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The Harlem Shake Tunisia-Style: Rocking the Body Politic

A battle of colours and bodies is being waged in Tunisia. The 'Harlem Shake' is just its latest manifestation.
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Tunisians protest in January 2011. Photograph by Nasser Nouri.

It all started on 23 February in a secondary school in Menzah, a wealthy suburb of Tunis. A group of students, including the son of a prominent politician from the ruling al-Nahda party, set up and filmed a ‘Harlem Shake’ dance in which some students dressed up as and parodied Salafis and Gulf emirs.

The video went viral on social networks, even attracting the interest of the traditional media, and was thought, initially at least, to have brought some lightness to Tunisia after weeks of gloom in the aftermath of the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

The Ministry of Education responded, however, by suspending the school director. Students fought back in turn by hacking the ministry’s website and putting out a fake call for a mega Harlem Shake in front of the ministry’s offices on Friday, 1 March.

Shaken and stirred

When the video was first made public, it had spread quickly around high schools and university campuses throughout the country. The state itself did not react to begin with, but Salafi activists made stopping the fad a priority. Their attempts to quell the dance erupted in violence at the Manouba University campus, at a high school in Le Kef, and on the streets of Mahdia, to name but a few prominent examples.

Harlem shakers claim to represent life by setting their dancing and colourful costumes against a culture they see as preaching death and darkness – a reference to black niqabs and gowns worn by followers of Salafism, and their trademark black banner. Many Salafis, in turn, accuse the youth of being immoral and slavish imitators of 'trashy' Western culture.

This division along lines of colour is not new in Tunisia. The carnivalesque character of demonstrations has been increasingly visible among secularists, and has resulted most noticeably in celebrations of the red and white Tunisian flag, the offering of roses, face-painting, the wearing of colourful hats, and the use of street dancing and performances in public celebrations. Colour and the body have also been increasingly used as sites of resistance, protest and expression.

But this trend has not been exclusive to self-described progressives and modernists. Similar methods are also being used in the expression of faith and religious allegiance after decades of repression. In addition to growing prominence of hijabs, niqabs, long shirts and skull caps, Tunisians have also seen an increase of black banners, public prayers and speeches on beaches, avenues and in parks. Two moments of this assertiveness are particularly memorable: when the national flag was replaced with the Salafist black banner at the Manouba University campus, and when the same banner was put on top of the clock in Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.

The result of this is that Tunisia’s public space has become inhabited by two contrasting methods of expression, each with its own set of markers and movements. Post-revolutionary Tunisia is not only about speeches, strikes and debates. It has been about colours and bodies as well – particularly the female body, which has become the most prominent site of conflict, with two opposing sets of views on how to dress, deal with, talk about and police it. Examples are too numerous to mention, but the upcoming commemoration of Women’s Day on March 8 is already shaping up to be a major flashpoint.

Harlem Shake versus Halal Shlake

Social media has been teeming with semantic ingenuity, producing the perfect slogan for the recent face off: Harlem Shake against Halal Shlake.

While the reference to Haram (‘sinful’) and Halal (‘permissible’) are commonly known, the term Shlake needs some explanation. Shlake (or shlayak or shlaka) is a term used for a type of shoe, sandals or flip flops, but also carries connotations of uselessness and ignorance. The word also features in the last name of the Foreign Minister, Bou Shlaka, who has been derided for this.

Shoes have become an important signifier in this context; we all remember the scenes when former US president George W. Bush had a shoe thrown at him at a press conference in Iraq, and the copycat shoe-throwing acts which ensued around the world. The Harlem Shake is interpreted as a form of shoe-throwing at Salafists, and is taken by them as an insult. It derides their perceived increasing tendency to label as 'haram' any activities related to the ‘celebration of life’ and the female body in particular, such as dancing, ‘revealing’ clothing and partying.

Rocking the body politic

We are witnessing the extreme politicisation of global entertainment. In Tunisia, where the revolution was heavily driven by youth and social media, the youth has once again used social media to lobby against the religious turn their revolution has taken. It has extended into the streets and public squares. The violent reaction, mainly by Salafis, is only adding fuel to the fire and helping to develop it into a national action, with flashpoints popping up across the country.

This division is simultaneously the result of a polarised polity and a visible expression of it. The Tunisian Harlem Shake inhabits the intersection between youth, the internet, desire, and politics. Anything which takes place in this intersection is likely to be irrepressible. Violence and blind denial will only strengthen this mix further.

The Harlem Shake may fade away, as fads tend to do, but another one will soon come along. We have learnt by now that the mill of politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia spares none and nothing, turning the most benign events into fodder for political contestation and even violence.

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