It is Ramadan 2015 in Tunisia, and it is a tough one. Falling in July, seemingly endless scorching days are filled with children who long for something—anything—to do, and parents with no energy to entertain them. The saving grace is that space of time after iftar followed by the Ramadan soap opera of your choice and before sleeping. The children in Kabaria are taken to the montazah, or playground, to run and play while parents chat happily with overstuffed stomachs. As children play, a young boy who has drawn “tribal” style tattoos all over his arms runs by. His father mumbles grumpily about a new series called Awled Moufida.
Awled Moufida is the newest series of Sami Fehri`s infamous Cactus Productions, which appeared on Tunisian television channel, El-Hiwar Ettounsi, for the first two weeks of Ramadan. The series is filled with an illicit affair resulting in illegitimate children, domestic violence, the mingling of social classes, a trafficked unwed mother, and an unwed father who desperately wishes to keep his weld el haram (“child of sin”), a phrase used to refer to an illegitimate child. The series is captivating, indeed, to just about everyone, but most admittedly to the youth of Tunisia.
Awled Moufida’s storyline revolves primarily around the character of Moufida. After her husband dies of alcoholism, Moufida lives with her three sons, Badr, Bayrum, and Ibrahim, all of whom are young adults in one of Tunisia’s lower class neighborhoods. Moufida carries the secret that one of her sons does not share his siblings’ father and is the result of an affair Moufida engaged in with Sherif, her alcoholic husband`s best friend. This is the piece everyone wants to know: which son is the weld el haram? Throughout the story line, Fehri weaves a plethora of social issues into Moufida’s family.
The images the characters portray are problematic in their presentation. Moufida’s sons carry well built muscular bodies branded with a wide range of tattoo styles including “tribal,” roman numerals, a Native American tribal chief in full headdress, and English words like “No mercy” and “No one can judge me.” Their t-shirts consistently boast brands popular in the Western world like Adidas, Defend Paris, and slogans in English such as “American College of Harlem,” “The Rolling Stones” and “Wild, Young, and Free.” Aside from the mohawkish style haircuts that predate the series, these are most certainly not the images of the Tunisian boys and young men in the marginalized neighborhood of Kabaria. They are instead the overlay of Western pop culture onto Tunisian life. The educated and jobless young men of Kabaria hanging out on sidewalks trying to scrape together enough change for a single Mars Légères, Tunisia’s most popular brand of cigarette, are waif thin and wear clothes purchased from the “freep,” or second hand clothes dealers. Ethnographic research revealed if their clothing did boast an English phrase, it was likely coincidence, and unlikely the wearer fully understood its meaning. Just as Radiohead’s Creep covered by Daniela Andrade runs like a thread throughout the series crying, “I wish I was special,” the media use the characters in Awled Moufida as intentional and constant reminders to Tunisian youth of what they should be but cannot be because of political and economic circumstances beyond their control. In an exchange with Professor Nouri Gana, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, he referred to this as “the penetrating reach of cultural imperialism and the way it establishes its hegemony through the consent and active collaboration of local agents, the likes of Sami el-Fehri.”
Awled Moufida is a tool that primarily serves Western imperial interests in Tunisia. It is an instrument that keeps Tunisian youth chasing the proverbial carrot. Professor Gana explained in our exchange,
The media have the power to form and reform [a] society from above more than [a] society [has] the power to inform the media from below. Through its projection of modes of being and modes of intelligibility, Awled Moufida has done more to occupy the Tunisian everyday imaginary than that imaginary may be said to have informed its realization.
In an article by Thameur Mekki published by Nawaat, Mekki points out that much of the show was plagiarized from the American series, Sons of Anarchy. The most obvious offense is the opening sequence. A Youtube video entitled Sami Fehri plagie Sons Of Anarchy has been put together to show the similarities in the opening scenes. Frankly, there is little by way of comparison outside of the physical; thematically, the shows are quite dissimilar. The most fascinating part of the article was some of the commentaries readers left. Some comments defend Fehri and praise his choice in dealing with real themes and ideologies long absent from pre-Revolutionary media. A few commenters, however, insightfully point to the way many Tunisians are concerned with simply copying whatever they see on the television when they should be raising criticisms about the way Fehri trivializes violence against women and expresses the interests of his own social class. One such comment concludes, “What we have created after the ‘revolution’ [is] the dumbing down [of the people] and mediocrity.
