For Centuries, Tunisia’s position upon the Trans Saharan trade routes made the country the destination point for slave carrying caravans from the markets of Fezzan and Ghadamès, in modern day Libya, as they made their way onwards to the Levant. For many amongst their unfortunate cargo, Tunisia was the final stopping point.
How many slaves and their descendants remained in Tunisia after its abolition in 1846 is anything but clear. One Italian diplomat of the time estimated their number at around 7,000 while contemporary academics put the average following abolition at around 100,000. Irrespective of the number then, the ingrained prejudices formed during Tunisia’s centuries of slavery remain to dog the lives of the 10 to 15% of black Tunisians the advocacy group, ADAM for Equality and Development estimate make the country their home today.
Slavery’s poisonous legacy even shapes language, making its way unnoticed into items of everyday speech. Terms such as, Ousif, (Servant), Atig, (slave) and Kahloush, (Black) are commonplace throughout Tunisiaand all used to identify others by the colour of their skin.
Saadiyah Mosbah sits in a Tunis garden, smoking cigarettes and sipping cocktails. Saadiyah is black, and the civil society group of which she’s President, Mnemty, (my dream) is dedicated to fighting the casual bigotry she and others like her face every day, Saadiyah works as a flight attendant for Tunis Air and offers a typical example of the kind of prejudice that has become a depressingly regular feature of her day. “A recent incident happened to me when we were on board. One of the passengers , who happened to be Tunisian too, said “ I won’t take the plane with a woman ‘like this'” .
She talks of how, on another occasion, an old Tunisian pilgrim refused her request to relinquish his seat, telling anyone who would listen how, “‘I don’t understand how an Ousifa like this can give me orders’. Afterwards, he got physical. Once we arrived at the Gafsa airport , I made a complaint, but, of course, I got no response.”
One Mnemty member tells the story of how a black friend had their car broken into by teenagers, “That could happen to anyone, but the disturbing part of the story is that once he caught them, they defended themselves, saying , “How come a Kahloush like you has a car when we don’t ?”
While slavery’s legacy pervades all aspects of Tunisian society, its effects are most entrenched within the country’s south, particularly on the holiday island of Djerba, “The white, (European) Tunisian slaves do not keep any trace of their slavery.” Saadiyah Mosbah said, “Only black slaves keep that mark. Black Tunisians in the south, particularly in Djerba , still bear the names of their former owners . You find on black people’s birth certificates, Mohamed Atig ( Slave) Ben Yedder , the master’s name“
Even the dead are not free from prejudice, with the town of Sedghiane’s cemeteries segregated along racial lines. Here, the black graveyard is still commonly referred to as the cemetery of the Abeeds, while the white portion is referred to as that of the Ahrar.
Elsewhere, in the almost entirely segregated region surrounding the tiny Medenine town of Gosbah, slavery’s legacy is a geographic reality, “There are two separate communities there , blacks, the so called Abeeds, who live in Gosbah, and whites, the so called Ahrar, (free) who live in the surrounding region “. Saadiyah Mosbah told Tunisia Live, concluding, “What’s is happening in Gosbah is a Tunisian Apartheid“.
In a small town near Gabes, on Tunisia’s southern mainland, another Mnemty member, Mohamed Kouki tells of a light skinned Tunisian’s boasts of equality, “He proudly told me about how we were all equals and I felt relieved, but then, as the conversation turned to the subject of marriage, he dropped a bombshell, saying ‘Oh yeah, I know an Ousif who married a Hurra. He didn’t even say white, or light-skinned.”
Many legislative reforms have taken place since 2011. Principal amongst these is Act 21, which guarantees all Tunisians equality under the law, irrespective of their racial heritage However, legal recognition of your rights in little compensation for the ingrained and widespread prejudice many black Tunisians experience every day.
More needs to be done. For, Saadiyah Mosbeh change begins early. “Children don’t need to learn how to read and write at the age of three, they need to learn the real tenets of life, like learning to respect the differences between people and the importance of coexistence.”
“The Government must admit that slavery is a crime against humanity, because all that we have to suffer today is a direct result of that practice. Besides, Africa is called the Dark Continent, I wonder if we really are the minority here?”