Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.
Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.
Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.
Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.
These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.
I’m sitting in the shade of a courtyard in the medina of Tunis, and Aïcha Snoussi is telling me how she identifies with the octopus. “I love all the limbs, the ink, and how they release it to hide themselves with clouds,” she says. The artist’s fascination comes as no surprise. Snoussi’s work is alive with gothic visions. She conjures illustrations of crazed, bionic-anthropomorphic creatures, sometimes powered by a medusa’s head of cables, whose brains are exposed to the viewer. She says she always liked to draw “ugly, destroyed characters. Excluded characters.”
Snoussi grew up in Hammamet, near to Tunis. She studied in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she is currently based. The fact that as a Tunisian woman she is able to exhibit such graphic images may reflect a more liberal Tunisian attitude towards art and the artist. This permissiveness was also indicated by her 2016 exhibition at the Tunisian Embassy in London, where she covered the interior with red ink drawings of vegetated, mechanic, sexual beings. “With red everywhere, it felt like being inside a body.” And this, perhaps, is Snoussi’s aim: to leave our heads, and be with our bodies, in all their instinctive, unspeakable, irrational ways.
Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi are sitting opposite, posing with plates of fruit in Duken, a new gastro-café in the medina. Quick to laugh, playful, and on the cusp of stardom, they are Yuma, Tunisia’s vivacious folk music duo. On stage, Jenhani’s voice can be heart-wrenching, powerful yet fragile, while Zoghlemi accompanies in harmony, singing with a deep, breathy intensity, as if to himself, while playing acoustic guitar. Their melodies are intimate in themselves. But sung sincerely, in Tunisian dialect, across themes scarcely addressed by other artists, they are reaching a young generation eager to express themselves.
“People are making declarations of love after our concerts. Maybe they wouldn’t have before. We are addressing taboos and influencing changes,” Jenhani tells me. There is an implication that they may inadvertently be challenging familial traditions of arranged marriages. “Our songs are focusing on metaphors of love and emotion that are more real to people’s lives,” she adds.
At this point, a giddy adolescent girl rushes into the café to ask if she can have a photo with them. Yuma’s first album, Chura, and their second, Stardust, are pushing boundaries artistically. Their fanbase is growing fast, and they were awarded the ‘Public Vote’ at the Journées Musicales de Carthage in April 2017.
“For a long time creativity was not encouraged in Tunisia,” says Yasmine Sfar, manager of Tinja, a homeware hub. But this, she adds, is changing. “Design is being born,” she tells me. “There is a real wave of desire to do things, different things.”
Named after a little town in northern Tunisia, Tinja’s work evokes the colours and materials of that region. The boutique is filled with wicker lamp shades, rusted clay pots, blown-glass gourds, and pale yellow, grey and lime-green cotton cushions. The style is artisanal chic; hand-crafted, with modern, clean designs. “All our pieces are made in Tunisia, using local materials,” says Sfar.
Since it began in 2007, Tinja’s basic model remains the same: working with locally-crafted artisanal products, such as pottery from Sejnane, they then develop the designs from their workshop in Tunis. Success arrived after the Office National de l’artisanat invited them to exhibit at the Salon Maison et Objets, a major design fair in Paris. From 2012 they began producing a proper catalogue and exporting to clients all over the world. Despite acknowledging that they “offer a more avant garde vision” than most, Sfar says that their “inspiration still comes from meetings with artisans around the country.”
Fashion designer Salah Barka also recognises the influence of Tunisia’s artisans. “Our culture is very much based around clothing,” he tells me from his home in Menzah, a green neighborhood in the west of Tunis. “In each town in Tunisia people had to have five to ten outfits; for the day, the night, as well as for social and religious ceremonies and festivals. There used to be local artisans making those clothes.” He still derives inspiration from these old Berber communities’ ethnic outfits.
Black Africa is clearly important to Barka, too. “The first time I went to Africa, to Niger, I cried. It was a dream. I felt I was with family. I loved the energy of the people, the simplicity, and the poverty, which is actually a richness, une richesse humaine.” It was 2009, and Barka won second prize at the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA). Today his work often draws on the motifs, colours and history of sub-Saharan African cultures.
A black, gay man, Barka has had to overcome a latent racism and homophobia that lurks among a minority of more traditional Tunisians. The youngest of 12 siblings, his family, and mother in particular, were supportive. “If you respect yourself, people respect you,” he says. “This has really helped me with my work.”
It is sunset, and film director Sélim Gribaa is animated. We are chatting on a rooftop in the medina, not far from where his last film, Passicalme, was shot. The settings could not feel more different. Passicalme is strange and tense, a surreal, nightmarish sequence of individuals preparing to send two people through a shadowy gate (the medina’s Bab Jedid). Gribaa tells me his head has always been filled with abstract scenes. He says it was “after watching Mulholland Drive that I decided I wanted to make films”.
Yet Gribaa’s first award-winning short film, The Purple House, produced in 2014, was more conventional. The story centers around Hsan, a naïve old man who spends all his money painting his house purple, the colour of the national political party, believing this display of loyalty will yield advantages. But the party is ousted from power in a popular uprising. As the tragi-comedy reaches its climactic end, Hsan burns himself. It is an ironic nod to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose dramatic suicide sparked the beginning of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Given its success, I ask why Gribaa chose such a new genre with Passicalme. “I wanted to evolve. Since I’m an autodidact, I didn’t go to film school, I need to try new styles to keep learning,” he replies.
Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.
All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).
In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).
All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.
Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart. Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.
