over them. 

Among other things, Tunisians applauded Najla for being perfectly francophone, the ideas that were fed into our ancestors are still very much present : speaking French is almost synonymous with being intellectual. Other Arab countries are unable to catch up with us simply because they are too Arab…their women could never be prime ministers. Our love affair with French culture makes us the only candidate in the region capable of being the most progessive.  

The self-loathing my grandfather and I felt were not normal no matter how normalized it was: It is traces of colonialist ideology that was not just exclusive to the colonialist Europeans but seeped into the colonized themselves. Tunisian Jewish philosopher Albert Memmi spoke of this back in 1957, just one year after Tunisia gained independence : “The candidate for assimilation[…] discovers with alarm the full meaning of his attempt. It is a dramatic moment when he realizes that he has assumed all the accusations and condemnations of the colonizer, that he is becoming accustomed to looking at his own people through the eyes of their procurer.” I am not sure if my grandfather ever had this dramatic moment of realization but I like to think so…

Towards the end of his years, when my grandmother passed away, it was as if my grandfather  was letting his guard down, he read books in Arabic and spoke less in French. He listened to Arabic classics to put himself to sleep…In his most vulnerable state, mourning for his wife, those were his lullabies, they brought him peace, no Charles Aznavour could tame the worries of his heart. No Jacques Brel and no Edith Piaf. Only Umm Kulthum, Warda and Asmahan…