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The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

October 27, 2014
Ferid Boughedir - December, 2011, La Marsa

Ferid Boughedir – December, 2011, La Marsa

(Latest in a series)

1.

Our reunion of sorts was in La Marsa, Tunisia in December, 2011. Zine Ben Ali, wife Leila Trabelsi and members of their two clans had been gone from the country for almost a year. Tunisians were both relieved and confused. In a country where previously people rarely talked politics to foreigners for fear of the consequences, now free speech flourished. A person would be hard pressed those days not to talk politics; it was hard to find anyone who had anything but contempt for the Ben Alis and Trabelsis. But now the near quarter decade of mounting economic woes, seething repression and corruption on a grand scale was over.

But it was a strange time as well. A wave of religiosity soon overwhelmed addressing the socio-economic crisis as a coalition of Islamic forces, some moderate, others of a more radical Salafist bent, spread throughout the country, a trend at odds with Tunisia’s moderate and more politically secular modern political traditions. Ennahdha, the moderate Islamic Party, headed by Rachid Ghannouchi had emerged from the shadows of the Ben Ali regime as a disciplined and organized political force. With its fraternal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling circles in Qatar and Turkey, Ennahdha benefited from considerable outside funding from these regional allies. The Salafists enjoyed financial and other support from the Saudis and other Persian Gulf emirates. In short order more radical Islamicists had taken over many of the country’s mosques, replacing – purging would be a more apt description – more moderate imams with more Salafist (and in many cases, more poorly trained) brethren. These elements had also taken over the pre-schools. Having gained such status, the new more radical imams began influencing the country’s youth, especially in Tunisia’s western and southern more impoverished regions, but not only there.

Eleven months after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, many of the country’s more secular personalities found themselves being threatened almost daily. “We’re watching you.” “You’re next.” from unknown voices on cell phones. Art exhibits were trashed as were marabouts (holy sites dedicated to Moslem (and some Jewish!!) pious ones. Critics of Islamic fundamentalist bigotry in the media, film were beaten up while women were threatened for drinking wine in local restaurants or not wearing head scarfs. These fascist elements – in the name of religious purity – had already, by December, 2011 when I visited Tunisia, been unleashed upon a generally unsuspecting and unprepared Tunisian public. They left me even then with a deeply uncomfortable and ambivalent sense of Tunisia’s future – hope mingled with concern, if not fear.

All this combined with the understanding that the national discussion had turned from addressing the socio-economic crisis that had triggered the late 2010, early 2011 uprising in the first place to cultural questions – debates over religiosity versus secularism. It was as if the country’s future was being hijacked before my very eyes. The national discussion has shifted – and here Ennahdha  bore much responsibility  -from how to address youth unemployment, the polarization between the prosperity of the coastal urban areas (Bizerte, Tunis, Sousse, Sfax) and the decaying and ignored interior – to the appropriateness of showing an animated Iranian-made movie that portrayed God, or Allah as a kindly old man. A collective vision, a common project for the country’s economic future did not exist except in small circles whose voice in the public sphere had been all but lost (but is resurfacing again now three wasted years later). Among those political forces with the least economic vision, again, was Ennahdha, the county’s “moderate” Islamic party and one whose weight in the political body politic was, until a few days ago, decisive.

December, 2011 - La Marsa Beach

December, 2011 – La Marsa Beach

2.

It was in this labile political environment of his country heading both towards and away from a bright future that, after a 43 year hiatus, I reconnected with my old friend, Ferid Boughedir for an afternoon and evening together in La Marsa, suburb of Tunis north of the capitol known in days of yore (when I lived in Tunisia – late 1960s) for its quiet surroundings and fine beaches. Boughedir had long before emerged as one of Tunisia’s most well known film directors having directed a series of films exploring his country’s post-colonial cultural processes. Among his more well-known, more in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe than here in the USA, were Halfouine, Boy of the Terraces, Camera d’Afrique, Une Ete a La Goulette (A Summer In La Goulette).

Halfouine, about a 12-year-old boy coming of age, is considered a classic among Tunisians, the film’s title taken from the name of the multi-cultural working class neighborhood of Tunis where Boughedir was born and where he grew up with his parents, sister Samira and brother Farouk, both of whom I was also acqainted “back in the day.”Halfouine was a mixed neighborhood, Italian and Greek Christians, Jews, and of course Moslems in which the different ethnicities lived in constant contact with one another in relative harmony during the dying days of French colonial rule in the 1950s and early 1960s. Boughedir’s world is the opposite of a fanatic – religious, political cultural – one . It is, instead, a world rich in genuine respect for the diverse cultural and historical strand, which merge into what today is Tunisian culture. His films reveal a deeply tender humanist who cares for that great diversity which is the human condition, and in that way, he brings forth in his films, tender, quite funny, profound a Tunisian slice of the human condition.

