Interview with Rayed Khedher

Rayed Khedher is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Tunis, Khedher received the Wadsworth International Fellowship in 2008 to aid training in socio-cultural anthropology at UCLA co-supervised by Dr. Sondra Hale and Dr. Susan Slyomovics. We reached out to Rayed to learn more about his education, his research on undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean, and to get an anthropologist’s perspective on recent happenings in his country. 

If one day People want to live, Destiny must surely respond

Darkness must disappear, Chains must certainly break

 Abu-Al Qacem Al Chabbi

(The Tunisian Poet of All Times)


Protestors in front of the RCD (Ben Ali’s former political party) demanding its dismantling

1. What is the most unexpected way that your research interests have been influenced by your experience at UCLA?

During my four years in the UCLA anthropology Ph.D program, co-supervised by Prof. Sondra Hale and Prof. Susan Slyomovics, I gained a substantial knowledge in key theoretical classical and contemporary trends in anthropology which highly broadened my academic and personal perspectives. I critically re-explored the interplay of theory and ethnography in the development of anthropology into its contemporary form in dealing with socio-cultural research. My experience at UCLA in addition to the events taking place in North Africa, the Middle East and the world today are continuously shaping and re-shaping my knowledge and perspective about my doctoral research topic. For my study, I am investigating the impacts on male migrants of the mass irregular migration to Italy following the 2011 Tunisian uprising. My research interests have evolved in parallel with the recent developments in the North African region especially in light of the massive irregular movements of Maghrebi migrants to Italy. It is totally unexpected for me to deal with my topic in such a very timely context in which events in North Africa and the Arab region are unfolding every minute and every second. In light of what is happening, I am now focusing on the scrutinization of the potential of greater human rights abuses perpetrated by the Italian authorities and the resulting irregular Tunisian migrants’ reactions and strategies for resistance. My objective is to explore the human dimension involved in these trans-Mediterranean Sea crossings by examining two levels of human rights abuse: 1) human rights abuses by the Italian authorities at the point of entry within the police stations and detention centers; and 2) violations of human rights by non-state actors (smugglers, employers and the public) to which the Italian government fails to respond. I discuss this topic by ethnographically exploring the construction of the Tunisian Muslim irregular migrant as the “violent other” and the “potential criminal” or the “hidden terrorist.” I ask whether, in the face of this criminalization (in discourse and practice), the Tunisian migrant is able to turn the discursive power relations and oppression characterizing the host society into a collective form of resistance.

My proposed research on the 2011 post-uprising Tunisian irregular migrants in Sicily explores some of these politically racialized cultural identities and subjective vulnerabilities and investigates whether they lead to xenophobic/islamophobic migration sentiments and further human rights violations. The primary goal of this project is to examine the strategies and tactics irregular migrants employ to convert the stigmatized and criminalized self and crippled identities into collective forms of resistance. I hypothesize that those stigmatized representations could translate into valuable social, cultural and political resources that can be used in various alliances that provide opportunities for the migrant to fight the myriad forms of social violence and discrimination he faces from formal and informal institutions. The existing literature on North African irregular migration, violence and human rights abuse has had little to say about how migrants’ resistance strategies, particularly collective ones might alter their situation. Through in-depth ethnographic research in the field, I propose to fill this gap which has major repercussions for the understanding of the subjective experience of the irregular migrant in ways that touch not only on basic theoretical aspects of migration research, but also on policy. If, as I hypothesize, in a context  of socio-political turmoil the vulnerability of the Tunisian migrant is able to develop a sense of agency thanks to changes in the political situation at home, and if he is empowered to act with others to protest or alter intolerable conditions, a whole new way of dealing with the transnsational development of the migrant as a subject emerges.

My training at UCLA consolidated my knowledge of the key theoretical debates in the study of international migration and gave me new tools to examine the interdisciplinary and methodologically pluralist nature of the migratory phenomenon and its connections with the larger conceptions of nationhood, identity, citizenship and the state. In addition to taking classes and TAing, my overall experience at UCLA has been deeply enriched by participating in a number of lectures and various Conferences in anthropology as well as in other disciplines of primary interest to my research. I participated in several meetings of the Migration Study Group and I presented various papers and gave talks on the issues of illegal migration, human rights, social change in North Africa etc focusing on the power of people to stand up against injustice, inequality as well as economic, social and political corruption.

The Wadsworth International Fellowship that I received from the Wenner-Gren Foundation provided me with a unique opportunity to achieve my goal of pursuing a Ph.D in anthropology at UCLA while developing a critical look at the relevance of the discipline to the understanding of contemporary human issues.  The anthropology doctoral program in this leading institution has allowed me to further deepen my training in theory, practice and methodology while developing a healthy engagement with the academic community and local and international grassroots movements. The UCLA Campus and the opportunities that it created offered an interesting environment that significantly stimulated my ideas and broadened my intellectual horizons reshaping and consolidating my research interests. This, I believe, will prepare me for a teaching vocation in anthropology while conducting original research related to transnational movements, Islamophobia and human rights. The UCLA training is an invaluable toolkit that is effectively preparing me for a future career of an anthropology professor whose big dream is to develop anthropology in post-revolutionary Tunisia and be part of the first generation of Tunisian anthropologists.

