by Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle
You had to search in the small section “Faits divers” (various news) in the state run newspapers to find the information that one of the most important libraries in Tunis – Institut de Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA) – had been victim to a serious fire on the 5th of January . 60 percent of the library was destroyed by fire and water, and its director, Father Gian-Battista Maffi died in the flames.
IBLA was established in 1926 by the order of the White Fathers, a Christian society of the missionaries of Africa. The White Fathers’ society was founded in Algeria in 1868 by (the French) Archbishop of Algiers Mgr Charles Lavigerie. In Tunisia the White Fathers established a “Study House” (Foyer d’Etudes) and over the years they have collected irreplaceable books, periodicals, reviews, articles and handwritings concerning Tunisia, the Maghreb and Africa. The library was a treasury for researchers especially in the humanities. You could often find sources here which were not found in other libraries. Now 10-12000 of these volumes are gone to ashes. As a researcher you have to lament this incident. As one Tunisian blogger wrote: “Part of our memory turned into ashes”. This actually signifies the importance of IBLA. Here it was possible to find different memories, other stories and identities than the ones that have been told by the regime ever since the founding of the nation. Many Tunisian bloggers joined the general depressive mode of those concerned about culture in Tunisia on the occasion of the fire at IBLA. They are concerned about the low – if any – current priority and status of culture in Tunisia.
But as another blogger ironically says with a cartoon on his blog: “Since when can you eat culture”.
Another version of this cartoon which is often heard in Tunisia is: “Since when can you eat democracy”. A full stomach and the sisha in the hand (water pipe), then the Tunisian is happy. “Just don’t touch my pocket money”, one young business man says as an ironic stereotype of the Tunisians. They are very happy with the arrival of strongholds of consumerism such as Carrefour, Benetton and Zara. And with the “Mega Projects that will change the face of Tunisia” such as The Rades Bridge, The Enfidha Airport, The information technology City of the Century, and The City of Culture with seven studios for musical, theatrical and dancing production, an 1800-seat opera house and a media library.
But hold on! A city of culture as a mega project? Then why are the bloggers, the intellectual, cultural Tunisians and the well educated young businessmen whining over the state of the culture in Tunisia? Over the ignorance of both the regime and their fellow Tunisians of local culture? Exactly because the new culture house is a mega project. A prestige project which they first of all see as a monument of the regime. The fact that The City of Culture is the neighbor to the headquarters of the ruling party does not reduce this impression. At the same time, dozens of local, small theatres close to the populations have been closed for years because of lack of money, the famous critical Tunisian cinema has remained unproductive for more than a decade and people lack means of expression of their history, their traditions and their local culture. Consumerism – and satisfaction of this longing for consumerism by the regime – has become so important that the news about the fire at IBLA was to be found under “Faits divers” while the front page’s breaking news the same day was the government’s priority of speeding up the development of infrastructure, technology and industry. As one blogger puts it: “On the priority list of the young tie-guys comes first “khobza” (bread)”. Remember: Just don’t touch my pocket money and take my bread away. The blogger continues: ”Then comes information technology and communication. To them Tunisia is in phase with time because the country is number 66 of the world in application of information technology and communication in public administrations while holding the low position of number 142 of the world’s countries in democracy”. Well, since when can you eat democracy?
With the fire at IBLA an important part of the memory of Tunisia turned into ashes. Literally. 12.000 periodicals, reviews, articles and handwritings are now lacking to current researchers and coming generations working on other versions of history, culture, politics and traditions than the narratives prevailing since the birth of the nation state.