Arab World. Housing Rights under High Tension

Tunisia: In L’Ariana, Fast-Track Modernisation

In the town of L’Ariana to the north of Tunis, gentrification is proceeding at a fast pace. The poorer classes are gradually being pushed out and their old traditional homes replaced by flashy office towers and modern mansion blocks with no regard for the memories and lifestyle habits of old people.

In the historic centre of L’Ariana, a stone’s throw from the mausoleum of Sidi Ammar, the city’s patron saint, stand rows of houses built in the old style: a patio, an inner courtyard, and an upper floor traditionally known as the “Al-Ali.” Over the years, some of these homes have been sold and turned into modern multi-story mansion blocks while others are still holding out against dilapidation or reconversion projects. Soaring real estate prices in the neighbourhood has speeded up gentrification.

Mehreziya lived over sixty years in one of these houses. She was under thirty when she moved in. And now the old lady has no place to live. The new owners evicted her a month ago. Her meagre belongings, her clothing, her old keepsakes are piled up behind the walls of what was once her house, and she is now homeless. Here she is with her aunt Sarrah, both demonstrating on the pavement to defend her rights. Today, Mehreziya is staying with one of her daughters, a quarter of an hour’s walk from her former home. This neighbourhood was built recently. The house is meant to be modern, with its little front garden. We find the old lady reclining on a wooden bench, sadly conjuring up memories of the home from which she has been evicted.

I moved Into that house across from Sidi Ammar in 1961. Before that, I liVed in Tunis, near Lafayette. I was fond of that neighbourhood. Then we had to move to Kairouan, on account of my husband’s job. He was a truck driver for a mobile cinema. Then we went back to the capital. And my husband told me we were going to settle in L’Ariana. At first I did not like it there. But I stayed in that house until I was evicted.

“Where are you, Sidi Ammar?”

In her thin voice, fraught with emotion, the grandmother hums passages from an old song, written by Ali Riahi for the singer Fethia Kha. The lyrics of the chorus are in praise of the bracing air of L’Ariana and the benefits of the water from its springs. She remembers the mausoleum where each year women come to distil rose water and orange blossoms. Gazing up at the ceiling, she invokes the patron saint of the city: “Where are you, Sidi Ammar?”

Then she spends several long minutes talking about her landlord and the way he looked after her. About her Jewish neighbours who shared the rent with her before she became sole tenant. Then she recalls the walls of the mausoleum, which displayed a series of images illustrating the saga of Habib Bourguiba and the construction of the country, before these pictures were wiped away. Mehreziya speaks of her sons, one of whom has gone blind, and lingers tenderly over the other’s dark skin. Carried away by her memories, the old lady remembers her friendship with Oulaya, the singer, and with the wife of the late violinist Ridha Kalai. She is delighted to tell of the time she received the visit in her home of former ministers Chedly Kilibi and Mohamed Masmoudi. Her chakchouka, a little dish as spicy as it was popular, was especially appreciated by those two celebrities, she tells us. And there is pride in her voice as she tells us how her husband chauffeured such famous entertainers as Fahd Ballan, Farid El Atrache, Laure Daccache, Abdelhalim Hafez, Fairouz and Myriam Makeba on their Tunisian tours.

The day one of Oum Kalhoum’s concert was on television, she brought her set out in front of her house so the neighbours and passers-by could catch the show. “That was a merry day, everybody was dancing in front of my house,” she remembered. “The women on their way to the Ariana market used to drop in for a moment. I was in the habit of cooking little dishes for passers-by and poor people. In 1984, I opened my door for people chased by the police during the bread riots.”

But tears run down her face when this grandmother describes her eviction:

It was just before six in the morning. I was asleep in one bedroom and my sons were in the other. The police burst in. They chased the boys out first before evicting the rest of the family. It was chaos in my house. I was afraid my things would be damaged.

And the memory of that forced departure reopens old wounds.

It has been a long time since I have been back to Lafayette, the neighbourhood where I lived for years. I loved it there and it hurt me to leave it and the Italian friends I had there. I knew the singer Naâma. I took care of her children when she gave her shows. As for L’Ariana, I wish I had never lived there.

The grandmother sheds more tears remembering the way the local governor humiliated her when she went to him to complain about her eviction. “At first he promised to find a solution. But then he threatened to put me in an old people’s home. This government is not any better than Israel”, she says with conviction.

