Altered States: Three Essays by Hélé Béji

 by Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano and Audri Augenbraum

This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 2. PASSAGE

  Hélé Béji, fondatrice du Collège international de Tunis. Photo Axelle de Russé.  Taken from  Le Figaro , December 2011.

Hélé Béji, fondatrice du Collège international de Tunis. Photo Axelle de Russé.  Taken from Le Figaro, December 2011.

Hélé Béji explores the dissociative feeling of Tunisia’s transitions


To remain-leave is a hopeless mental state: if I am no longer colonized, and if I am not decolonized, what am I? Outside of secular oppression, but outside of the freedom of the soul. Nothing except the echo of this impasse can be discerned from the future.
Hélé Béji, Essay on Decolonization

The word “decolonization” is often used to designate the historical period during which campaigns for national liberation across the world were fought against European imperial powers. In its verb form, “decolonize,” the term becomes a call to action among those seeking to dismantle white supremacy. “Decolonize your mind,” “decolonize your body,” “decolonize your art” is to say: “resist their subjugation to racism.” Despite the wars fought against colonial rule and the official proclamations declaring its end, the struggles continue. This fact, as well as its renewed life as a call to action, evince the persistence of colonialism. But, following Tunisian writer Hélé Béji, this is not to say that it is the same colonialism of the past.

The fact that colonialism did not end after national liberation campaigns restructures our notions of subjugation and freedom. This, in turn, pushes us to re-evaluate over a century of resistance. It is with the hope that revisiting past struggles will teach us about present ones that we publish these three essays, spanning a period of more than thirty years, that Béji has generously shared with Khabar Keslan, available for the first time to a general English language audience: Decolonize Time (2014), Discourse of Identity (1982), and Tunisian Islam or Civil Islam (2015).

For more than forty years, Hélé Béji has endeavored to understand the position of the subject living in a decolonized society, addressing the various forms of violence the nation state wages against its own people. Béji, whose intellectual career includes several books, philosophical essays, a novel, as well as hundreds of articles published in France and Tunisia, was born on April 1st 1948, in the former’s capital, to a family that participated in the Tunisian struggle for independence from French colonial rule. Béji moved to France to complete her university education, where she studied modern literature at La Sorbonne and was later named “professeur agrégé” in 1973. Her first book, Essay on Decolonization (1982), was awarded the Prix de l’Afrique méditerranéenne a year after its publication. Apart from her work as a political writer and novelist, Béji is also the founder and president of the Collège international de Tunis, established in 1998 with the aim of fostering open philosophical and social debate amidst the heavy police surveillance and censorship of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime.

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The first of the essays featured, “Decolonize Time,” was published three years after the Tunisian Revolution of 2011—the first of several revolutionary mass movements in North Africa and the Middle East that eventually came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Major news outlets in the West, like The Economist, praised these movements for signaling the advent of pro-Western democracies in Muslim-majority countries.[1] Over several months, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians across the country joined protests and peaceful sit-ins, where they often faced violent retaliation at the hands of state police forces. On January 14, protesters achieved the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. This inaugurated a series of regime changes—a total of seven between 2011 and 2017—as Tunisians struggled to remain faithful to the objectives of the popular forces that rose up against dictatorship.  

Béji’s description of the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution gives a complex interpretation of these years, one that decidedly does not fulfill fantasies for a spring of democracies in the region. Instead, the revolution provoked a temporal maladjustment that led Tunisians to an important realization about their condition as historical actors: “the modern conscience, beyond the event itself, is not summarized by a simple threshold that one crosses, beyond which all that which existed beforehand disappears like a bad dream.” It surfaced a paradox of modernity—the persistence of a malaise following rejections of tradition and legacy. Neither the end of the French protectorate in 1956 nor the end of Ben Ali’s dictatorship in 2011 set up a blank slate. What was common to both of these tumultuous periods was a generalized discontent among Tunisians that reached across wide swaths of Tunisian society.

