A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Statues

In my recent post on Zaytuna and the reopening of the ancient mosque-school in the Tunis medina, I ran a picture of Zaytuna alumnus Ibn Khaldun's statue at the entrance to the Tunis medina. There is an interesting story involving that statue, and its orientation.

First, you need to understand the geography. Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the great boulevard that runs through downtown Tunis like a colonial Champs Elysees, runs from the Lake of Tunis via Place 14 Janvier 2011 (formerly Place 7 Novembre 1987, formerly where Bourguiba's statue stood till 1987) in a grand European sweep to the old city. At the French Cathedral it becomes, for its last couple of blocks, the somewhat narrower Avenue de France, and then it reaches the old city, the medina, a typical warren of winding streets and allies. The entrance to the medina, the Bab al-Bahr (the gate toward the sea), thus marks the seam between the medieval Arab city and the French colonial European one.

The Since-removed Statue of Cardinal Lavigerie
In the French era, a statue stood at the Bab al-Bahr. It was of Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Carthage, founder of the Missionaries of Africa (known as the White Fathers, for their white clerical robes). He stood there, cross raised, right at the entrance to the street that leads to Zaytuna. When it was erected in 1925 it provoked demonstrations and protests by the Muslim students at Zaytuna, but it remained until independence.

In the Bourguiba era, another statue was erected at this end of the avenue: this time outside the gate, in front of the French Catholic cathedral. This was the statue of Ibn Khaldun. Not far from where the cardinal intent on converting Muslims had once stood in challenge to the nearby Zaytuna, so now the great Muslim scholar and product of Zaytuna stood by the Catholic cathedral. Of such dueling symbols post-colonial history often consists.

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