Varoufakis’ DiEM25 and the politics of the self(ie)

Last week I entered the Acquario Romano, a historic gorgeous building in the surroundings of the main train station in Rome, eager to breath some fresh air in the lately very depressing hallways of politics.

Yannis Varoufakis was there to launch his newborn movement, DiEM25: an ambitious name that stands for “Democracy in Europe Movement” while the 25 sets in the year 2025  the deadline for the dream to come true. Young activists in their thirties had gathered there from all across Italy to meet the former Greek minister of Finance and volunteer to make the movement come to life. I heard a group of Danish young professionals telling their Italian peers how they would book a cheap airline flight and AirB&B a few nights in Rome just to be there and help out. I saw the familiar faces of long time activists and political theorists Toni Negri and Franco Berardi BIFO standing  next to an energetic and casually dressed Varoufakis, ready to speak to the crowds about this Europe of us, that “will either be democratized or it will disintegrate”, as the movement motto states.

The gorgeous hall of the building was full of energy and great expectations when, to my greatest disappointment, Varoufakis – who professes to be a marxist – clarifies that DiEM25 is not a left-wing movement, but a movement that aims at reaching out to the entire political spectrum, including liberals, right-wing: literally anyone. Being a long time leftist activist I have to confess that I shivered once heard the sentence. Dear Varoufakis, you such a brilliant, cultivated man, the former hope of European left-wing movements who celebrated you when you walked out the bankers’ meeting on your motorbike: now that you can choose your own path, start your own movement, you, despite professing to be a marxist, decide that anyone should be included in it?

Feeling very uncomfortable I ask myself:  does democratizing ultimately mean including everyone into something? Does the erasing of legitimate political differences and identities naturally imply to be democratic? I am horrified by this idea of one-size-fits-all democracy which, in my view, turns into a populistic version of a “DemoCrazy” instead.


Yet, being a very curious – and, generally, optimistic – person and a patient ethnographer, I decide to stay, regardless of my poor little leftist self being very frustrated by the idea of the one-size-fits-all DemoCrazy circulating around the gorgeous building. So, when the plenary assembly with Varoufakis is over and it’s time for splitting into smaller groups to discuss crucial issues for the future of Europe with fellow activists peers, I sit with the “democracy” group. The group has a 30 something people, sitting in a circle, and is moderated by a young blu-eyed guy who speaks in English, being the crowd a truly European crowd. Somebody sitting in the middle of the circle holds a huge piece of white paper and, with a red marker, writes some key words on it.

“How will democracy look like in 2025”, that’s the main question that the group needs to answer to: a creative, imaginative effort whose results will be translated into key words to be written on the poster, which will be later hung on the walls for public contemplation.

“Imagine yourself in ten years from now” is a familiar question to anyone who has sat, at least once in a lifetime, in a job interview with an American employer. After working for five years for a Silicon-Valley based organization the white piece of paper , with colored sticky notes progressively mushrooming on it as everybody at the table engaged in the imaginative effort, was also a familiar scenario. I might sound quite an old-fashioned leftist activist, but I don’t see anything particularly European or particularly democratic in the sticky notes; and not even in the one-minute imaginative effort of seeing yourself – together with democracy–  projected in a ten years time. I understand that this might be an ice-breaker for a crowd who has just met; I understand that there is a time issue when five or more round table discussions have to wrap up and present their “results” in a plenary.

Yet I question the form as it hints to a very specific substance: the mere idea that democracy should be debated in a sort of “unconference” format which would give it enough coolness, openness, and horizontality not to be considered a topic heavy to digest. Is the precarious flexibility of the sticky notes; the time-sensitive creativity of key words; the coolness of geek formats à la Silicon-Valley a good answer to our thirst for democracy?

Cause there is, indeed, a craving for a more fair, democratic politics: and that’s why Varoufakis’ meeting was crowded and filled with hopes. But also with disappointment, as I heard a young man with a southern Italian accent saying in the plenary: “this seems like a business meeting rather than a gathering to start a new political movement”. Which completely resonates with my own frustration, after having heard words such as: self-empowerment, initiative, enterprise, sustainability, pitching. Can we get rid of neoliberalism at least in the words we use to imagine politics? Or is it so dramatically enmeshed into our daily jargon that we don’t even notice that discussing politics has become like talking about the stock market, or trying to impress your future boss in the most awesome job interview?

The answer to my unspoken question comes from a woman, a young volunteer who reacts to the remark made by the southern Italian man. “What do you mean? There is no such a thing as a political movement here. We gave you input: now you have to build the movement by yourself. Nothing is ready-made here”. She has been honest, at least: input was the right word, a perfect word for a neoliberal vocabulary. Input gives the right measure of time, when there is no time for discussion.

