“We’re sick of being seen as thugs,” said Mohamed Ali Ayari, a rapper from a Tunisian slum where unemployed youth find a voice through music, cinema and photography.
The Tunisian capital’s working-class neighborhoods have suffered from decades of state neglect and poor services, and residents say the stigma attached to their neighborhoods shuts them out of the job market.
“This contempt and this prejudice really complicates our lives,” said Ayari, a resident of the overcrowded suburb of Duar Khicher.
The 23-year-old works as a security guard, but his dream is to become a famous rap artist.
“I wanna come out in the light,” he raps in a recent video produced with the help of the peace-building charity International Alert.
Ayari was among the winners of a recent International Alert contest that asked young people from four neglected areas of Tunisia to express themselves through music, documentary or photography, focusing on the theme of violence.
“People … experience violence on a daily basis – some practice it and others tolerate it,” said International Alert’s Housem Ayari. “We decided to channel this into cultural activities.
In a gloomy building in Douar Hicher, rapper Ayari sits in a small room-turned-studio, recording his latest track with backing vocals from neighborhood friends.
Ayari and his friends agreed that the lack of cultural spaces made it easier for people to be drawn into crime.
– “Therapy against depression” –
Wasim Tayachi, 22, said he and his friends “chose music to talk about themselves and their lives, about lost youth and about those of us who want to make it, about the police who attack us verbally and physically, about the state that ignores us and the society that stigmatizes us.”
He said coming from poorer neighborhoods made it difficult to find work or obtain official documents.
A country that does not listen to its young people cannot give them anything,” Taiachi added.
Ayari said she wants to become a successful rapper.
But he doubts he can achieve his dreams in the North African nation, where a long-standing socio-economic crisis has prompted many young people to try to reach Europe – including on dangerous and overcrowded inflatable boats across the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, he said he uses rap as “therapy against depression and illicit temptations.”
Another competition winner was a documentary describing social and economic injustice, sexual harassment, wasteful public transport and school absenteeism in Fushana District.
These are issues close to the heart of Mariem Churabi, who qualified as a tax accountant and set up a center to provide additional educational support to children – all under the age of 24.
Many young people here “want to succeed more than others because their difficult circumstances put more pressure on them,” Churabi said.
– “Environmental Violence” –
Belhssan Jabri, a qualified civil engineer, won the competition’s photography category.
“We deserve not to be ignored,” said 26-year-old Sidi Hassin, unemployed from the working-class neighborhood.
Jabri’s work focuses on what he calls “environmental violence,” showing public spaces near his home littered with trash.
“These could be places for sports or cultural activities or gardens, instead of being constantly littered with overflowing bins,” he said.
Jabri said those in power must find a “genuine will” to change things for the better.
“There are doctors, engineers, artists and very educated and skilled young people in our neighborhood,” he said.
“Stop focusing on the negative side and stigmatizing young people from working-class neighborhoods.”