Renate Fisseler-Skandrani on Tunis: “Democracy Takes Time”
Demonstration on Avenue Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis on 1 May 2012 (Photo: Renate Fisseler-Skandrani)
4 July 2012
Renate Fisseler-Skandrani has lived in Tunisia for 25 years. Only since the Tunisian Revolution, though, has the freelancer at the Goethe-Institut Tunis felt like a citizen of the country. In an interview she talks about the time of transition, the sea of cars by the shore and the special attraction of Carthage.
What presumption about Tunisia do we need to revise?
Fisseler-Skandrani: That Tunisia doesn’t have much to offer besides sun and sea, beach and desert and inexpensive holiday trinkets. For example, Tunisia is a great place to hike, like through the hilly Mediterranean landscape in the north, which is green from November to May, but also in the craggy, bizarre mountains of the south. Young Tunisians, by the way, are just discovering this. They make a date on Facebook and organize cultural group excursions. Then of course, there’s the exciting present in the country. The way that the process of democratic and social transition has been progressing for nearly one and half years merits attention and support. If they are able to open up the pathway to a more socially just, democratic and tolerant Tunisia it will have an impact on the entire region.
What experience will you never forget?
The 13th and 14th of January 2011 on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis. That’s where I found out that cola is good against teargas and that people are more than willing to open their doors if someone knocks on them seeking help. In the midst of the swathes of teargas, I suddenly heard someone say in German “Wir sind das Volk.” It was one of my former students calling this sentence to me.
What are the people in Tunisia concerned most about right now?
Their country’s progress. For the majority of the population, especially in the heartland, this is mainly the improvement of their social situation: finding work that puts bread on the table and enables a life in dignity. Young people in particular, often well educated, need future prospects in the here and now. Some of the events of the past weeks and months are alarming and now and then they feed doubts of whether the wheel of history shouldn’t be turned back. But democracy needs lots of time and perseverance.
Renate Fisseler-Skandrani: “Personally, I love being in Carthage, walking through the ancient sites” (Photo: Private)
My dream project is already in the phase of its realization: In the new Tunisia, regardless of my roots and my nationality, I have become a citizen.
What is the most beautiful part of Tunis?
It depends on what you’re looking for. Many inhabitants of the capital city like to drive to the northern suburbs of La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said and Carthage at the weekend and in the summer. Then, a huge sea of cars pushes its way through the picturesque seaside towns and there’s a dense crowd on the beach promenade and in the cafés. Yet there are also moments – for example during Ramadan, at the hour of breaking the fast – that you can experience a brief, magical moment of quiet in the famous Café des Nattes up in Sidi Bou Said. Personally, I love being in Carthage, walking through the ancient sites. Millennia are crowded together there. The flair of transience and permanence, reality and imagination. The exciting present shrinks by comparison. At least for the moment.
What question about Germany do you hear often?
Not often, but occasionally I am asked why Germany – like France and Italy – feels overwhelmed by about 30,000 boat people from Tunisia and Libya. At the same time and in spite of the not exactly easy domestic situation Tunisia opened its borders in 2011 to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Libya.
How are your Arabic language skills?
It’s no different for me than for some people with migration backgrounds in Germany. I can make myself understood in everyday matters in the Tunisian dialect, but make a lot of mistakes. In my living and working context I can mainly communicate in French. But to be able to properly follow the present political and social debates I need standard Arabic. Ever since the Tunisian Spring the fact that I never learned it is a real drawback.
Why do Tunisians learn German?
High school and university students attend the courses at the Goethe-Institut as well as employed persons with contacts in Germany and professional ties to German firms in Tunisia. There are special courses for family reunion purposes. In addition, the project Via Language to the Workplace was launched, which the Goethe-Institut initiated in cooperation with the chamber of commerce to support university graduates seeking employment.
The Goethe-Institut Tunis makes its façade available for art works during renovations (Photo: Renate Fisseler-Skandrani)
What Tunisian writer should we get to know?
Mahmoud Messadi, one of the founders of modern Tunisian literature. Some of his works have been translated into German: Der Staudamm, Und es sprach Abu Hurairata, Die Genese des Vergessens. The famous poet Abou Kacem Chebbi. One of my favourite female writers is Emna Belhaj Yahia, who writes in French. And of course there are any number of analyses of current developments. I would recommend Lina Ben Mhenni. In her book Tunisian Girl – Blogueuse pour un printemps arabe the Tunisian Internet activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 writes of the personal commitment of young people for a new Tunisia in an exemplary way.
Martin Bruch asked the questions.
Renate Fisseler-Skandrani, 61, studied German and history before she began working as a language teacher at the Goethe-Institut Algiers. In the mid-1980s she moved to Tunisia where she taught German history and language at the university, works freelance for the Goethe-Institut Tunis for the teacher training for PASCH schools and other projects. Fisseler-Skandrani writes for various media about her bi-national life and about Tunisia.