Chiara Sebastiani, Una città, una rivoluzione. Tunisi e la riconquista dello spazio pubblico. Cosenza: Luigi Pellegrini Editore, 2014.
Collective, Au centre de Tunis: Géographies de l’espace public après une Révolution, available online here.
The question of public space has been among the most discussed ones during the short and often tragic season of the so-called "Arab Spring." From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the streets of Damascus, researchers and commentators have examined the logics of mobilization, occupation, transformation, and re-appropriation of the symbolic meaning of space and resistance to repression. These logics are indicators of a possible new relationship between the civic dimension of mobilization and the urban space, elaborating both on traditional practices and on global trends. Sadly, the cruel backlash of authoritarian counterrevolutionary repression and social order has also placed these moments of political and theoretical euphoria under a different light. It obliges scholars to relativize most of what they wrote or said in 2011, and even introduces new doubts on the very interpretation of the capacity of societies to achieve political change through mobilization in the context of strong external influences, and even military interventions.
Most of the squares, streets, neighborhoods, and parks that once symbolized revolutionary exaltation are now sterile grounds left to police occupation or traffic jam routine, if civil war or war tout court has not wiped them out. In this desolated landscape, however, the case of Tunis might bring more positive elements. It is, after all, where it all began. It is also where, in spite of tensions, disappointments, and various waves of disenchantment, there remains much to witness in terms of the civic investment in public space. The challenge posed by the recent attack against the Bardo Museum reinforces the need for such reflections. This review brings together a recent book by Italian researcher Chiara Sebastiani, and a web-documentary by a team of Italian researchers and artists invited to reflect on how Tunis not only constituted one of the most important places of mobilization, but also an actor of mobilization. The book and the documentary, although produced in different academic contexts and according to different methods, converge in placing public space under the light of innovative reflections.
One City, One Revolution
Una città, una rivoluzione analyzes how various kinds of mobilization transformed urban space. Not only did these forms of mobilization use urban space, but they even created it as a new social and political construct. The author, Chiara Sebastiani, teaches political science in Bologna. She is known in Italy for her book La politica delle città (Il Mulino, 2007), in which she developed the idea of cities as new political subjects and new spaces for politics. Until recently, the Arab world did not constitute the fieldwork of her research. But this does not mean that there is no personal dimension in her decision to look at the situation in Tunis: the book is dedicated to the memory of her father, Lucio Sebastiani, an Italian from Tunis who went back to the country as a diplomat in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Chiara Sebastiani spent part of her childhood there. She always kept a strong relationship with the city and also followed the evolution of the nature of public space under the authoritarian regime of President Ben Ali. She did this as she was conducting her main research in Italy and Europe. As she explains in her introduction, as soon as she heard of the upheaval in Tunis, she flew there in order to “witness history in the making.”
The book begins with the evocation of a speech in La Marsa by the Tunisian-French feminist and human rights activist Gisèle Halimi in March 2011: “The chance of meeting history in person is not given to everybody,” she said. But witnessing these events was not Chiara Sebastiani’s only intent. Referring to the concept of “serendipity” as developed by figures of interactionism in urban sociology like Ulf Hannerz or Isaac Joseph—that is, the conjunction in research of theoretical elaborations and unexpected events—she details the methods she followed for her research: participative observation, interviews, and, referring to a Freudian concept, “fluctuant attention,” or “unfocussed listening,” in order to minimize the effects of the researcher`s predetermined choices of analytical categorization.
The introduction also features some theoretical stances that structure the rest of the book. The first is that, for the author, “public sphere and public spaces are constitutive of each other.” The second one refers to the “necessity of shared public spaces for the existence of a vibrant public sphere,” and the third one recalls the importance of the concept of negotiated space in order to understand how public spaces evolve. The first chapter is dedicated to the “leaden weight” that was oppressing the city and the country under Ben Ali. It begins with not always very convincing historical considerations about the contrast between the Arab city and the colonial city: they tend to perpetuate existing clichés regarding this dichotomy, like the idea that the “European” city developed under colonization outside of the walls of the medina. Researchers specializing in Ottoman studies have added deep levels of nuance to this dichotomy, insisting on the Ottoman roots of urban planning outside the walls. But then the book’s narration passes to a very lively description of the conditions and means of oppression against political or labor activists, ordinary citizens, political Islam, and women, in contrast with the saturation of the public space with signs, symbols, and actors of the dictatorship. Each element is introduced through testimonies and anecdotes. It is precisely in this dimension that the book project functions best: the capacity of the author to narrate general events through the evocation of people she met.
The second chapter is organized around the analysis of the period that led to the events of 2011. But it is not the mere narration of the roots of the uprising that one would find elsewhere. Sebastiani’s choice is to start from the future places of the revolution and to enter into the reading of it through the places themselves. She starts from Avenue Bourguiba, with its history between colonial times and the requalification project of the 2000s, in reference to Imen Oueslati-Hammami’s doctoral thesis. She then passes to the Kasbah, and at this point, begins to incorporate elements of the revolution into her text: moments, tensions, figures, and symbols. She does the same with the different neighborhoods in which citizen committees were created during the events in order to grant security against looters and rogue members of the security services. The specific forms of public space formed during the revolution are thus read through the crossing of two main perspectives: that relating to the inherited morphological, historical, symbolic, and social qualities of the various places, and that related to the processes of appropriation that played upon all these elements in order to invent and impose something new. This "something new" was at times ephemeral, and at other times more lasting. But it always revealed a renewed relationship between space, society, social mobilization, and spatialized social relations. The chapter closes with the “magical moment” of the fusion of the various social strata of protesters, including youngsters, trade unionists, feminists, political activists, and representatives of the various cities and villages of the country on Avenue Bourguiba during January 2011.