“We are here to launch the movement”, people say; which is totally coherent with the Twitter mantra: write first, verify later. Launch first, discuss later, as there is no time to discuss something that will be anyway measured later by the likes and shares of the social media universe.

Varoufakis’ performance will be also assessed not as a political performance but rather as an aesthetic one. No need to bother Rancière to grasp the political implications of those aesthetic experiences named “selfies” that I see blossoming on my Facebook wall portraying Varoufakis and Anna, Varoufakis and Emma, Varoufakis and Francesca.

The experience of arousal is aestheticized through those young female faces smiling with their object of desire. Varoufakis has been fetishized by this politics of the selfie, and he seems to have learned the lesson so well.

No collective identities are moved by the politics of the self(ie); just individual bodies in desperate need of personal experiences of temporary arousal.

If we want to counteract neoliberal politics, rising racism, xenophobia, extremism, austerity, sadness, financial and human depression, we badly need a politics of the orgy, a collective arousal of bodies and souls. And orgy has always been a much more satisfying way to reach pleasure than a lonely masturbatory selfi(e)sh act.

Digital Peripheries: Internet Activism and Surveillance in the Mediterranean

Friday 14 March 2014 from 1 PM to 5 PM, at University of Chicago Paris Centre

This conference brings together scholars and activists who focus on the Mediterannean region to analyze the uses of technology for political mobilization, surveillance, and repression. Investigating how contemporary information and media technologies might encourage decentralized collaboration and/or invite novel occasions for social control, the conference interrogates the extent to which new forms of web 2.0-oriented participation have actually enabled critical publics. Panelists will also explore how activists are attempting to counter the corporate and state control of content, the ways in which information is curated and disseminated, and the growth of innovative modes of surveillance. To what extent has the Internet helped to create conditions conducive to a world-affirming politics and to what extent is it like any other technological advance—also or even primarily dependent on the content?

with Emiliano Campagnola, Michael Dawson, Sylvia De Fanti, Donatella Della Ratta, Sami Ben Gharbia, Johanne Kuebler, Korinna Patelis, Lisa Wedeen and Ebru Yetiskin.


Digital Peripheries



“Occupy” the commons- Rome on Al Jazeera English

This is my latest published on Al Jazeera English and one of the few articles I have written on my own lovely country…

Everybody thinks we are pretty much the country of pizza, mafia, and Berlusconi, so if this piece can help shed a different light on Italy that would be already a good result. Italy is such a complex country. I hope I have succeeded in explaining the difference between legality and legitimacy in this new wave of occupations which is quite key, in my view, to understand the phenomenon.



A new wave of occupations redefines citizenship and political participation in Italy, as elections fast approach.
Last Modified: 20 Feb 2013 08:55

Teatro Valle, the 18th century theatre occupied since June 2011, has paved way to the citizens’ movements and inspired similar occupations and grassroots campaigns all over Italy [Photo courtesy: Teatro Valle Occupato]

Eight months ago, Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the space has been renamed, was occupied, cleaned up and brought back to life by a mixed group of young activists, sport instructors and some residents of the neighbourhood. They were outraged by the lack of public spaces for leisure and sport activities in an area that has become more and more gentrified while rental prices have soared.

In Italy, the public sector downsizing has resulted not only in cutting public funds for culture, instruction and health care, but has also pushed speculation in the real estate market to grow. It has helped shady private firms to acquire under-priced properties that the government needs to sell for quick cash.

“Occupying is an expression of public outrage,” says Carlo, a young activist born in the neighbourhood who, a few days ago, re-occupied Scup for the second time, after the police had cleared the area in an attempt to discourage the occupiers.

In an act of ongoing defiance, Carlo and the neighbourhood residents regained control of the space, asking once more to stop speculating on public buildings, demanding the government to provide basic public services, such as gyms and kindergartens at affordable prices.

Housing also represents a dramatic problem in this neighbourhood and generally speaking, in the city of Rome, which is filled up with publicly-owned buildings – either dismissed or abandoned.

Many of them have been occupied by low-income families in need of a place to live. A few miles away from Scup, since 2004, 80 families have (illegally) taken control of a fairly central building, close to the historical church of San Giovanni.

On several occasions, the local government has ended up formalising such housing occupations and granting former occupiers the right to stay. In the case of Cinema Palazzo, an occupied movie theatre which was about to be converted into a casino before being taken over by an outraged crowd of students and local residents, the court ruled that the occupation serves the goals of a broader collectivity and not private interests. So, the occupiers continue staying there, running cultural activities and workshops for the families of the neighbourhood, while the speculation project has been put on hold.


“Occupying is an expression of public outrage.”                           – Carlo, a young activist

For those who are not familiar with Italian politics, the fact that an illegal act – such as an occupation – can be recognised by a court as legitimate might look odd, at the least.

