In 2011, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. Now known as the Jasmine Revolution, this civil revolt would end with the ousting of long time president Ben Ali, and lead Tunisia into a new era (Tunisian). The Jasmine Revolution consisted of many catalysts, like the self immolation of Mohamed ouazizi, which became the externalisation of the frustrations Tunisians had felt for many years. As Al Jazeera wrote in an article summarizing the start of the Arab Spring, “Unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of political freedom and poor living conditions were the underlying reasons for the demonstrations” (Tunisian). These factors had effects Mathlouthi personally, causing her to leave the country in 2008. Reflecting on this time in life during an NPR interview in 2013, she stated “Because there were no structures, there was no help from the government for music like I was doing”, later explaining that being a woman also made it that much harder (Emel).
Emel’s influences read as a perfect combination of protest and beauty. In an interview with Charlie Crooijamns from Newsandnoise, Emel is asked about her influences Marcel Khalife, an Oud player from Lebanon and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (the poet who inspired “My Word is Free”), she expands and says she also learned a lot from Bob Dylan, famous american Folk and Rock artist. In the same way that music inspired her, she hopes music will one day inspire others. She vocalized this not too long ago with “Music can inspire people. It inspired me. It can create a platform for people to rally around, to build confidence, to explore within themselves and connect with one another — that’s a big part of what the world needs” (Freeman).
Emel still has not officially returned to Tunisia.This time however it is not because of an oppressive government, but rather, an oppressive patriarchal society in which an activist woman artist could never succeed. One of the last times she did go back however, was in 2011, days before Ben Ali stepped down, singing “My Word is Free” in the streets with her people. Her choice to not return is not at all unfounded either. Tunisia’s new constitution, drafted in 2012, contains a clause with demands that men and women must have “complementing roles” in the household. Many find this, among other societal and judicial norms, to throw the door to abuse right back open in Tunisia (Deutsche). Despite this, she continues to develop her art and style in unique way, mixing her folk roots with modern electric music motifs. This progression is new for Tunisian music, bringing new style and influence to the Arab world (@okayafrica). With this new music, she has also been able to travel the world, spreading her message to a larger audience and reaching more people than she ever imagined. With upcoming tour dates in Sweden, France, and Belgium, she has risen to a position of external and internal change for and in Tunisia (Tour). Like many artists before her, Emel Mathlouthi has proven herself to be a catalyst for change in a place which so urgently needed it. Tunisia path forward will always bare the mark left my Mathlouthi’s music and message.
Student Author: Jonah Allibone
I am a Junior Computer Science & Innovation student at Champlain College in Burlington, VT.
Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams, Ph.D., Champlain College