This discontent was linked to the duplicitous modernization narrative on which the infant nation staked its independence. A rivalry between two leaders negotiating with France, Habib Bourguiba and Salah Ben Youssef, nearly precipitated a civil war on the eve of the protectorate’s termination. Bourguiba and Ben Youssef became near perfect foils: Bourguiba was a Western-educated gradualist [étapiste], while Ben Youssef delivered fiery sermons employing Islamic rhetoric to preach a total break with French involvement. Ultimately, Bourguiba became the republic’s first president as Ben Youssef was forced to leave the country in exile to Egypt. The new leader of the nation lost no time in consolidating both the executive and legislative powers of the previous Ottoman monarch in his own office. In Bourguiba’s own terms, he “waged a jihad on underdevelopment,” often by subordinating Islamic institutions to French ones. His relationship to Islamist leaders was fraught.

The disenchantment Tunisians felt toward their government seemed to have only grown during the decades following Bourguiba’s rule. In “Decolonize Time,” progress and tradition, archaism and technology, past and present, liberty and slavery are not mutually exclusive, not an either-or. On the contrary, Béji wants to emphasize how all of these often share a temporal plane. The revolutionary events of 2010-11 exacerbated this paradoxical situation. Progressives, traditionalists, and others across the political spectrum contributed to Tunisians’ frustration with their present conditions. There was archaism in the technological age, progressive parties pushing for ‘regressive’ agendas. Individuals who had served under Ben Ali’s regime and profited from it came together in the Bourguibist, anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, and in unregulated private media outlets seeking to take down the Islamist-led coalition known as the Troika. Religious fundamentalism, often regarded as a regressive ideology, had provided refuge and resources for anti-dictatorship activists—an example of what Béji calls “[the] reconstruction of faith in a progressive ideology.” However, even the Islamists and secularists of the Troika who pledged to work together remained unable to push through economic reforms that would alleviate chronic unemployment, address security crises, and secure transitional justice for victims of state repression.

The contiguity between decolonization and revolution is grounded on the fact that both propelled Tunisians into a radically different mode of temporal being: “the revolution, like decolonization in its entirety, is a dissociated experience, torn from temporality, deprived of an ideal of continuity and unity.” It takes a moment of crisis, the overthrow of a regime, to bring these paradoxes to light.

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The second piece, “Discourse of Identity,” is a summary of Béji’s philosophical book, Essay on Decolonization (1982), an early example of her critique of life in postcolonial Tunisia. Béji indicts the nation state for the role it has played in the impoverishment of Tunisians’ culture and society, dissecting state discourses, cultural objects, and social practices in the young republic. Béji’s essay, of which five thousand copies were originally printed, was published by Éditions Maspero as part of the “Cahiers Libres” collection, a venue for young, politically engaged authors making their debuts. François Maspero, who passed away in 2015, opened his publishing house in Paris’s Latin Quarter in the midst of the Algerian War for independence, a period in France during which voicing support for the decolonization struggles in the colonies could get you sued, harassed, or even threatened with violence.[2] Over the course of its existence, Maspero published the first editions of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Year Five of the Algerian Revolution (1959), Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy (1968), as well as hundreds of books on anti-colonial struggles across North Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Béji’s prose often seems poetic rather than analytical, a quality that augments the power of the critique she undertakes in this and other texts. A chapter from Essay on Decolonization titled “Culture and Politics” centers on the attack that nationalism has waged against Tunisians’ modes of life and customs, especially memory. Her tone oscillates between hope and skepticism as she marvels at the possibility of living outside of the nation state’s sphere of power:

Perhaps I could also, in disengaging myself from identitarian logic, find once again the fluid form of identity in which my house, my neighborhood, my earth, my region, my frontiers give nothing back to me that must be re-appropriated at all costs by authority. (120)

In this highly personal moment of the book, even the act of remembering seems to be brought to a standstill. Personal relations, objects, and memories, as they were, are in danger of being subjected to the state’s identitarian logic, which has the potential to rob them of the personal meaning they hold for the individual. Is there anything that the nation state does not threaten? Essay on Decolonization offers no easy answer to this question. Instead, the assault on both individual and collective memory evinces a form of political life that retreats inwards.

When Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, Béji writes in “Discourse of Identity,” one of the primary goals of the new regime was to re-establish the rule of law, a founding principle of national sovereignty. Not long after, the standards for the legality of state activities degraded: “State discourse was made sacred, not by right, but by force and complete power.” At the same time, Bourguiba’s Parti Socialiste Dusturien (PSD), led by a young, European-educated, provincial middle class, had mounted a populist appeal to “national unity,” mobilizing a broad coalition of businesspeople and peasants, urban and rural dwellers, and religious and secular Tunisians under the auspices of nationalism.

