The World in the Rearview Mirror of an Isuzu D-Max: Mohamed Bettaieb and the Tunisian Southern Imaginary
By Joshua E. Rigg
‘From bedouinism [I learnt] to carry only half my provisions’Line from the poem ‘Wādī an-naml’ (1998) by Tunisian poet Jamāl as-Ṣulīʿī (b. 1955), quoted in Mohamed Bettaieb’s Al-Janub Ya Kibdiyy (p. 100).
The desert zones and arid lands of North Africa have historically been represented as ‘empty’, ‘barren’ and underexploited ‘wastelands’. These geographic imaginaries of the desert as an absence or lack provided the discursive groundwork on which military, colonial and developmental interventions were justified, organized and implemented. Colonial scientists and administrators, post-independence politicians, development economists, and foreign aid experts all more or less explicitly begin from the assumption that North Africa’s desert zones represent an empty space on the map that demands to be made knowable and governable.
In Al-Janub Ya Kibdiyy (The South, My Dear Son; lit. The South, My Liver) the author, journalist and anthropologist, Mohamed Bettaieb (b. 1985), offers an alternative vision of the south. Hailing from the southern town of Tataouine, Bettaieb’s work deals with everyday life in Tunisia’s south – its economy, culture, history and myth. Collected and edited by the journalist and North African correspondent, Bassam Bounenni, who also provides the collection’s introduction, the book brings together a selection of Bettaieb’s post-2011 Internet posts, as well as one article previously published with Khatt 30. In satirical morality tales, comments on current events, personal memoir and confessions, and literary and philosophical discussions, Bettaieb constructs the south as a space of economic activity, social life and imaginative flights. At the same time, he confronts the historic forms of marginalization, precarity and repression that circumscribe and limit the lifeworld of the region’s citizens. His writings offer a deep ethnography of place, pursuing a form of downward travel that excavates the history, culture and ideational world of the south.
Underdeveloping the South
The governorate of Tataouine, Tunisia’s southern-most governorate, which borders both Libya and Algeria, suffers from some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Tunisia. Despite its relative abundance in natural resource wealth, with deposits of oil, gas, gypsum and silica sand, Tataouine governorate has historically received little in development assistance or inward investment. Tataouinian’s relation to the state is thus defined by state absence and neglect – a lack of social services, shoddy infrastructure, scarce employment opportunities, and intermittent food shortages for certain basic goods.
In response to economic, social and political marginalization, since 2011, the region’s citizens have turned to at least two socio-economic strategies: protest and smuggling. Tataouine has gained a reputation as a ‘hot’ region whose citizens regularly turn to protest and social unrest to draw attention to their marginalization and extract concessions from the state. Often articulating in the language of rights and duties, local protest movements have accused the state of shunning its obligations towards its marginalized peripheries and demanded targeted development projects and investment.
If protest seeks to engage the state via claim to political voice, smuggling seems to suggest an exit from, and evasion of, the state. In place of formal development programs or reliable economic opportunities, the parallel economy has offered an alternative source of livelihoods for the region’s citizens, with smuggling and contraband presenting a crucial economic lifeline for border communities who take advantage of cross-border price differentials between Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.
Naming the South
The Tunisian state and its media bring together negative discourses around social protest and economic informality (with the added implication that Tataouine is a haven for Islamist extremists), to draw a picture of the south as a space of disorder, backwardness and criminality. In Al-Janub Ya Kibdiyy, Bettaieb robustly rejects dominant media discourses that have propagated such simplistic images of the south and southerner. In its place, he constructs a vision of the south that embraces its complexity and contradictions, exploring the cultural milieu that is born out of, and in turn resists, the political economy of the south.
Attuned to the feedbacks and contingencies that combine historic-cultural meaning and the region’s political economy, Bettaieb introduces us to a cast of southern characters who are in equal parts heroic, tragic, hypocritical and jaded. These include real-life figures (such as the Egyptian-Libya singer Ramadhan Boumatraf), fictional characters (the contrarian uncle Hamid), figures of modern myth (the shadowy migrant smuggler known as Kazawi) as well as southern ideal-types (the street-smart ‘frère’). On top of this cast of characters the very stuff of the south – its arid lands, pickup trucks, and cafés – are woven into Bettaieb’s imaginative universe and instilled with meaning and myth. As Bettaieb asserts, material experience precedes, informs and produces aesthetic and ethical norms.
Bettaieb’s writing is of a piece with other Tunisian authors who have embraced Tunisian dialect, or Tounsi, as a vehicle to make sense of – and renegotiate – Tunisian identity. Bettaieb, however, pushes language further, arguing that there are deep, subterranean connections between place, the act of naming and meaning making. For example, in the twentieth century southern Tunisia witnessed a growing popularity for names, such as Ramadan, Jamaʿa and Sajida, which reflected changing practices of piety that occurred alongside the sedentarization of Bedouin communities. Revealing too are top-down naming practices as a form of governance that imposes certain identities and forms of conduct. During the early 1980s, for example, Tunisia was subject to a policy of place renaming that aimed to ‘beautify’ place names deemed overly ugly or crude, with the villages of al-Kherba and Ajej in Tataouine governorate becoming Al-Zahra and Assaadah, respectively.
