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Tunisian b-boys

Marine Olivesi, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
May 30, 2014

Young men in Tunisia are taking up break dancing as a way to combat hopelessness. In tumultuous times for their country, having a creative outlet can divert them from a path of extremism, dancers say.

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A break dance tutor instructs a young man in Tunisia (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
Image: DW/M. Olivesi

A b-boy with a Red Bull cap breaks down the steps for two teenagers, shouting footwork instructions over the blasting music. He shows them how to spin and where to put their hands.

On the opposite corner of the youth center's main room, another trainer starts to drill a group of beginners. He pairs them up and asks them to push forward until one of them steps back. He says break dance is all about attitude.

"With b-boys in the floor, you have to be so aggressive," says Azmi Laifi, a 24-year old who works as a home decorator and spends the rest of his time on the dance floor. "In the battle, you will look different. Just in the battle."

Using break dance to release anger, channel energy and turn them into something positive, that's what Nidhal Bouallagui had in mind when he started touring Tunisia's central region last fall with his crew. The first workshops took place in Ben Aoun just a few weeks after clashes broke out there between gunmen and the military, killing eight.

"I thought that if we could draw young people to cultural activities, this would help appease tensions and also show Tunisians that there's great potential and creativity in this region," Bouallagui said.

"Break dance is our way put some fun and joy in people's lives ... And they need it! Most of the boys I meet are depressed because their situation here is so bad."

Fertile ground for extremists

It's that kind of hopelessness that touched off the revolution, more than three years ago.

It all started in Bouallagui's hometown, Sidi Bouzid, when a young fruit vendor set himself on fire after an argument with the police. That was, quite literally, the spark that ignited the unrest and toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians have since elected an assembly and passed a democratic constitution this January. For many observers, Tunisia has become the rare success story of the Arab Spring, but young people across the country are still grappling with scarce economic opportunities.

Members of Tunisia's parliament wave flags after approving the country's new constitution in January 2014 (Photo: Zoubeir Souissi)
Despite some political progress, young people in Tunisia are struggling for job opportunitiesImage: Reuters

Over 40 percent of them are out of work - one of the highest youth unemployment rates in North Africa. Bouallagui says the discontent has been fertile ground for extremist groups.

"Ask anyone on the street and he'll tell you one of his brothers is in Syria. It's like my whole neighborhood has gone there. That's because life in this country has nothing to offer, there's no hope, no job, nothing. So it will be easy to convince a young guy to go for jihad, to give his life to God and maybe go to heaven. He'll pick that over the life he has here."

Bouallagui saw this play out, up close. His own brother went to Syria for eight months last year.

"He wanted to get married," he says, "but in Tunisia, that requires having a job and a house - and he had neither."

His brother has since returned to Tunisia, but he's still active among Salafists, Tunisia's most influential Islamist movement, which preaches a strict version of Islam.

"He disapproves of what I do. For him, break dance is un-Islamic. We rarely talk, and just go on with our respective lives."

A group of masked fighters marches in Syria (Photo: Diaa Al-Din)
Thousands of Tunisians have gone to fight in Syria's civil war alongside militants linked to al QaedaImage: Reuters

Security threat

Tunisia's authorities say up to 2,000 Tunisian nationals are currently fighting in Syria, most of them with militias aligned with al Qaeda. But the violence hasn't just been exported. Tunisia has also found itself with a security problem of its own.

"For the first time in Tunisia, we saw two high-profile politicians murdered, a string of clashes with armed forces...even a suicide bomber in a resort town on the coast," said Issam Khemakhem, the head of a leading youth organization in Tunis, the capital.

According to Khemakhem, Tunisian authorities have been too soft with radical groups, and too slow to address youth problems. And while Nidhal's break dance workshops deserve some praise, bottom line, he said, dance is no real fix.

"It's nice to let the steam off but if you have five people in your family who are without jobs, without income, and live on $1 or $2 (70 euro cents - 1.40 euros) a day , it's not going to make your life any easier."

More than dancers

It doesn't put food on the table, but the b-boys of Sidi Bouzid give something precious to young Tunisians: a sense of belonging, said Wissem Missaoui, head of the Bridge to Democracy Program, a USAID-funded initiative.

"The youth problem especially in the interior of the country is that they don't feel like they belong to anything. They feel marginalized. And that's why they're easily attracted by the extremist group, by violent, criminal groups. And the Rocking Steps Crew, they get this. They are countering this appeal by creating a space where young people can express themselves, a space where they belong."

A young man performs a one-handed handstand during a break dancing workshop in Tunisia (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
Break dancing is a way for young men to channel their anger, says BouallaguiImage: DW/M. Olivesi

Missaoui has worked with the Rocking Steps Crew (Bouallagui's b-boys troupe) on a number of civic initiatives, such as rallying locals to clean up and repaint an impoverished neighborhood of Sidi Bouzid.

"When I met these guys back in 2011, all they wanted to do is dance. Now look at them! They've become leaders in their communities."

At the end of the break dance workshop, two dozen teenagers put their names and phone numbers down. Bouallagui says whenever someone doesn't show up at an event, he calls and tries to figure out the problem.

"We've become more than dancers around here, that's for sure" he says. "We're like youth counselors too."

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