The postcolonial Tunisian state, like so many others, employed national identity as a means to control people and regulate cultural expression. Béji calls national identity the narrative tool [outil narratif] of the nation: “Unity, authenticity, identity are in correspondence with the mechanisms of domination itself.” Democracy eroded in the name of unity, especially after the 1964 PSD Congress, when the party structure became the state structure. Regional governors were appointed by the president to represent both the PSD and the state, and all members of the National Constituent Assembly and national organizations were required to join the party. In order to maintain this vertical power structure, Bourguiba sought to control the leadership of the Tunisian General Labor Union, avoided investing in the army, and refused to legalize opposition political parties.

The preservation of a Tunisian national identity, which had become synonymous with the PSD itself, was the pretext for suppressing all political opposition. When, in the early 1970s, a liberal faction of the PSD led by reformist Ahmed Mestiri spearheaded a movement for democratization, it was roundly expelled from the political fold. In 1981, Bourguiba announced that the upcoming elections would finally be freely contested; instead, the PSD claimed victory through electoral fraud. Writing in the wake of this broken promise, Béji recalls the end of the French protectorate, pointing out that, over the course of the fight for independence, the founders of the Republic masked the loss of the very autonomy for which Tunisians fought. Such is the blindness of nationalism. The state intellectuals accomplished a “smothering of history … [that] has given politics, over the years, a delirious character.” The emissaries of ‘progress’ are the very same who undo it and who monopolize its definition.

While the specter of colonialism and the memory of French domination fueled support for a strong independent state in the beginning stages of the Tunisian Republic, that state’s control over multiple domains of society–political and social–led to a gradual erasure of Tunisians’ cultural expression. As the single party consolidated state power, the consequences of its “wooden” national identity ran deep in Tunisian society. Official culture became a propaganda machine able to reach the eyes and ears of all Tunisians. Following the tradition of writers like Theodor W. Adorno and Jean Baudrillard, Béji critically examines party culture through a focus on the use of technology.  The radio is one such device through which the nation state bombards domestic and public spaces with its official message. An intellectual class deprived of its criticality, whom Béji calls a group of “ideologues, ministers or managers,” acted as agents of nationalist ideology. Writing in the 1980s, Béji insists that the problems facing the young republic were modern ones, though in a very different sense than the one espoused by the government’s spokesmen. These tended to identify Tunisia’s biggest challenges in underdevelopment and other residues of French rule while other unacknowledged forms of alienation developed in a country believed to have shed its colonial past.

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 On 18 March 2015, three armed men attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis, leaving more than twenty people dead—most of them European tourists—and scores injured. The attack, for which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility, made international headlines. Newly-elected president Beji Caid Essebsi decried it in an address that same evening, stating that Tunisia was “in a war with terror” against the minority ‘savages’ that perpetuated this violence.[3] Less than a month after the Bardo attack, Hélé Béji delivered a speech titled “Tunisian Islam or Civil Islam,” the third text featured in Khabar Keslan, at the Arab World Institute in the French capital. She spoke on the evolving role of Islam in Tunisian politics since the 2011 Revolution, arguing that lived experience has laid bare the fallacy that modernity would abolish religion altogether from the political sphere. Using Islam as a “metaphor” for the return of religion to politics, Béji writes that Tunisia exemplifies just what this “return” may mean. Its moderate Islamist party Ennahda made history in both entering institutionalized democratic politics in 2011 and democratically ceding power in 2013.

The origins of the Tunisian Republic built on the tradition of French laïcité, Béji explains, with the establishment of “the [Tunisian] Republic as the sole possessor of political legitimacy against the religious magisterium.” Bourguiba subordinated religion to nation-building and rejected Nasserist pan-Arabism, preferring to act as a bridge between the ‘Arab World’ and the West. He consistently refused to recognize Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique—today’s Ennahda—despite its growing popularity during the 1980s. Both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes banished and, in many instances, violently suppressed Islamists and their supporters. For Béji, this ‘sacrifice’ effected a kind of exchange: there would be no state religion, but there would be state nationalism. After the palace coup of 1987 that replaced Bourguiba with Ben Ali, the latter, in the shadows of neighboring conflicts in the Gulf and Algeria in the early 1990s, mounted a campaign of repression predicated on the threat of Islamic terrorism. A police state swelled to choke every facet of Tunisian civic life, and corruption and clientelism spread.

