Arabic Spring

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.


64 thoughts on “Arabic Spring

  1. Great post. What ever you have written about Arabic countries is somehow similar to conditions of lots of other Asian Countries also. Here people share all their joy, happiness, problems (do not really matter small or big ones) in tea stalls. May be that is the charm of these countries.

  2. I can imagine both your excitement and trepidation, Otto, in your travels to Tunesia. So much is happening in that part of the world these days. You need to not blink your eyes so as to not miss anything! Thanks for sharing this journey and thanks for braving this new world for us. Very educational.

  3. Hi,
    I’m so glad things are slowly being worked out in Tunisia. I have never been there, but I have friends that were there a couple of years ago, and they loved it. The photos they showed of Tunisia was fantastic. A lot of ancient history that I would love to see. They also mentioned how helpful a lot of the people were.

  4. A couple of years ago my son had the opportunity to go on a school trip to Italy and Tunisia. When he returned home, I asked him which country he enjoyed the most. His reply was interesting. He said that he liked Rome, especially the ancient Roman sites, but his favourite part of the trip was the time spent in Tunisia. To him, Rome was very similar to any city at home in a lot of ways, but Tunisia was an entirely different culture, and he found that fascinating. They visited a medina where a man displayed live cobras, they toured different mosques, and they rode by camel out into the Sahara desert where they spent the night in tents. I am so glad that he had the chance to experience a culture totally different than ours, and I am also glad that they visited Tunisia when it was relatively safe (before the turmoil).

  5. I read this post with interest and gazed at the photos, feeling like an alien, since as a woman I think I would be barred from experiencing any and all of it.
    Some distances need a very large person to reach across, and I think I am a small one. But I am glad you are much larger —

  6. You are welcome dear Otto, this is great touching of Arabic Spring. Democracy is great too. And yes, it will take time but I am glad for Tunus, everything seems going well. Tunus is one of beautiful countries that I wish to visit one day. Especially the white buildings with blue doors or windows and iron works… The cafe places look like our Anatolian traditional cafes… People talk there, daily things, matters… Your photographs are so beautiful, giving the ambience of these cafes… Thank you, with my love, nia

    1. The white and blue city of Tunis is indeed a very lovely place – or as it’s called; White City or Sidi Bou Said. Definitely worth a visit if one is in Tunis.

  7. Wonderful and seemingly honest insight, and continues to support my believe that that more good human beings exist throughout the world than the others. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I love the contrasting patterns in your photos. Very interesting read too. It will be interesting to see how all of the politics work out in the end. Facing our own prejudices takes courage, but makes the world a better place.

  9. A wonderful read, Otto. A good insight to an area we only know via the media, this personal account is so much more informative. Thanks Otto, and the photographs are superb.

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience and photos with us. It’s so true – our best chance at achieving peace and understanding is to meet one on one as you did and share the enjoyment of something in common, as you did with the coffee and tea.

  11. Prejudice is an unfortunate element of being a human. If only more of us would be open to this possibility that we are all different facets of the same object, no matter where we live and what we do. Your beautiful photographs are bringing this reality closer to our hearts. Thank you 🙂

  12. Very true, an Arabic cafe is indeed a place to savour. I have spent a lot of my working life in Arabic countries where most local business is done over a cup of ‘chai’ or ‘gawa’ in the bustling and colourful souks. Excellent post.

  13. It’s so interesting to read about this from your perspective instead of in a newpaper or other media outlet. I confess to being so ignorant much of Middle Eastern culture and history as my knowledge is influenced by my Western point of view. Thanks for this post.

  14. Your post is so interesting Otto. I really enjoyed how you are able to connect and discover what some of the real people think and feel and not just what some political leader with an agenda. If there is ever going to be any real growth in our relationships it needs to have a grassroots’ involvement. Otherwise, we’ll never have an understanding of each other.

  15. As I study your photos, Otto, I often wonder how long it took you to gain the trust of the people in those photos. How invisible are you? Do you feel you have taken a piece of their soul or are you confident that you were partnering a situation of care and respect?

    I believe it would be the latter!

    See what a world you give? Many thanks.

    1. Often for me trust happens right away if there is any connection at all between us. In the café where I took the pictures, I was invited in and felt very welcomed almost immediately. And no I was not invisible. Most of the pictures were taken with a 16 mm, which means I am right up in their faces. Finally, I really don’t feel like I take anything of their souls. We meet as mutuals and have a face to face exchange. For me photographing people needs to be done with respect.

  16. Very good photos for a great post. I think your experience in Tunisia (where I have never been, yet) must have been very interesting. The way to democracy is long and maybe not so easy, but for sure they are building their future. Thanks for sharing all this,

    1. I am not sure whether women are allowed or not, but they are certainly not present, sadly enough. When it comes to equal rights even Tunisia, which otherwise and in many ways is a well develop society, is behind quite a bit. But interestingly enough I found that women were more accepting to be taken photos of in the streets than men.

