For most of its modern history as an independent state, the picturesque Mediterranean country of Tunisia – which appears as a slim wedge on North Africa’s vast horizontal expanse – very rarely made the news headlines. Straddled between the more notorious (in a newsworthy sense) North African states of Algeria and Libya, Tunisia remained in their shadow and was considered a bastion of stability and tranquillity.
Its western links, its secular orientation and its pursuit of the tourist dollar appeared to have a numbing effect in international circles on the less than democratic credentials of its government. All this changed on 17 December 2010 when an incident in Sidi Bouzid, a small neglected town in Tunisia’s deprived hinterland became the birthplace of the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring.
The self-immolation – by setting himself alight – of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, triggered by the confiscation of his vegetable cart, and his harassment and humiliation by municipal officials, became the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the first domino to fall in the Arab world.
The countrywide demonstrations and riots that erupted in protest of socioeconomic and political grievances lead to the downfall of the country’s ruling despot, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali’s 23-year-old ruling tenure came to an abrupt end within a month as he fled the country, pushed out by the public’s wrath. This martyr’s self-immolation might be symbolic of the frustration and desperation felt by millions in the Arab world but it was also a cry for dignity, justice and opportunity. It was a cry from ordinary people with long-standing grievances demanding greater accountability from their leaders and a greater say in the political process. Witnessing all these developments firsthand were also members of Tunisia’s small Greek community. Although the tentacles of the Greek diaspora are far and wide, literature on the Greek presence in North Africa is overwhelmingly dominated by the Greeks of Egypt, with very little mention of other states.
The Greek presence in Tunisia dates back to antiquity when Greek colonists from Cyrenaica (in modern-day Libya) founded Neapolis (the Tunisian port of Nabeul) in the 5th century BC. But of all the settlements in the area, the most glorious and illustrious was that of Carthage, birthplace of the military commander, Hannibal, whose armies wreaked havoc upon the Roman Empire. Carthage was founded by Phoenician seafarers in response to the growing Greek presence in the area, both being maritime rivals. Over time Tunisia has had many overlords until it achieved independence in 1956.
Its proximity to the Italian peninsula has made it a coveted prize throughout history. Almost three thousand years of invasion, rebellion and colonisation has ensured that multiple influences have left their mark on Tunisian society. Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French have ruled over Tunisia at some stage in its history. The first thing that struck me upon arrival in Tunisia was the widespread bilingualism (Arabic and French) which resulted in my rusty high school French resurfacing. The present-day Greek community principally resides in the capital Tunis.
The community’s activities are centred on its impressive church and its adjoining buildings in Rue de Rome (Rome Street). The church liturgy is conducted by His Eminence, Alexios Leodaritsis, Archbishop of Carthage and North Africa. The church of St George is one of the ten Orthodox churches across Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania that make up this archbishopric, which has considerable travel demands. The church was built in 1847 with funds provided by Ahmed Khaznadar, a colourful character who also went by the name of Yiannis Khalkias Stravelakis. Ahmed and his brother Mustapha (Georgios), who at one stage in life was the Grand Vizier of Tunisia, were both sold into slavery as young Christian boys when the Ottoman Turks massacred Chios’s population in 1822 after the Greeks of Chios declared independence from the Ottoman Empire. After being taken to Smyrna then Constantinople, they were sold as slaves to an envoy of the Husainid Dynasty who were Beys of Tunis.
Next to the church are the community’s offices and school where I was greeted by its secretary Dina Rizou. Trikala-born Dina nearly fainted when we worked out that I knew her relatives quite well in Australia. “Niko, the community is small but we are determined to keep it alive. We feel and need Greece inside us. Many of us have spouses who are Tunisian, some are descendants of Greeks that had arrived generations ago, while others settled here as a result of their commercial activities. I myself met my Tunisian husband in Athens when he was studying at the Ikarus School (pilot academy) in Athens,” outlined Dina.
In the evening, I sat in on a Greek language class attended by Tunisian mature-age students. They all had different motives for studying Greek: some were already studying Ancient Greek, while others expressed an affinity for Greek culture. The lesson was conducted by Katerina Gaitanidis who also taught Greek to children on the weekend and Ancient Greek at Tunis University. Katerina was quite an experienced hand who also had overseas stints in other French-speaking territories like Belgium and Lubumbashi (Zaire-Congo).
Upon Dina’s invitation I also attended the kopsimo tis pitas on Sunday, an opportunity to meet other community members and dignitaries. To my surprise I met Cristina Mouratides. Melburnian Cristina – born and bred in inner city Coburg – had a stint at ESL teaching in Tunisia where she met her Tunisian husband, Moez, a philosophy lecturer and has remained there ever since.
“Every few years we go back to Australia for holidays and the kids love it. They have now become accustomed to switching back and forth in four languages,” exclaimed Cristina. Wherever I travelled throughout the country I was keen to find out how Tunisia was fairing since the uprising but also with the recent election victory of the Islamists. In my discussions with people from all walks of life, many agreed that Tunisia was now a much more open society but change was slow and efforts to bring the perpetrators of abuse from the previous regime to justice were moving at snail pace. Unfortunately the economy had nose-dived as tourists avoided the country due to security concerns.
A climate of uneasiness and uncertainty still prevailed in society but there was hope for a brighter future once things had settled. When I asked someone to explain the electoral success of the Islamists he replied: “The Revolution was about freedom and jobs, but what many didn’t realise was that to many this also meant the freedom to pursue one’s identity”. Since independence Tunisian governments have strongly pursued a ‘secularism from above’ approach, the desire for people wanting to express or pursue their Islamic identity can be considered a restoration of societal equilibrium.
The aspirations of Tunisia’s Greek community are no different to the rest of the Tunisian society, everyone is hopeful of the potential for positive change that the Revolution has ushered in. The community today numbers less than 100 individuals, a far cry from the late 19th century where it peaked at around 8000, with many being sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands. Today this small community may be battling to preserve its identity but it also has a larger and more significant battle, one where it is aligned with the Tunisian people, the quest to ensure that the Revolution isn’t derailed and that the street vendor’s act of martyrdom wasn’t in vain.