Memory demolition

Investors want to get hold of old properties in order to tear them down and build multi-story mansion blocks in their stead. The routine is familiar in the neighbourhood. Thus, a house just opposite Meherziya’s was sold and torn down to be replaced by a mansion block with a flashy facade. And in the same neighbourhood, the iconic Tunisian singer Oulaya’s house has made way for a brand-new building.

The memories of many residents of L’Ariana are buried thus beneath the ruins. Landlords scarcely ever lift a finger to keep their houses from going to ruin. They have an objective: they want to recover the land on which their houses are built in ways which will avoid the complications involved in evicting tenants who have often occupied the premises for many years.

There is not much left of the old town of L’Ariana, a traditionally rural community, with a history going back to the 13th century. The town has been disfigured by the new housing and shopping districts.

According to sociologist Foued Ghorbali, the government adopted a logic of expurgation vis-à-vis the rural population in order to protect the city’s modernistic look and is pursuing this logic in the old neighbourhoods. Thus, most Tunisian cities have been built in denial of their demographic character without even taking into account certain values. The sociologist deplores. Their founding principles are the consumer society and individualism. Besides which, as he points out, the individual as such is overwhelmed by offices and business buildings.

The rural populations were segregated in such a way as not to intrude upon the urban areas. And now the wealthy are storming the realm of the poor, overrunning their residential borders to build high-rises. Thus, these neighbourhoods are being encircled and their residents alienated because of the new lifestyle that is foisted on them, Ghorbaldi observes.

This rearrangement of public space generates violence against women, and the city, in its consumerist and individualistic form, provides opportunities for discrimination against women and against the individual in general.

Tunisian cities rest upon a type of urban planning founded on purely economic considerations, while the social and cultural dimensions have been totally neglected. “Having been stripped of their original environment and their memories, the residents of the historic centres feel deeply alienated,” the sociologist concludes.

The residents “stripped of their memories” in the scholar’s words, suffer greatly from their eviction by officialdom or by landlords and make no bones about it. Thus, Meherziya tells us how she suffered from having to move way from her neighbours and old acquaintances at the people’s market near her home. Modest though it was, her home was the repository of her memories. Thus, her granddaughter Rania Majdoub bemoans the fact that the government failed to step in to keep an old woman from being made homeless in the time of a serious epidemic.

The passivity of local authorities

As for the local authorities, they seem not to envisage helping vulnerable inhabitants in case of eviction. The independent news channel Nawaat was never able to reach the Mayor of L’Ariana, Fadhel Moussa. He even ordered the police to break up the sit-in organised in support of Meherziya, arguing that it was “an illegal occupation of the public pavement”. According to the City Hall spokeswoman, the municipal social service has no budget for women, seniors, children or people with disabilities evicted from their homes. Dealing with these urgent situations is not one of the city’s prerogatives but might come under the purview of the delegation, she pointed out.

Sana Ben Achour, former president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and presently head of the Beity Association, is highly critical of Tunisia’s housing legislation. She told Nawaat that those laws have never been amended to take into account humanitarian cases such as Meherziya’s: “The laws are supposed to regulate human relations in order to improve them, not make them worse,” she maintains.

“Evicting an old woman from her home in a time of epidemic is a criminal offence in which the State is an accomplice,” Ben Achour insists.

Tunisian law does grant sitting tenants the right to remain. But they must be able to prove their status. Meherziya’s landlord had refused to collect her rent since 2009. Hence, the old woman had lost her tenant status and consequently her right to remain.

Sanaa Ben Achour is a steadfast opponent of that law and maintains:

A person’s good faith should suffice so that vulnerable categories or people in desperate situations could have that right, and Meherziya should have that right, considering her age. The local authority should protect her and keep her from being homeless.

Yet women bear the full brunt of the housing shortage.

“Many Tunisian women are stripped of their inheritance by their brothers, especially when it is a place to live. Therefore, the association has demanded in its report the enactment of laws giving women who are victims of domestic violence the right to a decent place to live”, Ben Achour tells us.

And she concludes:

In Tunisia, women and seniors are protected by law. Our country ratified without reservation the International Pact dealing with economic, social and cultural rights. Article 21 of the Tunisian Constitution stipulates that the State guarantees its citizens a decent life. The State is therefore obliged to protect these rights.

However, those constitutional articles, promulgated seven years ago, still need to be respected in practice.