It’s Monday morning and we are in the Lafayette district of Tunis, on our way to meet Moncef Ben M’Rad, the editor and owner of Akhbar al Joumhouria, an Arabic weekly newspaper in Tunis.
Lafayette is a busy quarter of shops, cafes, and dilapidated five-story apartment buildings, many of them white stucco or plaster with window frames and shutters painted baby blue, and balconies crowded with clotheslines and satellite dishes.
At ground level, we’re stuck in traffic in possibly the worst rental car in Tunis. When my fixer Zied isn’t shifting in and out of gear or checking his watch, he’s restarting the engine, which dies whenever he releases the clutch. We gave ourselves 20 minutes to make this 16-block trip and still we are late.
It’s not just Lafayette—the traffic all over Tunis is a mess. Before the revolution there were police offices on every corner. Now the streets are like a fairground parking lot after a rock show, with the added chaos of pedestrians crossing wherever and whenever they please, often without looking. They brush against the bumpers of cars that have stopped an instant before knocking them down.
“Look!” Zied says at one especially clogged intersection. “We have freedom now! Everyone is free! No rules!”
When we get our chance to go, Zied steps gently off the clutch and the engine dies again.
“This car is a piece of rubbish,” he says. “Tomorrow, I’ll get us a better car.”
Before the revolution, Tunis’s privately owned weekly papers followed a common house style: A picture of Ben Ali on the front page—receiving a dignitary, handing out a medal, or maybe enjoying a nice meal—and articles inside that had nothing to do with politics, or, if they did, only criticized the regime obliquely. Zied tells me that Akhbar Al Joumhouria was more critical of the government than other private papers. It didn’t always run the picture, it regularly criticized the government (although indirectly), and sometimes it actually reported stories of the ruling family’s criminality.
The true opposition papers were the newspapers of the opposition political parties, most notably the papers published by the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and El Attajdid. They wrote openly and critically of the regime, but had to fight constantly just to get their papers on the streets.
When he welcomes us into his office, Ben M’Rad directs us to a couch and two chairs around a small coffee table. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind us are completely full. Ben M’Rad is an elegant and energetic 60-something man. He received a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne (he studied Nietszche), and went into journalism because it represented, in his words, an intellectual bridge between the theoretical and the real. He’s been the editor of Al Jourmalia for 19 years. He answers most of my questions in English. When he slips into French, Zied translates for me.
“What was it like being the editor of a newspaper operating under a repressive authoritarian regime?” I ask.
“We were like schizophrenics,” Ben M’Rad says. “There were two persons in every individual. And these two people wished for completely different things. It created a violent pressure inside of us. We couldn’t even discuss things within our own families. That was the extent of the fear. The fear was like a ghost that was always with us.”
“And now?” I ask.
“Now the person inside can come out. Now we are free.”
“How has the revolution changed your work, and the work of your staff?” I ask.
“Before,” he says, “we wrote under the line.” He repeats the last three words for emphasis: “Under the line.”
“You know the expression?” Zied asks me.
“In English, it would be between the lines,” I say.
“Exactly,” M’Rad says.
“But now we can write on the line. Now we can write what we want.”
I ask if the paper was ever bothered by the government.
“Oh yes,” Ben M’Rad says. When I ask for an example, he takes a moment to answer, and then describes a time when a brother of Leila Tribelsi, Ben Ali’s reviled second wife, seized a Tunis factory so he could enjoy its income. When Akhbar Al Joumhouria ran the story, government officials removed every copy of that week’s issue from the stands.
I ask about the kinds of stories the paper used to run, and the stories it is running now (mostly on Ben Ali’s corruption and the upcoming constituent assembly elections). Finally, I’m down to my last question.
“Is there anything you would like to say to readers in the United States, or elsewhere in the West, who might see my articles?”
Ben M’Rad draws himself back in thought, puts his hands to his cheeks, and is quiet for several moments.
“I would ask one thing,” he says. “That Americans and Arabic people must break the picture.”
In response to my confused expression, he offers an explanation.
“When I see you,” he says, pointing to me, “I see a picture of an American. Similarly,” he says, “when you see me, you see a picture of an Arab.” He traces a square in the air with his forefingers.
“When you see an Arab, you may think ‘petrol’ or ‘markets,’ or some other image. But we are also poets, and writers. We also know how to love.”
As he speaks, I’m thinking of the Salafis from the day before, standing in front of the theater in their traditional dress, chanting against the free expression of an idea. They are a ready-made image for Western consumption, the very image M’Rad is encouraging me to look beyond.
“We must break the picture,” he says again, nodding. “That is the most important thing.”