Yet, caught in a wave of neoliberalism and committed to dismantling the welfare state apparatus, mainstream politics in the country has often failed to protect rights that are granted by the Constitution, such as the right to proper housing.

This has left a huge void that social and political experiments – such as the new wave of occupations – are trying to fill in the name of constitutional legitimacy.

A new generation of occupations 

Currently, the city of Rome alone counts hundreds of housing occupations and dismissed buildings that have been occupied and converted into centres for cultural activities or youth places.

The oldest ones, with a clear militant orientation, have existed for decades. While some of them have been living under a permanent threat of being cleared by the police, others have been legalised and are paying a rent to the municipality, albeit within a scheme of controlled prices.

Some others are just tolerated by the local authorities – whether right or left-wing oriented – in a sort of “live and let live” philosophy.

But new occupations, such as Scup or Cinema Palazzo, wish neither to be institutionalised nor just to survive by being ignored or forgotten by the local government.

They firmly denounce the lack of social services in town, at the same time claiming for their legitimate rights, as citizens and taxpayers, to get health assistance, children care and infrastructure for leisure at affordable prices.

Valeria and Chiara, among the students who are occupying Cinema Palazzo, explain that “occupied places do not aim at offering services to the citizenry, but at showing them how knowledge can be built in a co-operative way”.

This attempt of creating spaces for peer-production distinguishes all the newly occupied places, aiming at establishing open workshops where people can experiment different ways of doing politics together.

It is a new attitude towards pro-active citizenship – in sharp contrast with the idea that political representation, obtained through the voting process, can alone defend citizens’ rights. Yet this idea, in the past years, has resulted in emptying politics from any participatory meaning and turning Italian youth away from it.

But now, many seem to have realised that pro-active citizenship is the only way to hold politicians accountable and directly claim their citizen rights.

“This is a new wave of occupation,” Carlo from Scup notices. “They are initiated not only by activists. Citizens themselves help a great deal, together with the workers of a given sector which has been downsized, for example, culture, sport, health care… It is a much broader phenomenon with a potentially wider impact.”

Cinema America, the brand new occupation in town, symbolises this new attitude of opposing speculation and defending public goods across generations and social backgrounds – by linking activists, workers and local residents.

In the neighbourhood of Trastevere, a movie theatre – designed by renowned architect Di Castro – which was to give way to a three-storeyed parking lot and luxury apartments has been turned by young students into a multi-cultural centre, offering film screenings for children, theatre classes and artistic workshops.

The place also hosts the neighbourhood’s public assemblies and has become a hang-out for all generations.

Recently, the efforts were rewarded, as Cinema America attracted the attention of a wider coalition of architects, actors and intellectuals who publicly stood by the occupation, emphasising its ultimate goal of preserving a public good.

“Nobody would expect us to keep this place so clean and tidy, and to be able to self-govern it. We are young, but responsible. It is politics that does not want us to grow up,” says Matteo, a 20-year-old who lives in Cinema America, maybe hinting at those government officials, from both the right and the left-wing, who have portrayed Italian youth as lazy, spoiled and even “choosy” when it comes to finding employment.

By taking over public places, the occupiers claim to have given them back to the citizens

[Courtesy: Teatro Valle Occupato] 

Fighting for the ‘commons’ 

The general outrage at the greed of private interests and the weakness of public sector that sells off common wealth with an excuse of efficiency and rationalisation, has also entered the healthcare category.

CTO Andrea Alesini hospital has been in permanent mobilisation since December 2012. An “occupy” tent and coloured protest signs are placed at its entrance, explaining the passersby how a section of the emergency has been shut down without any notice.

Other departments are threatened to follow the same fate, if not the entire hospital, one of the few in the Italian capital to be equipped with a helicopter landing for serious emergencies and well-known for its specialised orthopaedic surgeries.

The spending review, which the government wanted to be a process to rationalise public spending and make it more efficient, has in fact resulted in a blind downsizing that undermines public health and obliges citizens to look at alternative forms of assistance, such as private insurance companies.

This pattern is replicated in different sectors and this is why the employees of CTO hospital are joining the “occupy” movement in Rome – to host joint assemblies, to co-ordinate common actions to defend public services and to fight wild privatisation and speculation.

Teatro Valle, the 18th century theatre in the heart of Rome occupied since June 2011, has paved way to the citizens’ movements and inspired similar occupations and grassroots campaigns not only in Rome, but all over Italy, from Sicily to Milan.

The latest initiative from Teatro Valle Occupato is promoted in co-operation with law professor Stefano Rodota. The plan is to restore a former parliamentary committee that, in 2007, before the fall of Romano Prodi’s government, was in charge of drafting a law proposal to protect the “commons”, shared resources such as water, environment – “and now we have added the internet,” reminds Laura, an actress occupying Teatro Valle.

