Sghaier Oulad Ahmed: Tunisia’s Flaming Poet

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Ahmed, with his slender physique and his voice ruined by smoking, never stopped condemning the authorities.

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

Published Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tunis - Back in August, Tunisian poet Sghaier Oulad Ahmed wrote on his personal Facebook page that he “got a taste of the culture promised by Salafists.”

His relationship with the “ministers of God,” as he calls the Islamists, borrowing Lenin’s phrase, has been one of open animosity for the past 30 years.

Most recently, he has come under fire for a scathing poem he read on Tunisiya TV that angered many in the religious bloc.

Responding to the controversy, he wrote: “I am not the first one to be attacked and I won’t be the last. From this moment, I no longer recognize the legitimacy of any party. No civilian or military person who remains silent vis a vis these practices will escape the bombs of poetry and the blitz of prose.”

Ahmed was born in Sidi Bouzid, a once forgotten town that would later become the birthplace of the Arab revolutions. Since arriving in Tunis 30 years ago, this mischievous poet has been a thorn in the side not only of the prevailing political regime but also the close-knit clique of intellectuals that form the cultural elite.

When Ahmed moved to the capital in the early 1980’s he brought with him the stories and language of the peasants and of his tribe, al-Hamama, which is found throughout midwestern and northern Tunisia.

Upon arrival in Tunis, he immediately went to al-Zunuj Cafe, which at the time was the meeting place of people who swam against the current – artists, poets, journalists, unionists, leftists and former political prisoners who fought for democracy and social justice.

He broke with the popular trend in poetry at the time and chose instead to emulate the saalik [ a sixth century poetry movement that championed the poor over the rich], drawing on the daily language of the people.

While other poets were donning their best suits to compete at the annual poetry carnival celebrating the birth of Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba, Ahmed was immersing himself in the language of the street.

“I look for another relationship with language,” he is fond of saying.

“I lost everything for the sake of poetry,” he says. “Writing is a thankless profession. I sacrificed my son Nazem, my family, my mother, my tribe, and gave myself to writing.”

“In poetry you cannot be neutral – either you chose poetry or you remain a good citizen who takes care of his family and inlaws, watches Arabic soap operas and serenely drinks his tea,” he adds with a touch of sarcasm.

Ahmed was a young boy from the desert who, despite not graduating high school, became addicted to the written word, scouring newspapers like al-Rai, al-Mustaqbal, the magazine al-Mawqif and other independent and opposition newspapers which he read in secret, away from the eyes of the party militias.

Ahmed set the Tunisian poetry scene ablaze in the early 80’s when it was suffering under the weight of so much empty rhetoric.

In the harsh winter of 1984, he wrote his famous poem Nashid al-Ayam al-Sitta (The Anthem of the Six Days). Shortly after, he was fired from his job and imprisoned on charges of failing to pay alimony and neglecting his children. Ahmed maintains the charges were trumped up by the Tunisian security forces to try and silence him.

Ahmad’s arrest mobilized an entire community of artists, writers and intellectuals, who jumped to his defense. He became a cause célèbre in the literary world. He was eventually released, becoming the poetic spokesperson of the Tunisian opposition and of student and union leftists.

Ahmed became a constant presence in the media and the symbol for a generation calling for freedom, but he still faced resistance and censorship.

His first collection of poetry was banned under Bourguiba and was not published until the fall of 1987 after former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took power. Ahmed responded to the coup with another famous poem, The Army Descended on Us with a Civilian Communique.

The radical poet says that he does consider the possible consequences of his political positions; after all, he has been rebelling against authority since he was small.

“I was born a leftist writer,” Ahmed used to say during the days of unemployment, vagrancy and oppression under Ben Ali. He suffered for his intransigence and was slandered by his enemies.

“They turned me into the jester of Tunisian poetry,” he says.
In 1991, Ahmed refused to accept a literary award from then-president Ben Ali, responding instead with a famously sarcastic letter to the president demanding money for a necktie and suit in order to be properly turned out for the occasion.

In the Fall of 1993, Ahmed founded the House of Poetry. But even the responsibility of running an organization failed to tame him and he continued to strike controversial stances that irked the regime, particularly during the reign of the late prime minister Muhammed Mazali, an ally of the Islamists at the time.

The state was effectively at war with artists and the press, and Ahmed distanced himself further from the authorities. In the fall of 1997, he recited his famous speech at the Arab Poetry Forum in which he accused the authorities of seeking to strangle artistic freedom.

Ahmed, with his slender physique and his voice ruined by smoking, never stopped condemning the authorities. In 1999, when the Tunisian government tried to ban the journalist Taoufik Ben Brik from traveling before France intervened, Ahmed wrote the introduction to Ben Brik’s book, which only served to deepen the authorities’ hostility towards him.

Ahmed was banned from organizing poetry readings and from writing in the “independent” press. The government did not dare arrest him, however, for fear of sparking a popular solidarity campaign to free him.

When the Tunisian uprising erupted in Ahmed’s home town of Sidi Bouzid in late 2010, he wrote a collection of essays, which he signed The Poetic Leadership of the Tunisian Revolution.’

Ben Ali may have been defeated, but the Islamist “ministers of God” have stepped in to fill his place, as far as Ahmed is concerned.

Since the electoral victory of al-Nahda Islamist party, Ahmed has appointed himself “field commander” of the secular opposition, inciting protests and civil disobedience.

His August appearance on Tunisiya TV to read his poem Jawab al-Shart was enough to enrage and mobilize the Salafi base:

“If you don’t find a stone for ablution/ say most of religion is in Surat al-Maidah/ If my lord loves only you/ tell him I am orphaned, and that I was created a good-for-nothing.”

Soon after he was attacked by anonymous assailants while playing cards.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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