A Tunisian Force for the Oppressed Faces Imminent Demise

How Stambali, a centuries-old tradition, offers solace to the most marginalized population, and why it is about to vanish

A Tunisian Force for the Oppressed Faces Imminent Demise
A banga dancer performs during the Stambali pilgrimage / © Augustin Le Gall from The Last Dance project

History lurks within the shadows of Tunis’s medina. It lingers in the dark, narrow alleyways separating houses and shops.

During last Ramadan, an hour after Iftar, lone smokers could be seen peering out from darkened doorways, sucking down the weed forbidden them during daylight hours. Shopkeepers moved like shadows, opening up the stalls that would serve the throngs who packed the medina’s streets. It was as if dawn fell at night.

Riadh Ezzawech, the last practitioner of Stambali, the religion forged among the former slave communities of Tunisia, was waiting. Known as Arifa, Riadh’s position and practices can be tricky to pin down. To exaggerate the mysticism is to open the door to charges of Orientalism; to play down those elements is to traduce the extraordinary with the prosaic.

Taken together, Stambali’s emphasis on ritual, dance and communing with unseen spirits appears at odds with the relatively staid expressions of religiosity across Tunisia. Especially popular during the holy month, Stambali’s adherents maintain their Islamic roots. Its practitioners, as often as not drawn from the marginalized and neglected, claim spiritual descent from Sidi Bilal, the iconic Black slave freed by the Prophet Muhammad.

There are older currents at work here too, drawn from parts of West Africa during a time before people drew rigid borders, carried from there within the memories of captured slaves to Tunisia and the rest of North Africa. These memories intermingled with local traditions, took root and spread among other captive populations, reinforcing an emerging slave identity and acting as a repository for a shared memory of pain and loss.

In Tunisia, at least, Stambali is under threat. Different versions operating by different names might be thriving in some pockets across North Africa and beyond, but the Tunisian version that has continued uninterrupted for centuries, along with its preserved sentiments of human experiences and nostalgia, stands in peril. It doesn’t help that Riadh suffers from poor health and the house he occupies is at risk of repossession by its historic owners. After Riadh, Stambali may be lost forever, and with it a vital part of the country’s history.

Stambali’s prominence has waxed and waned over the centuries, largely depending upon whatever use it held to whoever held sway in Tunis. Under Ottoman rule, Arifas were venerated for their influence among the palace’s slave population. French colonialists would later dismiss Stambali as simply another example of “Black Islam” — a derogatory term that colonial administrators deployed to distinguish between the occupied territories of sub-Saharan Africa with the practices among the Arabs of North Africa. Stambali languished in the shadows after that until it found fresh ground under the rule of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who must have seen something in its arcane mixture of spectacle and mysticism.

You don’t have to look far to see Stambali’s roots, which combine oral tradition and history from across the continent into something of a mythology, as can be seen in one example in Riadh’s homemade ceremonial mask. Riadh says the mask represents a nameless African king who hid his face as he searched for his kidnapped daughter, Sa’dīyya. The king searched for years, never finding his daughter, but gained recognition through his relationship to her as Bū Sa’dīyya (Father of Sa’dīyya). Bū Sa’dīyya’s quest continues to this day, finding expression as one facet of the Arifas’ performance and their endless pursuit of spiritual transcendence.

Today, Stambali’s dwindling popularity speaks as much to Tunisian attitudes toward the past as it does toward the global trends and challenges facing the country. In 2016, Riadh was attacked by radical Salafists whose hardline views clashed with his.

But crowds still gather to watch the occasional performance of Stambali, the spectacle of the dancers and bright costumes of the musicians belying the hardship and suffering that shelters behind the religion. They watch, applaud and join in, though often they remain reluctant to delve deeper into the tradition.

Even among the skeptics of Tunisia, there is more to Stambali than mere cabaret. For a dwindling number of believers, it remains a living belief. It is to Stambali that the marginalized, the overlooked, the descendants of slaves, ex-prisoners, sex workers and unwed mothers look for advice and solace. For them, as it does for religious believers the world over, Stambali represents an extension of who they are, offering guidance, healing and a moral compass.

Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar, Riadh’s current abode, is a house located at the edge of the medina. It is the last of four donated to Tunis’s freed slaves upon the institution’s legal abolition in 1846, almost 20 years before the abolition of slavery in the United States. During the day, the light barely makes its way into the room. It filters through cigarette smoke that drifts away endlessly from Riadh’s hand. The walls trace much of the modern history of Stambali. Images of Beys — prominent figures — and past Arifas line the walls, while instruments such as the “gūgāy” (one- or two-string fiddle) or the “ganga” (double-headed drum) hang from the roof.