For the first time ever, this committee, composed of senior law experts, will work jointly with civil society. Public assemblies will be hosted in different occupied places, starting from the stunning historical location of Teatro Valle, which now runs different types of activities by volunteers and survives through people’s donations.

By taking over places like Teatro Valle, the occupiers claim to have given them back to the citizens. Paradoxically, this would be an act against legality, yet a legitimate one, since it is carried out in order to defend rights and principles granted by the Constitution.

Constitutional rights and political participation 

The Italian Constitution and constitutional rights are repeatedly invoked and quoted by the occupiers, even by the youngest at Cinema America.

The awareness of this new generation of occupiers vis-a-vis citizens’ rights and the respect they pay to constitutional duties, manifest in the way they fight speculation and try to defend the commons.

Against all odds, these youth will go to vote at the upcoming parliamentary and regional elections on February 24 and 25.

Trying to draw a different meaning of democracy, which goes further electing political representatives at the Parliament, the “occupy” movement seems not wanting to reject representative democracy as a whole. Instead, it tries to integrate the latter with new practices of direct democracy, where politics can be understood in a more pro-active way.

This is a unique opportunity for activists, students, workers, citizens as a whole to be politically creative and try to experiment a new idea of active citizenship.

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.


I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

“Occupy” culture at Teatro Valle Roma

I`ve just published an article on Al Jazeera English talking about the “occupy culture” movement in Italy, whose best expressions are Cinema Palazzo Sala Vittorio Arrigoni and Teatro Valle. I`m happy to have joined, even if only for few days due to my permanence in the Arab world, this exciting movement.

We are planning an evening dedicated to “Creative Revolutions!” at Teatro Valle next 27th Nov. featuring creative user-generated videos (songs, cartoons, parodies, mini-soap operas) coming out from the Arab Spring. Stay tuned for more details. And please spread the word about these amazing efforts to free culture in Rome and give it back to citizens.

‘Occupy’ culture enters Roman theatre
As a result of privatisation and downsizing, Italian communities have taken culture into their own hands.
Donatella Della Ratta Last Modified: 16 Nov 2011 16:03

On November 14, while Silvio Berlusconi was heading to the Quirinale to resign amidst a crowd chanting “buffoon, thief”, a thousand people were quietly sitting in a former cinema listening to a public reading of David Foster Wallace’s last book. When the news of the resignation came out, somebody jumped on the stage and started to play the piano, while the crowd erupted in a chorus chanting “Bella ciao”, a partisan song from Italy’s resistance against Mussolini. After the one song, they all went back to the reading. The crowd – made up of publishers, actors, artists, book lovers – stayed up all night long reading David Foster Wallace in a technically illegal place.

The old Cinema Palazzo is an occupied building in the San Lorenzo area of Rome that has been renamed “Sala Vittorio Arrigoni” after the Italian activist who was killed in Gaza last April. Months ago, activists took over the historical theatre, which was about to be converted into casino with slot machines. Since then, backed by famous artists and actors like Sabina Guzzanti– an Italian satirist who has always criticised Berlusconi – the Sala Vittorio Arrigoni has held cultural activities – from plays to concerts – relying entirely on people’s donations.

From Palazzo to Valle

Over the past few months, re-appropriation of goods that once have been public or devoted to culture and education has been a growing trend in Italy. This was a reaction not only to Berlusconi, but to the culture he has generated over decades of commercial television and which has been renamed Berlusconismo. Occupations of movie houses and libraries – to reclaim cultural venues as public goods – have been flourishing in small villages and big cities alike. The most significant started June 14 at Teatro Valle, an 18th century theatre at the heart of Rome, where Sarah Bernhardt’s company used to perform.

The day after the 2011 nationwide referendum, which successfully marked the return to daily campaigning against corruption and privatisation of public goods, a group of artists christened Teatro Valle Occupato. The activists settled there and called immediately for a press conference at which they explained the reasons behind the occupation.
“Once the property of public body ETI, which was shut down for not being financially productive, Teatro Valle risked being sold to private companies to become a restaurant. And, as theatre employees, we were re-assigned to a different public institution. People who have been working for years on the lighting of the theatre, for example, had to become doormen at the ministry of culture in order not to lose their jobs.””The theatre has been a target of one of these ‘usual’ corruption stories that we unfortunately hear so much about in Italy,” says Mauro, who has worked on the technical staff of the theatre for 20 years.

“The trade unions would tell you, ‘Take it, at least you will have a salary’,” adds Hussein, an Iranian-Italian who is part of the group that planned the occupation of Teatro Valle.

“But they never consider the social cost of moving from a job that you are skilled for to a completely new environment. This way you also destroy the cultural know-how of a profession. By strictly applying the ‘re-assign’ mentality of HR departments, you kill the historical heritage of a place, of a city.”

“We don’t want to hear the ‘this is the only solution’ answer. There are other solutions, but we have to sit all together and think about it,” he adds.

