Tunis — Growing up in a working-class Tunis neighborhood, Zied Rouine didn’t think much about his skin color. Not when children insulted him at school, or when his football teammates nicknamed him Pele, after Brazil’s dark-skinned football legend.
His athletic skills and the fierce protection of his lighter-skinned brother from persecutors were tickets to acceptance. Only years later, while attending an international forum on discrimination, did Rouine realize that something was wrong.
“It was the first time I was around a group of Blacks. And honestly, it was the first time I heard someone talking about racial discrimination in Tunisia,” Rouine, now 33, recalls. “At the time, I was in denial, believing we don’t have any racism in Tunisia.”
Even among the Black people in Tunisia, or elsewhere in the Arab world, such responses aren’t surprising, according to a recent survey on discrimination in 10 countries or regions across the Middle East and North Africa: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Tunisia and Mauritania.
Published in October by Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan resource for research on the Middle East, the survey found that while most respondents considered discrimination a problem, only a minority believed prejudice against Black people was an issue.
Tunisia is a rare standout in the Middle East and North Africa to consider racism a problem. In 2018, it became the only country in the region to pass a law criminalizing racial discrimination. Yet even in Tunisia, many rights activists say there has been little progress in turning legislation into reality.
“To me, there’s no change,” says Kenza Ben Azouz, who researches discrimination in Tunisia. “We don’t talk about race. We don’t have data based on race. We don’t want to acknowledge it.”
Views on race in Tunisia are complicated, shaped by family values, geography and origin, experts say. The country’s Black community is also diverse, counting Tunisians as well as migrants and students from sub-Saharan Africa. The different groups rarely interact, members say, beyond sometimes living in the same neighborhoods.
“Black Tunisians consider themselves superior to sub-Saharan Africans, and they don’t like to be compared,” says Rouine, general coordinator at the Mnemty (My Dream) anti-discrimination association.
Rouine describes growing up with a Black father and a “white” mother. In Tunisia, people are of various skin colorations, from fair to dark.
“There was complete diversity in my family. We just loved each other,” Rouine says. “We didn’t talk about color, or why my brother was light skinned and I was not.”
Surprisingly, it was his father’s family who had the most misgivings about the interracial marriage.
“They would say, ‘Never make your father’s mistake of marrying a white woman.’ They never accepted Mom,” Rouine recalls of his Black relatives.
In a box
Roughly 10% to 15% of Tunisians are Black, many of them descended from slaves, analysts say. While Tunisia became the first Arab country to ban slavery in the 19th century, its legacy remains tangled in Arabic slurs that refer to Black people as slaves and in complicated community relationships, especially in the south.
Reem Garfi’s maternal relatives came from Sudan, although it is unclear how and when they arrived in Tunisia, she says. Her father’s fair-skinned family wanted nothing to do with her parents’ marriage. When her mother got pregnant, things only got worse.
“My paternal grandmother used the ‘N’ word in Tunisian Arabic,” says Garfi, now 25 and a freelance translator. “She said she couldn’t believe my mother would give birth to a monkey.”
Like Rouine, Garfi was teased growing up. Even today, people still wonder about her racial identity.
“When people see me, they can’t put their finger on it,” says Garfi, who has light skin and curly hair. “Only when they see my mother do they connect the dots and put me in a box.”
As in other Arab countries, few Black Tunisians hold top jobs in the media, government, or the private sector. When a Black journalist was tapped as a weather reporter on state TV a few years ago, he told local media he felt a “responsibility” to stand up also against racism.
Tunisia’s Law 50 aimed to do just that. Passed after years of campaigning, the 2018 legislation sets prison sentences of up to three years and maximum fines of nearly $1,000 for those found guilty of racial discrimination.
The law also reflects changing mindsets. Today, more than six in 10 Tunisians agree that racism is a problem, according to the Arab Barometer survey, compared to just 6% of Egyptians, for example.
But few racial discrimination cases have been filed, nor has Tunisia developed a national strategy or action plan to fight racism, rights experts say.
Jamila Ksiksi, Tunisia’s first Black member of parliament and a member of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha Party, says this year’s dissolution of Tunisia’s National Assembly by authoritarian President Kais Saied has removed another key check.
“The Tunisian people have no voice without a parliament,” Ksiski told the BBC recently, noting the now-dismissed legislators can no longer flag reports of alleged racism to authorities or monitor government efforts to address them.
Tunisian authorities did not respond to a VOA request for comment. But a lawmaker close to Saied’s government told the BBC the judicial system continues to apply the anti-racism law.
Mobilizing grassroots action and solidarity against racism, including by Black people themselves, also appears challenging.
Rouine says that Mnemty held a single Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 that garnered only a few hundred people.
“Black Tunisians have been trying to integrate essentially through silence,” says researcher Ben Azouz, echoing other observers like Rouine. “It’s extremely difficult to get them to acknowledge any difference between them and white Tunisians, and they don’t want to be compared to the migrant community.”
Sub-Saharans are frequent targets
A recent Sunday market in La Marsa outside of Tunis offered a snapshot of Tunisia’s multiethnic reality. Congolese traders plied cheap watches; Ivorians and Tunisians plowed through piles of secondhand clothes.
But for the tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans living around Tunis and elsewhere in the country — some studying, and others working in low-paying jobs– the boisterous interaction ends there.
“Life is less expensive here,” says Ivorian immigrant Serge Kakou, who helped start Maghreb Ivoire TV, an online TV channel. “But there are lots of attacks, and especially sub-Saharans aren’t protected here.”
Rights groups say women are especially vulnerable to sexual insults and acts, and Black Tunisian women are also targeted.
Earlier this year, dozens of migrants staged a monthslong sit-in in front of the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Tunis office protesting racist acts they endured and demanding to be relocated to another country. The protests ended after the agency relocated them to what it described as “safe shelters.”
University student Christian Kwongang from Cameroon says he and other sub-Saharan Africans studying in Tunisia are also frequent targets of racism. They have little or no interaction with migrants or with Black Tunisians, he says.
“We always have to be really careful about when and where we go out,” adds Kwongang, who heads the executive board of the Tunisian Association of Sub-Saharan Students (AESAT), which represents some 8,000 African students and interns in Tunisia. “It’s a reflection we all develop because things can go bad at any moment.”
He described multiple attacks targeting AESAT members, including a machete assault on Nigerian students in southern Tunisia as they returned home from the mosque. They suffered hand and foot injuries, but survived, Kwongang says.
Reporting such incidents to the police can be complicated, Kwongang says.
“Sometimes, they take really long to respond, or make you go around in circles to file charges,” he says. “The first thing they’ll ask for is your papers.”
Over his six years studying mechanical engineering in Tunis, Kwongang has seen little change in attitudes, including since Law 50 was passed. But along with discrimination, he also describes rare acts of support and kindness.
After a long struggle, he landed an internship with a Tunisian business, where he was treated “very, very well.”
“When you’re around people who have traveled, who have an open mind, you’re treated like everyone else,” he says.
For his part, Rouine believes time may change mindsets more powerfully, perhaps, than legislation.
“There is another Tunisia now, without the traditions,” he says. “Young people are open to the world. I think the issue of discrimination will change.”