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Punk in Tunisia 1985

In Maximum Rocknroll issue 30, from November 1985, a short scene report for Tunisia appeared. Although by then such scene reports from many countries around the globe had been published, here was the first evidence available in the United States of punk rock in an Islamic nation. Today, Americans, for better or worse (well, only worse I guess), have grown somewhat more familiar with the cultures of the Middle East than they were during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years. Still, with the revolution in Iran in 1979 and ensuing seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Muammar al-Gaddafi’s various misdeeds, Iran-Contra, US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war, and so on, the early years of hardcore punk were marked by many events of deep geopolitical significance in and around the Middle East. With some exceptions (mostly of the “kill the hostages” variety), hardcore punk did not have a great deal to say about these events. The political focus was on the Cold War, particularly its hot moments in Latin America, and the arms race. So I can’t say whether anyone paid much attention to a lone scene report filling half a page about a punk scene in Tunis or recognized the significance that I would like to attribute to it.

Today, we know of a recent heavy metal band called Acrassicauda, about which a documentary will soon be released, that existed in Baghdad even as the city was consumed by insurgency, civil war, and ethnic cleansing. There have been “punk” bands (I put the word in quotes because its meaning becomes highly contingent in this context) in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in recent years, documented by the intrepid Lük Haas, and of course large scenes exist in Southeast Asian countries predominated by Muslims like Malaysia. But 1985 was different. The worldwide DIY touring circuit did not exist as such yet, even though the scene report recommends that American bands touring Italy take the trip across the Mediterranean to Tunis. Communication was slow and unreliable in the seemingly unimaginable pre-Internet era. And yet what strikes me as so impressive and important about the existence of punk in an Islamic nation like Tunisia, albeit one with a deep European cultural influence as a result of colonization by France, is that it begins to tear down or explode today’s pervasive mythology about divisions between “civilizations,” about the existence of a “West” and an “East,” about “Islamic” and “Christian” nations, and even about “Europe” and “Africa” as constructions meaningful for anything beyond geography.

In 1982, the Andalusian hardcore punk band KGB played a show, which is supposedly documented on film (audio cassettes have long circulated), in the Moroccan city Melilla. This city, however, is a Spanish enclave, over which Morocco asserts sovereignty that Spain does not recognize. The city’s borders have become heavily fortified in recent years as Europe has grown increasingly xenophobic, particularly toward Muslims. The Socialist prime minister of Spain, Zapatero, who was elected on an antiwar platform in the immediate aftermath of the Madrid train bombings, was compelled to spend over $30 million to upgrade the fence surrounding the city, and in one notorious incident, over 700 migrants trying to enter Melilla in 2005 were repelled, with many shot in the back, supposedly by Moroccan security forces. Melilla has been contested territory for centuries, but it would be not accurate to say that Spanish punk bands playing there was akin to an indigenous punk scene in Tunis in 1985. Nevertheless, Andalusia itself is a region that has been alternately ruled, with great bloodshed in between, by both Christian and Muslim powers. The hybridity of Andalusian identity is similar to the hybridity residents of Melilla must feel, but in history’s “spoils to the victor” mode, no one would consider Andalusia anything but “European,” just as no one would consider Tunis, the city in question, anything but “North African” or “Islamic,” which is why this scene report is exceptional.

The major question about this scene report is whether it is authentic. Here’s why. In Maximum Rocknroll issue 11, from January-February 1984, a fake scene report for Buenos Aires, Argentina, was published. It included fabricated band names and descriptions and a fake flyer. It included no addresses but did refer to seemingly accurate crackdowns by the police (though a life sentence for squatting seems fairly silly, considering that squatting is how land tenancy works in many impoverished parts of Latin America, including parts of Argentina’s slums). It seems that the author of the scene report, “Juan,” was spoofing the international hardcore scene. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for the rest of us, his unfunny joke caught the eye of a real punk from Buenos Aires, who submitted a true scene report a few months later, published in issue 15, in July of the same year. It’s worth noting that Los Violadores, probably first brought to the attention of the US punk scene at large in that report, appeared on R Radical’s “PEACE” compilation 2xLP within a year or so. The true scene report included contact addresses as well as a more nuanced picture of the repressive nature of the Argentine state and the economic hardships endured by the citizenry. Also, some of the band descriptions have me drooling.

