The Past as a Resource

EDITORIAL, 20 Jan 2010

#97 | Johan Galtung

Tunis, 30 Mouharram 1431.  One reason for traveling to Tunisia was its absence from international media these days.  So things must be good, even better than good.  No major tragedy, nor anything entertaining, just people managing like people usually do, with mutual rights and obligations, sometimes unequal, sometimes not.

And this is exactly the case in this country with 10 million inhabitants at the northern tip of Africa, close to Europe as well reflected in its history.  But let it be said immediately: media-bashing continues here, but under the opposite sign.  In the local press there is nothing but positive “news”, like “The Head of State has a meeting with the Prime Minister”, showing clearly how interested Ben Ali is in improving the lot of the country through a new Commission on Science and Technology” L’Expert, 31-12-2009); “Production of cereals increasing” La Presse, 16-01-2010.  DDR.  The only shadow found in the media was that of the eclipse of the sun in Africa and Asia.  Media, please, land somewhere in-between.

There are wealth gradients increasing from the mountain spine in the West, circa 240 km toward the coast, and decreasing from the super-rich North about 700 km down to the Sahara South.  Highways-railroads, everybody in schools, industry, millions of tourists.  A well administered development success, with high gender parity.   They talk about 80% middle class, and only 3.5% poverty.  Maybe.

But one thing is not maybe: the incredible richness in the history of this piece of land.  To this little strip squeezed in between the giants Algeria and Libya, with their oil and sand, they have all come, conquered, settled, sedimented their layer in the archaeology of the history, being expelled by the next arrival.  Till finally in 1957 the French were expelled by the inhabitants themselves, the Tunisians, lords in their own land.

Look at this 11-layer view of Tunisian history, bottom-up:

the Berbers, the indigenous who arrived 10,000+ years ago, with their own language and culture; the original owners of the land;

the Phoenicians, semitic seafarers, from -841, Carthago, an empire fighting Greece and the Roman Empire over Sicily (the First Punic war), Spain-Italy with Hannibal-elephants (the Second Punic war);

the Roman Empire, with genocidal realization of Cartago delendam est, Carthago has to be destroyed, in -149 (the Third Punic war),  making Tunisia the granary, with Egypt, for the Roman Empire, and a center for Christianity, with Saint Augustin from Algeria;

the Vandals, from Italy, ended the Western Roman Empire torn by Christian schisms in Tunisia around 430, with Berbers on quick camels, vandalizing Roman statues by cutting off penis and nose;

the Byzantines conquered Tunisia in 553 for the Eastern Roman Empire and Orthodoxy, like West Romans attacked by the Berbers;

the Arabs, came from 670 with a soft Islam tolerant of Jews and Christians, converting the Berbers, and with so much hospitality and solidarity-sharing that Michael Tomkinson in his book Tunisia suggests they could offer development assistance to Europe;

the Spanish, Catholic, Moriscos-Jews and Muslims expelled from the highly civilized Andalucia from 1492, played a major role;

the Turks for the Ottoman Empire, also muslim, from 1574, ruling through the monarch, the bey, from the palace that now is the Bardo Museum, with the best Roman mosaics in the world;

the French, secular, from Algeria which they conquered in 1830,   ruling Tunisia through the beys as a “protectorate” that became a colony from 1883, till independence drove them out in 1957;

the Allies, secular, fighting , leaving traces of democracy;

the Tunisians, fighting for independence under Habib Bourguiba, socialist and president 1957-1987; then came liberalization.

One wonders, what would be layer No. 12, even if the official view is that Independence is the end of history?  Well, maybe not.  The Berbers, all over the Maghreb in various forms, may throw away the thick Arab and French layers.  The counterforce would be the Arab Maghreb Union from Libya to Mali–Tunisia being one of the founders–as a parallel to the European Union, and as part of the African Union.  Tunisia may be africanized and maghrebized even if a current ambition is europeanization, like France.  Tunisia looks like that, city layouts, shady trees, vinyards and olive-grows.

But look at the layers, look at the richness.  Of Carthago there is nothing left, but the others are often well preserved and present as ingredients in daily life.  Spanish, for instance, is widely spoken; Turkish not, but then Turkey is further away.

Now that the fake universality of the West in general, and France in particular, as universal model is wearing thin, or off, there are three alternatives (also in the West).  Be inspired from others, synchronically.  Learn diachronically, from your own past.  And be creative.  Tunisia has openings to, mainly northern, Africa; and to, mainly southern, Europe.  And Tunisia has all these layers, much more than the current Third World master, Evo Morales in Bolivia, learning from the Aymara-Quechua-Inca past.

All this can inspire the people of Tunisia beyond the Arab and French winds blowing so forcefully.  Like in gastronomy, enriching Tunisian food.  In clothing and housing there are clear signs of deep learning.  But how about that commission on science and technology; does it manage to look beyond France?  And, are there ancient cereals from that granary that could and should be revived for more diversity for humans to consume and to enrich the soil?

Western liberal development brings with it unraveling social tissue.  But with so much to fall back upon, the sky is the limit.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jan 2010.

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