I’m writing to you from a little house near the sea, with coffee brewing on the stove with (in my opinion) the world’s best coffee maker and rain is battering the roof. Since the last issue of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine was published, I’ve relocated from the centre of Europe to the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. It’s under this roof and beside this sea that I’ve read most of the submissions for our 2014 spring issue, in a place where, until recently, freedom of expression was nonexistent, writing with honesty was an act of great courage, and reading an online journal often involved technological subterfuge.
Here in Tunisia, where I’ve been welcomed with warmth and generosity by new colleagues and friends, I live not far from the government office where the vegetable seller Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation provided a catalyst for the Arab Spring. Bouazizi is a person I think of every day as I see my local street vendors; the elderly man who presides over a table of oranges outside the bakery, the man who sold me my pots and pans and clay incense burner, the mother and son who teach me Arabic words for peppers, garlic and lemons (and laugh good-naturedly at the results).
Freedom of expression is intrinsic to all our lives, not least to the people who read and write about the world. Before and during the revolution, writing the truth was a dangerous undertaking. Yet it still happened. Some writers, like the blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who blogs as A Tunisian Girl and the activist Amira Yahyaoui who tweets as @Mira404, put their name to their words. It was an extraordinary piece of bravery. The high premium on information and enormous police presence during the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali meant, as a colleague recently described to me, that nobody spoke explicitly about what everyone knew.
Tunisia is seen as the most stable of the post-revolution nations, particularly in comparison with North African neighbors Libya and Egypt. The lack of success in these countries following the revolution lies not only in political instability, but in the lack of equality afforded to the people of these countries, in particular the women, and ethnic and sexual minority groups, without whose work revolution would not have been possible.
While the Tunisian constitution, voted into law in January 2014, ensures gender equality and freedom of belief and conscience, I am less free than my male peers; public space is largely male dominated, sexual harassment and sexualized violence are a daily reality and the burden of domestic work falls almost exclusively on women. LGBTQ rights are nonexistent. Revolution doesn’t create a perfect society; under the best possible circumstances, it clears the way for people to define their freedom.
Nevertheless, this is a country where there is a clear appetite for discourse. The shape that discourse takes is new, and like any new thing, it is both exciting and difficult to define. When I questioned him over lunch one afternoon, my colleague who coordinates the debate series Young Arab Voices described the enormity of the project for the participants, not only the format and medium of debate, but the fact of public debate itself in this very new democracy. Yet it exists and it thrives.
The basic human instinct for free expression has, in every part of the world and throughout history, emerged regardless of the circumstances. Someone will tell the truth, whether it’s bloggers writing from dictatorships or fiction writers who subvert the status quo, dissident judges, teachers who refuse to impart revised history or vegetable sellers who just want the freedom to earn a living.
Our readers and writers are all over the world. Many of you break through firewalls to read, or weigh each word that you type. Some are far more lucky. Wherever you are, we invite you to write with integrity, to read with an open and critical mind and to comment with thoughtfulness and courage.
We’re pleased to present a great collection in our spring 2014 issue. The poetry section examines a biologist’s experiments on the Sargasso Sea and takes us to New York City. In non-fiction, we move from a displaced person’s camp in Germany to a freezing New York farm, and from wild ponies knocking on a Shetland door to cats cruising an Istanbul market. In fiction we visit a hospital in Mali, a Korean neighbourhood and a cycle route in Brighton, and read two novel extracts, which take us from a Spanish mansion to an American riverside.
Our foray into spoken word is expanding to include two of our regular writers. You can listen to Andrew Hamilton reading his short fiction And Then There Was The Pigeon Man via podcast, also published in print Issue 17, and Oliver Gray reading his short fiction Lucky, previously published in print in Issue 13.
On a sad note, the writer and lawyer Gary F. Iorio, whose beautiful poem Massapequa Drifting was featured in Outside In Issue 16, has passed away this week. The editorial team would like to extend our sincere sympathies to the people in Gary’s life, and to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution he made, and will continue to make, to the world with his transporting words. Because good writing lives forever.
Writing from Tunisia,