Alternative solutions

The occupants of Teatro Valle have been thinking about alternatives. After six months of holding free, donations-based plays, movies, poetry readings, concerts and workshops, they are now trying to build a new formula for a cultural foundation that gives the place back to the public.

Stefano Rodota , a law professor, and Ugo Mattei, the author of Plunder: When the Rule of the Law is Illegalare helping to draft the charter of the nascent Teatro Valle foundation.

“The main point is that this theatre is a monument. It should be given back to the citizens and administrated as a public good,” says Fulvio, an editor and TV director who has been in the occupation group from the very beginning.

“We are looking into a ‘third way’ of financing culture. Not private, not entirely public, meaning that it doesn’t have to rely entirely on public institutions’ money. This could imply corruption and go against the quality of cultural offers. We would rather have the citizens micro-financing the activities of theatre, at least for a part.

“We want to have shareholders that love the theatre but have a pro-active relation with it, too. It’s not a matter of paying an entrance free and watching a show anymore. We would rather address to a pro-active audience, who contributes financially but also artistically, by suggesting things to do, people to contact.”

“We are also elaborating a different concept of art direction,” says Simona, a theatre actress who is now leading Teatro Valle’s communication efforts.

“Instead of having one person who keeps the power for a whole mandate and decides everything, we are considering having three people, coming from different disciplines who discuss before taking shared decisions. In a way, that is what has already been going on here for months: each week we have somebody who takes the art direction of the theatre.

“We would always ask this ‘temporary art director’ not to bring only his/her play or songs, but to give back to the community by doing a daily training to share knowledge and skills with everybody. We would ask to develop not only an artistic concept, but also a new political philosophy throughout the week.”

‘Peer-producing culture’

“What we are experimenting here is a new approach to politics,” adds Fulvio. “An idea of peer-producing culture, economy, law. Something which goes beyond the idea of just delegating others to take care of these fundamental sectors.”

So far, the Teatro Valle Occupato experiment has been doing great. Each day, there is a line of people waiting for the evening show. In the morning, training sessions animate the beautiful 18th century stage, which is kept tidy by the occupants. Young people have also started to join the occupation, originally composed mostly of people in their 30s and 40s.

Martina, 25, came from Tuscany and joined the occupation in September. She was fascinated by the experience. “We do stuff here, we see culture on the move,” she says while live-tweeting.

Berlusconi is gone, but the occupiers are already thinking ahead. Their next move will be a popular petition to cancelthe financial privileges and political immunity of members of parliament.

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy

Are the Arab Springs an Islamic Renaissance? Random thoughts after a busy election day..

Since the very morning of this first “after-election” day, the atmosphere in Avenue Bourghiba has been “worried”. Even without official numbers and with results not released yet, the majority of journalists, artists and intellectuals that overcrowd the beautiful outdoor cafes and “terrasse” all along the Avenue have been very worried by the rumors that circulated since yesterday night. Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has probably won the elections, reporting the majority of votes, hence the most representatives at the soon-to-be first Tunisian Constituent Assembly.

I have spent all the morning sitting with these people, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and discussing about the future of Tunisia. Different people, whom I met in different cafes along the Avenue, repeating the same sentence as a broken disc: “I `ve never thought Tunisian people could be like that”.. “It`s like looking at yourself in the mirror and discovering a side that was always hidden” ..”We didnt know our own people. It`s just like having to get up after a nightmare”..”Is this the feeling we were hiding behind  decades of dictatorship?”…”I really dont know who my fellow Tunisian citizens are”..

I remember to have felt exactly this way some years ago (and more than once) in my own country. “How can my own people be like that? Didnt` I know them? what`s wrong with them?”..Maybe, a better question after so many years of “Berlusconism” would be: “what`s wrong with me? and why I didnt understand what was going on?”.

I spared this question to myself and to my poor interlocutors and took a cab for another meeting in a different area of town. Speaking with the driver in Tunisian dialect only (which I force myself to understand, even if I`m too used to “bilad as-Sham”) I discovered that he didnt vote. I asked him why and he answered “kullu kif kif” (they are all the same) “I dont know for whom I should have`s so confusing,there are  too many parties” and, again, they are “kullu kif kif”. Then he added:” the youth did the revolution..we watched..let them vote..let us watch the results of their vote”.

At the meeting, again sitting with journalists and intellectuals working for a famous local radio station, same situation as Avenue Bourghiba. Maybe, with a better sense of humor: some of them started to address to the female presenters -all gorgeously dressed and beautiful- that “in a very close future you will have to wear hijab (the veil) or maybe niqab (the integral veil)”. The males were exorcising the “Islamists` treat” by saying: “at least, I will marry four of you!”. Melted with the humor there was a certain feeling of defeat, indeed. A bad feeling of misunderstanding, as if your own child had done something completely wrong, completely against your beliefs.