Despite its political enemies, Islam remained historically rooted in Tunisia­–“a minority politically, but a majority culturally.” The notion of freedom in the MENA region requires the presence of God. Unlike in secular European societies, Béji contends, “the [Tunisian] individual is not proud of his metaphysical solitude, does not abuse of being his own founder.” Yet, a “spiritual” connection to a pre-Islamic antiquity–Phoenician, Roman, and Berber civilizations that existed prior to the arrival of the Arab, Ottoman, and French empires in the Maghreb–also exists among Tunisians and has been passed down to the present. Béji’s account in “Tunisian Islam or Civil Islam” of the choristers at the tribute to the victims of the Bardo attack joyously proclaims that, in Tunisia, “monotheism no longer condemns paganism.” Temporalities merge as these legacies collapse and form, in turn, a spirituality that joins them together.

With the 2011 Revolution, the number of political parties and civil society organizations increased exponentially—and political Islamism was finally made legal. Ennahda was highly organized on the ground, engaging constituents by sending representatives and assistance. It garnered 41 percent of seats in parliament during elections that year and formed a ‘Troika’ coalition government with two secularist parties, Ettakatol and Congrès pour la république, both led by veteran anti-dictatorship activists. This was a decisive break with the legacy of Bourguiba’s civil state. But the Troika failed to manage the chaotic post-revolution circumstances, marked by rising unemployment and social protest, the strengthening of Salafist organizations, and the deteriorating situation in Libya. Moreover, in decidedly Islamist fashion, writes Béji, Ennahda neglected Tunisian specificity, proffering a one-size-fits-all solution to a nation with a proudly singular heritage.

The attempt to erase the history of a nation or a people is a form of tyranny. Ennahda’s failure to observe this lesson was the party’s “heel of Achilles,” a cautionary tale to all revolutionary parties. “Islamists appeared as the dictators of a new empire,” Béji writes, “not the Western empire, but the Oriental one.” Islamism remained ‘external,’ it would seem, to Tunisian society itself: “Religious supervision has been no more supported than colonial supervision.” The feeling of invasion reawakened Bourguibism—the memory of decolonization fueled anti-Islamist sentiment. The ghost of Egypt’s failed revolution, in which a conflict between the army and the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood left hundreds killed and imprisoned, did not give Tunisians confidence in their own Islamist party. In July of 2013, after leftist leader Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated by the Salafist organization Ansar al-Sharia—the second such killing in six months—demonstrators took to the streets demanding that Ennahda step down.

Ennahda’s peaceful cessation of power surprised observers. So did the collaboration between Ennahda and Tunisia’s secular political parties during the ensuing national dialogue, which conceived and oversaw the drafting of a new constitution and establishment of an interim government to set up elections. The unlikely collaborators, Bourguiba’s long-time minister Beji Caid Essebsi and formerly exiled Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, were both brokers and figureheads of an unprecedented negotiation for pluralism taking place at many levels of society. If the two factions were to share in the new government’s power, the role that religion played in politics would have to be reassessed and evolve along with the new government: “This conversion of a sacred doctrine into a national conscience is, for Tunisian Islam, the dawn of its reform: an Islamo-national reform. Political reason, then, began to prevail over religious passion.” Democracy was the means by which this compromise was to be effectuated, Béji writes, “maybe the only means to subordinate religion to the authority of the nation by right and not by force.”

Translations from French by Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano


[1] An article that appeared in The Economist in 2013 titled “The Arab Spring; Has It Failed?” reads thus: “Roughly two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy.”

[2] https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/05/27/shaping-the-intellectual-terrain-on-francois-maspero/

[3]//www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/03/tunisia-war-terrorism-museum-attack-150319045824986.html


Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano is a writer, translator and chief editor of the forthcoming literature journal Moly. His translation work has appeared in Khabar Keslan and Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. Jorge’s interest in postcolonial history and thought originated at Reed College, where he majored in French and Francophone Literature. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

Audri Augenbraum is a New York based researcher at Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics, where she works with oral histories of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition. She is interested in mobile populations and the states that seek to control them, including pirates, migrant workers, and diasporic elites. Her work has been published in The New Inquiry and the Oral History Review blog.