Due to the processes—associated with former Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali— of homogenization and forced modernization of Tunisian society, minorities were silenced and ethnic differences put aside in order to maintain the image of Tunisia as a nation where peace and stability reigned. Nonetheless, the painful reality of racism and social segregation continued covertly, and black Tunisians are still the targets of racist insults and marginalization.
In the arid semi-desert governorate of Medenine, media attention was recently drawn to a small village called Gosbah. Inhabited by a small black community, the ‘Abid Ghbonton, Gosbah lies next to another village inhabited by the white Ghbonton; the two territories are separated by a small river. Poverty and geographical marginalization are an undeniable reality, yet ‘Abid Ghbonton survive as fishermen, collecting clams on the seashores, and are also musicians. In the south, having the ‘Abid Ghbonton play Tayfa, their particular style of music, at weddings, is a sign of prestige for soon-to-marry—often white—couples.
No police, no secondary schools, no pharmacies, the 5,000 ‘Abid Ghbonton go every day to the white village, where encounters with their white counterparts shape their universe and identity. “They have everything: the best watered soil and olives”, complains Khouloud, a 40 year-old ‘Abid Ghbontya. “They do not want us to mix with them, if you walk on the street you will see blacks with blacks and whites with whites”, adds Samy, a 30 year-old blacksmith.
Although they deny it, ‘Abid Ghbonton may be the slave descendants of the Ghbonton’s slaves from whom they inherited the lineage name through the wala’. Their relationship is best exemplified by strict endogamy, which, if violated, is punishable by social exclusion in the case of the white lineages. The taboo of mixed marriages is a still difficult-to-eradicate reality in Tunisia, but things are slowly changing, even in Gosbah. Marriages between ‘Abid Ghbonton and white girls from neighboring regions, like Medenine and Tataouine, are, slowly, becoming accepted and increasingly common. “Of course my parents were not happy that I got married to an ‘Abid” says a young girl from Tataouine, “because they pay less mahar (bridewealth). But we were in love”.
However, a marriage between an ‘Abid Ghbontny and a Ghbontny is still considered scandalous. The only white Ghbontya who fled her family to marry an ‘Abid Ghbontny had committed a social suicide: her white family expulsed her from their lineage, and now she lives among the ‘Abid Ghbonton without ever visiting her family. Due to the patrilineal structure of Arab societies, children born to a black father are considered black themselves, so the mixed couple’s children were automatically affiliated with the ‘Abid Ghbonton lineage. “Living close to the whites, we wanted our children to take the bus to Sidi Makhlouf from the white part. However, white families did not accept our children”, says the father.