A few hundred feet away from Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar stands the square that once housed Tunis’s slave market. It was there that sub-Saharan prisoners were paraded and sold to domestic buyers and traders headed for the Levant. Captured European slaves could look forward to a more private sale, away from the prying eyes of a curious public, an early indicator of the racial and colorist gulf between Tunisia’s slaves that continues to echo through time to modern day, where descendants of Tunisia’s white slaves can boast power and influence, while their Black counterparts continue to struggle in society’s shadows.

A small plaque stands between the jewelry shops whose brightly lit windows line the square, their white fluorescent lights spilling out onto the well-ordered cobbles and canopies, where lives, hopes and futures were once traded for hard cash and social esteem.

Few of the African slaves traded in Tunis were used for hard labor. Theirs was an experience brutally at odds with those traded in the country’s south, who could find themselves put to work in agriculture or digging the trenches that surrounded and served the oasis. Most of those traded in Tunis would find their way to the palaces of the country’s Ottoman colonizers, operating within their harems, guarding their masters or serving in the houses of the aristocracy whose once-opulent palaces still lurk behind the featureless walls of the medina’s otherwise anonymous streets. All the while, out of sight of their owners, Stambali provided a clandestine soundtrack to the slaves’ stolen past and a witness to their captive present.

Within Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar, the vacant seats that line the empty room where Riadh lounges stand as grim testimony to Stambali’s recent past. Not long ago up to 10 Arifas would gather here. But time and mortality have narrowed that number and only Riadh remains, with a diagnosis of stomach cancer rendering that future uncertain. Riadh lights another cigarette, the light briefly illuminating his brown skin as he explains that there hasn’t been a Black Arifa since the ’80s.

Riadh still promises cures for the poor and the dispossessed who make their way to the door at Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar — though it hasn’t always just been the poor. Riadh remembers the wife of the country’s former president, Leila Trabelsi, making her way here with her mother, walking from their home to his door in the years before her marriage to Ben Ali. Whatever her relationship with Stambali, it was one that both Trabelsi and her husband would remember fondly as they sponsored performances and gifted animals for slaughter to the religion’s poor adherents of the medina, according to Riadh.

Riadh came to Stambali as a child. He was 7 when an Arifa visited him for the fainting fits that used to plague him. Riadh doesn’t say whether the Arifa was a man or a woman, only that the Arifa healed him. He describes the three stages of treatment. Typically, the patient would be passed incense (“jewi”). The unburned resin would then be tucked in a scarf and positioned under the patient’s pillow, where it remained for three nights. After that, a family member would bringthe jewi to the house and present it to the Arifa and their acolytes. The jewi would then be burned and the sickness or spirit identified.

From there, in performances now replicated for public consumption, the show begins. The steady metallic beats of the “chkacheks” (local cymbals) compete with the bass notes of the “gumbri” (a string instrument), together mingling with the call and response of the singers. Around them the thick fragrant smoke of the jewi swirls, filling the outdoor space and providing dense cover for the twirling cloak of the Arifa who, with a skirt wrapped around their waist, twists and shakes their body in time to the rhythms, seemingly lost in a trance to the melodies. Occasionally, an acolyte will join them, but this remains a solo performance. It is the Arifa’s show.

Watched by the crowd, the Arifa becomes enraptured, engulfed in the clouds of incense as they commune with the female spirits Nana Aicha, Megasshia and Bakaba, whose roots, like Bū Sa’dīyya, go back to West Africa’s legends and beliefs. The spirits stand ready to offer counsel and advice to the Arifa, who, in turns, draws out the bad spirits that plague the patient. Once completed, the family sacrifices rabbits or chickens as thanks for the spirits’ help and distributes the meat to relatives, friends and neighbors.

Alas, cure offers no respite from stigma. Around the time of his treatment, Riadh describes being chosen by the spirits to serve as an Arifa. Unable to tolerate his part in the religion of former slaves, his family banished him. He spent the following four years learning about the religion and its traditions at Dar el Kufa, one of the former slaves’ communal houses, before that too was sold. Now only Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar remains.

Tunisians still celebrate the liberation of their slaves. In 2016, the 170th anniversary of the iconic ruler Ahmed Bey’s radical proclamation, the former president, Beji Caid Essebsi, seized upon the anniversary to call for a series of events he hoped would usher in an end to the racism and colorism that continue to divide much of contemporary Tunisia, with physical attacks that target the Black community, both local and visiting, being commonplace. In reality, that divide found no more profound expression than in the person of Essebsi himself, whose elite family, descended in part from Sardinian slaves, prospered through emancipation and flourished through colonialism, independence and revolution while their sub-Saharan counterparts languished on the margins of society.