Social class in Tunisia is based primarily on family origin King (2003). Tunisians whose families are from the capital city of Tunis, and particularly those claiming beylical blood lines enjoy a high socioeconomic status while rural to urban migrants and their descendants are marginalized. The term for this social inequality is hogra. In Professor Gana’s words,
…Hogra…has to do with power relations between classes, regions, genders and ethnicities in Tunisia. Ben Ali`s police state has fomented this notion through clientelism, cronyism and all forms of corruption. So those who belong to this category are also those who have no contacts to count on when in need (those who have no shoulders as Tunisians would say).
During a brief interview with Sami el Fehri at his new production studio, Cactus Productions, he shed some light on the origins of the new series. Much like the stories Piper Kerman uses in the popular American Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, el Fehri, disclosed that the idea of Awled Moufida came to him while being detained for over a year in prison on corruption charges. El Fehri was quick to announce that he did not usually conduct interviews, no recording devices were permitted, there would no discussion of pre-revolution media or the circumstances surrounding his time in prison, and that no Tunisians would be allowed to be present for the interview. Similar Kerman, el Fehri disclosed that saw a perspective of Tunisian life that his privileged upper-class life had never allowed him to see. He dismissed any thoughts on the series intentionally raising questions of social inequalities and stated outright that his intention was to capitalize on as broad an audience as possible.
Awled Moufida’s isolation of social classes is not only evidenced but reinforced through Moufida’s sons’ interaction with the family of Ines and Lelia. The family, who claim a beylical bloodline, first encounter the sons of Moufida when Bayrum returns Lelia’s lost cellular phone. Bayrum and Lelia’s father sit and chat awkwardly in the living room waiting for her. On her return, Leila’s mother tells her Bayrum is waiting with her phone, and that she should go and say hello and thank him. Her response is a typical example of hogra. She obnoxiously refuses to see the likes of someone like him. She tells her mom she has had enough interaction with fsala, which is the Arabic term for gangsters, today and insults his hairstyle. She adds they should probably give him fifty Tunisian dinars because people like him will get angry otherwise. Her mother tells Bayrum that Lelia is resting because she was not feeling well and hands the money to him, which he refuses, allowing him to retain his dignity. The devastation Bayrum felt at being treated like trash was palpable through the television screen.
Another example is seen in Episode 6. Ines’ father learns she has been spending time with Badr, and he reacts violently by slapping her and calling Badr fsala. Ines and Badr soon get engaged, and while her parents do not refuse their engagement, comments are made throughout the series that are meant to put Badr in his place. He is at one point called a “far el habs,” or prison rat, and several opportunities arise and are taken advantage of to question his ability to properly care for Ines financially. “So hogra becomes a relation, not just a feeling of being dwarfed or belittled, castigated as wretched and disposable,” explains Professor Gana in our discussion.
Domestic abuse is also a recurring theme in the series. After Ines` father slaps her for spending time with Badr, she tells the youngest son, Ibrahim: “A woman is hit by her father and she remains silent. Then she is hit by her husband and she remains silent. She opens her mouth only when she is in the hospital.” These words ring all too true for Moufida’s sister, Latifa who is married to Mounir, a rather flat trope of a character, and they share two daughters. The family is caught in the cycle of domestic abuse. Mounir frequently beats Latifa at his mother’s insistence. At one point, his mother tells him to kill Latifa if he wants to because she is his wife and it is his right. Their daughters are often witness to his abuse and scream and cry, begging their father to stop. Latifa does, in fact, end up hospitalized. Moufida’s boys beat up Mounir, but no one calls the police or social services. While she rejects Mounir for a short time, in the end she actualizes the expected role of a battered woman and takes him back. The cycle of domestic abuse sees no boundaries for social class or country of origin. For Latifa and her family, like so many others across the globe, there is no happy ending as the abuse ends in the final episode when the oldest daughter fatally stabs her father as he is about to hit her mother.While Tunisia prides itself on its Majallat Al-Ahwal Al-Shakhsiya or the Personal Status Code for Women (PSC), the rights granted to women in these laws, including protection from domestic abuse, rarely make it to the ground floor of marginalized community. Widespread acceptance of violence against women is extremely problematic in Tunisia. A few days ago, a young man could be seen physically attacking a female without fear of anyone seeing him. No one intervened on her behalf. No one called the police. The police would not have come if they were called.
