It’s the middle of the afternoon when we arrive at the tiny family apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Tunis. Um Ahmed cracks open the door when we arrive, ushers us in and quickly slams the door shut. She then closes a second steel gate, which she had installed after her son Ahmed was arrested.
Ahmed is a rapper, whose performing name is Klay BBJ. And he is on the run: A song he performed with another rapper got the pair convicted of insulting the police and harming public morality. The gist of the song is in the chorus: The police are dogs. The rest is too profane to repeat, but it speaks to a grievance many Tunisians share — that despite the promise of the Arab Spring, the region’s often-brutal police forces have yet to be reformed.
Ahmed plays video of the moment her son was arrested after performing the song at a summer festival. “Look,” she says in Tunisian Arabic. “Look, he’s laughing.”
Later she says Ahmed and the other rapper, Weld El 15, were beaten in custody and released. They were never informed of a trial date. In their absence, they were convicted and sentenced to year and nine months in prison. They are now in hiding while their lawyers file an appeal.
Um Ahmed says she’s proud of her son. She says he’s not a criminal; he sings about the oppressed. She asks, “Why did we have a revolution? For freedom of speech, for dignity.”
But she says she knew the police would come after Ahmed. Some months before he was arrested, two plainclothes policemen walked up to her and told her to tell her son to stay out of politics — to stop rapping. Now, she says, she and her daughters rarely leave the house.
I ask Ahmed’s sister whether she expected this in the new Tunisia. “I don’t think we will ever be free in Tunisia,” she replies.
Human Rights Watch says this case is one of a string of prosecutions aimed at suppressing freedom of speech. Laws authoritarian leaders in Tunisia once used to silence opponents are now being used again and again.
“Slowly and increasingly, we see a restriction and shrinking of the space for media and for freedom of expression through the prosecution of artists, bloggers, journalists, et cetera under the penal code,” says Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia researcher.
Guellali says broad-brush laws against offenses such as “harming public morals,” “disrupting public order” or “defaming public institutions” are being used to shut people up: “There was a string of other prosecutions over the last year that is worrying and increases the alarm that the space for freedom of expression is shrinking.”
Across town in a suburb of Tunis, Nadia Jelassi listens to her son play piano. She is a sculptor; her white hair is cut short and her home is filled with paintings and sculptures from local artists. She, too, is facing charges of harming public order that could land her in jail for as much as five years.
She says, ‘“After the revolution we were happy, there were more exhibitions, there was more space for art.” But then, she says, ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis began harassing artists and shutting down exhibits.
Last year a group of Salafis attacked an exhibition featuring her scultpture, calling it blasphemous. Instead of going after the attackers, the state charged her with disrupting public order.
Jelassi says art is about pushing the boundaries and questioning authority — art mustdisturb the peace. But those who are doing that, she says, are being silenced.