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Rap battle: young Tunisians fight stigma with the arts

March 18, 2023 - Saturday 7:03 PM by AFP

Article Banner Image Mohamed Ali Ayari, left, a rapper from a down-at-heel Tunis district, records a song in a booth at a recording studio in Daouar Hicher. (AFP)

"We're sick of being seen as thugs," said Mohamed Ali Ayari, a rapper from a down-at-heel Tunis district, where jobless youth are finding a voice through music, cinema and photography.

The Tunisian capital's working-class districts have suffered from decades of state neglect and poor services, and residents say the stigma attached to their neighborhoods shuts them out of the job market.

"This contempt and these prejudices really complicate our lives," said Ayari, a resident of the overcrowded Douar Hicher suburb.

The 23-year-old works as a security guard, but his dream is to become a famous rap artist.

"I want to come out into the light," he raps in a recent video clip, produced with the help of peace-building charity International Alert.

Ayari was among the winners of a recent competition by International Alert, asking young people from four neglected Tunis districts to express themselves through music, documentary or photography, focusing on the theme of violence.

"People... experience violence on a daily basis -- some practice it and others suffer it," said Houcem Ayari of International Alert. "We decided to channel that into cultural activities."

In a drab building in Douar Hicher, rapper Ayari sits in a tiny room converted into a studio and records his latest track, with backing vocals from neighborhood friends.

Ayari and his friends agreed a lack of cultural spaces makes it easy for people to be dragged into crime.

'Therapy against depression' 

Wassim Tayachi, 22, said he and his friends "chose music to talk about ourselves and our lives, the lost youth and those of us who want to succeed, the police who attack us verbally and physically, the state that neglects us and society that stigmatizes us."

He said coming from poorer neighborhoods makes it harder to find a job or get official paperwork.

"A state that doesn't listen to its young people can't give them anything," Tayachi added.

Ayari said he wants to become a successful rapper.

But he doubts he can achieve his dreams in the North African nation, where a long-running socio-economic crisis has pushed many young people to try to reach Europe -- including on dangerous and overcrowded inflatable boats across the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, he said he uses rap as "therapy against depression and illegal temptations".

Another winner of the competition was a documentary depicting social and economic injustice, sexual harassment, shabby public transport and school absenteeism in the district of Fouchana.

They are issues close to the heart of Mariem Chourabi, who has qualified as a tax accountant and has set up a center to give children extra education support -- all by the age of 24.

Many young people here "want to succeed more than others because their difficult circumstances push them harder", Chourabi said.

'Environmental violence' 

Belhassan Jabri, a qualified civil engineer, won the photography category of the competition.

"We deserve not to be neglected," said the unemployed 26-year-old from the working-class district of Sidi Hassine.

Jabri's work focuses on what he calls "environmental violence", showcasing public spaces near his home strewn with trash.

"These could be places for sports or cultural activities, or gardens, instead of being permanently cluttered with overflowing rubbish bins," he said.

Jabri said those in power should find "real will" to change things for the better.

"There are doctors, engineers, artists and many educated and qualified young people in our neighborhood," he said.

"Stop focusing on the negative side and stigmatizing young people from working-class neighborhoods." AFP


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