When a Tunisian man set himself alight in 2010 after being humiliated by municipal officers who confiscated his wares, protests fanned across the country and gave birth to the Jasmine revolution.
As protests erupted, the charged atmosphere quickly spread to neighbouring countries. At the forefront of this anger was Emel Mathlouthi’s voice, capturing, distilling and amplifying hopes and fears forged through years of repression, injustice and economic hardships.
For years, TV and radio stations in her home country banned her songs, yet with the heady events of the Jasmine revolution, things quickly changed and Mathlouthi quickly became “the voice of the revolution”.
“We’re free and unafraid; we’re secrets that never die, the voice of those who resist.”
With these words, My Words are Free became Tunisia’s unofficial national anthem. Standing among the crowds, armed with nothing but the raw power of her words and her guitar, she sang.
Defying a repressive regime is not without its consequences, but that was the last thing on Mathlouthi’s mind. “I had to do something so that I could still feel sane. I needed to feel useful, needed to draw an art that could have a purpose and heal, not sit around feeling powerless,” she told The New Arab.
In a strange juxtaposition of gender stereotypes, Mathlouthi’s traditionally “girlish” voice at first hides the depth of her power. As the dynamics of her beat build, she takes a soft feminine energy to reveal such great strength, Mathlouthi’s voice defying all traditional Arab music convention.
“We have both energies in all of us,” Mathlouthi explains. “There’s softness and strength. To defend what I’m defending, you need a lot of strength.”
Her newest album, Ensan [“Human”] embodies all that Mathlouthi sings for. “I wanted to show that being human means before everything else, it means being fragile, sharing, empathetic, and in solidarity.”
In a surprising moment, Mathlouthi gifts a song, “for the homeless that we forget to see”. She explains the inspiration came from her time in Paris. “Big cities, like London, New York, Paris – where people make a lot of money – it’s very normal to walk by someone sleeping on the kerb in the middle of the winter.
“It was a shock to see it when I first moved to Paris. We don’t really see it in Tunisia due to the family values held, I’m sure there is some homelessness, but not to the extent as we see here.
“People walk away and don’t even feel anything,” Mathlouthi speaks, aghast. “Some people refuse to feel, refuse to see, and that’s even worse. We should never think it’s ok, it’s part of life.”
During her time in Paris, Mathlouthi struck up a friendship with the homeless under her apartment and would often drop by and take soup or a cup of tea.
“People are scared of doing that gesture, but it’s ok if you go through the humiliation of being rejected. It’s just five minutes of your life, and then you move on and go sleep in your apartment. I was friends with two, even though we barely spoke the same language.”
Humanity and empathy run central to Mathlouthi’s themes; her life and her music highlight their importance.
She hopes to create “an intellectual fusion”, a place where one processes complex thoughts, while the melodies provide an immediate effect: “We need curiosity, to go beyond ourselves, and our own understanding of things.”
“Literature is less immediate, theatre too. They’re both extremely important, but for a large part of the younger generation, everything is about music, and that’s why it’s very important to try and deliver music that you can learn something from.
“You learn things that cannot be said, through the emotions you receive. Music is so mobile, it gives you emotions, gives you strength, builds your faith – it’s the most beautiful religion.”
Music often transcends reality, as discovered by religious musicians many centuries ago. “[It] touches something very sacred and elevates you,” says Mathlouthi. Music, she adds, is the only truth we have.
“I didn’t have the traditional understanding of Arabic music, the nodes and such. I found the oriental school of music quite static, it didn’t match my personality at all,” she laughingly adds.
“I had some sort of reconciliation with Arabic singing later,” Mathlouthi explains, after she moved to Europe. Introduced to singers like Sheikh Imam, “a metal guy” and Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese composer “very much inspired by classical music”, Mathlouthi’s appreciation for the depth and power of the Arabic language blossomed.
“I began searching, in particular North Africa, and even more, the Tunisian school – not just traditional notes coming from Egypt. Inspired by both worlds, east and west, I wanted to draw from popular music.”
Despite the modern beats, Mathlouthi’s traditional Tunisian identity remains clear, a fusion of both worlds that are home.
“The Arab world is under strong dictatorships which didn’t allow them to develop, to have a multi-cultural society that is tolerant.
“We come from a history that is difficult,” adds Mathlouthi. “It all starts with bringing culture and art together. Around art, all barriers fall, all differences are overlooked.”
The New Arab