Beyond that, Boughedir brings to all his films profound insights into the main themes of Tunisian culture, its extraordinary ability over centuries, if not millennia, to blend the traditional with the modern into a kind of harmonious cultural concert that exemplifies Tunisia’s long held position as a cultural crossroads. Ninety miles to its north across the Straits of Tunis lies Sicily which on a clear day from a hill in Cap Bon can been seen from the Tunisian coast. The country’s ties with Italy, actually historically far more important than those with France that colonized it in 1881, are of long-standing. On a north-south axis, Tunisia connects Sicily and through it Europe with sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia’s coastal cities – Tunis, Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax were all transit points in the Europe – sub Saharan caravan trade, far richer and more significant than most Euro-Americans appreciate. On an East-West axis the country is half way between Morocco and the Spanish coast on the one hand and Egypt and the Middle East heartland on the other. If today the country is overwhelmingly both Sunni Moslem, Arabic speaking, still Tunisia’s history, like its geography, is read in layers – Berber, Phoenician, Sephardic Jewish, Byzantine Christian, Sunni, Shi’ite Muslim, Ottoman Turk, even Spanish for a short period during the rule of Philip II, French – all have left their marks on the country’s history, culture, psyche. Boughedir, like most Tunisians, understands, celebrates the fusion of these historical and cultural strains that woven together make up modern Tunisia.

Ferid Boughedir and I lost touch long ago. but I was not surprised that arriving in Tunis in late November, 2011, and making new contacts, not just one, but a number of them had his phone number and were more than willing to share it with me. I called, we arranged to meet in downtown La Marsa, where, on so many wonderful summer days in the late 1960s I had gone to the beach with Peace Corps friends whose names came back to me as the suburban train that took me there reached its destination: Gerry Auel, Dahlia Karaluite, Bob Stam, Kent Middleton, Dan Cetinich, Phil Jones, Stan Suski, Jim Herzog among others. Ferid and I met at a bookstore near the La Marsa train station; he showed me his home, I took a bunch of pictures, we went off to an Italian restaurant. Afterward, we went to a local art gallery reception where I met some Tunisian artists, sculptors and other cultural figures, his friends, but mostly we walked through the streets of La Marsa, walking, talking, talking, walking as afternoon tumbled into a cool mild early December evening.

We talked of the past; he gave me his take on the liberating but confusing situation in Tunisia in those early “post Ben Ali” days, but mostly he spoke about what he knows best – Tunisian culture, his lifetime love affair with the culture of his people, his country, that great melange mentioned above, a kind of cultural “cous cous”, human cultural stew. And as he talked my memory of “the old Ferid” came back to me full force. He had always had what I would describe as an explosively creative mind, yet his descriptions, his analyses were down to earth, understandable , and always, always, always with that gentle sense of humor, a kind of tenderness that emerges in all of his films which are both profound and touchingly funny.

Author and Ferid Boughedir, December, 2011

Author and Ferid Boughedir, December, 2011

3.

How did Rouen, France, that urban metropolis between Le Havre and Paris on the Seine River, get into this?

Ferid Boughedir and Rob Prince first met, not in Tunis, but in Rouen, sometime between October, 1964 and early June 1965, that fateful year Prince studied in that Normandy political and cultural center. I had difficulty remembering precisely when it was that we connected, but after wracking my brain finally “the where” somehow bubbled up from the depth of my being. It was at the Rouen “Cine-Club” (film club), where else would one run into Ferid? These film clubs were already in the mid-1960s very popular throughout France. Going to a cine-club film was a different from going to the movies in the United States, at least in those days. Although today it is not uncommon to have a post-film discussion at American film festivals – such as the excellent Denver Film Festival here in Colorado – in the 1960s such events were rare in the USA, but already widespread tradition in France. Virtually every French city had one, including Rouen. It met in a small movie theater a stone throw’s away from the city’s great cathedral, made famous internationally by Claude Monet’s many impressionistic renditions of it. Memory can play tricks, confuse reality with wishful thinking but if mine serves me well (admittedly questionable), the Rouen Cine-Club met on Sunday evenings. I do remember leaving the movie theater at night in the dark.

Did I approach Ferid, or he me? I am guessing it was the latter and not the former. Did we speak in English, a language in which he was already proficient or was it in French? Mine was pretty primitive in those days. Here my memory fails me. But what does return loud and clear was his personality. He was short in stature and if I remember correctly sported a goatee in those days. He was so open, so full of life, knowledgeable, intellectually very, very sharp, not at all shy. Our main social connection in those days was the Cine-Club. In fact I don’t remember seeing him outside of those occasions, but over the course of several months we would meet prior to the showings and sit together during the films. Ferid liked to sit in the first row. I didn’t. It strained my neck. I asked him why it had to be the first row. He answered presciently enough, “I don’t want to just watch the film, I want to be in the screen. Unfortunately for the moment, this is as close as I can get.”

Ferid liked to sit in the first row. I didn’t. It strained my neck. I asked him why it had to be the first row. He answered presciently enough, “I don’t want to just watch the film, I want to be in the screen. Unfortunately for the moment, this is as close as I can get.”

