Decolonize Time

by Hélé Béji

Translations from French by Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano

This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 2. PASSAGE

  Bourguiba in Tunis, 1955, post-independence. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Bourguiba in Tunis, 1955, post-independence. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Read other essays by Hele Beji with Khabar Keslan’s accompanying text.


On January 14, 2011, Tunisia set in motion a Revolution, the first in the Arab world, one that suddenly made us enter into the time of “liberty.” We had believed it would be inaccessible for still many decades, perhaps forever. Suddenly, it seemed to us for the first time that we enthusiastically coincided with our epoch, that we no longer had the need to search for our place in time, that we had found it. But after this moment of fusion, in which modern times no longer forbid us from living them as our own, we realized that the modern conscience, beyond the event itself, is not summarized by a simple threshold that one crosses, beyond which all that existed beforehand disappears like a bad dream. Submission, fear, religion, despotism, ignorance, and obscurantism are not taken away with a single blow to the anachronism of bygone times. The feeling of having overcome a historical fatality, the absence of liberties, does not thereby guarantee the eradication of servitude. We easily observe this today, three years after the Arab “Springs,” in the impression of chaos and confusion that emerges from the invention of a democracy the general principles of which do not suffice to reproduce the peaceful rhythm it demonstrated in old democracies. And the mechanisms of democratic suffrage must suffer the tragedies of secular civil conflicts that attack new institutions before they are even born. The old times are not extinguished; they are ignited by their own revolutionary renaissance. The genesis of democracy, as the philosopher Eric Weil has already stated it, is far from being democratic.

The last political revolution of the twenty-first century has taken this mutation to its paroxysm. We feel ourselves to be submerged in multiple temporalities the confrontation of which makes them unintelligible to us. Our conscience of the past, present and future is disoriented. 

The revolution, like decolonization in its entirety, is a dissociated experience, torn from temporality, deprived of an ideal of continuity and unity. I have personally observed when I travel between Europe and North Africa that I am struck by a strange sensation of distance, not a spatial one, but temporal. I literally skip: a voyage in time. All this translates into a profound inner displacement of the mind and of senses, an indeterminate difficulty of the body. Suddenly, the abyss of anteriority takes possession of my being, though I remain in a kind of lucid vertigo, perfectly conscious of my epoch. My experience then plunges me into a prism of times in which old and new, archaic and technological (in the broadest terms), tradition and progress, are projected into the hearts of each other. From this, there emerges a new, indeterminate and unresolved dimension of our being. In fact, if one watches our societies well, they are no longer truly in the naiveté of belief, but neither do they dwell in the efficacy of the technological. They would want to restore Being and, thus, to produce Becoming, freeze the patrimony and edify the revolution, maintain tradition and embrace progress, resuscitate religion and exit from the religious. 

After the revolution, we remark that all political parties struggle in order to articulate themselves toward a consensus, but one observes an even more virulent antagonism emerge between those who think that they defend a modern order and those who alternately propose a past golden age. We are left with the trivial poetry of a time that does not happen to be born and of another that does not happen to die. 

There stems a time simultaneously deformed and dynamic, in which progression and regression become simultaneous actors. The facts of progress are innumerable, but regressive logics are not any less so. They are not the breaks, but the accelerators of something else. For example, fundamentalism [intégrisme] is not simply a residual archaism. It is also a reconstruction of faith in a progressive ideology. It is a “progressive” regression, if I may allow myself this paradox. 

We are thus confronted with the temporality of an off-beat Orient, transmuted, beleaguered by a thousand foreign constraints, but in which, far from dissolving itself, the energy of reminiscence is imprinted constantly. Everything bears the visible mark of this destruction of the Orient, that is to say, the invisible manifestation of its footprint and its form. At the same time, the time of the Occident appears. Everything that has been taken from it does not exactly resemble it; it is submitted to a severe test. But the destroyed part of occidentality also holds a redeployment, just as deformed, sometimes absurd, but irresistible. Here we have, then, in the profusion of an untraceable time, an unknown modality of time in which the presence of God encounters once again the death of God. Myth and disenchantment, republic and feudalism, individuation and tribalism, absolutism and democracy, restauration and revolution, despotism and liberty, form an acrobatic and pathetic scene in which all our density holds before a sort of void into which it is threatened to fall, in the terrifying silence of infinite times. 

Where to find the key to these inextricable combinations? It is as if decolonization was already in a beyond, and not in a within of civilization, but without having accomplished it itself. Civilization appears in this elsewhere [cet ailleurs] like a new, unpredictable Self, like a future of itself the primordial manifestation of which would be the rebirth of the past. 

The refuge in tradition has not been enough to liberate progress from its concerns. And the hope in progress has not been enough to deliver tradition from its prejudices. 

Memory is a kind of tangible, carnal compensation before a future asset that is yet too unreal. The fascination of memory can appear like the exact counterpart of what in the West one knows as the celebration of the new. In a world laminated by the race toward the new, how to avoid conceiving of the ancient as a life-saving recourse? In the face of technologies of power, the technique of the ancient is without a doubt a way of forcing oneself as one wishes.  

In both cases, slavery to the new or tyranny of the old, there is a bewildering of time, a loss of the human feeling of inhabiting time. The experience of decolonization was for us the experience of this erratic voyage in time. This says a great deal about the nature of our epoch: namely, its faculty of taking from us the very place of time, its living place, its human face. The revolution exacerbated our temporal paradoxes to the point of the specter of a civil war barely avoided in Tunisia, but, alas, not elsewhere. From our different paths since independence and up to the revolution, we have known this unprecedented test of super-temporality [surtemporalité] and its revealing acuteness of a universal soul, its search of a time that would truly correspond to us, its representation of an epoch that still shirks, which it calls “democratic,” the insufficiency of all our epoch to reconstitute a habitable figure of time, to bring together time with its human identification. 


Hélé Béji was born in 1948 in the city of Tunis (Tunisia) and grew up in a family (Ben Ammar) who took part in the struggle for Independence from French colonialism. She is published widely in Tunisia and France. These days, Hele is a member of the executive Committee of Tunisie Alternatives, Tunisia Alternatives, and Think and Do. She is also the current president of the College International de Tunis, an NGO she founded in 1998.

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.