The multilingual residents of Tunis, Tunisia's capital, fancy their city on the Mediterranean to be a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. But not everyone is welcome. "Not a day goes by without a black African suffering from racial abuse. The most often-used insult is guira guira which, according to some means in a local dialect ‘big monkey'" says a student from Côte d'Ivoire. "For many Tunisians, we black Africans are savages."
Last week a student from Senegal screamed for help as a group of men started throwing stones at his apartment. He called the police -- but it was he who was arrested instead; evidently the color of his skin means that he is not wanted in this cultural heartland. The man lived in the neighborhood of Lafayette, in an apartment complex residents call "the blacks' building." The tenants are often students from sub-Saharan Africa enrolled in private universities.
According to a witness who filmed the events leading up to her neighbor's arrest, the fight began earlier in the day when a taxi driver called the Senegalese man guira guira during an argument. Things began to escalate when the taxi driver took out a baton to "teach" him a lesson. After being fought off, the driver came back later in the evening to take revenge -- and he was not alone. Backed by a group of men equipped with stones and sticks, they shouted: "Ben Ali is gone. This is Tunisia, not Africa!"
When the police arrived, it was the victim who was forced into the patrol car. Two hours later he was released, yet the armed men who threatened him got away scot-free.
The incident was strange to many Tunisians. We are part of the African continent; our roots as Africans are deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. But today, some of my fellow Tunisians think that our African neighbors are "intruders" who want to "taint our purity." The fall of the Ben Ali regime unveiled the previously overlooked phenomenon of xenophobia, especially regarding those from south of the Sahara.
Now in a climate of free speech, the uproar from the victims of discrimination has reached fever pitch. In an apparent security vacuum, attacks against the country's many African students and migrant workers are on the rise. Before the revolution, the rule of law was intact and the rights of the African immigrants were preserved since the former dictator Ben Ali was concerned with propagating an embellished image of Tunisia where stability and peace would reign. But discrimination based on skin color existed even in the "golden" days of "stability" and "peace" under the dictatorship of Ben Ali. The myth of Tunisian tolerance needs to be revealed for what it is: a myth. The stigmatization of skin color applies even with Arab Tunisian, as those with darker skin are also subject to bigotry and mockery.
It is upsetting that Tunisians still use the word wassif to refer to dark-skinned people, an Arabic term from when it was common in the Middle East to have African slaves. Unfortunately, this injustice was not swept away along with the 2011 revolution; racism abounds as many dark-skinned citizens of Tunisia still bear the legacy of slavery. During the reign of Ben Ali, racism was a taboo subject not discussed. Even though the phenomenon was endemic and rife; "black" Tunisians simply suffered in silence. To the outside world, Tunisia was promoted as the cradle of tolerance.
Overcoming racism should be prioritized as we fight for the transition to democracy. Politicians, religious leaders, teachers, activists, and all Tunisians should combine their efforts to eradicate it, because equality and human dignity of all citizens it essential for a prosperous and successful democracy.
Meriem Dhaouadi is a graduate student majoring in English Language and Civilizations at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. She is also a regular contributor to openDemocracy.net.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.