Since the transformative Jasmine Revolution in 2011, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Tunisians have left to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). At least 700 have returned. With her masterful short film “Brotherhood,” Tunisian-American director Meryam Joobeur opens a tragic, intimate window into one of these homecomings.
After having won the 2018 Carthage Film Days’ Tanit d’Or, the top award in the short film category, “Brotherhood” was recently selected to be shown at the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival in the mountains of Utah. The film made it through a fine sieve: it will be one of just 73 short films out of 9,443 total worldwide submissions and one of just six selections made by Middle Eastern or North African directors.
Joobeur’s “Brotherhood” touches a deep nerve in Tunisia, a country grappling with a thorny tangle of troubles nearly eight years after the tumult of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. The post-revolution government has held fair elections, pushed progressive reforms, and offered new freedoms. Freedom House declared Tunisia the only “free” Arab state, a label that has been touted widely.
But the revolution’s hopes have not been met. Unemployment and economic inequality persist, infighting is eroding political unity, and scores of young Tunisians have become radicalized.
The issue is very present in Tunisians’ minds—the feature film Tanit d’Or award went to Tunisian director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa,” which, like “Brotherhood,” centers around a father’s relationship with a radicalized son.
Journalist George Packer, in an illuminating New Yorker article, quoted one young Tunisian who said “90 percent” of his high school friends have joined ISIS. Tunisia, Packer wrote, is “small enough that everyone knows of someone who has disappeared.”
All 25 minutes of “Brotherhood,” set in the chilly hills and coastline of northern Tunisia, bear the weight of three childhoods, each touched by one such disappearance.
A father, Mohamed, and his son, Chaker, return home from tending their flock of sheep to find an unfamiliar, white truck outside. Inside the house, they find Malek, the eldest brother, who has just returned from Syria, where he had gone to fight with ISIS. With him is a stranger—Reem, a reticent, pregnant young woman, veiled in a face-covering niqab. Malek introduces her as his wife.
Malek’s mother, Salha, and his brothers, Chaker and Rayene, open their arms to him and welcome him home with a nervous joy. For them, he is their son and brother, not a terrorist. But his father is frozen and furious. Malek abandoned them, brought crushing pain, and his return, with the mysterious Reem, threatens the family.
A hushed, piercing tension permeates the film. During a brutally uneasy family dinner, incised by severe stares and volatile silence, Malek offers to fix the house’s broken fence with his brother Chaker. Mohamed shakes his head: “Leave it broken.”
He could have been talking about Malek. Mohamed has closed his heart to his son, director Meryam Joobeur tells Inside Arabia. He has condemned him as “a lost cause, as a way to cope.” Leave Malek broken because he is irredeemable, Mohamed thinks. He refuses to hear Malek or to try to understand his experience. When Chaker chimes in, trying to side with his brother, his father cuts him off.
Malek, reading behind his father’s words, tells him, “I had a duty to help my Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria.” Glaring, Mohamed demands, “And your Muslim little brother Rayene? Did you forget him? Where were you when wild dogs attacked him and almost tore him apart? . . . What about your Muslim mother? She stopped eating and almost died of grief. Are they not worthy of your goddamn religious doctrine?”
This question is heavy with Tunisia’s pain and confusion. Why have so many young Tunisians turned to such a radical, violent life and left home?
Religious doctrine appears to be only a slim dimension of the radicalization problem. In his New Yorker article, George Packer suggests radicalization often is “an expression of rage, not of ideology.”
He identifies a distinct shift following the 2011 revolution, when massive popular protests ousted long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sparked the Arab Spring, and ushered in a free democracy. Since Packer notes, Tunisia has become a “leading producer of jihadism.”
He explains: “Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive.”
Persistent unemployment, economic inequality, and political malfeasance cultivate radicalization. Many Tunisians distrust the state, with its reluctance to hear the people, with a police force largely borrowed from Ben Ali, and with the two-faced maneuverings of the now-dominant Islamic party Ennahdha. One Tunisian woman told Packer that one leaves for Syria when “one feels that one doesn’t belong to Tunisia, when one feels that Tunisia brings you nothing.”
One young Tunisian explained that his engineer friend left to build bombs for ISIS, saying, “I can’t build anything in this country.” Another young man told Packer, “The youth are lost. There’s no justice.” To stop radicalization, he said, bring schools, jobs, and hope.
In “Brotherhood,” after Mohamed rebukes his son for leaving, Malek tells his father, “If you had respected me, I would have stayed. But you treated me like your mule.”
Well before the revolution, the state cultivated a particular, simmering discontent. From Tunisia’s 1956 independence until the 2011 revolution, the government stifled the public practice of Islam. The first president, Habib Bourguiba, banned hijabs in schools and government offices, and famously drank orange juice during the holy Ramadan fast to trumpet Tunisia’s secular modernism. His more callous successor, Ben Ali, arrested Islamists, including Ennahdha party members.