So: is the Tunisia scene report the real thing? The report was written by “Jennifer Rock,” a woman of Tunisian and British descent living in Germany. Perhaps she was a student. Unsurprisingly, I could find no reference on the Internet to her or the German family mail to her was to be addressed. At the end of the report comes an update from Jennifer, saying that Omar X, the supposed protagonist of the Tunisian punk scene, was jailed after complaining to the police that his mail was being searched, on charges of “singing unpatriotic lyrics.” This seems as implausible as plausible, as does the claim that Camel’s Crazy Lounge was a strip club that hosted punk bands. More concretely, the report includes a few addresses. Thanks to the power of Google (grin and bear it with me, comrades), I can confirm that at least two of these are real addresses in Tunis. One could even use Google’s satellite imagery to look at the streets. Furthermore, the few words of Arabic in the report are real, though with a mistake in the spelling of Kitab-Al-Ahdaru (“The Green Book”) that could easily be made by someone not proficient in the language. “Al Karkadan” really does mean “the rhinoceros.” A friend who studies Arabic told me that on the flyer, one of the two characters, who are nearly impossible to make out, is saying “Where?” and the other is saying “The cherry-red camel lounge!” which could be a slang way of saying “The crazy camel lounge.” On the left side of the flyer seems to be a pun in Arabic. At first glance, the two words repeated appear to be “Oh God! Oh God!” (Allah! Allah!), which is a omnipresent phrase in the Islamic world, but there is a slight deviation in the writing that makes the words read something more like “Lalalah! Lalalah!” or “Lala-God! Lala-God!” Because the flyer was made by a Tunisian, this mistake is not like the mistake in the spelling of “The Green Book” that is likely attributable to Jennifer Rock. Rather, I believe this was an intentional “mistake” made by a punk rocker. It’s exactly the sort of juvenile joke that a punk rocker would make, but if anyone of authority were to question it, the subtle joke could be blamed on sloppy handwriting. It’s sly and smart, and it may have represented a sort of signal to those “in the know” about what to expect inside Camel’s Crazy Lounge.

Would the existence of punk in Tunisia, including kids dressed in ripped clothes, safety pins, and spiky hair, disrespecting the name of Allah, be yet another example of a soft projection of imperialism? I do not think so. It’s not so much that imperialism is in the eye of the beholder—after all, myriad Hollywood types believe they are actually opposed to the military-industrial-entertainment complex when their films, even those about the wartorn Middle East, are exported and received as simply another commodified insinuation of American imperial power into the everyday lives of those in its shadow. Rather, it’s that punk, at its best, engendered an opening, a space for creation of new hybrid identities, for contestation both of the dominant culture and of the easily available alternatives. As such, a Tunisian punk band playing a strip club called Camel’s Crazy Lounge was reconfiguring, even if momentarily, a space nominally reserved for a backhanded, even potentially illicit, affirmation of the dominant culture’s norms. (Tunisia has been since 1956 home to some of the region’s most progressive cultural attitudes and laws regarding women, something in my opinion not at all in contradiction with the existence of strip clubs and an underground of vice.) In this equation, the strip club stands as one side of the dialectic of Tunisian culture, with various protectors of decency such as the police, religious leaders, progressive thinkers, etc., on the other side. Punk represented an alternative to these two mutually constitutive modes of thinking.