The title of the series itself, Awled Moufida, holds a derogatory meaning and implies the illegitimacy of her children. It is customary in Arab patrilineal cultures for the children to be referred to by their father’s name, or awled [father’s name]. Since the series aired, the sensationalism of this sentiment sparked and spread throughout the young men of Kabaria as they jokingly refer to each other as awled [mother’s name]. Just knowing a person’s mother’s, or sister’s, name can open the door for insults. In the Tunisian community, the primary means of insulting a person is through the females in his or her family. Males joke with their friends asking, “How’s your sister?” The implication of this simple inquiry is that the asker is interested having sex with her. It is impossible to give examples of Tunisian insults without being vulgar. A minor verbal assault would be deen ummek, which is cursing the religion of the offender’s mother, while a more vicious verbal attack would be zabour ummek, which would be to curse the vagina of the mother of whom the attack is directed, or nik ummek, which translates to fuck your mother.
The trend of referring to a person by his or her mother’s name could serve to reiterate the stigma already attached to children born out of wedlock and their mothers. Young women in Tunisia who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock have very few options. These young women are not protected under any governmental laws and cannot receive any government benefits (Marks 2013). It is common knowledge that the most likely scenario in such cases is that the child will be left at the hospital to be raised in an orphanage, while the mother will be banished from her family and her town and likely trafficked.
The unjust and disturbing treatment of mothers out of wedlock coupled with the virile status acquired by the typical young men trying to have sex with as many young women as possible reeks of the massive double standard Tunisian youth are encultured to believe (Marks 2013) (Hawkins 2008). I have heard countless mothers tell their girls beginning quite young, “Your virginity is your future,” while most young men, regardless of what they are told verbally, are otherwise encouraged to engage in sex as often as possible. The usual response when called out on this double standard is that men are born that way. Awled Moufida strongly reinforces this enculturation.
Weaved into Awled Moufida’s storyline is the illegitimate child of Bayrum. The mother left the child for Bayrum to find while she is nowhere to be found. References are made about the mother now living in Dubai. In one scene when one of the brothers suggests she may return for the child, Bayrum’s response is that she is not in Dubai as a chemical engineer. His insinuation is that she is now a trafficked prostitute for wealthy Dubai men and their often Western associates. Bayrum makes what is for him a very difficult decision to adopt the child out privately to a Tunisian couple to avoid the child being stigmatized as a weld el haram. When Moufida learns of the child and the subsequent adoption, she falls into a state of despair, lashing out at Bayrum for making such a decision and telling him to go and retrieve the child so his family can raise him, declaring she will fill the position of mother herself.
The fact that Bayrum has such difficulty making his decision and Moufida’s intensely emotional reaction to his decision are quite revolutionary in Tunisian life and media. As stated above, the usual response for all parties involved would be to disown and abandon the child because of the shame and dishonor an illegitimate child would bring to the family.
Aside from the obvious fact that the mother of Bayrum’s child has been disowned and trafficked as a prostitute while Bayrum suffers absolutely no social consequences, there is Badr who shamelessly courts both sisters. Even though he is engaged with Ines, his attraction is to Lelia. In a conversation with Leila’s fiancé, he asks Badr what he likes so much about Ines. Badr boldly replies, “Her sister.” The first part of the series ends after Ines hides under the bed in the room the boys keep rented for the purpose of having a place to take the young women they engage in sex with, as Badr and Lelia are having sex. She is crushed and later brings her parents to the boys’ room when she knows Lelia and Badr are there. The episode ends before any confrontation.
It seems Awled Moufida provided a glimpse at gender and socioeconomic power in Tunisian relationships through popular media. Tunisia’s social ills are seen, however, through that familiar lens of Western appropriation. The topics Fehri chose to address in the series are of substance and pertinent to Tunisia’s social growth; however, when Fehri could have chosen to reject the notion of hogra, he chose to endorse it. When he could have chosen to abandon damaging patriarchal gender roles, he, instead, chose to reinforce them. Awled Moufida gives a dim view of Tunisian society and turns mediocrity into sensationalism that ultimately serves imperial interests by diverting attention from the real issues facing the people of Tunisia: social and gender inequality and economic despair.
Hawkins, Simon. (2008). Hijab: Feminine Allure and Charm to Men in Tunis. Ethnology. vol. 47, no. 1, Winter 2008, pp. 1–21.
King, Stephen J. (2003). Liberalization Against Democracy: The Local Politics of Economic Reform in Tunisia. Indiana University Press: Bloomington.
Marks, M. (2013). The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects. N. Gana (Ed.). University Press: Edinburgh.