It has been said that the most important driving force in a nation's fortunes is its culture. Without a strong grounding in culture, a nation is like a stricken ship, pushed and pulled hither and thither by prevailing currents and winds. This has been the unfortunate fate of many developing countries which, having forgotten where they came from, now drift aimlessly on the vast cultural oceans of the world.
On the African continent, where the cultural crisis is most acute, Tunisia and Egypt are the rare exceptions. Both have very deep histories and both have worked tirelessly to keep their histories as fresh as possible. But culture is not only about ancient history; it is the story of how people adapt and change as events around them change. It is about evolution and unbroken identity.
Well aware of the enormous resources that European countries and the US pour into their own cultural spheres, Tunisia has embarked on a unified national strategy to maintain and deepen its cultural identity. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has decided that over the next four years to 2004, a full one percent of GDP will go to culture. The annual budget for culture is expected to grow from $45m in 1999 to $140m in 2004. Budgetary allocation is as follows: Cultural exhibitions (24%); museums and institutions (20%); cinema (14%); literature (14%), theatre (9%) and poetry (4%).
Despite all its economic and social successes, Tunisia has never taken its eye off the vital importance of culture in the grand scheme of things. "Culture provides us with our values and identity," says Abdelbaki Hermassi, Tunisia's Minister of Culture. "It enables us to cope with the many challenges and changes occurring as we expand our relationships with the European Union."
Custodian of world history
Tunisia already contains some of the most important World Heritage sites. Its cultural roots go back three thousand years to the glory that was Carthage. The subsequent history of the world can be said to have flowered from this beginning. Here in Tunisia, one can see and touch the milestones of world history - the Numedian and Punic civilisations, the Roman occupation, the Vandal destruction, the Byzantine elaboration, the Arab conquest, the Turkish lordship and the French colonisation. The cycle has gone full circle and the Tunisian of today is custodian to one of the world's richest national heritages.
It is to protect this fragile but unbroken historical chain that last March, an...