On a sunny Saturday in August, I noted that there were large tents and animation in the Henri-Julien Park. This park being, to my knowledge, mainly used for sports, I figured it was an event related to sports.
To my surprise, it was rather the first edition of the Tunisian Jasmine Festival. Not wanting to point my camera at the crowd, I looked around for someone who would agree to talk to me. I saw a lady walking at an energetic pace with her identity card hanging from a ribbon around her neck. By chance, it turned out to be one of the organizers of the festival, Ibtissem. I quickly took some photos of her and asked for her coordinates. She obviously had a thousand other things to do that day.
When she contacted me a few days later, she said that the direction of the Festival was a bit like that of Québec Solidaire: that is to say, that it has two official spokespersons. In mid-September, I thus met Ibtissem and Hechmi, the two co-directors, in a café on Fleury Street.
If they are both natives of Tunisia, their immigration journeys differ somewhat. Ibtissem was born in Tunis, a great city on the Mediterranean and capital of Tunisia. Although she studied at university-level in Tunis, she had to re-do part of her studies when she arrived here with her husband. Holding a Bachelor degree from UQAM and a Master’s degree in biotechnology from McGill, she now works in the field of biopharmaceutical research.
Hechmi, for his part, arrived in Canada as a Fellow of the Tunisian government. Holder of a Masters and a PhD in Telecommunications from the Institut National de recherche scientifique (INRS), he is pursuing a career in the telecommunications industry. He is originally from Tataouine in the south of the country, at the boundaries of the Sahara. He informed me that this city was famous for having provided the natural scenery of Luke Skywalker’s hometown in the first films of the Star Wars series.
Before leading the organization team of the Tunisian Jasmine Festival, they created the Association of Tunisians in the Americas, a little over a year ago with a handful of people. The common will of this group is to celebrate the democratic progresses in Tunisia and to help ensure their permanency, while bringing together all Tunisians of Montreal. Ibtissem is convinced that a new page has been turned for the Tunisian diaspora since the spring 2011 events. Another of their goals is to get the people here to know better the traditionally peaceful culture of their country.
One of the first activities of the Association was a screening of the film "Le conflit", a fiction about the 23 years of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, directed by Moncef Barbouch, a film-maker in exile in Canada for many years. This presentation at the Centre Émile-Legault, in the Borough of St-Laurent, was an encouraging success.
It was not until March that the small group decided to organize a festival. They are grateful to the staff of the Bureau des Festivals et des Évènements culturels of the city of Montreal, which reinforced their idea that the project was feasible in such a short time and suggested the Henri Julien Park for its size and its proximity to a metro station. Like other notable sponsors, the city has also contributed financially to its presentation.
Held on August 29, the first edition was a great success with over 8000 visitors. Kathleen Weil, Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion and several local politicians were keen to be present. The organizers were successful in bringing visibility to the festival and seeking the necessary resources. Since they all have very demanding jobs, it is a sign that they are well rooted in Montreal’s society and have a strong social network.
Incidentally, they were able to recruit many volunteers among Tunisians and other North Africans, as well as within the Latin American community and among Quebecers. In fact, the last meeting remaining on their list to appropriately conclude this first edition is the volunteer recognition evening.
For next year’s edition, they both expressed the wish to reach a diverse audience and to expand the cultural program to include, for example, a visual arts’ component.
As committee members are not from the artistic world, I leave you with this last wish on their part: in 2016, the festival would be happy to present multicultural musical groups including one or more Tunisian members. If you know of such music bands, tell them to get in touch with the festival team!