Lifting the lid on the nightmare of queer life in post-revolution Tunisia

In this exclusive interview deep dive, I’ve investigated the harrowing reality of the LGBTQIA+ community in Tunisia, and how those involved with Flagranti, the Arab World’s first queer protest play, look to fight back and shatter this unjust social taboo through theatre and music.

Same sex relations are illegal in Tunisia

Tunisia’s socio-political history is a hotbed of injustice and violence. In the wake of the country’s independence in 1956, a banquet of corruption and human rights violations became thematic for the decades that followed.

Many of these atrocities were inflicted under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, which was overthrown in 2011, in a mass uprising that formed the embryonic stages of the widely recognised Arab Spring.

Tunisia’s 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is remembered for forging an environment of political freedom and democracy. However, the same wake of liberal progression has not been realised for the LGBTQIA+ community.

12 years later, same sex relations carry with them up to a 3-year prison sentence.

Graffiti in Tunis, highlighting Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code which decrees imprisonment of up to three years for sexual relations between consenting same sex adults – Tunisia, 2015. Credit: Mawjoudin We Exist

Activism comes in many forms, but none often as powerful as statement art. In 2022, Tunisian NGO Mawjoudin We Exist opted to protest the nightmare experience of the LGBTQIA+ community through the vessel of theatre, with their queer-centric play concept Flagranti.

Mawjoudin is an organisation that advocates for the rights and freedoms of queer people in Tunisia, offering services such as psycho-social support for violence victims, community listening spaces and awareness-raising audio-visual art production.

“The idea for Flagranti came from discussions about the need to tell the truth about queer reality in Tunisia in a direct and authentic format.” says a spokesperson for Mawjoudin.

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

Tackling key issues faced by the queer community head-on, the NGO are committed to reflecting every avenue of their reality in the country.

“The play is deeply inspired by the queer reality in Tunisia. The creation process itself was a continual sharing between the artists (director, actors) and Mawjoudin We Exist (activists, allies, lawyers, psychologists).

The group set out to depict and dissect “themes related to non-normative sexuality and gender: sexual orientations, gender identities, legal framework, digital security, mental health, coming out and more.

This attention to detail forms the basis of a brave, honest attempt at social critique through addressing testimonies of police and social brutality.

“[We created it this way] in order to be as faithful as possible to the LGBTQIA+ experience faced by members of the community.

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

With a powerful idea formed, Mawjoudin set out to collaborate with a playwright who could bring it to the theatre stage. They sent a proposal to Essia Jaibi, a 33-year-old writer and director whose capacity to challenge the status quo caught the NGO’s eye.

“Essia embodies the profile of a young, feminist artist involved in the post-revolutionary militant movement and daring to debate transgressive themes in her creations.”

Writer & director Essia Jaibi. Credit: L’Art Rue

Mawjoudin called upon Essia after her work at the feminist queer festival Chouftouhonna, where she showcased some of her provocative critiques of Tunisian society.

It all came from Mawjoudin proposal. LGBTQIA+ themes, culture and issues have always been present in my work, but there was a desire to dedicate a whole project to them” recalls Jaibi.

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

Jaibi implies that this production was a chance to perform a job that local media outlets wouldn’t.

“The media does not relay enough information on this subject, so it is not very present in the public scene, and the family taboo prevents it from being discussed in the private circle, so it is a silent subject.”

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

This silence permeated through to a public level, too. It seems that for many, even the mere acknowledgement of these injustices is a difficult prospect.

“People prefer not to talk about it, not to say that there is a problem and that people often suffer in their family, their neighborhood or their workplace.

In a bid to shatter this stalemate, Jaibi is very vocal about the atrocities that the community faces.

“Since the revolution, things have moved, but not as fast as we would like. At the legal, social and family level, the community’s situation remains very difficult and confronted with several types of violence.”

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

To garner a level of due accuracy for the play’s story, Jaibi immersed herself in the stories and atmospheres circulating in the status quo of queer existence in the country.

“The story of the play is inspired by hundreds of stories. I did a lot of documentation and a series of meetings and interviews before I started writing then directing the play.”

Importantly, Jaibi notes, Flagranti is not solely a window into the terrors of queer life in Tunisia, but an opportunity to spotlight the love that persists through these challenges.

Flagranti is about injustice and violence, but also about solidarity and love. It is about three generations, each fighting in their own way and having a different relationship with their country and its devastating machinery.

Flagranti received standing ovations after every performance.

With a potent script written, Jaibi’s next port of call was to find a soundtrack to Flagranti that instilled aural depth to the production.

The team was formed little by little, by creating collaborations with Deena Abdelawahed for music and sound design for example or Bastien Lagier for the lighting design.

Deena Abdelwahed is a key artist within the Tunisian club scene. Having emerged through work with the collectives World Full Of Bass and Arabstazy, she then joined the Parisian label InFiné and released two albums (Klabb, 2017 / Dhakar, 2020) and an EP (Khonnar).

Deena Abdelwahed performing at Boiler Room, Amsterdam

For Flagranti, Abdelwahed teamed up with the Tunisian-Lyonnais label Shouka, and reveals how working with Jaibi was a no-brainer:

Essia Jaibi is my old friend and she’s a very talented and renowned play director in Tunisia. It was natural for me to trust her and accept working with her.

The creative synergy between the pair played a big role in the eventual sound Abdelwahed created.

I composed the music with the directions from Essia. We communicated a lot during the creative residency to be able to understand what messages she wanted to deliver for each happening in the play. The play is raging and powerful and bold. I only reflected it with the music.

Abdelwahed goes on to detail how protest art is nothing new in her country, but that alternative mediums have struggled to get their messages across safely.

The majority of arts in Tunisia even before 2011 are acts of defiance. While conventional arts survive and thrive, alternative arts in theatre, music, visual arts and cinema is neglected.”

“To be more precise, all arts pieces should get permission from the Ministry of Culture. Without that permission you can’t share your piece to the public. Your work is at risk.

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

Abdelwahed’s soundtrack proved popular, generating demand from Flagranti viewers to get their hands on an official release.

My friends who saw the play regretted that they couldn’t listen to the music elsewhere. So, Khalil Hentati from Shouka asked me for an EP for it.

“Khalil, who’s a very talented musician and producer helped me to produce it.

The hope, for those involved, is that Flagranti as a full body of work is able to act as the catalyst for a Tunisian future that celebrates those that are different.

Flagranti is already achieving a lot in Tunisia. All the shows were sold out! I hope it inspires other art disciplines to tackle even more the dangerous situation of LGBT people and anyone who’s unconventional.

Flagranti, photography by: Mawjoudin We Exist, 2022

After speaking with the creative minds behind Flagranti, I realise the play’s significance is considerable.

This is not just a protest play. This is the Arab World’s first play that bluntly addresses the taboo of homosexuality.

It’s a conscious decision to be loud, bold and confrontational in the face of oppression on a political, legal and cultural level.

And, perhaps most importantly, Flagranti has ignited crucial conversations that will echo and emanate long after the curtains have closed.

Thank you to Mawjoudin, Essia Jaibi & Deena Abdelwahed for the interviews, and to Khalil from Shouka for organising them.

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