Another taxi, driving me to another area of town. This time, the taxi driver, knowing when I was heading to – Nessma, the TV station which few days before the elections broadcasted the French movie “Persepolis”, consequently generating street protests (see my previous post on it)– shouted at me:” why are you going there? they are against our religion, they have offended  Islam!”. Then added :” I voted for Ennahda, I am a Muslim and my identity is Islamic. I want this to be acknowledged by our new democratic country”. The guy was struggling to make his life: feeding children, sending them to school. He just wanted a simple life, and his Islamic identity to be reflected by the new Constitution.

After the Tunisian-dialect-only cab ride I`ve  finally reached the studios of the “incriminated” TV station. Here, lots of young people, I would describe them not exactly as intellectuals but basically a globalized youth, was commenting the elections (partial) results, again with a mixed feeling of irony and defeat. All secularized Muslims, all fearing an “Islamic state” to erase their “secular culture” (I will here translate with “secular” something which in Arabic sounded more as “civic culture”, thaqafa madaniyya).

Then the first guests came. They were supposed to join a live debate on the elections. None of them was from Ennahda, they were all coming from defeated parties or from parties which gained something, but not in “pole position”. I asked the show producer why Ennahda was not there, and he replied that they had invited them, but hadnt heard back, probably as a “counter-reaction” to the “Persepolis” issue.

A lady from Takattoul, one of the parties which actually did not (apparently) go bad at the elections, started to challenge the other guests on the Ennahda identity issue. “What did the Tunisian people choose? did they choose a model of society or a political party?“. Then she added: “The old distinction between we (the secularists or leftists) being more “pro-West” and them (the Islamists) being more sharqiyyn (Oriental) has been proven wrong. All the “Westernized” Tunisians, those who live in Europe (particularly in France) have voted for Ennahda”. And then: “We have been defeated cause we do not know how to work with the people, we do not know how to reach out to them. Ennahda knew how to do this, and had social links with the more disadvantaged classes. They exploited this knowledge. But they are a party, just a political party which has learnt how to use this skill”. “They are not a movement, not a model for society, they are just a party like the others”.

The live show after this first one was more interesting, as it featured some high level intellectuals as the sociologist Hamadi Redissi. He was very outspoken vis-a`-vis Nessma TV itself and said: “The Persepolis affair could have lowered the Islamists` appeal or actually helped them to gain more. The latter is what actually happened. There was a popular counter-reaction to a channel which was trying to “show the people the possible bad consequences of choosing Islam as the fundamental of the state”. The people felt offended and this ended up to raise Ennahda popularity”.

But when some of the other guests started with the “self-pity” phase, Redissi was very rational in reminding everybody that: “the independents failed..the marxists failed..the nationalists failed…even the constitutional parties failed..but the reasons for which Ennahda is winning are not only related to religion.There is a refusal of the past in the popular vote, there is the frustration for the financial crisis, too..there is the identity issue, whereas Islam becomes an identity mark. Then there is the Nessma factor, which has a marginal role but, still, it`s a part of this chain”.

One of the guests echoes: “yes, and there is the huge gap between the countryside and the city..the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people. Religion ended up to be a culture among cultures”.

This sentence -“the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people” – resonates in my head as I reach my hotel, back to Avenue Bourghiba. There is a festive atmosphere and I cannot prevent myself from asking to the hotel staff -in Arabic only- if they are happy for the elections results (still temporary even now at 1am). Yes, sure they are. “The entire hotel staff voted for Ennahda” says the concierge and adds “my neighborhood -in the banlieu of Tunis- has all voted for Ennahda, so everybody is celebrating”. The situation is so surreal, if I only think of all these (hundreds of) people, sitting here outside, discussing politics, sipping their beers and blaming on their fellow Tunisians who did not understand how civilized the country was supposed to be. I`m trying to count how many hotels are here in town, and picturing myself a scene where all the staff in each hotel in town is celebrating while all the intellectuals that are sitting in all the cafes are actually complaining (and I`m wondering: what about the cafes staff, will they all be like the hotels staff?).

The concierge smiles at me as for calming down an hypothetical fear that I should have -as a Westerner- :” we wont oblige everybody to wear the veil! We just want a little bit of order and of dignity, we want respect for our traditions, family, religion..”.

I`m not scared at all and I trust his words completely. But I cannot prevent myself from thinking that his discourse towards order and security and tradition resembles so much to a discourse that I`ve been hearing for years in my country, and it was not coming from an Islamist party. They all resemble each other, it is a small world  and even people who seem not to have anything in common might have tons of stuff indeed.

