Katharina Pfannkuch
Last updated: 24 May, 2013

Dancing resistance in Tunisia continues

Two years after the revolution, there is a climate of tension in Tunisia. Increasing violence and growing influence of Islamists puts the country on edge. The group “Danseurs Citoyens” continues to resist – in a very special way.

Voices of barkers fill the air, women consider with a critical eye the goods of the greengrocer. The stalls of the sellers stand close together and criss-cross on the sidewalk – it is crowded on the streets of Halfaouine, a district in the northern medina of Tunis. Here, Tunisians remain mostly among themselves: Tourists and Europeans living in the city only rarely get lost on the square in front of Etabaa Saheb Mosque and the surrounding streets that are always crowded. The Tunisians who live, work and shop in Halfaouine are among those who suffer most from the everyday consequences of the revolution two years ago. Unemployment, inflation, rising prices, disappointment because of political stagnation, fear of the future – in Halfaouine all these problems are present.

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“Thank you for thinking of our district. You distracted our worries about the political crisis a little bit, and you made us forget all the bad for a little moment,” says a Tunisian man in his mid-fifties into the camera. In the background, the Etabaa Saheb Mosque rises, Place de Halfaouine is crowded as usual. Amidst the bustle, with these words the man addresses his gratitude to a handful of young Tunisians who started six months ago to change the streets of the Tunisian capital: The Danseurs Citoyens – the dancing citizens – surprise and delight with their unannounced actions, not only in Tunis, but now across the whole country.

The street turns into a stage for the Danseurs Citoyens, the audience becomes a part of the performance

Also today, no one in Halfaouine expected the appearance of dancing citizens. Everything is unfolding like normal, when in the middle of the market and hubbub two young men unexpectedly begin to play the darbuka, the traditional Tunisian drum. Suddenly, a young woman, wrapped in a white robe, appears on the court, her face is covered by a khama. Unlike the niqab, the Tunisian version of the face veil falls loose, it is open at the sides and allows a look at the face of the young woman. Slowly she starts to dance, under the long robe black pants and lace shoes are flashing out.

The veiled ballerina quickly attracts the views of the bypassers with her ballet moves. She is accompanied only by the rhythmic drumming of the darbuka – until after a few minutes a second dancer suddenly shows up out of the crowd. The slender young man, wearing jeans and sweatshirt, dances around the ballerina in a combination of modern and oriental dance. More and more people stop by and watch the unusual spectacle, many record the dancers with their smartphones. The hustle and bustle goes on, however: hurrying bystanders cross the improvised stage, a moped meanders over to the dancers, the rhythm of the drums mixes with loud horns and voices.

These short interruptions don’t bother Bahri Ben Yahmend, dancer, choreographer and founder of the Danseurs Citoyens – in fact, interaction is desired: “Art should not be a luxury item, every citizen has the right of art,” says Ben Yahmed. “The socially weaker people in Tunisia are, the more difficult for them is access to art and culture,” explains the 35-year-old. “That’s why we go to the people and why we dance in their daily lives – together we will win back our streets.”

Two years after the revolution, the streets of Tunisia are more and more in the hands of the Islamists. The Danseurs Citoyens use art as a weapon of resistance against the new self-appointed moral guardians in the country: The idea to re-conquer the streets of Tunis was born immediately after an attack by Islamists on a group of dancers in the capital.

Bahri Ben Yahmed was there: “After an attack during the performance of our group Art Solution conducted by some Islamists in March 2012 in the city-centre of Tunis, we decided to develop our own way of resistance.” Resistance against the ongoing intimidation, against taking the road by Islamists, resistance against the powerlessness. “We want to bring back the joy of life to the Tunisians,” says Bahri Ben Yahmed.

And so do the Danseurs Citoyens, with great success, their fan base is growing. With the video recorded in Halfaouine, the group has already published its fourth video, entitled “Je danserai malgré tout – I will dance despite everything.” The group’s success is not only limited to Tunisia; International media cover the performances of the dancing citizens. Bahri Ben Yahmed and the group just came back from a trip to Geneva where they were invited to perform at the famous Fête de la Danse de Genève.

Given the growing influence of Salafis in Tunisia, who are funded from abroad and who have strict ideas about appropriate clothing and behaviour of men and women in public, Bahri Ben Yahmed and his dancers prove a lot of courage with their public dance performances. “In our performance in Halfaouine, we refer consciously to the Tunisian culture,” says Ben Yahmed. “The white, traditional Tunisian clothing and the loose Khama of our ballet dancer represent a contrast to the black of the strict Wahhabi djellaba and the niqab, which are increasingly seen also in our streets. We oppose this import of the Salafist culture, with our new interpretation of the Tunisian tradition.”

But the Danseurs Citoyens see themselves not only as a countermovement to Salafism. With their special form of resistance, the dancing citizens of Tunis want to create a new awareness of Tunisian values, says choreographer Ben Yahmed: “I believe that we are helping to revive the debate about individual self-determination and about the right to own physicality in the post-revolutionary Tunisia.” To give everyone the opportunity to join this debate, the dancers go on to the street, to those people who usually do not have access to such debates.

The street turns into a stage for the Danseurs Citoyens, the audience becomes a part of the performance – the key idea of the dancing citizens can also be seen in their fourth video: a man passing by smilingly embraces one of the dancers, two elderly women end up dancing together with Bahri Ben Yahmed and the other young dancers. One of the ladies is still holding her plastic shopping bag in her hands. After dancing a few minutes, she disappears in the crowd – with a smile on her face.

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