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Removing Tunisia’s Racist Tag

Many within Tunisia greeted the news that 81-year-old Hamden Dali had won his two decade-long campaign to have “atig” removed from his name with little more than bemusement. But for Dali atig – meaning “liberated by” – in his name was a painful reminder of his family’s heritage as former slaves. Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery, outlawing the practice in 1846, 19 years before the US. However, though the initial edict was quickly adopted in the urban north, it was some time before slavery was abolished entirely, with a further proclamation required in 1890. Though the practice may have been abolished for more than a century, its legacy lives on. In the ancient medina in Tunis, the old slave market still stands, although today its stalls sell gold and silver rather than human beings. In Tunisia’s south, the village of El Gosbah stands divided by a river, separating the settlements of the descendants of black slaves from their white neighbours. In language, slavery’s legacy thrives, with surnames such as Abid and Shoushan, both denoting slave, commonplace. In 2018, Tunisia passed a landmark law, essentially criminalising racial discrimination, which was pivotal in Hamden Dali shedding his unwanted label. But a lack of funds – a perennial issue in Tunisian politics – has limited any campaign to raise awareness of the law, leaving that task to groups such as Mnemty.