Tunisian protestor in front of a graffiti in Arabic and English stating “Long live freedom in Tunisia” in the Al Qasba square, Medina of Tunis

2.  What would you say is the largest, most important component that western media discourse is missing about the Arab Spring?

First of all, I want to respond by saying that I will avoid the use of terms such as the “Arab Spring” or the “Jasmine revolution” etc. The reason is simply the bloody aspect of some of these uprisings which is evidenced by the ruthless events that happened in Libya, in Yemen and now in Syria and also the very recent violent police brutality against the protesters in the Tahrir Square in Cairo. As I am saying this, more events (many of which are extremely violent) are still unfolding in Cairo and Syria and the region as a whole showing that peaceful demonstrations are not always possible. The people of the streets of Cairo, for instance, are now more than ever ready to stand up against the military rule and to re-write their own histories even if they have no choice but to use their own blood. What is happening right now in the region and in the rest of the world, North and South combined, marks a virtually unprecedented episode in modern history where people have demonstrated that they have the power to say NO to injustice in all its forms. These revolutions despite the violence involved are not only changing the lives of the people in these countries, but are also rewriting another narrative of geopolitics, another history, another discourse of human rights and a new political imaginary. However, while there has been much media focus on Egypt, Libya and now Syria, the Tunisian uprising was almost obscure in the Western media and did not take enough coverage or analysis despite the fact that Tunisia was the main catalysts and the precursor of all these uprisings in the rest of the Arab world and the Western world alike. For the past few decades millions of Tunisians have suffered from unspeakable feelings of despair and helplessness under the authoritarian despotic regime of Ben Ali until they decided to rise and break the 23 years of silence and oppression. An entire population goes into the streets and participates in widespread peaceful demonstrations denouncing the corruption and the despotism of the Tunisian dictator and his large corrupt family. These massive populist uprisings taking place in most Tunisian towns and big cities showed that the grassroots’ power was capable of ousting the sclerotic and autocratic Tunisian tyrant who has been clinging to power for over two decades. The Tunisian uprising was described by a number of western newspapers and TV stations as “the twitter revolution” or the “facebook revolution” which to me is a total missing of the whole point and an erroneous way of explaining the success of the Tunisian people in concretely and courageously taking the streets and overthrowing the dictatorial regime. Western media outlets have overemphasized the role of social networking sites in being the main and unique tools that enabled the revolutions in Tunisian and also in Egypt forgetting that most people who went in the streets and revolted simply do not have access to computers. Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian town where Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010 is one of the most disadvantaged, impoverished and marginalized towns of Tunisia where the majority of its youth still suffer from high unemployment and where a number of them do not even know how to open or operate a computer! Many do not even have a TV set! I need to clarify here that the role which social networking sites played was merely logistical and holds only true in some big cities such as Sfax, Nabeul, Bizerte and the capital Tunis. Also, in Egypt, for instance, the internet prior to the stepping down of Mubarak was down for several days and people still communicated and shared all kind of information by using SMS and also the French expression that we often use in Tunisia that is the ‘telephone Arabe’ which means the word of mouth. The Tunisian uprising like all the others, was real and not ‘virtual’ as some still claim it to be. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc were not fought in cyber-cafes, internet blogs, nor facebook pages, but were bravely fought in the corners of the Arab streets such as the Habib Bourguiba Avenue down town Tunis. As such, social media is not pervasive because internet penetration is rather limited and does not account for the rapid spread of information and the remarkable level of communication between protestors in Egypt as well as those in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen etc. It is also important to mention that Tunisian Rap music, graffiti and street art have also contributed in stirring the anger of the Tunisian youth by evoking police brutality and the overall dictatorial and corrupt regime of despot Ben Ali and his mafia. On the other hand, Al Jazeera (Broadcasting from Qatar) played an important role in fueling the fury of the people by taking an aggressive stance and by showing disturbing images of police brutality which provoked millions of people making them angry and willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of putting an end to the longstanding tyranny.