Many of the films we saw that year were French “nouveau vague” (new wave) films, films of Godard, Resnais. These films were, predictably enough, very much the opposite of American films of the period,. They were dark, dense films, highly symbolic, depressing critiques of life in advanced capitalist countries, piercing through the Doris Day like happy talk and sentimentality of the American gendre. Like many Americans, I had trouble understanding them, would miss the symbolism or the message of the director’s eye. In fact, I specialized in missing the message of those films at the time. They were enigmas for me, hardly easier than doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. But Ferid absorbed and understood everything, especially what the director was trying to convey and how he or she was trying to convey it. He would explain the films to me, both the plots and the more technical aspects of film that modern day connoisseurs like to get lost in. I would respond “oh”. He must be brilliant, I thought, to understand modern French cinema.

Ferid was also the first North African, the first Tunisian I ever met, a worthy introduction to the people and culture? Was he studying in Rouen at the time like I was? I don’t remember. What I do remember though was that he was very poor,, living in Rouen on a shoestring budget, but somehow getting by. Besides actually understanding Godard’s films, he was also the first person who ever asked me if I knew what is socialism. I had no idea at the time, nor frankly did I know much about capitalism either. He didn’t advocate socialism, just asked me what I knew about it. No hard sell, but my curiosity was provoked. If Ferid knew so much about cinema he must know about politics too, I reasoned.

He also very much wanted, like many French friends I made that year, to visit the United States. Could I help him? Well I didn’t understand Godard but sure I could help him arrange a trip, at least to New York City where my family lived. My mother, still living in Queens with my sisters and her second husband, Nathan Kaye, agreed to host him. And so, soon after our year in Rouen ended, Ferid arrived in New York City. He came with his French friend Bruno. I don’t remember spending much time with them in New York City nor how long they stayed with my family because I had to head back to college in Canton, New York in September of 1965 when they arrived in the USA, but in classic fashion, Ferid, like a series of foreign friend who came and stayed with my mother, soon ran out of money and asked to borrow some from my mother, who was always obliging and generous in response. For years afterwards though, my mother would speak of Ferid with much respect, he, having been the only foreign (mostly French) friend who stayed with the family who actually paid her back!

Ferid Boughedir at home...

Ferid Boughedir at home…

Shortly thereafter, in September of 1966, our paths would cross again, this time, not in Rouen nor Jamaica, Queens, but in Tunis.

The day I came home having graduated from college in June, 1966, I found on the kitchen table in our family’s home, two invitations for foreign travel. They were both generous offers – two all expense paid tours so to speak. The one was my draft notice, a probable ticket to Vietnam. The other was an invitation to join the Peace Corps in Tunisia. I agonized – Tunisia or Vietnam?  – my indecision lasted no more than a milli-second. While the jungles of Vietnam  assured an adventure fulled two years, I preferred building bridges to blowing them up and opted – on the spot to accept the Peace Corps invite. In early September in a charted TWA jet plane a group of some 250 new Peace Corps volunteers deplaned at Tunis Airport. As I got off the plane, I remember the heat wave nearly knocked me out. Within weeks, I had  reconnected with my friend Ferid. He had held my hand intellectually in Rouen and walked me through the murkey world of French cinema. Now for the next two and a half years he would be my cultural guide , the best one an American graduate of a liberal arts college with no marketable skills could ask for, to explaining the wonders that make up Tunisian culture. Might not sound like much, but it changed my life. More on that later. Maybe.

_______________________

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 1

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – Ahmed Ben Bella

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 3 – Robert Merle, October 1964 in Rouen

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 4 – Fortunes de France Translated Into English

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 5 – City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles – Arques La Bataille – Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles – Amsterdam – 1965

Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August, 1942 – Part One

Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August, 1942 – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage

15 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim permalink
    November 4, 2014 3:30 am

    Awesome journey, Rob .

    I just wanted to comment on the period where you taught English, in Tunisia . As a matter of fact, I had during that same period, three US english teachers at junior high (lycee), two of whom I could trace their names on the Peace Corps website, but couldn’t find the name of my third teacher . The location was in the Sousse-region, and thus not in Tunis, nonetheless her name should have been mentioned . I’m still grateful to her for the way she made me choose English as a 2d foreign language, while most students, back then, traded English for Italian . My other two first teachers, were Mrs Miller and Mr Levesque, whom you would have probably known . Hope they’re doing well, after such a long time . Time flies !!! But it would also be fine to know how (Miss) Primm is doing (her name wasn’t on the P.C list) .

Trackbacks

  1. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964 – | Rob Prince's Blog
  2. Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella. | Rob Prince's Blog
  3. Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965 | Rob Prince's Blog
  4. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe | Rob Prince's Blog
  5. The Rouen Chronicles: The Dieppe – 2 The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One | Rob Prince's Blog
  6. The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos | Rob Prince's Blog
  7. The Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1 |
  8. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English |
  9. The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage Rou |
  10. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe |
  11. Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood |
  12. The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe-2-the-botched-dieppe-raid-of-august-17-1942-in-two-parts-part-two/ |
  13. Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes |
  14. Tunisian Filmmaker Ferid Boughedir’s “Parfum de Printempts” – The Sweet Smell of Spring – Opens in Washington D.C. |

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