The music that reveals a rift in Tunisia

Singer at an event in Tunis, August 2014

From traditional Sufi strains to pop, Tunis has it all – but these different types of music reflect deep divisions within Tunisian society. Rifts over class and religion are revealed when you take a closer look at what people are listening to.

“You should go to the electronic music fest at Carthage,” the American aid worker said. “You’ll never see so many Muslims on ecstasy.”

So of course I went. In fact there wasn’t a pill in sight – maybe I was there too early but it was an interesting crowd for all that.

“Would this be the liberal, rich elite?” I asked a young, trendily-dressed man who told me he was an architect.

“Yeah, well actually a sub-group of them. The artists. The avant garde,” he said. As he spoke various friends walked past saying “hi”.

A woman got out of a huge SUV and dropped an insulated bag. Cans of cool beer rolled on the ground. A doorman spotted them and wagged his finger. She swore under her breath shrugged her shoulders, gathered the cans and put them back in the car.

The concert was in Carthage cathedral, the stained glass windows obscured by a vast screen with 3D images of abstract shapes throbbing in time to the music.

On the stage two musicians stood almost motionless behind laptops. It sounded like the Doctor Who theme slowed down 20 times and flattened out a bit. Or perhaps the beginning of a Pink Floyd song but never getting to the point.

“Boring isn’t it?” the architect said.

The concert in Carthage cathedralMy second concert of the evening

The audience, mostly in their 20s, were so cool they verged on listlessness. Couples cuddled and lit cigarettes, the smoke rising into the cathedral’s vaults.

It was actually my second concert of the evening. The first had been in the splendid, if somewhat faded, French-built National Theatre in Tunis.

That was Sufi music, “the music of our grandparents”, one man told me.

And it was a solidly middle-class affair with men in slightly dishevelled suits and ties, their wives with headscarves and bulky coats. Some had come with children.

If you’ve ever heard Sufi music you might think of it as a poignant, searing, soulful sound – the stuff of introspection and reflection.

But this was more packaged than plaintive – with 50 or so men crammed on the stage, flashing lights, enough tambourines to raise the roof and even dancing girls flicking their long hair from side to side.

The women in the audience may have looked the very definition of bourgeois respectability but as the evening wore on they could not resist – they bobbed a bit at first and then swayed a little, some standing up.

Then a few even got into the aisles and threw some shapes. Really.

I went with a Pakistani who lives in Tunis. “I don’t find it a spiritual experience,” she said, looking at the audience now moving in unison to the heavy beat, the women ululating and the men cheering. “But it seems they do,” she added.

Ecstasy without any chemicals.

So the laid back upper classes, the enthusiastic middle classes and elsewhere there is a different music scene, in one of Tunis’s poorest neighbourhoods where Salafis are well established, recruiting young men to fight jihad in Syria.

A hill near the Syrian town of Kobane where Kurdish fighters are battling Islamic State   A hill near the Syrian town of Kobane where Kurdish fighters are battling Islamic State

I met an art teacher who is challenging that by organising some music and dance workshops.

I watched an 18-year-old, Naseem, sing in front of a group of about 20, including some giggling, swooning young women.

He told me: “The extremists invade our personal freedom, saying we should fight. But what of the agony of the parents and siblings left behind? Do they think of them?”

“They leave me alone,” said one his friends, “they know I like alcohol too much.”

I did meet a man in Tunis who had renounced such worldly pleasures. Abu Mujahid, as he called himself, was just back after several months fighting for Islamic State.

The slight and softly spoken 20-year-old wore a balaclava. “I don’t trust the media,” he said, “you might try to photograph me.” He spoke about his desire to die a martyr.

“I’m a journalist. In Syria your group beheads people like me,” I said.

“A journalist was killed because he misled people with false stories,” he replied, “like you maybe.”

I have been talking to people like Abu Mujahid for more than 15 years.

In Islamabad – before 9/11 – I used to have a cup of tea each week with a young militant who came to my home to chat – we both wanted to understand each other.

Not that we ever did really. I heard later he died fighting in Afghanistan.

But it’s all different now. Abu Mujahid’s generation is battle-hardened. Today’s jihadis are so convinced and so self-righteous they won’t listen to anyone.

While the West is rolling with the punches in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria, assuming that, somehow, eventually reason will prevail, the jihadis see something else: a series of glorious, God-given victories.

Their confidence is growing.

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