Solidifying an identity through spoken word: Mariam Ben Slama

by Yasmine Mattoussi

“Who am I?” 

The central question of Mariam Ben Slama’s speech for the 2021 Grand Oral competition was centered around identity – more importantly, what your identity means in a space where others are constantly trying to define it for you. The competition is an annual televised oratory arts  concours, where most of the selection process takes place before the actual broadcast, meaning that Mariam was one of the top ten finalists who made it to the last round. She is a 21-year-old Tunisian student at Sciences Po Paris, studying international security. Nour Magazine spoke to her about her experience with the Grand Oral, and what her speech meant to her on a personal level. She opened up about her experiences growing up with her Tunisian identity in flux, her experiences abroad, and her interests in gender, race, and her studies.  

Growing up in Tunisia, did you feel like you ever had to confront your identity as a Tunisian? Moreover, as a Tunisian woman?

I think that in Tunisia, we have this pretty myth that our society is homogenous and that we are all ‘Tunisians.’ So growing up there, it felt like all my friends came from more or less the same social class background, that everyone was the same skin color and shared the same faith. This idea that we were all ‘the same’ was very ingrained in our minds and I have to admit that as a preteen, I didn’t really have a developed critical sense and I didn’t really take a step back and looked at things the way they actually were. So in a sense, I never really had to confront my identity as a Tunisian. However, I did have to confront the fact that I was more dark skinned than some of my cousins or that my hair was very curly. Those are things that I was reminded of when my mom would ask me to not stay too long in the sun because that meant my skin would get darker, or when our neighbor called me kahloucha (a derogatory anti-Black term which implies a belittlement of a Black/dark skinned person). I was also forced to straighten my hair for special occasions like first school days and family events. It was exhausting because it felt like my existence as myself was constantly questioned and I didn’t have the space to be fully who I am, I needed to tweak some features about me. I know it never came from a bad place, these are also ideas that we have internalized as a society where we are always striving to be more ‘Western-looking.’ 

When it comes to my identity as a woman, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where gender norms were completely debunked. My dad is a college professor and my mom used to work as an administrative officer in different companies. My dad used to make me breakfast and lunch and help my mom with cleaning and other house chores. I remember my elementary school friends being so impressed when I told them my dad made me my snack, they were like ‘the only thing my dad knows how to do is BBQ.’ I am sure that at school, I did experience some type of sexism (a lot of it was internalized for sure) but I don’t recall it now. So in a sense, I lived in an environment where I was told I could do anything and I never felt like my gender was going to limit my successes… until I traveled abroad to go to college. 

You are currently living in France, a country that has a very complicated relationship with its Maghrebi community and its colonial past. What is a subject or dialogue there involving the North African diaspora community that you hope to see more progress made in the years to come? 

France is really proud of its history and its past. It is usually referred to as le pays des droits de l’Homme (the country of human rights) and it praises itself for that. Nevertheless, it is less willing to unpack its colonial past and the long term consequences it had on its colonies/mandates/protectorates (which, to me, are all the same). Following that logic, discussions of race, racism, islamophobia and other systems of discriminations are very limited. They are categorized as an ‘American problem’ that does not exist in France. However, the stories and testimonies of thousands (maybe even millions) of Muslims, Arabs, Black people and other people of color that I see online and in the media every day say otherwise. Our existence is put into question and we are never invited to talk about it. Women who wear the hijab are debated but their voices are never the ones leading the conversation. Our narrative is not our own anymore and we live and exist through the writing of others. When we are invited to speak, we are expected to apologize, to distance ourselves from our faith, to assimilate as much as possible so as to not seem too ‘communitarian’, we have to completely erase who we are for other people to feel comfortable around us. Of course, I do not present myself as the spokesperson of the North African diaspora in France because I am not. I was born and lived my whole life in Tunisia and only came to France in 2017. Nevertheless, I am familiar with the weird looks, the offensive stereotypes, the sexualization of Arab women, the racist slurs and the hate. I was talking to a friend about this the other day, she was telling me how she felt how heavy the climate is for Arabs today. Every day, I check twitter and find out another initiative led by the government to ‘republicanize’ Islam or to police Black and Brown bodies. At some point, you start to absorb it all and it’s hard to come back from there. For things to change, communities that are talked about need to have a seat at the table, not to apologize but to be unapologetically themselves. We need to occupy more significant spaces without being tokenized or insulted. 

