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Tunisia: What is in a Name?

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Tunisia Live (Tunis)

Houda Mzioudet

29 December 2011


On December 26th some Tunisians protested in front of the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the announcement of the appointment of Rafik Abdessalem as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

They opposed the appointment, and threw accusations of nepotism due to Abdessalem’s family ties to the Ennahda Party’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi (he is Ghannouchi’s son-in-law). During the protest, a protester held a blue flip-flop, poking fun at Abdessalem, whose original family name is Bouchlaka (literally meaning someone wearing flip-flops, but in the Tunisian dialect of the Arabic language the word may connote a poor, destitute person).

The symbolism behind such a gesture brought mixed reactions from bloggers and facebookers with some condoning the action as being ridiculous, while others defended the action as an expression of freedom of speech. This however raises the issue of family names in Tunisia that sound less appealing, embarrassing and even considered as ridiculous by many people.

Tunisian family names have undergone many changes since the nation’s independence from France in 1956. The changes came under reforms signed by founding Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba.

On May 28th, 1964 Bourguiba signed Article 32 of the country’s Personal Status Code (1956), which allowed some Tunisians to change their family names – particularly those with names that were deemed “disgraceful, confusing or subject to mockery when pronounced.” The law was amended on May 3rd, 1966. Bourguiba also ordered changing the names of some Tunisian towns for the same reasons.

The Personal Status Code were a series of progressive Tunisian laws aimed at instituting equality between women and men in a number of areas. It was promulgated by a beylical decree (the Bey was the Turkish dynasty of rulers of Tunisia from 1507 until 1957) on August 13, 1956 and came into effect on January 1, 1957. This Code was one of the best known policies of Bourguiba, who was Prime Minister and later President.

Habib Kazdaghli, a Tunisian historian, told Tunisia Live that in 1959, Bourguiba allowed Tunisians wishing to change their family names to do so. Abderrazak Feki, a Tunisian journalist working for La Presse, told Tunisia Live about Bourguiba’s order to change some Tunisian towns’ names such as Ferryville which changed to Menzel Bourguiba as part of the Arabization of Tunisian towns. Another town of Menzel Harb (House of War in Arabic) became Menzel Horr (House of Free Men in Arabic ).

Regarding family names, some Tunisians changed their names for a variety of different reasons. According to Feki, some changed their family names because they wanted to get rid of the rural character of their names to names sounding closer to noble family names of Tunis. An example includes the northwestern town of Beja and the family name of Bichaouech. The name was changed to Bech Chaouech which sounded more “noble” since in Arabic, it means a high ranking official in the Ottoman army in Tunisia.

Feki credits Tunisian historian Mohamed Othman Hechaichi (1855-1912) and his book Tunisian Heritage with much of its efforts at tracing back the origins of Tunisian family names. Tunisian family names are a synthesis of different origins such as Berber, Arab, Andalusian and European.

The protest against Rafik Abdessalem’s appointment as a new Minister in the Tunisian government may have been controversial, but it has also drawn attention to the fact that now after the revolution someone with a background from a family so humble it once had to change its name is now Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Serving in high levels of the Tunisian government is no longer a profession for the Tunisian elite.

AllAfrica – All the Time

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