  17. Interesting! I hope you stay safe! I saw that the Islamists won the election. One wonders how many more elections there might be before the Islamists decide democracy has served its purpose and can be dismissed.

    1. The conservative Islamist did indeed win the election in Tunisia, but they have invited other secular or less religious parties to share the power and the main positions in the country.

  18. Very inspiring. I can imagine that things might be difficult in that region. Still, I don’t think it would stop me from going to see and hear a different way of life, thinking, and overall existence.

  19. You obviously work and travel with a great deal of respect for others. I think it’s a very difficult task to put aside differences when we are continually bombarded with messages that tell us to be afraid of what is outside our personal experience–or comfort zone, but holding onto respect for others, despite comfort, is one very significant way we can contribute to a better global community. I see you doing that with your photo assignments. Your travel must be amazing! Debra

  20. I want to thank everybody for the encouragement. It means a lot, particularly with a potentially difficult subject like this. I feel so much respect and understanding in all of the comments here. Makes it all so worth while.

  21. It was very interesting to get a glimpse through your photographs of a part of the world I will never see. I greatly admire your talent and skill at people photography. I was fascinated by all the men in their black business suits in that last photo. They look so serious!

  22. “Orientalism. Western Concept of the Orient by Edward Wadie Said.”
    All I can say is I hope that’s on kindle, as I am weighed down by far too
    many books as it is. I was home schooled by a deeply religious program.
    I was raised in a christian based inviroment and was curious about
    religion in general. So I wanted to continue to study it. As I dug deep
    into the particulars of the faith – and poured over disgustingly biased
    accounts of world history – that often completely ignored the world
    changeing achievements of non-western cultures. I found myself
    forced to drop the program and see how I fared in a college
    entry exam. I passed with flying colors despite never
    compleating the program, and I don’t regreat it.

  23. “But a good cup of coffee or tea in an intimate café makes life go around no matter what else happens in the world.” Well said and more. I admire you sense of adventure, the courage and bravery, the passion to live life and embrace other cultures. You go to places where we only dream about. Be safe my friend. Wonderful post that speaks of realities , or real people and events. Thank you.

  24. The absence of women is bothering for me too. I hope the women meet elsewhere in town for their coffee and chat. Apart from that the photo’s show a relaxed setting and I think it is very important to break down prejudices. So, let’s have lots and lots of coffee together!

  25. Jag arbetar ju med muslimer här i Frankrike, de flesta bryr sig inte ens om Islam, men i första hand sà är de ju endast människor som alla andra, med sina egna erfarenheter…

    I work with muslims here in France, most of them don’t care about Islam, mais they are just humans like us others, with theirs experiences…

    Tack för vackra fotografier! Thanks for beautiful images!

  26. Wow!!! I will definitely come back to this blog..Your photos and journalistic gift are stupendous. Today is my husband’s birthday, so I must scurry away, but I will be back..

  27. This is such a wonderful blog! It is nice to hear a balanced view of the situation in the Arab countries that have recently gone through great upheavals. Else what one hears is either euphoric or gloomy in tone. But as you say, there is a very long way to go.


  28. Thanks for visiting my blog, I really like your Tunisian pix. Sadly I don’t get to travel the way I used to, its the ‘cut backs’ here in England-land. Magazines I work (worked?) for tend to grab pics from facebook now instead of commissioning. Que sera sera…

    1. So true about facebook. They clearly state a member must own the copyright (or give credit) of what they post, and they have a automatic license to do what they wish with the data – text and photos. I can’t understand why people keep giving their work away…

  29. Eloquent! I have a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic atmosphere of Tunisia via this reading and… I felt what you felt as you sat in the cafe in Tunisia! Thank you!

  30. Hi Otto thanks for your visit! I enjoyed reading this article and watching your pictures. It’s interesting to see trough your eyes and vision about the conflicts and situation that Tunisia lives today. Great post!

  31. Thanks for the last entries, it’s so interesting to read what each of you get out of this posting. And fantastic for me with all the support you so generously give of. Deptford Pudding, yes I think that is the case all over, that magazines generally don’t much support assignments, not only abroad but everywhere. Facebook is indeed much “cheaper”.

  32. Great post. My heart belongs to Tunisia, since I was there the first time 1999. 16 times I have been there, last visit 2 years ago (more on my blog). I m glad Ben Ali is gone, hopefully the situation for the people there gets better now. One time I have seen him in Sousse.

    Best Regards, Frauke

  33. Discovered your blog after you liked one of my posts, thank you. Particularly like the second image, you can see he is wondering why you want to take a picture of him and why can’t you work faster. The joys of documentary photography.

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