Your Grand Oral speech deals heavily with the struggle of having assumptions made about you based on your appearance. What made you want to discuss this topic?

This is a tough question *laughs*. This is my first year living in Paris and I feel like here, everything is a hundred times more amplified and centralized than the rest of the county so it creates a sort of accumulation of violence and overall frustration. I think that I felt even more marginalized here and it made me want to talk about it. I was tired of our narrative being out of our hands and I wanted to make it clear that we exist and we are reclaiming our identity, reframing it the way we see fit and voicing it all across the country. I sincerely believe Le Grand Oral enabled me to do that. After the show aired, I received a lot of text messages telling me I was brave or that I articulated an anger that many people felt. This was not only coming from young people who feel limited in the way they can express themselves, it also came from first generation immigrants who have been taught that if they work hard enough and stay quiet, they will make it and will finally be equal to French white people. My speech was never about victimization or pity, it was a reappropriation of space and narrative. I sincerely hope I was able to get my point across. 

You are a student at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious institutions for social sciences. How has your experience there affected your perception of your own identity as an international student, specifically coming from French-speaking North Africa?

I was on the Reims campus of Sciences Po where we had both a Euro-American and a Euro-African academic program. This meant that the campus was very diverse with people from all around the world. When meeting someone, the first thing you ask is ‘where are you from?’ and that is when ‘I’m from Tunisia’ has become my most repeated sentence. I never had to explain where I come from (except back in the US where people kept confusing Tunisia for Indonesia) and at Sciences Po, I felt like a lot of people were curious about my country. I had interesting conversations about our culture, our democratic transition and the challenges we are facing as a nation. I was lucky enough to host some friends over in Sousse, where I live. I had debates with my Moroccan and Algerian friends about which couscous is the best (spoiler alert: it’s the Tunisian one). I think these different discussions really affected my perception of myself but also allowed me to fall in love with my country for the first time. When you are a teenager in Tunisia, especially when you look at Europe and the US, you start to despise where you come from. I mean yes, you love your family and your friends, but all you want to do is leave your country for a better life abroad. It was my case, especially after I came back from my exchange. By going to France and talking about where I am from, I felt closer to Tunisia than ever before. It’s so strange when you think about it and I do acknowledge that a part of it is this romanticized version that we have of home when we’re away from it but I am also very critical of our governance system and some mentalities.I know we can do better because we deserve better. 

What do you like about public speaking?

I haven’t really done public speaking before college. I used to write a lot of poetry that I would send to my friends asking them what it made them feel but I never truly ‘performed.’ Then, during my freshman year, I  started participating in open mics and the reaction to my poems was so warm that I kept doing it. There is something special about reading your thoughts and feelings out loud and seeing them resonate with strangers. It feels like everything freezes for a moment while people are absorbing the words you’ve put out there. On campus, we also had this student association called ‘Sciences Polémiques’ which planned speech contests. I’ve taken part in a similar contest before but the format in Reims was completely different: it was sarcastic and serious at the same time. You had to make people laugh without turning your speech into a stand up comedy thing. The line was so thin between the two but it was really fun tempering with it. So I started doing speech contests and I loved it! My friends would come and watch me and sometimes there were only four or five people in the audience (+ a jury). Honestly, I just love words and having the chance to create metaphors, puns and construct philosophical thoughts with them to convey a message was a great adventure! 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

I am really bad at projecting myself, I don’t even know what I am having for dinner tonight *laughs*. I am a very ambitious person so I hope that 10 years from now, I am in a position that enables me to shake things up and help those in need. I hope I am still learning and unlearning and fighting for the causes that matter to me.I want to wake up in a place where we’re all safe being our full selves with no fear of being hurt. I guess a more concrete answer would be that in 10 years, I see myself knee deep in my PhD thesis cursing academia for making me feel like I ever wanted to do research *laughs* or working in a local NGO somewhere (hopefully in Tunisia).