Tunis, Tunisia

Surmountable is the first book explicitly written for the millions of people who have taken part in protests or demonstrations but were left wondering what they achieved, and the millions more who sat out events because they questioned the potential for results. The book addresses these lingering doubts and offers a powerful response in the voices of front-line social activists, political thought leaders, and every day citizens.

Surmountable chronicles the victories and setbacks of ten American and three international civic movements from the past century. Through my visits to 15 cities across four continents where history was made, I sought to` uncover the details behind some of history's most iconic events such as the Selma to Montgomery marches for civil rights, lesser-known successes including one man's mission to resurrect an unratified Constitutional amendment, and insights from how citizens overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve their goals.

Tasnim Kotti comes to Sidi Bou Said for a second interview and a stroll through the ancient town, stopping at the Museum Dar el-Annabi, home of the old mufti.

There is an extensive library in the 18th century
family home given to the community as a public space revealing a love of knowledge, of world literature, including Parisian magazines and handwritten copies of the Quran.

“They were open to other civilizations, and they read everything, they’re open to all types of music, because we are on the Mediterranean. So, we have been kind of on the road of many cultures, and produce this kind of openness and love of discovery.”

What is a mufti?

“A mufti knows all about Sharia laws,” Kotti explains, then emphasizes that “Tunisian people have moderate Sharia. You go to the mufti, he’s the kind of judge” for government rulings and family disputes, a vital and respected community elder.

The mufti home, with memorabilia from successive generations, reminds her of her grandfather. “My name, Tasnim, means ‘a spring of water in heaven.’ It’s taken from Quran. I was named by my grandfather, a scholar who was moderate and respectful of women, his wife, his daughters and in-laws, granddaughters. He encouraged us to study, to be active, saying jokes in French, as he participated in World War I with France in Indochine.”

There is some nostalgia for exiled or dead autocrats, for the old order. The economy and tourism were in better shape, the currency was stronger, there was order, Islamist extremists were resisted if not repressed. Some autocrats in the Muslim world, like Ben Ali and Saddam Hussein, supported women’s rights to education, to working, to freedom in dress.

“Ben Ali was not allowing much political freedom,” says Kotti. “No opposition parties. Human rights organizations could not work freely. A lot of people were put into jail for writing an article, for distributing a flyer or newspaper where they criticize his economic and political policies.”

Tell me why you protest, why is marching and gathering people important.

“First of all, we have to admit the role which social media is playing in making people gather, organizing into groups, launchings, calls, and events. Second, we believe in our advocacy of nonviolent activism. This is the front of the left. So, we are not armed or malicious. Third, if people are in the street, it will make pressure on governments, have the world in a condition to see us. There is more visibility.

“We organize concerts, music, meetings, conferences, seminars, we invite people to listen to other countries’ experiences. We write flyers, we organize campaigns to distribute them. It can sensitize people.

“Then we wait. Maybe for the right time to do another revolution. People will be more aware. There are the younger ones, they go by night and create paintings
on walls. This can also help; when you go into very, very poor neighborhoods and put things on the walls, even if they won’t read the flyers or articles, they will read something with striking sentences like, ‘Bread and Water, But Not Ali.’”

What are the lessons you learned from the revolution and from your own political activism?

“Effective or not, never give up,” insists Kotti. “Never stop, never go down this path and say, ‘There is no outcome. Let’s stop.’ There will always be people who will wonder, ‘Oh, what are you doing? What changed?’

“I have a lot of friends and colleagues on Facebook, women who tell me how I should settle. ‘It will come,’ I say. Even just to give the example to my children, it’s enough for me. Perhaps now they’re not old enough to be aware of what I’m doing. Sometimes they ask me where am I going. By going out, I am doing them a favor. They are safe at home or at their grandmother’s home. I’m not neglecting them. On the contrary, I’m doing them good, since, one day, they will have an example to remember. Maybe things will be worse in their time. I act so they will get a story to tell and values to defend.
I don’t want them to go live like anybody else, just eat and consume.

“That is all: just don’t give up, don’t despair, live your life, and just do it. As when I do other activities, whether I prepare a lesson, couscous, go shopping or I go visit friends or family relatives, these are duties. For me, it’s kind of a duty and a right, I enjoy both sides of it. I’m happy I enjoy it and that the revolution gave me this turning or starting point in my life. I went down into the street, especially when there were real threats of a backlash around women’s rights. It was urgent to be there. When the constitution was rewritten they wanted to omit certain codes, we felt we had to go into the streets, thousands of women saying so many times, ‘no, No, NO!!!’ Finally, after a few days, they surrendered.”

“I think it was the idea of democracy, to have freedom of choice for them to speak, freedom to protest, to assemble, all these things. They had a very clear idea about this.”

To read about all 13 of the successful citizen movements explored in “Surmountable,” buy the book.

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