What’s in a name? How the legacy of slavery endures in Tunisia

By Simon Speakman Cordall

Many within Tunisia greeted the news that 81-year-old Hamden Dali had won his two decade-long campaign to have “atig” removed from his name with little more than bemusement.

But for Dali atig – meaning “liberated by” – in his name was a painful reminder of his family’s heritage as former slaves.

Dali, who lives on the island of Djerba, does not have a telephone. However, his lawyer, Hanen Ben Hassana, from the mainland city of Sfax, was clear: “You have to think of what could possibly make an 80-year-old man insist on pursuing his case despite all the hardships, including the spread of the virus,” she says. “Just think of that. Then you’ll realise the kind of history he’s been carrying on his back for a great part of his life.”

Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery, outlawing the practice in 1846, 19 years before the US. However, though the initial edict was quickly adopted in the urban north, it was some time before slavery was abolished entirely, with a further proclamation required in 1890.

Today, between 10 and 15% of Tunisians are black, many descended from slaves. What few can dispute is the relative lack of black Tunisians in politics or the media. According to a 2018 Afrobarometer survey, black Tunisians reported a variety of disadvantages, the most important of which was unemployment, at about 42%, compared with 25% nationally.

The exact number of slaves within Tunisia, of both African and European origin, was estimated in the 1960s as having been as low as 7,000 in 1861 while more recent accounts put the figure closer to 167,000.

Though the practice may have been abolished for more than a century, its legacy lives on. In the ancient medina in Tunis, the old slave market still stands, although today its stalls sell gold and silver rather than human beings.

In Tunisia’s south, the village of El Gosbah stands divided by a river, separating the settlements of the descendants of black slaves from their white neighbours. In language, slavery’s legacy thrives, with surnames such as Abid and Shoushan, both denoting slave, commonplace.

In Bardo, a suburb of Tunis, Saadia Mosbah relaxes in the makeshift headquarters of her anti-racism association, Mnemty (my dream).

“Everyone speaks of the transatlantic slave routes, but no one really speaks of the trans-Saharan slave routes from areas around Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Gambia,” she says. “Why haven’t we spoken of these? Principally because it was Arabs and Muslims who enslaved, which makes people reluctant to talk about them.”

For Mosbah, a lack of education coupled with an unwillingness to address their complicity in the slave trade, are among the drivers of racism. “Tunisians don’t really know this. It isn’t taught in schools. It isn’t in the history books. It’s a case of amnesia,” she says. “If more people knew about it, it might limit the racism and lessen the pain people feel. For example, once someone knows the history of the blacks and the slaves, they’ll understand that they were brought here to be part of the workforce, until machinery eventually forced them out.”

In 2018, Tunisia passed a landmark law, essentially criminalising racial discrimination, which was pivotal in Hamden Dali shedding his unwanted label. But a lack of funds – a perennial issue in Tunisian politics – has limited any campaign to raise awareness of the law, leaving that task to groups such as Mnemty.

However, the law is up against decades of disadvantage. “It’s harder for black people to get professional jobs,” Mosbah says. “Not because of any law, but because we grow up under different conditions.”

While slavery’s poisonous legacy continues to be debated around the world, there is at least some evidence that Tunisian authorities are keen to address the past. But the prejudice that underpinned it remains an everyday part of life for black Tunisians and those who travel to the country from across Africa to study.

Helping out in the Mnemty offices is 23-year-old Bilel (not his real name). Bilel came to Tunisia from Ivory Coast to study engineering, but has been racially harassed, both officially and socially, since his arrival.

Clearly uncomfortable, he says: “I never imagined that things would be this way or that I would encounter racism in an African country.”