“There was a vacuum of religion during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes,” Ennahdha’s leader Rached Ghannouchi told Packer. The state acted with violence toward public Islam. Post-revolution, the people reacted in kind, Ghannouchi said. “This radicalization is inherited from the Ben Ali regime—it is not the fruit of the revolution,” he told Packer.
Many of those who became radicalized also participated in the Jasmine Revolution—a movement starkly, qualitatively different from ISIS. But, they share a revolutionary discontent with the status quo. For some youths, the goals of the revolution never manifested, so they sought another way to change their world.
One former jihadi told Packer, “I went there without thinking. Youthful passion took me there.” Witnessing death and destruction made him return.
Under Ben Ali and Bourguiba, the government assumed control of Tunisia’s mosques and appointed imams, who were fed sermons and restricted in what they could teach. Tunisia’s “shallow” religious education offers youth little theological defense against the charismatic pull of extremists, Packer explained. ISIS’ fiery theology offers grand purpose, power, and adventure to those feeling smothered.
When “Brotherhood” showed at the Carthage Film Days in Tunis, it took on a visceral tone. Five days before the festival opened, a young Tunisian named Mona Guebla carried out a suicide bombing just blocks away from the festival theaters. She killed only herself but wounded 26 people, mostly police officers. She was an unemployed college graduate, apparently radicalized online.
Joobeur sees a dimension of radicalization that isn’t often discussed. Since the revolution, gender equality has made major strides in Tunisia. Women have a more powerful place in society, and Tunisian men, like men worldwide, have felt threatened. Jihadi recruiters have “manipulated this insecurity” and “emasculation” by “selling men a sense of power and purpose.”
Joobeur is Tunisian, but grew up in the U.S. and now lives in Canada. Her links to Tunisia are strong, but, in recent years, she has come to know her country more deeply, particularly the rural areas, where “a sense of community and family is very palpable.”
“Brotherhood” was born when Joobeur, road-tripping through northern Tunisia in 2016, spotted the red hair and freckles of brothers Malek and Chaker Merchegui, “leading their flock of sheep across a lush green hillside.” She stopped and asked to take a photo, but they refused. She later learned that a nearby town, Sejnane, had experienced “a surge of radicalization” after 2011, sending many young men to Syria.
A year after, with this knowledge and the red-haired brothers in her mind, the story coalesced. Joobeur wanted to explore radicalization “through the intimate lens of one family” and was determined to have the brothers in the film. Knowing only their distinctive looks, she went searching the hills, asking from village to village, until she “finally landed on their doorstep with the script for Brotherhood.” Malek, Chaker, and their younger brother Rayene, agreed to act.
As it turned out, they liked film. They had never acted before, but all three revealed a stunning predilection for the art, surely lifted by the intimacy of their real brotherhood. Devoted to “an honest family dynamic,” Joobeur shaped their characters and those of their parents (played by professional actors Mohamed Grayaa and Salha Nasraoui) to be as close to their real selves as possible. The film family’s house and sheep belong to the real-life Merchegui brothers’ relative.
The realism in “Brotherhood” was amplified by the unfortunate fact that, although the brothers knew no immediate friends or family who had left for Syria, they, like all Tunisians, were well-acquainted with the story.
Talking about radicalization can feel abstract and assumptive. “Brotherhood” humanizes the narrative and the people who get sucked into it. Malek is a young man, lost and frustrated, who sees purpose elsewhere. After he returns, he and his brothers laugh, have fun, and play on the beach and in the woods. Reem (played by Jasmin Yazid) joins in the housework with Malek’s mother, who defends the girl against Mohamed’s misplaced anger.
“Brotherhood” illuminates Tunisia’s crucial absence of rehabilitation for returned jihadis. Most, if found out, end up in prison. Others live under a specter of heavy, unhelpful surveillance. Lost before leaving, they return lost and are given no guidance.
Some days after Malek returns, he and his brothers are playing on the beach. Mohamed, at a shop in town, asks to borrow the shop owner’s phone. With a storm in his head and eyes that are not really seeing, he steps outside and, with a pause, makes a call.
When Mohamed returns, he tells his wife, Salha, to bring Reem to her sister’s house and hide her. Salha and Reem know right away that he betrayed Malek. Reem then reveals something about her relationship with Malek that turns Mohamed’s world upside down and, in an instant, redeems his son. He had built an unyielding judgment of Malek in his head, but his assumptions crumble and he “starts to question everything,” Joobeur explains. Salha brings Reem away, and Mohamed runs to find his son before he is taken.
The brothers return to find an empty house. Soon, they hear police sirens. Mohamed runs clumsily through the woods towards the windy, bitter beach, frenzied and wide-eyed, shouting Malek’s name. But the sirens are quiet and Malek is gone.
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