The Art of Resistance

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By Ikram Yakoubi

We cannot talk about rebelling and social change without pointing to the important role of artists all over the world. Artists, whether famous or still anonymous, have contributed in a direct or indirect way in the process of change. Starting with the age of enlightenment in France, it was not restricted to only reason, but also was characterized by the emergence of pioneers in literature and in art who led the country toward prosperity and progress. There is no democratic process and transition that can succeed without the support and the contribution of artists.

As a Tunisian artist, I have witnessed this in my country during our “Jasmine Revolution”--the revolution that sparked the region wide Arab Spring. The uprising was not possible without the groundwork prepared by Tunisian artists, whether inside Tunisia or outside. Some of those who wanted to express their thoughts about justice and truth have been restricted to doing so through art—or meet severe punishments. Although some artists use their skills as a means for enrichment or amusement, others said “No!” and used art as a way to resist the autocratic regime of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

I can mention as a very good example the case of the Tunisian rap musician, Hamada Ben Amor, better known as “El Général.” His song “Rais Lebled” (the president of the country), released in December 2010, has been described as the “anthem of the Jasmine Revolution.” Ben Amor had been making mainly political rap songs for about two years. The songs were previously kept underground by the strict censorship of the Tunisian government of that time. On December 24, 2010, two days after his second famous protest song "Tunisia Our Country" was released on YouTube and Facebook and one week after the beginning of the protests in Tunisia, he was arrested by Tunisian police. Later on, Ben Amor was released after being forced to sign a statement that he would longer make any political songs. After the overthrow of the dictator Ben Ali, Ben Amor’s songs enjoyed enormous popularity in Tunisia, particularly “Rais Lebled’,’ which became known as the anthem of the revolution and gained him international recognition.

Also there is the Tunisian-Canadian artist known as Bendir Man, who is a composer and songwriter. This young artist has been composing his songs outside Tunisia, as he would be put in jail if he were there. This Tunisian-Canadian artist was famous for criticizing the Ben Ali regime and he was shaping them as sort of caricatures. No one can deny that Bendir Man has been one of the most famous artists who helped shape the revolutionary atmosphere in Tunisia.

In addition, anonymous street painters delivered creative messages against the dictatorship of Ben Ali. When there is no freedom of expression, artists can deliver their messages anonymously on the walls and public spaces.

As we see, artists - the prophets of change - have helped transfer the change into reality through their songs, poems, or paintings. But sadly, many artists who have been trying to make our world a better place have paid their lives, families or their freedoms. And some are still paying, like Mohamed Al Ajami

Who is “ Mohamed Al Ajami”?

Al Ajami, also known as Mohamed Ibn Al Dheeb, is a poet who was born in Qatar. He was a third-year literature student when he was sentenced on November 29, 2012 to life imprisonment in a secret trial on state security charges. Al Ajami, inspired by the Tunisian uprising, wrote a poem called “We are all Tunisians.” Months later, he was arrested when an internet video was posted of him reciting the poem in which he was lauding Tunisia’s popular uprising that led to the Arab spring rebellions across North Africa and Middle East.

In some verses of his poem, Al Ajami stated:

Enough with tyrannical regimes!

Tell the one who torments his people

That tomorrow someone else will take his place

He should not rest assured that the country belongs to him or his offspring

Because the country belongs to the people and so does glory

Join your voices in a chorus for a single destiny

We are all Tunisian in the face of repression.

By criticizing the Arab governments that restrict freedoms, the Qatari Government considered this poem an insult to the Qatari sheikh "Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani" and an incitement to overthrow the ruling system, which could have brought a death sentence. In February 2013, Al Ajamai’s life sentence was reduced to 15 years. It is worth mentioning that this poet spent five months in solitary confinement and his trial had been postponed five times. His lawyer Najib al-Nuaimi said, “Muhammad was not allowed to defend himself, and I was not allowed to plead or defend him in court. I told the judge that I needed to defend my client in front of an open court, and he stopped me."

Gulf regimes have stepped up crackdowns on a range of perceived threats to their rule, including Islamist groups and social media activists. Mohamed Al Ajami’s case was a reaction from the Qatari government, a government that has been afraid to have the same Tunisian script played out in Qatar. That’s why they take drastic measures to repress and crush any future social movements and to threaten artists like Al Ajami.

It is important for us to take action against any violation of freedom of expression or speech; otherwise, human dignity for all of us is dehumanized. That is why CODEPINK is one of the pioneers that will keep defending the injustice that Mohamed Al-Ajami is still experiencing.

We should take to heart the words of George Washington: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Those who say “No!” to extremism, abuse, and restrictions on free speech must be supported in their plight and honored for their courage.

Ikram Yakoubi is a self-taught painter from Tunisia who holds a master degree in Business English. She is a co-founder and communication officer at Atlas leaders Center, a youth led association which promotes leadership and citizenship, by helping young people to develop their personal and professional skills, encouraging their civic participation and facilitating their inclusion in the process of social change and social development.

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