Eyes alert, lips painted, nails brightly coloured, T-shirts with cheeky prints, jewellery, elegant ballerina shoes, fashionable bags hanging from your shoulders. Plus the headscarves. And everything colour coordinated. My first impressions of you. And that the two of you always stick together – whether inside in the air-conditioned conference room or outside under the scorching sun during the breaks.
What brought us together last year in Tunis was the best idea human beings have ever come up with: democracy … based on the conviction that our lives will be better if we play a part in shaping them; that dignity demands that we should be respected as citizens – by having our voices heard. Tunisia is the only Arab country so far to have incorporated the convictions of its insurrectionary people into a new, modern constitution.
During the conference you sent countless tweets with the hashtags #globfor15 and #citizenpower into digital orbit. Your shorthand messages on the speeches and high-profile debates at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy made a significant contribution to generating interest far beyond Tunisia in this first conference on democracy in an Arab country.
I was at the Global Forum as a journalist working for SwissInfo, which operates an internet platform for participatory democracy and active citizenship in ten languages and which was a co-organiser of the Forum.
Three minutes difference
Your openness made it easy to record the conversation. “We’re twins”, Sana says. “Lamia is three minutes older than me”. I thought you were just sisters – as of course you are! Lamia is a little taller and has a somewhat fuller face. But your identical laughter convinces me: you really are twins, even if not at first glance.
Between the two of you you speak no less than eight languages. Arabic, Spanish, French and English are your ‘Twitter languages’. Then there’s German, Chinese, Turkish and Korean. The lady professor from Seoul, who used to join us for our morning coffee chat, immediately took you into her heart.
It wasn’t until the last day of the conference that I found out more about you. To begin with, your array of languages presented a difficult choice. Sorry!, Sana, that I had to pass on your favourite language – Spanish. Our conversation is carried on a shifting web of French, English and German.
Social Media – a free space
“What we like about Twitter is that it allows you to share information very quickly. And it’s more trustworthy than Facebook”, say the twins, who both respond to my questions. Sana mainly follows journalists – but also celebrities. One of them – the Saudi journalist and TV presenter Abdullah Abdulaziz Elmdifer – also took part in the Global Forum.
Lamia and Sana have been using social media since 2009. “Facebook is a very important medium in Tunisia, because it made it possible for us to express our opinions freely – especially when it came to expressing solidarity with the martyrs and and their families – but also as a place for sharing prayers”, says Sana.
The sisters did not experience the revolution – which culminated on 14 January 2011 in the overthrow of the hated despot Ben Ali – in the capital, Tunis. “At the time we were studying at Moknine University in Monastir”, says Lamia. “When the holidays came, we returned home, because that was the time of fear and guns, of blood and corpses”. Some 220 people were killed by the security forces during the uprising.
The headscarf as an achievement of the revolution
I pick up the catchword ‘revolution’ and ask what it has brought them. “Some things have changed for us. Since then, Muslim women like us have been able to wear the headscarf. Before the revolution that was forbidden”. Anyone who broke the law was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. But, the twins say, “we only go to the mosque occasionally on a Friday or during Ramadan – the month in which we were born”.
The twins come orginally from Kasserine, a city in central Tunisia with a population of around 80,000. A place with no opportunities and no development – but with a high percentage of people who cannot read or write. Their father has a fruit and vegetable stall. Just like Mohamed Bouazizi, who at the beginning of 2011 set fire to himself out of hopelessness and anger at the perpetual harassment of the authorities – and launched the so-called “Arab Spring”.
Beethoven yes: Blunt no
In Tunis the twins are studying Literature and Civilisation at Manouba University. From the very first class we have always sat next to each other, says Lamia – right up to today, when we study the works of Taha Hussein, Hisham Algakh, Tamim Al-Barghouti, Mohamed Darwish, Nizar Kabbani, Khalil Gibran, Nagib Mahfouz, Ibn Rumi and Abu Taieb Al Moutanabbi.
Plato and the French authors Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and Balzac are on your curriculum, as well as Nietzsche and Heidegger. But your favourites are the Spanish- speaking authors like Miguel de Unamuno, Miguel de Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez and Ernesto Sabato.
I’m curious to know what your musical favourites are. I’m guessing traditional Tunisian music rather than pop and rock. But no – neither of these. “We really only listen to classical music and operas”, says Lamia. It’s Beethoven who tops – not James Blunt.
Like almost all the young people in the country, who account for at least 7 million of the 11.2 million total population, Sana and Lamia are disappointed by what has happened so far since the overthrow. “People went onto the streets to demand bread, work and decent living conditions. But unemployment is now higher than it was before”. Their greatest wish: to find work after graduating. “And to travel”, adds Sana.
But in reality the twins’ prospects are gloomy. Around half of all graduates have no job (45% or 350,000 individuals). The percentage of young female graduates who are unemployed is twice as high as that of their male colleagues. The three attacks of last year by Islamist terrorists in Tunis and Sousse, which left 74 people dead, caused a major setback for the country in its long and difficult path towards democracy. And a Tunisian court’s recent sentencing of young homosexuals to several years of imprisonment sent an alarming signal.
But back to the twins, who await an additional handicap. “Women who wear the headscarf are still routinely at a disadvantage when it comes to looking for a job”, says Sana. But the Noumi twins will never take their headscarves off again.
In Europe, the headscarf is seen as a symbol of the suppression of women in Islam. But for Lamia and Sana Noumi their headscarf is, on the one hand, a sign of the civil liberty that has been achieved – and thus also a sign of their commitment to a modern, democratic Tunisia; and on the other, it is a reflection of their religious-cultural identity. The twins bear public witness to both of these messages with equal self-confidence.
Our meeting was in many respects unusual, characterised by great warmth and openness on the part of Lamia and Sana. But I only realised later precisely what it was and is that makes you so special – when I was already back in Switzerland. You bring together quite effortlessly something that perhaps only artists succeed in doing: the Arab Enlightenment of the 7th-9th centuries and the European Enlightenment of a thousand years later; the social media as an instrument of social revolution and as a place for prayer; and the pride of your Tunisian identity together with your enthusiasm for European culture.
My wish for both of you is that someday you will realise your dream and be able to travel in reality to other countries. You have already made an impressive part of the world your own in your minds and hearts.
Renat Künzi is a journalist at swissinfo.ch in Berne, Switzerland. swissinfo.ch was the main media partner of last year’s Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Tunis that Democracy International had co-organised.
This piece was taken from people2power.info, the global platform for citizen journalism hosted by swissinfo.ch., which translated the article from German into English.