Last week I was on assignment in Tunisia. I was doing a story for a Norwegian travel magazine, and went around various places in the small country where the Arabic Spring started a little less than a year ago. The events began in December 2010 and led to the ousting of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. He had been the country’s dictator since 1987. Now Tunisia is slowly heading toward democracy. It has had its first free election and last week the new provisional government was installed.
One of the pleasures of visiting Arabic countries is meeting the local people on the small cafés that exist all over and in every small or big town. It’s quite rewarding to just sit down, drink a cup of coffee and – as is now possible in Tunisia – discuss the new political events with people who for the first time in a very long period have a chance to speak freely and openly. At the same time I have to admit it’s very difficult to travel around as a photographer in Arabic countries. Being white – or coming from the so-called Western hemisphere – I often find myself met with suspicion and what to me seems like resentment. One might say it’s understandable in the light of the last decade of less than respectful interaction between the West and the Arabic world. But it actually goes back to the time of colonialism – or even further back to the time of the crusades. The mutual suspicion is based on prejudice on both sides and a long time of suppression by the West. Some time ago I read the eye-opening book Orientalism. Western Concept of the Orient by Edward Wadie Said. It was published in 1978 where Said stated that Orientalist scholarship was and continues to be inextricably tied to the imperialistic societies that produced it, making much of the work inherently politicized, servile to power, and therefore suspect. The Western idea of the Orient was – and still is – all based on myths, suspicion, deterioration and suppression. And the consequences all up till today have been devastating for the whole region. Edward Wadie Said was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a founding figure in post-colonialism. He died in 2003.
No doubt the difficulties I encountered in Tunisia as a photographer is just as much my own prejudice as anything else. So much more rewarding then to meet as friends and fellow human beings in the cafés in the middle of the medinas in all the towns I visited. It was great to feel the optimism of the locals and the excitement about the latest events. And what is happening in the Arabic world right now is indeed quite inspiring and full of hope for the ordinary people living there. There is still a long way to go, but at least in Tunisia quite a distance has already been travelled. I found people very excited about the last year’s development. They feel they have gained some control of their own lives, even if the economy is in a badly state. But a good cup of coffee or tea in an intimate café makes life go around no matter what else happens in the world.