There are no contemporary accounts of the number of slaves in Tunisia at the time of their 1846 manumission. A rough estimate from shortly after their liberation puts the number at around 167,000. A vaguely more scientific count in 1861 estimated that 7,000 might have been in the country at the time of Bey’s proclamation. Even the date of 1846 can be misleading. That was the date slavery ended among sub-Saharan Africans in the capital and along the coast officially. In the south and among the slave owning poor, the practice continued, confusing any census as poor slave-holding families concealed their human property from officialdom. A second proclamation, in 1890, likely dealt the final blow for slavery as an institution, though as a practice it would still take some years to fade into history.

Again, race played a defining role. Under the Beys, white European slaves who had converted to Islam, like Essebsi’s ancestors, enjoyed some of the most comfortable and influential positions within the state. This stratum of society retained much of its lifestyle and shed the taint of slavery in less than a generation. Their sub-Saharan counterparts, predictably, were less fortunate. With no plan for them beyond servitude, abolition saw them and their traditions relegated to the periphery of society, easy prey for authorities looking to stamp out drunkenness, larceny and the vices borne of poverty and a dearth of hope.

One of slavery’s few remnants, Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar, with its mausoleum containing the bones of Tunisia’s only Black saint, former slave Sidi Ali Lasmar, for whom the house and the narrow street it sits upon take their name, is under threat. The family who bought the property during the modernizing drive of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, is now trying to gain occupancy. Riadh is not sure what this will mean for him or the future of Stambali.

Riadh says he can remember the final years of a declining Bourguiba, whose tenancy of the Presidential Palace at Carthage was abruptly ended by what Ben Ali’s supporters termed a “medical coup” in 1987. Certainly, upon assuming the presidency of a freshly independent country 30 years earlier, Bourguiba showed little inclination in preserving the remaining vestiges of Tunisia’s slave culture. Instead, Bourguiba chose to forge a new postcolonial culture that looked more toward the departing French for inspiration than toward Arabia or Africa.

Narrowing the inequalities between the sexes was prioritized and national economic advancement was a virtue, a new collective. A sense of the greater Tunisia was encouraged, while the sometimes-fragile identities of the country’s minorities, be they ethnic or religious, were deemed a distraction. Stambali never stood a chance. The communal houses were sold, shrines across the country shuttered, Stambali music banned from the radio and public performances prohibited. Prejudices that had dogged the religion throughout the French occupation received official sanction from Tunisia’s first independent state.

Bourguiba’s nationalist project even extended to the population’s surnames, reinvigorating a French scheme used for military recruitment. Almost from the first days of his rule, Bourguiba sought to outlaw anything that sounded foreign or alien, as he sought to wrench the population from familial and tribal networks and wed them forever to his centralizing state. For Tunisia’s Black population, already saddled with the surnames of their former owners or benefactors, this simply codified their status as property. Breaking that link is a battle still being waged today. It wasn’t until two years ago that, after a 20-year legal battle, octogenarian Hamden Dali gained the right to have the stigma-laden title “atig” (liberated by) removed from his name.

Stambali’s fortunes had looked up under the rule of Ben Ali, who deposed Bourguiba. Secure in the identity of the new country, Ben Ali rescinded the ban on Stambali and, likely inspired by his wife, encouraged its practice. Riadh smiles, unable to disguise the nostalgia for a perceived golden age. Public performances used to be encouraged, even sponsored.

Riadh leans forward in his seat, recalling when the president and the president’s family came to Riadh’s house and Stambali was venerated. Under Ben Ali, Stambali dance and music performances were exported as folklore to the concert halls and stages of Europe, their religious context conveniently neutered. Photographs on the walls of Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar chart the illustrious procession of events that began under Ben Ali and continue, under the auspices of foreign embassies and associations, up to the point the pandemic ended everything.

Now the future is uncertain. No new Arifa has been made apparent to Riadh. The spirits who must select his successor have ignored Riadh’s regular troupe of adherents and musicians who perform alongside him. If he loses the house, Riadh supposes he’ll rent somewhere local, but it won’t be the same. He grew up around here. He describes himself as married to it. For Stambali itself, the loss of Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar will mark the end of 175 years of tradition.

In the years since Tunisia’s revolution, Stambali has largely returned to the sidelines of history. Shows are still occasionally held, where visitors from abroad and the country’s more affluent suburbs look on and applaud. Much of Tunisia’s Black population has shrugged off the old associations of Stambali, preferring instead to wage an existential fight to regain their dignity, and even their names in Tunisia’s courts and streets.

Outside Zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar, the streets were beginning to fill. It was still Ramadan when I cut through a cafe, the smell of smoke and coffee filling the air. People wandered out into the night and gathered round tables to share jokes and news of the day. In the street, cars filled the road, their headlights competing with the streetlights to push back the darkness.

Beyond the bright lights and the traffic, sitting in his house, Riadh, the last Arifa, lit another cigarette and inhaled.

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