Activism comes in all shapes, scales, and sizes, but the fight for a better life is usually born from cultural and intellectual awakenings. Committed art usually finds itself at the center of controversies and social debates, raising questions for the public to find an answer for.
In a post-covid world, the spirits are down, whether we want to admit it or not. To briefly put things into context and perspective, in Tunisia, this slice of heaven on the shores of the Mediterranean, the youth have grown up in political and economic instability. Through the years, we have seen systems fail one after the other, we’ve grown up to normalize injustice and frustration, learning to deal with it or to detach and find any kind of distraction from the systemic chaos.
Our only hope is the future, but then again, some of us don’t have the luxury to hope. I believe art brings hope though. And I believe Essia Jaibi thinks the same. I recently had the pleasure to sit for the intense, emotionally supercharged two-hours of the Tunisian playwright’s new body of work: Flagranti (In the Act).
In 2021, a year where the world is still reeling from the global pandemic, Tunisian LGBTQ+ Organization ‘Mawjoudin WeExist’ pitched the idea of Flagranti to Jaibi as an initiative to bring awareness through art. A year later, she gifts the Tunisian society a real wake up call for change, a beautiful, raw, and honest depiction of the queer struggle in hopes to decriminalize same-sex relations, and restore justice.
Following the success of Tunisian queer artist Moncef Zahrouni’s project Transtyx Zanoobya, which delved into the struggles of a Tunisian transgender woman within today’s socio-economic circumstances, Flagranti comes to denounce the injustice that the queer community is subjected to, especially the males under Article 230, which criminalizes consenting queer sexual relations, with sentences reaching up to three years of imprisonment.
Today, the Tunisian LGBTQ+ community is undeniably considered lucky in comparison to its regional counterparts. But that doesn’t mean the fight should stop there. Today, the youth hopes for liberation. When I go out to meet people, the enchained souls of a whole generation are begging for it. The youth is sad, losing hope and faith in everything, because unlike our elders, we are unable to afford rose colored lenses.
Works like Flagranti bring visibility, hope, and inspiration to people from all walks of life. But such plays are also an emotional rollercoaster, reducing audiences to tears and bringing about intense expressions of gratitude and pride through loud clapping, cheering, and standing ovations.
Works like Flagranti take all the ugliness you experience and serve it to you on a theater stage, whether you’re emotionally ready for it or not. The point is not to be ready, because in some way, you can never be one hundred percent ready to face this kind of truth. Yet at the same time, you have unlimited capacity to accept, process, and release. It is only the truth after all.
Flagranti talks about injustice, exploring heavy topics that the LGBTQ+ community is subjected to, such as police brutality, homophobia, transphobic crimes, anal tests, repressed emotions, depression, social anxiety, allyship, and how the shadows of past and the fears of the future come at play to determine the reality of the present. The playwright and Artistic director also makes sure to emphasize on French colonialism being at the origin of Article 230 and one of the main causes for the systemic prejudice targeted against the LGBTQ+ community in general.
As for the plot, the play tells the story of a young same-sex couple, who after establishing themselves in one of the most upscale neighborhoods of Tunis see their world crumble overnight.
For the young Tunisian queer community comes to watch this play, the lesson is loud and clear: No matter how much wealth you amass or ladders you climb into the social echelon, you should never give into the false sense of security. Because according to the law, your existence is a disgrace no matter which neighborhood you decide to live in.
Today, again, to anchor things in reality, the youth are either fleeing the country or planning to, in hopes of a better life. This is obviously not that easy, because to go abroad, you either have to secure a job position or enroll for school at exorbitant prices, considering that the Tunisian currency keeps marching towards collapse. This limits access to opportunities and liberation for almost everyone.
There’s this tendency today where the younger queers look to relocate to more socially diverse environments such as the Medina, a hub for art and old architecture, or the upper scale ‘Banlieue Nord’ of Tunis, which is where Flagranti is set. Both locations are heavily frequented by tourists, expats, artists, entrepreneurs, and the local 1%. It makes both areas the go-to hangout spots for LGBTQ+ youth, but also the cis-hetero crowds.
And when your financial situation doesn’t allow you to go abroad and start a new life, you settle for an “S+3” at Marsa Abd El Aziz with two other roommates and hope to make the most out of it. This is the life plan of so many people I know. Flagranti is a reminder that that’s not actual freedom.