But then I contradict myself again and think: if we have let somebody as the weirdest mix ever -a separatist party, a former Fascist party and a self-declared liberal party which is indeed protecting their “little club” interests- govern together, despite the conflict of interest, the legal issues, the unveiled corruption etc why should we be scared of a party that has been banned for years and has not done anything yet? Let them govern, then let the people decide again..That`s the bitter-sweet rule of “Democracy”.

Then I cannot prevent myself from thinking, as a leftist, as a secularist: there is something wrong not in them, but in us. We have moved away from the streets, retired in our comfortable lounges where we had talked philosophy, watched arty movies, discussed fine intellectual questions..and what`s left? somebody else has taken the streets. This should not lead to a complain, rather to a reaction. Dear fellow Tunisians, please do not complain. please be aware of what you have done, you have run the first democratic elections in your country. This is a hell of a lot.

We cannot pretend, us who were on the ground, not to have been aware of the fact that the Arab springs will be the Islamic Renaissance (Nadha, in Arabic..and it`s not by chance). We cannot pretend not to have known that a democratic Middle East is gonna be an Islamic Middle East, at least at a first stage.

And, in the very moment I`m writing this, I get a news alert from Al Jazeera saying that Ennahda is prepared to make an alliance with some of the other parties, even if secular.At the end of the day, politics is politics, no matter if  we are in Ennahda`s new Tunisia or in Berlusconi`s  old Italy.   

Waiting for the #15oct in Rome…

Today was a very (in)tense day in Rome. I first left my place to go to Teatro Valle Occupato, a wonderful ancient theater in Rome which has been occupied by actors, intellectuals, creative crews for more than 4 months now.

Since last June, each single day has been filled up by artistic performances, theater plays, video screenings, political debates, all public and all for free. It is a wonderful experience of civic participation in the actual making of culture, which has registered an incredible amount of consensus among citizens. Valle Occupato not only hosts performances but also daily training seminars for free. They are all the result of volunteer work done by professionals and amateurs working in media, culture, creativity.

Today I was hosting a workshop on social media and the use of web 2.0 tools to produce original content, spread information, participate directly in political life.

Not only there was a great audience attending the workshop, but at the same time I had a great example to test instant live tools. #OccupiamoBankItalia is the #OccupyWallStreet kind of protest that has just spread into Italy, particularly in Rome. Activists have taken the control of the very central location of Palazzo delle Esposizioni staircase, in the hearth of Rome, and very close to the Central Bank and to many Ministries.

They have spent the night there yesterday, creating an “indignados” style  of camp, and they are ready to do the same tonight and tomorrow, in preparation of the #15oct protests that have been planned all across Europe for next saturday.

We tried to move our social media training there, at the very hearth of the protests, but many people preferred to stay inside the theater, in order to test the tools and learn how to use them (some of them even find Twitter difficult and too complicate to use). But once the course was over, I went at Palazzo delle Esposizioni and found a very lively situation, a public assembly made by citizens discussing the over-control of banks and global finance over people`s life and the effects of global crisis on basic human and workers` rights.

our course on social media

the dragon of global finance

the dragon of global finance tries to leave Palazzo delle Esposizioni…

When the assembly was over, people suggested to create a march headed by the “dragon of global finance”. The idea was to have people walking on the sidewalks and never on the actual streets, in order not to prevent the normal flow of traffic to happen. The activists would have had just to march on the sidewalks, following the “dragon”, distributing posters and talking to the random people they would have jumped into about the reason of the protest.

So, a very “civilized” way to protest and manifest dissent. But, of course, even in an alleged “democratic” country like Italy, doing such a thing in the very center of the city becomes problematic. The dragon has tried many times to walk on Via Nazionale sidewalks, on every single side surrounding Palazzo delle Esposizioni, but the response of police has been a clear “no”.

People have been trying and trying, always in a pacific way, to walk and go up and down in Via Nazionale but the response of the police till now has been a “no”.

A concert and many other activities are planned for tonight to happen in front of Palazzo delle Esposizioni and activitsts have started to camp there, determined to stay overnight. Police will stay too, and we`ll see what happens.

In any case, this is the first time since many years ago that we have been witnessing such a global connected protest to happen in Italy (maybe since the horrible crackdown of Genova 2001) and this is only the beginning. More planned for #15oct. Stay tuned.

Daily thought-pensiero quotidiano

A friend of mine once wrote for a friend of hers`:

“He was engaged on a daily basis with the basic political question, “what shall we do,” and he also knew that the “we” and “do” were problematic categories –ones open to interpretation, disagreement, contestation, and change. He knew that freedom is something that is taken not granted; it is chosen and exercised when it exists at all. Nothing guarantees its emergence, and only continual efforts to act politically will allow it to endure.”

I think of the beloved Arab world. I think of Italy, my home country, a devastated democracy, the no man`s land of rights in civilized Europe.

What shall we do, every day, in our life?

And what does “do” mean?

And who are we?

Thanks for reminding me about these basic political questions.