Now, after taking to the polls on October 23rd and choosing a constituent assembly that will appoint a new interim government and draft Tunisia’s first democratic constitution, the biggest challenge for Tunisian youth today is to have a say in the decision making of their future government. Their main concern, now, is how to commit themselves to this democratic transition by being the major actors in the rebuilding and restructuring of the political, economic and social institutions of their country. This, in my view, is the ultimate goal of all the pro-democracy uprisings that are still taking place today not only in North Africa, but in many other parts of the Middle-East. Without discarding the fact that any process of transition to democracy remains difficult, uneven and slow, the peoples of North Africa seem to be more than determined to take the journey of democratization because it is their only alternative to achieve political equality and social justice and to make sure that their fundamental rights and human dignity are not only protected, but also treated as sacred.  What happened in Tunisia has stunningly shattered the widespread preconceptions about the Arab world in that it is doomed to being ruled by dictatorial regimes and that it is not yet ready for freedom and democracy. The masses of educated, extraordinary youth in North Africa have demonstrated to the rest of the world that a substantial political awareness and participation as well as a greater and promising democratic opening can always take place if the people want it! The path towards democracy for a nascent government like Tunisia is full of thorns, but it is worth taking and like the Tunisian poet of all times Abu Al Qacem Al Chabbi said “if one day people want to live, destiny must surely respond, darkness must disappear, chains must certainly break.” He also beautifully said:

Hey you, the unfair tyrant…
You the lover of the darkness…
You the enemy of life…
You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds;
and your palm covered with their blood
You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land

Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you…
Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming
Toward you from the horizon
Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash

Who grows thorns will reap wounds
You’ve taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope
And watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk
The blood’s river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

Abu Al Qacem Al Chabbi

الظالم المستبدّ

ألا أيها / حبيب الظلام عدو الحياه
سخرت بأنّات شعب ضعيف/ وكفّك مخضوبة من دماه
وسرتَ تشوه سحر الوجود/ وتبذر شوك الأسى في رباه

رويدك لا يخدعنك الربيع/ وصحو الفضاء وضوء الصباح
ففي الأفق الرحب هول الظلام/ وقصف الرعود و عصف الرياح
حذار فتحت الرماد اللهيب/ ومن يبذر الشوك يجنِ الجراح

تأمل هنالك أنى حصدتَ/ رؤوس الورى وزهور الأمل
وروّيتَ بالدم قلب التراب/ أشْربتَه الدمع حتى ثمل
سيجرفْك سيل الدماء/ ويأكلك العاصف المشتعل

أبو القاسم الشابي

Military tank decorated with bouquets of flowers given by civilians showing their gratitude for the military in protecting the people of Tunisia

3. What can anthropology and anthropologists bring to the understanding of the Arab Spring?

The challenges brought about by the ongoing popular Arab uprisings are numerous and the question now is whether they would bring the transformative radical change, the dignity and the freedom that Arab youth  are revolting for. As an anthropologist from Tunisia, I feel immensely stimulated yet overwhelmed by how exceptional and fast these political and socio-cultural events are unfolding. These events have made it clear that we live in a very compressed human society where local happenings are becoming more and more global through the various ways they quickly spread and diffuse. The interconnections between humans are intensifying entailing an urgent need from anthropologists to analyze, deconstruct, document and study them as transnational socio-cultural phenomena utilizing new anthropological models and research techniques. These uprisings, due to their intricacies and the controversial challenges that they represent are not only altering the geopolitical landscape in the region, but they are also capable of changing the structure and goals of the anthropological expedition in theory and practice. Anthropology can study the Arab uprisings using the tools of academia by engaging with a deep theoretical analysis and knowledge-based scrutinization of the events or by utilizing applied research methods serving the practical needs of the Arab societies.

As an anthropologist, as Tunisian and as Arab, I could not but become fully interested and engaged in the uprisings’ demands for socio-economic and political justice of not only Tunisians but also the million oppressed segments of Arab populations protesting against their respective despotic regimes. Through the holistic aspect of anthropological ethnographic qualitative methodology and by being participant observer, I was able to document a number of aspects of the Tunisian revolution by being there before and after it broke out. I was myself fully present in the street and at Al Quasba Square (in the capital Tunis) Mohamed Ali Square and Habib Bourguiba Avenue, side by side with the other demonstrators living extraordinary moments of peaceful, yet violent and free demonstrations identifying with the concerns of millions of other disfranchised Tunisians. I screamed against police brutality, held various banners and expressed my own discontent with the dictatorial regime of ben Ali and its tyranny.  As an anthropologist I still have much to say and write about the Arab uprisings and I have to admit that I cannot remain neural vis-à-vis what is going on in the Arab streets and feel obligated to assume an active role with regards to the human rights abuses taking place continuously in many locations of the Arab region and the world at large. In this context of the Arab uprisings, I feel that the classical ‘old fashioned’ debate of relativist and value-neutral anthropology is no longer making any sense when the issue at stake is human dignity, the absence of which, in my view, was the main catalyst of these historical revolts. Anthropologists, academic and applied alike, can have an important role in designing tools for the study and analysis of the Arab uprisings as socio-cultural phenomena through engaged ethnographic research that serves both; the needs of science as well as society. The anthropological study of the ongoing uprisings requires a new paradigm that merges problem solving with theory and praxis establishing an anthropological expedition that is rooted in basic academic research vested with an applied action in addressing the Arab “Spring” phenomena.