Popular Music, Mezoued and Taste
Throughout the collection, Bettaieb frequently returns to the music of the south as a key mode of cultural expression, noting that the region holds a distinct musical world that is shunned or ignored by the cultural metropole. Mezoued, a form of rural, popular music defined by the use of its eponymous bagpipes, was historically subject to repression and censorship during the eras of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; in part, due to its shaʿbi (working class) themes, including the troubles of poverty and unemployment, migration, and unrequited love, as well as its association with ‘un-Islamic’ trance-healing ceremonies. In turn, it was dismissed as vulgar and of little artistic value by the gatekeepers of Tunisian musical taste.
While the songs of Bedouin wedding singers such as Sadeq Bo Abaab (1935-1991) and Awad Al-Maliki (1952-1992) were once shared via cassettes and played over car stereos, now AUX cables, Bluetooth connections and TikTok have become the contemporary technologies of dissemination. Though often unrecognized by the centers of cultural power in North Africa, shaʿbi artists, including the Libyan singer Rafie Al-Akouki, Ramadhan Boumatraf from the Libya-Egypt border region, Kilani Tlig (originally from Mednine) and al-Tlili al-Gafsi (from Gafsa), have cultivated loyal transnational audiences across North Africa’s desert zones.
As Andrew Simon has shown for Egypt’s popular music industry of the 1970s and ‘80s, and Charles Hirschkind explores in his discussion of the importance of cassette sermons for Egypt’s Islamic Revival, the material form of the cassette shaped the production, consumption and distribution of audio culture. Arguably, new technologies even more closely align certain musical styles and social worlds. The songs of Ramadhan Boumatraf have become synonymous with smuggling TikTok where they accompanying homemade smuggling video clips, and Ramdhan Boumatraf in turn speaks back to his audience, commemorating smuggling journeys and tragedies in his lyrics. If the AUX cable and TikTok have replaced the cassette, the dissemination effects of media technologies remain.
Bettaieb interweaves the south’s landscape and soundscape in one chapter where the Isuzu D-Max, a pickup truck ubiquitous in rural areas of North Africa, gives its name to Bettaieb’s fictional radio station, ‘D-Max FM’: communication-as-transportation. Bettaieb imagines the station’s lively call-in show where Tataouinians might voice their grievances, quandaries and wisecracks, and win prizes including an ‘unregistered Toyota 24, a carton of cigarettes, and a year’s supply of Libyan mazut’ (p. 31).
The Smuggler, His Lover and His Car
The figure of the smuggler is central to Bettaieb’s understanding of the south. He recalls eating oranges smuggled from Libya as a key formative moment in his childhood, and notes that the smuggler sutures together a desert zone that extends from Tataouine through Libya, western Egypt, Sinai and to the Gulf. The smuggler, for Bettaieb, also represents a certain orientation towards the world that seems to reject dominant social and political norms.
Smuggling TikTok is replete with videos of pimped out Toyota pickups, smuggling convoys travelling off-road, and contraband ready for transportation. Soundtracked by the sort of music explored above, clips are regularly titled with Tunisian, Libyan and Algerian flag emojis, gesturing towards a twenty-first century pan-Maghrebism based in the free-market economic precept of frictionless trade across borders.
Pascal Menoret has shown that the apparent nihilism of joyriding car culture in the Gulf is informed by Saudi political economy; similarly, North African smuggling car culture links economic activity with cultural expression. Via songs, TikTok clips, and smuggling stories, the smugglers’ cars are transformed from utilitarian objects into a form of cultural, social and political expression and identity. ‘Love is like a Toyota 24 with neither registration plates nor documents’ Bettaieb writes, ‘and the feeling of shisha, cigarettes, mazut, gasoline, macaroni, hash, fireworks and tires’ (p. 54). Bettaieb goes on to draw an image of the smuggler as a romantic – or more precisely romantically unavailable – figure, imagining a smugglers’ lonely hearts column:
A Tunisian guy in his 30s. Originally from the south (ancestors fellaga [anti-colonial resistance fighters]), reliable work (smuggler), owner of a house and car (Toyota without registration documents) searching for a beautiful, slim woman he can admire silently for two months before dating.p. 55.
Bettaieb recognizes that the masculine space of smuggling precludes women because romantic involvement signifies the kinds of social, economic and legal ties and duties that mark entrance into the formal economy. For the smuggler, romantic detachment is a corollary of economic detachment, enabling him to fly below the legal and economic paperwork of the bureaucratic state. That being said, smugglers’ aesthetic and ideology of detachment and autonomy seems to obfuscate a number of quite durable state-society relations that underpin the smuggling economy. Max Gallien, for example, has effectively shown that the North African smuggling economy is closely managed and regulated by the state, with petty bureaucrats, customs officers, the national guard and others, all implicated in managing and regulating the flow of ostensibly illicit goods.
Bringing the State Back In
Tunisia’s south, then, is a paradoxical space of both state absence – the pervasive sense of abandonment and marginalization – and a space where the logics of state power and sovereignty are most keenly felt. This is seen not least in the south’s geography of overlapping extra-judicial spaces including the south’s military zone and increasingly securitized Libyan border.
