Culture for everyone and optimism at the café Liber'thé
Sana Sbouai / Tunisia
Sana Sbouai / Tunisia
In September, for the opening of the new library, an event was programmed at the cultural café Liber'thé. From the corner of rue d'Iran, in the Lafayette neighbourhood, word was getting around. At 6pm the café was full and people were getting ready to step on stage: for a short presentation, a thank you message, a text reading, a slam poem.In September, for the opening of the new library, an event was programmed at the cultural café Liber'thé. From the corner of rue d'Iran, in the Lafayette neighbourhood, word was getting around. At 6pm the café was full and people were getting ready to step on stage: for a short presentation, a thank you message, a text reading, a slam poem.
Rahma Beldi, president of the ACCRO Association and Master of Ceremonies, got the public's attention and was the first to speak: “Welcome everyone! The Association Culturelle de Création et Réflexion Optimiste (Cultural Association for Optimistic Creation and Thought) is proud to greet you in our new library”, she exclaimed before a packed café. The public is excited. The guests are squeezed in every corner, sipping fruit juices and hot beverages.
Rahma launches the library and warmly thanks all those who contributed in making the project a reality. Ghassen Labidi, twin co-founder of the café and vice-president of the ACCRO Association then announced the cultural program for October at the café Liber'thé.
The library opens and the October program is unveiled. On the far side of the café, shelves have been built and are already loaded with books. 2000 volumes in 6 languages are available for the members. An appeal was made to the generosity of people. The donated books were then collected and, after a month's work, they were all classified. The list will soon be online. Novels, books on cinema, photography... there is something for every reader's appetite.
This is not the first event of this type at the Liber'thé café. Opened in 2011 by the Labidi twins, it has since been a landmark for alternative culture, receptive to new ideas and initiatives. Ghassen is an accountant and Mohamed Lassaad is a computer engineer. In 2010, they were leading orderly lives, but they came up with the idea of starting a project. Mohamed Lassaad relates how they were carried away by their passion for culture and their frustration at the faint cultural possibilities that finally lead to the opening of a cultural café. “When we were younger, we were hungry for culture. There was not much to do in Tunis and we attended every possible event.”
When they rented the space in 2010, it was completely run-down. It took three months to renovate it during the time when all activities were suspended in Tunisia because of the revolution. Ghassen Labidi explains that the endeavour had been financially trying but they succeeded thanks to their yearning for culture: “We started by creating events, over 400 since 2011: concerts, films, exhibitions of painters, illustrators, cartoonists... this is the 51st exhibition.”
“There's a lot of work behind all of this, we stay up late to keep the café open, to organize events, to install the exhibitions... But it's our baby so we give it all we have”, says Mohamed Lassaad.
“The idea was to create a space for cultural and artistic events because there were none when we were students.” In other words: penniless students, here you can discover, think, create, sing... the door is open to everyone. It is their motto: culture for everyone.
“It's not easy to go out when you're a student in Tunis. Events here are free, you just have to drop by to see a concert, a film, participate in an event”. A small cultural revolution in an ever-changing city where any cultural initiative goes to slowly fill a total void that has grown in the absence of cultural politics. This is where ideas, talents and passions emerge.
The atmosphere is friendly and anybody can try something onstage. The tables and chairs are made of recycled pallets, and drinks are more than affordable. Different groups of people meet here: the young people from downtown have a place to go without having to travel to the suburbs or go to expensive cafés, people from the residential areas come to town to attend an event. The tight program for October with its 17 organized events attracted even more people. In November there were 13 events, and there will be 12 in December: cinema, slam poetry, exhibitions, philosophy...
Ghassen explains: “A community is being created, it is a well-informed public, and that's what we want: young people must reflect and frequent the cultural spaces that have been abandoned for cafés where they watch TV and smoke hookahs. Our idea was to create an alternative to normal cafés”.
Rahma Beldi arrived at Liber'thé in 2012: “When I came, there were 4 tables, no coffee machine, we used to serve instant coffee”. She smiles. The teams gets on well. They organize evenings with films and discussions, concerts. This is how this young woman became involved in the cultural café adventure: “Little by little, a community of artists came to life, each one did what he could, we built the stage, piece by piece... it was difficult with such small means”. In time, the idea of creating an association dawned on us. Ghassen explains: “We had many problems with the cultural café in the beginning because there is no legal status for this kind of project. The police would come and interrupt our activities. To make everything legal, we created the association. This way we can also raise funds for our annual cultural program”.
One of the Association's goals is to foster artistic activities in the country, to help artists with their creative process and make art and culture accessible to the younger generation of Tunisians.
“Our idea is to spread culture by making it more approachable. In Tunisia, as in many other places, culture is for the elite. Spending 10 or 12 dinars for the theatre or 30 for a concert is not within most people's budget. That's what we're working on, while paying great attention to the quality of the projects we bring to the Liber'thé”, says Med Lasaad. In the end, an artistic community is taking shape after years of work and gathering people, and it is getting less and less complicated for the Liber'thé team together with ACCRO to produce alternative cultural creations.
The café welcomes all types of activities. Onstage, Ghassen reads the list of events programmed for the opening of the cultural season in October: weekly film screenings, a special focus on a country or a region every month, a propensity for independent films “because we promote alternative culture”. Music is in the spotlight through live or screened concerts, there are also slam poetry evenings, creative writing workshops for women of the Notre Dame des Mots association, philo café evenings.
“We started the philo café evenings without knowing whether it would work out. It became very popular and the place gets packed. Many people want to listen and talk about complex subjects.” The theme for October is: Why War?
Ghassen is very proud to announce an initiative that is groundbreaking for a Tunisian café: improvisational theatre, a theatrical creation with no written script and no rehearsals. He explains: ”We want to create a theatre company before the end of the year, gradually integrating new members.”
In Arab, the name of the Association is “positive”, but in translation, the word optimistic was chosen:
“We feel that 5 years after the revolution, everybody is disappointed. We wanted to encourage people to continue, to move forward, to create, we must keep on thinking, it's the only way to find solutions”, says Ghassen.
The concept of a cultural café was not part of people's mentality. “As time passed, the young people who came to the café started to understand that they had to get involved. And a lot of them found a way of expressing themselves by stepping on this stage.” Ghassen cites a few examples of young people who made their first steps on Liber'thé's stage: Mehdi Mahjoub, Sabrine Ghannoudi and Anis Chouchen.
In the end, Libert'thé and ACCRO thumb their noses at all the pessimists and those who want to leap backwards. The artistic incubator whose name was chosen in the midst of the revolution is a genuine place where where people exchange ideas and hope together.
Anis Chouchen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXiS0GKm-Qk
Sabrine Ghannoudi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhFa0Qgvar0
Mehdi Mahjoub https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4d7sw4O5Wk
This article was written for Inkyfada together with the Babelmed website, promoter of the Web Arts Résistance project about artistic and citizen initiatives in Algeria, Egypt, France, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia... (with support from Région Paca, Fondation Anna Lindh and Fondation de France)