CULTURE - Crucible of civilisation
Survey written by Anver Versi
It has been said that the most important driving force in a nation’s fortunes is its culture. Without a strong grounding in culture, a nation is like a stricken ship, pushed and pulled hither and thither by prevailing currents and winds. This has been the unfortunate fate of many developing countries which, having forgotten where they came from, now drift aimlessly on the vast cultural oceans of the world.
On the African continent, where the cultural crisis is most acute, Tunisia and Egypt are the rare exceptions. Both have very deep histories and both have worked tirelessly to keep their histories as fresh as possible. But culture is not only about ancient history; it is the story of how people adapt and change as events around them change. It is about evolution and unbroken identity.
Well aware of the enormous resources that European countries and the US pour into their own cultural spheres, Tunisia has embarked on a unified national strategy to maintain and deepen its cultural identity. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has decided that over the next four years to 2004, a full one percent of GDP will go to culture. The annual budget for culture is expected to grow from $45m in 1999 to $140m in 2004. Budgetary allocation is as follows: Cultural exhibitions (24%); museums and institutions (20%); cinema (14%); literature (14%), theatre (9%) and poetry (4%).
Despite all its economic and social successes, Tunisia has never taken its eye off the vital importance of culture in the grand scheme of things. “Culture provides us with our values and identity,” says Abdelbaki Hermassi, Tunisia’s Minister of Culture. “It enables us to cope with the many challenges and changes occurring as we expand our relationships with the European Union.”
Custodian of world history
Tunisia already contains some of the most important World Heritage sites. Its cultural roots go back three thousand years to the glory that was Carthage. The subsequent history of the world can be said to have flowered from this beginning. Here in Tunisia, one can see and touch the milestones of world history-the Numedian and Punic civilisations, the Roman occupation, the Vandal destruction, the Byzantine elaboration, the Arab conquest, the Turkish lordship and the French colonisation. The cycle has gone full circle and the Tunisian of today is custodian to one of the world’s richest national heritages.
It is to protect this fragile but unbroken historical chain that last March, an exciting new venture was given the go-ahead by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Some $32m has been allocated to develop the Carthage-Sidi Bou Said National Park. The aim is to halt the urban sprawl that is threatening to encroach on one of the world’s richest archeological seams. “We want to stop talking about the destruction of Carthage by the Romans and launch the reconstruction of Carthage by the Tunisians,” says Culture Minister Hermassi.
The park will contain six segments: the ancient city of Carthage; La Marsa nature park, Sidi Bou Said village, the gardens of Hamilcar, the Yasmina sports and leisure park and the Carthage coast. One of the first projects will be a $3m memorial to Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of all times, who took 40,000 men and 38 elephants over the Alps to punish Rome. Next in line is a $5m reconstruction of the ancient Punic port, seat of one of the most extensive commercial networks of the old world.
Carthage, according to Francisco Carillo, Unesco representative in Tunisia, is an “unrivalled marvel with many riches still to be uncovered”. The park will provide the structure and facilities needed to recommence archeological digs.
This is a spectacular conservation project. The World Bank, Unesco and other countries are already participating in it. When it is completed, Tunisia will be the only country in the Mediterranean to have made such a massive conservation undertaking so close to a capital or major city.
Tunisia’s cultural treasures are not limited to Carthage and its neighbourhood. The whole country is dripping with cultural gems. Go to the Bardo museum in Tunis and feast on the sumptuous cultural banquet spread out before you. A new section, Mediterranean Treasures, was inaugurated by President Ben Ali in August. It contains a wealth of rare and precious ancient Greek objects. Here you will see dazzling mosaics, including a picture of Ulysses straining against the songs of the Sirens; Roman sculpture and mosaic paintings; Arabic calligraphy and coins and thousands of other objects collected and preserved over the millenia.
In the fabled Medina of Tunis you will find the famous Ez-Zitouna Mosque, relatively unchanged since the founding of Islam in Tunis in the 8th century. Take a trip to Kairouan, the first Islamic centre established in the 7th century and marvel at the Great Mosque of Okba ibn Nafi’ where it is believed resides a hair from the Holy Prophet’s beard. Visit Sfax and walk around the vast Roman amphitheatre at El Jem. Go to Kerkouane and gaze at the only example of a Punic settlement that has miraculously remained intact to this day. Join the Jewish pilgrimage, Lag be Omer, on the 33rd day after Passover to El Ghriba - the first synagogue in North Africa - on the island of Djerba.
Do all this and you only begin to scratch the surface. There are at least 26,000 historical and archeological sites in Tunisia, with 670 monuments in the medina of Tunis alone. A new project, ‘City of Culture’ in the heart of Tunis will be the “greatest cultural complex in the Mediterranean” according to Culture Minister Hermassi. It will include a Civilisation Museum, an art museum and galleries, three large auditoriums, a cinema and a media library.
With so much culture oozing from its pores, it is hardly surprising that culture tourism is high on the agenda. Currently some 5m tourists visit the country but only 10% take the trouble to leave the sun and sand and visit cultural sites. The potential is therefore enormous when you consider that millions of tourists visit countries like Britain, or cities like Florence, Venice and Rome purely to soak up culture.
The Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the Ministries of Culture and Environment are working on plans to diversify tourism. In addition to the Carthage National Park and the City of Culture projects, a number of cultural circuits are being developed throughout the country. By 2005, an extra 20 circuits are expected to be completed. These will range from archaeological circuits, themed tours such as mosques or fortresses and visits to bygone civilisations. Cultural tourism should increase visitor numbers by 20% to 30%, tourism officials say.
While the extra revenue will be welcome, the aim is not just to chase the tourist buck. The goal is to protect and preserve Tunisia’s cultural heritage. “We will move very slowly to ensure that we don’t destroy our heritage and environment,” says an official.
A cultured people
The country’s cultural wealth does not just reside in monuments but in the people themselves. This is why half the culture budget will go towards developing and enhancing human cultural achievements. Tunisian cinema already enjoys a well deserved international reputation for quality. The country has a distinguished tradition in literature and poetry and Tunisian theatre is beginning to create waves on the international stage. The colours, the forms and the quality of light in Tunisia have inspired both local and international artists such as Paul Klee and Auguste Macke. Additional art galleries will expose the works of such Tunisian masters as, Aldelaziz Gorgi, Rafik El Kamel, Adel Megdichi and Rachid Koreichi, the Algerian who lives in Tunisia, to a much wider audience.
There are some 50 festivals between June and September each year in addition to the biannual Carthage Film Festival. With the annual Jazz festival in Tarbarka attracting greater world-wide attention, Tunisia can now claim to be the culture capital of Africa.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Tunisia’s cultural renaissance is that the people are fully involved in its every aspect. A cultured people are a confident people and a confident people can achieve anything. As President Ben Ali said on the occasion of the National Day of Culture (June 22nd, 2000): “Culture is no longer simply a mirror reflecting the soul, the realities and the aspirations of people. It has become a prime area of action and production, and an unavoidable path to achieve excellence and distinction and to assert one’s identity in a world where the disappearance of frontiers is endangering the very attributes of national identity.” n
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