Last week I returned from Cairo, where I was working on a project with artisans from a wonderful, fascinating neighborhood called Al Darb Al Ahmar. It was an incredible experience, and great fun working with Chris Wilton-Steer and Ghada Kabesh. I will be writing up my notes and hopefully some articles and exhibitions will ensue over the coming months. Watch this space!
Unfinished Revolutions – Yemen, Libya and Tunisia after the Arab Spring
Ibrahim Fraihat’s Unfinished Revolutions is ambitious in its scope and intent. Based on hundreds of interviews, it grapples with the fallout of the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and considers how these societies can “transition” towards a peaceful future. As the title suggests, Fraihat sees national reconciliation as the means by which the Arab Spring uprisings can be “finished” – where citizens’ unmet aspirations can be harnessed into more stable forms of governance.
Fraihat recognizes that the Arab Spring revolts were “leaderless, motivated at the grass-roots level, and lacked a theoretical framework to guide their progress”. The one objective opponents could agree on was the removal of their tyrannical dictators. Beyond this singular goal, however, there was little consensus among the many different “revolutionaries” on what they actually wanted from their revolution.
In the past five years, not only have these states been unable to resolve more structural challenges (around their economies, for example), they have also failed to address grievances (such as decades of human rights violations in the form of killings, disappearances, rape and torture) that have plagued their societies for generations. In most cases, the perpetrators of these horrors have not been prosecuted. This absence of justice has, in effect, driven conflict in Libya and Yemen.
Only by engaging the wider population within reconciliation processes, Fraihat argues, will these countries “avoid civil conflict and maintain or regain national unity”. National dialogue, truth-seeking, reparations, accountability and lustration (concerning the former regimes), as well as institutional reform are proposed as the paramount approaches for reconciliation. Civil society organizations, women and tribes, meanwhile, are seen as key agents for such peace-building initiatives.
Fraihat is right to stress the importance of timing, national ownership and regional diplomacy for reconciliation to succeed, as is his assertion of the need for deep institutional reforms. The mundane point that the recommendations that ensue from agreements must be implementable is crucial (and frequently overlooked). He acknowledges that the “transition process that follows regime change is inherently complex”. But at times his prescriptive text skirts over the details, giving little evidence-based analysis on why or when reconciliation should occur. Reconciliation is treated as a panacea for three very different countries. Deeper research would have strengthened his case.
Nevertheless, Unfinished Revolutions is clear and reasoned. As such, it will help those trying to find solutions to the daunting challenges facing Libya, Tunisia and Yemen today.
“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.
Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.
Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.
“It was vital, imperative, natural, instinctive. Perhaps we arrived at a musical universe, or perhaps we created it”, says Ramy Zoghlemi. He grabs his exuberant beard and funnels down it with one hand, while staring at a little espresso coffee cup on the table. Seated alongside is his collaborator, Sabrine Jenhani. Together, they are Tunisia’s folk duo Yuma.
Yuma’s music is lovely; intimate, melodic, melancholic, powerfully simple. They combine Tunisian dialect with hints of western, almost Celtic melodies. Sabrine‘s voice is fully emotive, forceful yet fragile. Ramy accompanies with deep, breathy vocals, while playing acoustic guitar.
I saw them play the week before at the Rio cinema in downtown Tunis. The place was full, and filled with an excitement that was palpable and contagious. It was thrilling to see people responding to a performance in this way. I found myself wondering why the crowd was so excited.
It takes 3 minutes online to realise that Yuma produce music that is highly accessible to the western ear. As a blend of local dialects and sonorous, expansive melodies, perhaps it was simply the originality of the music, its novelty in this setting, that was so exciting to everyone?
But when we meet, a week later, in a café in the Tunis centre ville, Ramy offers another clue: “Sabrine and I are representing a Tunisian youth that has a great thirst for music, but also for love, hope and grace”. The primary musical vehicle for Tunisian youth culture is hip hop. Also delivered through dialect, it appears to offer mainly anger and swagger for those looking to embody the genre. Yuma offers an alternative. Through Yuma’s music, Tunisians can share in the celebration of their language, idioms and adages, within a genre, folk, that accommodates a wider gamut of emotions. As such, when Ramy says, “we have become spokespersons for a generation” it begins to make sense.
It has all happened very quickly for Yuma. They formed just over a year ago, in late 2015. Their break came in the summer of 2016, when they played at the Hammamet music festival, seen as Tunisia’s most important music event. The rest is starting to become history. They are working on a second album, called ‘Stardust’. Sabrine, 30, and Ramy, 28, are gaining a national, or even international, following.
Yuma’s popularity must also be seen in the context of a Tunisian culture that, for all its liberalism vis-a-vis other Maghreb and Arab countries, remains conservative. The duo’s decision to abandon steady jobs to pursue a career in music is unusual. For Sabrine to collaborate with a man, in an industry dominated by men, is also unconventional. For young Tunisians their courage must be inspirational.
“To an extent we have become cultural figures. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened because of our expressing ourselves. It was through our desire to be personally satisfied” says Sabrine.
And here lies a final insight into the duo’s reception at the Rio cinema. Yuma are pursuing their purpose on their own terms. They do not pursue any overt political agenda, but their freedom of expression is a political act in the context of Tunisian society. Their art is theirs. This exposure is vulnerable, and therefore connecting.
I ask about the sadness I hear in their music. Sabrine responds “C’estmoins triste que intimiste [It’s less sad than intimate]”. What matters, she later says, is “to be real”. With the courage of this conviction, in their quiet way, Yuma are making big noises on Tunisia’s cultural scene.