This takes the author to a third chapter on the new public sphere after the fall of the regime. Sebastinani narrates the exaltation of the public debates that took place in theaters, cinemas, and mosques. She builds a kind of political typology of the scenography of the public sphere that emerged and evolved between 2011 and 2013. Each place is a new occasion to reflect on the sociological composition of the audience, the languages used in debates, the force of the new political parties, associations, and movements, and the various tensions that marked each phase of the evolution of the revolution. Sebastiani followed many of these rallies—for example, those of the Association tunisienne pour la défense des diplômés chômeurs and of the Ettajdid political party—and gives them both a lively and theoretically elaborated narration. She does the same in the next chapter, which addresses the October 2011 elections. The reader follows its development from the point of view of a female scrutinizer in a polling station. Here again, the spatialized reading of a special day is the occasion for the author to unfold a variety of dimensions. The same kind of posture is proposed regarding the evolution of political Islam`s spaces around the various phases of the presence of the conservative Islamic party Ennahda. Here again, theoretical developments are always inserted between the lively testimonies of actors, witnesses, and commentators that the author meets. The dialogue with Ennahda activists Riadh Trebelsi and Sumaya Ghannushi is particularly well conducted.
The final chapter focuses on another dimension of the relationship between Islam and society: the presence of veiled women in public spaces. Sebastiani discussed this issue with many persons in many different contexts, from a popular neighborhood to a feminist academic conference, and from the university to public transportation. She provides a kind of scenography of the question through the exposition of scenes, the meaning of which she then relates to general debates in society and in the social sciences. This is precisely what is particular about this book: it is often a precious complement and alternative view to what had previously been written since 2011. There are never more than ten lines between the evocation of a theory and that of a dialogue between the author and direct actors of the events.
Of course, Sebastiani’s choice to read the evolution of the question through the necessarily limited lens of her own ability to witness the pertinent moments and meet the right people has a strong influence on the nature of what is told. But the process is always transparent and the only theoretical pretention precisely relates to this very dimension of a sociological reading of space through genuine experiences. There are of course some limitations to the pertinence of the approach, like the fact that the author feels more at ease with French speaking female and secular intellectuals like herself than with, for example, Arabic speaking male religious conservatives. But this data is always acknowledged with great honesty, and does not prevent the author from making critical reflections on the very milieu she is more at ease in. This book will no doubt remain one of the most stimulating contributions, not only on the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, but also on the transformations of the public space and sphere that happened during this period. It also constitutes a pleasant model of an approach to academic writing that is both relaxed and theoretically informed.
[Screenshot from the web-documentary Downtown Tunis]
Mapping Public Space in Downtown Tunis
Another very interesting approach to the question of public space in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Tunis is proposed under the form of a web-documentary by a collective of researchers from Università di Cagliari and Politecnico di Torino. The title is Downtown Tunis: Geographies of Public Space after a Revolution (available in Italian and French, but with masses of visual elements pertinent even for those who do not master these languages). Methodologically inspired by Bruno Latour’s idea of “reassembling the social,” the team travelled to Tunis in 2013 with the intent of documenting how the meaning of public space has been changed since the 2011 revolution. The documentary, made of interactive assemblages of texts, pictures, and videos, focuses on dozens of precise places in the Kasbah, in the medina, and on and around Avenue Bourguiba. For each place, an evocation of what happened there during the revolution is proposed, and complemented by a visual and textual reflection on the fate of public space since then, with the perpetuation and constant evolution of collective memories of the demonstrations, of the occupations and mobilizations, but also of the repression, of the tensions as well as of the exaltations. The main moments of the revolution, and of all that has happened since, is spatially situated on interactive maps. Symbols, visual marks constitutive of the post-revolutionary urban landscape, are the object of a specific attention, which makes of this documentary a precious instrument not only of documentation, but also of methodological reflection.
This is a common point with Chiara Sebastiani’s book, and an invitation to insert the results of these approaches into current debates about the nature of public space in the Arab world and beyond. The most obvious complementarity between the book and the documentary pertains to the relationship between the people presented by Sebastiani and the images of the places visited by the team. But there is another dimension to this complementarity. It relates to the construction of knowledge about the social, political, and symbolic value of public space. What both works underline is the property of public space as being constantly reinterpreted by a variety of actors. There is no fixed public space, but only the ephemeral dimension of a fragile conjunction between place, people, memories, practices, and ideas.
 For a reflection on the origins of the concept (Horace Walpole, 1754), and its revitalization by urban sociologists (and by Umberto Eco), see: Jacques Lévy, "Serendipity," EspacesTemps.net, Dans l`air, 13.01.2004.
 Raffaele Cattedra, Francesca Governa, Maurizio Memoli, Matteo Puttilli (Pictures by Rosi Giua, video by Claudio Jampaglia, Samuele Pellecchia, Bruno Chiaravalloti, Arianna Cocchi and Alessandra Mainini, music by Imed Alibi, Alia Sellami and Luca Canali, web design by Antonio Calabro, Francesco Merlini and Alessio Scordamaglia).