The price to pay for liberation is a bit high, yet Jaibi hopes to make a change.
After the curtain closed, amidst all of the warm tears, a standing ovation, and the general chaos of the audience processing what they’d just seen, I had the delight to exchange with Jaibi. Below, the playwright tells us all about her new body of work, and it goes like this…
How did Flagranti come about? What was the intention behind it and how important is your work in today’s reality? Some might argue that now is not the time to look into Human Rights matters, what is your stance on that?
Flagranti came from a proposal by the Mawjoudin WeExist Association, who contacted me in 2021 with this idea of creating a queer show. They gave me carte blanche and I went for it. I started by doing some research— reports, testimonials, interviews, etc.— to have solid and current information on the subject, and it was only after that the work of fiction began. In terms of rights and freedoms, I think it is always the time to talk about them, they are the basis for the evolution of our societies.
Who is this play for? The message that you have, whose ears do you want it to reach?
Everybody. Flagranti was made for the general public, and so far we’re noticing the diversity in the audience that comes to watch the show. The primary goal of this play is for the LGBTQ+ community in Tunisia to gain more visibility, but it is also intended for all citizens that care about justice and who wish to understand and be an actor for change in their own country. It can also be aimed at a foreign public, who wish to know and have a precise idea on what is happening here. Today’s reality.
Flagranti is political before anything else. Criticism might arise, but so will praise. How do you feel about publicly presenting work that delves into the intricacies of one of the most taboo of taboos in our society? Where do you find the courage to bring up such a topic?
It’s more about responsibility, rather than courage. Flagranti is not only a play, it is also a look at our society and a project. We strongly believe that art can inspire change, that it can raise the general awareness on certain injustices. When I started working on it, I realized that it had to be done fully, entirely, without concession and compromise. Otherwise it would be useless. I am aware of the responsibility given to me and of the stakes of this project, and I wanted to do it as best I could through a political and didactic theater in which I believe, and which seems to me to have all its place today in Tunisia.
The play shines a light on traumatizing experiences, pain, and injustice in a somewhat humorous way. In my opinion, it desensitizes a really heavy subject and gives the audience an opportunity for a clean slate, to release the hurt and look into the future. Do you ever wonder about mental health issues in relation to the LGBTQ+ struggle, and how does art come into play to lift spirits up?
This is also one of the main axes of this body of work. In my research, I spent a lot of time on that, and later on within the developing process with the performers as well. The amount of violence and abuse that the queer community is subjected to whether physically, verbally, or emotionally from family, society, and authority figures obviously has a very strong impact on the physical and mental health of people in the community.
In a post-colonial and post-dictatorship Tunisia, we have lost touch with our innate sense of worthiness. Can we build it up again by ourselves and fight for a country to be a safe haven for its people, or do we also need the intervention of the forces that implemented these inhumane practices to abolish them?
Of course we can rebuild it ourselves, and if I didn’t believe it very strongly, I certainly wouldn’t do what I do, and even less a whole show around such a topic. I believe in the process and I believe in awareness and communication. These are also my own values and this is what gives me the strength and energy to pursue, to create, and to try to make things happen on my own scale, of course. I am not naive, but I am optimistic because it is one of the few strengths we have at the moment to face an increasingly complex and worrying reality.
What is your message to the youth that have so many stories to tell? The young people who are currently weighing the pros and cons of liberation, the artists shaping today and tomorrow’s world?
I don’t know whether it’s my place to give advice but all I can say is that we must not surrender. When things get tough, we better get tough and get going. Even if it gets hard and it takes time, we continue to move forward and that is the most important thing. To keep on keeping on.
In 100 years from now, if humanity makes it past climate change, historians will look into this work that you put out. Archives will live to tell the tale of activism through art that persists to exist despite censorship, and people brave enough to speak up for the prejudiced. What does the world of the future look like to you? What are your hopes for the global community?
This is a super interesting question but way too complex! It would need a whole show to dive into it, it deserves it actually… The freedom we have as human beings, which is a birthright first and foremost, is so powerful and intense that I believe it can overcome anything. On the other hand, if we continue to despise our environment, we are not likely to go very far. Citizen awareness (local or universal) should be for me as much political as environmental and societal. Everything is connected in the end…