Kasserine, Tunisia – The only things visible on the road to Kasserine on a winter night are the headlights of traffickers’ trucks, smuggling in cheap fuel and electronics from Algeria.
Upon arrival, there is little to see of Kasserine city in central Tunisia other than the lights of a petrol station, just across from an upscale but underused hotel, and the central prison.
With the rising sun, the main streets filled with motorbikes coughing out exhaust in the frigid mountain air, mule carts, and yellow taxis. Despite the cold weather, men dotted cafe terraces, sipping lukewarm coffee and smoking cigarettes.
Life in the Tunisian interior is little different now than three years ago at the start of the Arab uprisings. Unemployment remains extremely high , infrastructure is brittle, and media attention focuses on military skirmishes with rebel groups, such as those in Jabel Chaambi just west of Kasserine.
Streets Festival Kasserine 2013 – the first edition of a hip-hop arts festival held last month – aimed to break the area’s political and economic isolation.
Founder Karim Jabbari, who returned to Kasserine after 14 years in Montreal, Canada, said the festival was “an opportunity for the youth of Kasserine to finally show off their talents”.
The festival brought together international artists from hip hop and beyond, including the likes of French rapper Medine, Iraqi-Canadian rap duo The Narcicyst and Sandhill, and Chilean muralist Saile One. For five days, they gave workshops and performances for Kasserine’s youth.
Everything is possible, people say. I'd heard it before, but it seemed false in Kasserine. But when we met the artists, we saw what they can do. Now there's a flame of hope here in Kasserine.
Socially engaged art
“I believe self-expression through any art medium in underrepresented communities is extremely important, but often overlooked,” said photographer Tamara Abdul Hadi, who hails from Iraq but grew up in Montreal.
Abdul Hadi – who conducted two photography workshops during the festival, and was the only non-Tunisian female artist to participate – perhaps best embodied the spirit of the festival.
“I flip things and put the camera in their hands,” Abdul Hadi told Al Jazeera , thereby allowing participants to have creative control. “What you hope for is that [the participating youth] see that it’s possible to have a voice.”
Abdul Hadi is not new to socially engaged art. Her project “Self Portraits from Inside Palestine” in 2011 attempted to give people in the West Bank city of Ramallah control over their own image by doing self-portraits.
She said the festival can restore hope to Kasserine’s impoverished community. “I’ve personally witnessed the impact art can have on the marginalised,” she said.
On the festival’s opening day, at a meeting between artists and local youth, a group of young graffiti artists and rappers sat at a table hoping to meet some of the big names.
Iheb Bouazzi, a 17-year-old from Kasserine, began painting before Tunisia’s revolution ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“I chose to get into graffiti because it helps me find peace, to get my frustrations out. Doing graffiti used to get you in trouble. Six months ago I was taken into court. I was expressing my opinion because I don’t do just any graffiti – mine is against the system.”
But instead of provoking further tensions between Tunisia’s poor and the authorities, which have simmered since the revolution three years ago, the festival aims to help locals work out their frustrations peacefully.
On the festival’s second day, the courtyard of the city’s youth centre was packed with break dancers contorting themselves in an old-school breakdance battle. In spite of the chill, dancers pulled off their shirts before plunging onto the mat while classic funk riffs played from the DJ booth behind them. The competition was fierce, but the B-boys kept the battle peaceful, throwing fake blows at one another and dodging them with laughs.
see that it’s possible to have a voice.”]
‘Flame of hope’
Canadian-Iraqi rapper The Narcicyst and French rapper Medine entered a school and took turns freestyle rapping in Arabic, French and English. The audience grew so big that it poured out of the venue’s doors.
Amine Guesmi, 16, helped record a documentary on the festival with a visiting film-maker. He said the event left its mark. “When the festival opened kids in Kasserine said, ‘Wow, it’s in my town?’ They became proud of where they’re from.”
Saifeddine El Aloui is a young graffiti artist and actor from Kasserine who helped run the festival.
“We in Kasserine, we were always doing the same routine. Even if someone had a talent, he couldn’t do anything about it. There was nothing to encourage us,” Aloui said.
Some young people from particularly rough neighbourhoods, said Aloui and Guesmi, were influenced by hardline preachers from local mosques who attempted to recruit them into jihadist groups. In such an environment, it was easy to feel there was nowhere to go, they said.
Those youth who participated said they will keep practicing their art, whether breakdancing, rap, DJing, or graffiti.
“Everything is possible, people say. I’d heard it before, but it seemed false in Kasserine,” Aloui said. “But when we met the artists, we saw what they can do. Now there’s a flame of hope here in Kasserine.”