Scornful of the ‘golden boys of Tunisian politics, knowledge technicians, technocrats, civil society actors, and economic theorists, who speak of solutions, projects, the nation, youth, loans, development, digitization, unions, freedom and revolution’ (p. 29), Bettaieb is equally critical of how the post-revolutionary moment has produced a ‘funerial mentality’ (p. 66) among ordinary Tunisians and critiques the unreflexive, everyday use of the language of unemployment: ‘“Redundant” as if they were superfluous to requirements. “Laid off” … an object without its subject’ (p. 66). The asymmetries in power and uneven development that have structured Tunisia’s colonial, developmentalist, and neoliberal projects are articulated in the current conjuncture as the façade of elite economic dynamism at the center and a sense of economic inertia and ennui in Tunisia’s margins. For Bettaieb, both discourses misrepresent and distort.
In a number of chapters, Bettaieb explores the political economy of marginalization and through short morality tales and character portraits develops a critique of capitalism in the periphery. For instance, Bettaieb sets out the connections and knock-on effects that link ‘the Russia-European gas crisis [to] your uncle Hamad’s ewes in Tataouine’ (p. 38). During the winter of 2023, rising energy bills hit the profit margins of Paris’s bakeries, a key source of employment for Tunisian migrant labor. Reducing the hours of precariously employed bakery workers presented a low-risk cost saving strategy for bakeries. In turn, this caused a marked reduction in the monthly remittances sent back to Tataouine households, and, as a result, ‘uncle Hamad’ was unable to buy the feedstock he relied on to feed his flock.
Such insecurities and risks are never, however, merely economic but are felt at the personal and social level. Bettaieb leaves us with the image of uncle Hamad sat alone in his truck having burnt up his petrol and spent his last supplies of hard currency on hay, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, a blanket wrapped tightly around him against the cold, and, despite all this, able to find a moment of contentment and satisfaction.
Al-Janub Ya Kibdiyy covers a period where Tunisia’s margins appeared to restate their claim to political and economic importance and demanded recognition. The protracted, and emblematic, struggle of the Kamour over the equitable distribution of Tunisia’s resource wealth, the region’s importance for Tunisia’s smuggling economy, as well as the securitization of the Tunisian-Libyan border, all attested to what Paul Nugent has described as the ‘centrality of the margins’. To help orient the reader vis-à-vis Tunisia’s recent history some of the chapters may have benefited from dating and brief footnotes. That being said, the choice to withhold additional information for the reader perhaps stays true to the fragmentary, throw-away and digital character of Bettaieb’s original Internet posts.
This gets at a central question when translating Internet marginalia and blog posts into an essay collection: who is its audience? In the online sphere, Bettaieb’s writings could negotiate, and radically combine, a number of audiences and publics as his writings ranged between different subject matter, tone and cultural references. This is less easy in a published collection and is recognized by both Bassam Bounenni in the collection’s introduction and Bettaieb elsewhere. Indeed, the collection’s ambiguous audience might be read in terms of the politics and power of knowledge from, and knowledge of, Tunisia’s south. Bettaieb infers that the south’s unknowability is both produced by the centers of political, economic and cultural power, but is also a form of resistance whereby obscure musical tastes, local knowledge and vernacular language enables southerners to mark their difference from Tunisia’s north.
For Bettaieb, Tunisia’s south may be an imaginative social and political construct, but these imaginings are material in origin and, in turn, have material effects. Names do things in the world. In Al-Janub Ya Kibdiyy Bettaieb points to the names of people, places and things that are often missed out of dominant depictions of the south. The collection thus offers a valuable addition to our understanding of the society, economy and culture of the peripheries of Tunisia and North Africa more generally. That being said, Bettaieb’s project is not a romanticization of the historical and cultural fragments of North Africa’s desert zones. Rather, he shows how southern histories of the present can help us to build a more complete understanding of the logics of marginalization and state neglect. Mediterranean migration routes, the transnational economy of remittances, cross-border trade in smuggled cigarettes and even football allegiances are all shot through with capitalist and colonial pathologies. Bettaieb urges us to read critically these histories of colonialism and capital as viewed from the south, recognizing the entanglements of power and resistance that shape ordinary Tunisians’ lives in its marginalized – though not marginal – desert zones.
About the author
Joshua Rigg holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His research interests include socio-political transformations in the Middle East and North Africa, the politics of extractivism, everyday political thinking, and the afterlives of colonial and post-colonial North Africa. He has previously written on everyday understandings of justice in post-overthrow Tunisia, extractivism and marginalization in Tunisia’s south, and the circulation of revolutionary political thinking in the Mediterranean space. His work has been published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Globalizations and Oxford Middle East Review. His doctoral thesis was awarded runner-up in the 2022 British Society for Middle East Studies Leigh Douglas Memorial Prize for best PhD dissertation.
Citation: Joshua E. Rigg, The World in the Rearview Mirror of an Isuzu D-Max: Mohamed Bettaieb and the Tunisian Southern Imaginary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.10.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48974