* Jarallah Omar was one of the leader of Yemeni opposition. He died in 2002 , assasinated.

Lisa Wedeen is a political scientist, who teaches at University of Chicago. She authored the book ”  PERIPHERAL VISIONS: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008).

Una mia amica una volta ha scritto di un suo amico:

“era impegnato quotidianamente da una domanda politica di base “che dobbiamo fare” e sapeva oltretutto che “noi” e “fare” sono categorie problematiche -aperte ad intepretazione, disaccordo, contestazione e cambiamento. Sapeva che la liberta e` qualcosa che non si da` per scontato; viene scelta ed esercitata se del resto esiste. Niente garantisce che emerga, e soltanto continui sforzi verso l`agire politico le permettono di durare”.

Penso all`amato mondo arabo. all`Italia, il mio paese natale, una democrazia devastata, la terra di nessuno dei diritti nella civile Europa.

Che dobbiamo fare, ogni giorno, nella nostra vita quotidiana?

E cosa significa “fare”?

E chi siamo “noi”?

Grazie per avermi ricordato di queste basilari domande politiche.

Jarallah Omar era un leader dell`opposizione in Yemen. E` morto assassinato nel 2002.

Lisa Wedeen  insegna Scienze Politiche all`Universita` di Chicago. E` autrice del libro: ”  PERIPHERAL VISIONS: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008).

The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

picture by Evanchill

Yesterday Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, wrote an interesting piece: “At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn`t the West?”.

“Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality. Quantcast U.S. and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center – that is shaping the future of the region” Khanfar says.

I cannot but agree with him. Few days ago, in my post “Tripoli, una gita di mille anni fa” (in Italian), I was discussing the same issue, the blindness of the West, particularly Europe and my own country, Italy (which enjoyed in the past a great deal of soft power in the Region and a cultural proximity with Arabs that maybe only Spain and Greece have among EU countries). We had a great opportunity which was the Euro-Mediterreanean framework and we wasted it, doing partnerships with the wrong people, “supporters of the Arab regimes” as Wadah cleverly points out. We saw the rising influence of social networks and some of us, mostly academic researchers with no real influence on institutional policies, spent years and years trying to convince EU institutions that those were the right folks to discuss with, the young blood of the new Arab generation. But sine we are ourselves “too young” (at least for EU parameters) nobody paid too much attention to our words, taking us as “kids” playing with the latest technology tool.

The same happened much longer before with TV stations. I remember when I first visited Al Jazeera, back in 2000, and then started to write articles and a book about the channel. It took years and years of work and public talks to have the EU elites starting to take this station “seriously” and not being just scared by it.

Today, 10 years  after 9/11, the situation has completely changed. Al Jazeera has been in touch with “the street” as Wadah points out, and was able to catch up with the changing going on in the Region. Al Jazeera is a young station. Khanfar himself is young and was able to build up a team of youngsters in the New Media Department that is super-professional. People like Mohamed Nanahbay and Mooed Ahmad, with their teams at Al Jazeera Arabic and English, have been working since 2006 to build what Al Jazeera achieves today.

We can criticize the channel`s editorial policy, disagree with some of its programmes, dislike its “incendiary” style, but we cannot deny the professional way the channel has been building relations with the people during the years. That`s it: Al Jazeera has not dealt with Arabs as audiences, but as its “people”. It has empowered them to express their opinions, send their messages, join online forum and chats, post videos, build the new brand identity of the channel all together.

People, mostly in the West, are surprised of the channel popular success during the last Egyptian uprising and now with Libya. There`s nothing to be surprised about pictures like the one Evanchill has published. People feel proximity with Al Jazeera, and new media has played a big role in this. And the way Al Jazeera has been using new media since 2006 is incredibly clever and professional. I wouldt be surprised at all: I would call this “investment”.

Al Jazeera has invested in new media since 2006 and this success is just the result of a professional work done during years and years. As much as 9/11 coverage in Afghanistan was the result of an investment done since the beginning of the channel, in 1996, by building a network of contacts and opening offices in crisis zones.

9/11 coverage didnt come out of the blue. It was just the result of an investment.

The idea of “investing” in something was once very close to Western mentality. It seems that now, mostly in the EU, this is gone. And none of the Arabic language stations that we have in Europe has ever thought of building a relation with its Arab audiences and dealing with them as people, not as numbers.

Al Jazeera did, and that`s the secret of its successful coverage of the Arab uprisings. It did it so well that this was helpful to reach out to Western audiences too.

There was -and there still is- a big campaign in the US, appeared also on Twitter and called #DemandAlJazeera. The channel New media team is organizing meet-ups all over America, and many articles are  being published everywhere in the US to demand the availability of the channel via cable.

And this might be Al Jazeera`s latest success: few days ago it was publicly announced that the channel is in talks with Comcast, the largest US cable distributor.