Culture

Politics and Resilience in a Tunis Salon


In her film “Ain’t No Time for Women,” Sarra El Abed recalls some of the days before the 2019 Tunisian Presidential election. A group of women gather at a hair salon in the city of Tunis, where El Abed grew up. They lounge, gossip, and cajole one another about the merits of the different candidates. A day passes, or maybe more. “In the editing process, we didn’t want people to feel as if the days were passing,” El Abed told me. The result is a film that captures the distinct slowing of time that seems to happen in such moments of nervous anticipation. The election was only the second one after the ouster of the former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; for the women in the film it’s a relatively new experience to go into an election where the name of the winner is not known in advance.

Ennahda, an Islamic-leaning political party, has been gaining popularity since the protests of 2011, and some of the women are worried what that might mean for women’s rights in the country. When the youngest woman in the salon, an eighteen-year-old about to vote for the first time, announces that she’s voting for the Ennahda candidate, the older women are dismayed. “I’m going to cut your hair really, really short for that stupid thing you’re planning to do,” a hairdresser immediately tells her. Other women chime in. They air their fears about what the conservative party would do, recalling allegations of violence that have circulated about Ennahda but have been impossible to verify. The younger woman pushes back. Talking about their dire political disagreements, the women remain high-spirited—a balance that is characteristic of the tenor of the film.

Throughout the documentary, dialogue is fast, snarky, and energetic. El Abed also uses a wide palette of colors, paying homage to some of her favorite filmmakers: Pedro Almodóvar and Agnès Varda. “In general, in my films, I really love when they’re colorful, even when the subject is really hard,” El Abed told me. The result is a film that captures not only a political moment but an almost national temperament, one that leads with sarcasm and levity in the face of adversity. “They have this way of making anything funny,” El Abed said, describing her fellow-Tunisians.

This predilection for buoyancy felt immediately recognizable to me. I grew up not too far away, in Egypt, where the proverb “stay light, you float” was widely repeated counsel. I thought about this collective affect for years—how entire genres of the region’s music match sad lyrics with dissonantly happy tunes. It often felt like a great gentleness, a spirited way of expressing disaffection without wearing the audience out. With time, I’ve grown to also recognize that it is a form of courage: a vigilance against the solicitations of dejection and despair. Sombre lyrics spotlight the hardship that made it necessary to adopt such willful cheer. It can be easy to misread this commitment to lightheartedness as blithe or flippant, to forget that it also calls for great tenderness. People who develop this kind of resilience do so because they need to. And El Abed captures her characters’ grit with tart precision. The film gives a clear nod to the nervousness that the women are experiencing, but never falls in the cracks of defeatism or melancholy.

It was important for El Abed to seize this animated resolve in the film. Her grandmother, who stars in the documentary, has frequented the salon for decades, and El Abed would sometimes go with her as a young girl. She knew many of the women in the salon in the way that you know people you get to spend unstructured time with. “It comes from them,” she said, of the film’s defiant exuberance. “It’s something that they taught me. They have this way of seeing things in such a positive way. And, knowing that, I knew that the movie had to be positive.” At the end of the film, the salon’s clients’ most preferred candidate loses, but they get up to dance anyway. “They get up to dance because tomorrow is another day, and if something comes at us we’ll fight back.”

When the documentary was first released, the Presidential elections were over, but the Tunisian parliament was struggling to form. The winner and current President, Kais Saied, has since made controversial moves to consolidate his power. In July, he suspended the parliament and the cabinet, quickly installed a new Prime Minister, and announced that he will rule by decree. It’s hardly in doubt that democracy in Tunisia is on the rocks at the moment, but, despite the setbacks, El Abed remains cautiously sanguine about Tunisia’s political future. “​​I still have lots of hope,” she told me. “Of course, right now so many things aren’t going so well, but I feel that the population has so much strength and that they will be able to get through all of this. It takes time for a country to get better after a revolution, so I feel that what’s happening right now is temporary. Of course, I might be too optimistic!”


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