In Tunisia, the punk moment was certainly small and fleeting, but those sort of moments, when everyday life becomes the site of resistance, prove the most enduring because of their dramatic effect on the participants. As Guy Debord’s biographer Anselm Jappe wrote of the Situationist conception of everyday life, “The everyday is the frontier between the dominated and the non-dominated, the source of both alienation and dis-alienation” (Guy Debord: page 78). In Jennifer Rock’s short characterization of punk in Tunisia—in the strip club, in the letters searched by persons unknown—punk insinuated itself onto that precipice, allowing alienated life to be sloughed off, if only for a moment. In a way, as much as I defiantly crow over punk’s continued importance to the present day, I believe that this fleeting moment of dis-alienation could exist as such only if it were fleeting, otherwise it would convert into yet another alienation. Indeed, it can be argued that, among the many complexities of punk in the Eastern bloc, as an example of punk’s existence in another repressive locale, the state used punk records on state-run labels as symbols for the West of a false openness, or as a way to keep tabs on subversives. Had the scenes been less permanent, the bands would have been less susceptible to this cooption or surveillance.

With the present political situation in the Middle East, it seems to me moments like the one described in this scene report are even more desperately needed. Yet they also grow increasingly unlikely. Everyday life seems less an alienation when the struggle to survive becomes all-encompassing, but this type of day-to-day struggle also seems far from the dis-alienation the Situationists had in mind in the ‘60s, even as its self-imposition became highly attractive to violent left-wing radicals in the ‘70s from the Weather Underground to the Red Army Faction to the Red Brigades. Even today, elements of the antiwar left wonder why no one is talking about “bringing the war home” as radicals did during the war in Vietnam. There are many reasons why, but maybe what we should wonder is why no one is talking about bringing punk to Baghdad. I’m only half-joking. It’s clear not much else is working.

In the end, it may be that I have been the victim of a spoof and this scene report is pure fiction (I mean, really: “Khaddafy’s Dick”?!), but the truth is nearly irrelevant. If punk happened in Tunisia in 1985, hope remains for other, parallel acts of refusal of both the dominant culture, whether the imperial or the insurgent, and its opposite. If it didn’t happen there, well, need I begin listing the repressive or war-ravaged places it did? Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, South Africa, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Dallas, Loisaida…

Thanks to Spencer Bastedo for help with the translations from Arabic

Update, 11/7/07

After publishing this article, I received some correspondence that does not necessarily prove that the scene report is fictitious but does raise further questions. (My correspondent asked not to be identified because of the risks associated with Tunisian security services monitoring websites for underground/dissident activities.) As I argued, the authenticity of the scene report is almost unimportant, because it is certainly true that punk scenes have emerged in highly repressive environments around the globe. Indeed, even as early as the mid’80s, when this scene purportedly existed, there were bands playing underground punkish rocknroll in Kazakhstan, as documented on the compilation EP v/a “Steppe-Punks.” What would set the scene in Tunisia apart would be its contact with the “Western” punk scene at the time through this scene report. Here is what my correspondent told me:

“I went to Tunisia in 1992 and 1993 (I think), in search of punks, but no chance. At the time there was just nothing going on there. I went to the addresses mentioned in the 1985 MRR report, and the address of Omar X is actually the back door of the infamous seat of the Tunisian Ministry of Interior (check Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports). No kidding! Right smack in the center of the city! The address of the other band led me to some well-off suburbs and a villa with 3 floors and no name corresponding to those mentioned in the report. When I rang the bells (I did), nobody knew what was it I was talking about. (I may have scared them too, in the police state that is Tunisia.) I have to mention too that the scene report said there is no pressing plant in Tunisia. Wrong. There was one at the time, the state plant linked to the label Ennagham. I’ve found many old records released on it.”

As you can see, from this person’s experience, it appears unlikely the report was true. But my contention that whoever wrote it had some knowledge of Tunisia and Arabic is bolstered. Certainly, the author’s inclusion of the address of the security services as the location of the punk club indicates some knowledge about Tunisia, but it also strikes me as a commentary on the political situation there. So maybe the person who wrote the scene report was a Tunisian expatriate involved in punk in Germany (where Jennifer Rock was supposedly living) writing a satire that was a joke on the punk scene as much as on Tunisia itself. I still hold out some hope that there were punks in Tunis in 1985 so underground that they couldn’t even risk writing a scene report in Maximum Rocknroll. If that’s naïve romanticism, so be it.