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A Little Hannibal

January 23, 2012

The following is my contribution to an Aslan Media article written in conjunction with Safa Zamiezade-Yazd. Read the full piece, with Safa’s contributions, here.

Washington DC’s Kennedy Center recently hosted the US premiere of Hannibal Barca, a symphony by Jaloul Ayed that pays homage to the famed eponymous military figure of yore. Ayed is an unlikely composer. He’s likely better known around the world as the former Finance Minister for Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali interim government. And while Ayed characterized himself as a “humble, modest, and amateur” composer, the stunning performance of Hannibal Barca Monday night belied any notion that the work of a novice was on display. Maybe Ayed was just trying to temper expectations. In any case, Hannibal Barca, performed by 25 Tunisian musicians along with the Kennedy Center’s house orchestra, didn’t disappoint.

Hannibal Barca was more than a mellifluous composition by a budding composer; it was also very much an act of cultural diplomacy. This was made explicit in remarks by Ayed as well as the Tunisian Ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Saleh Tekaya, before the start of the performance. Tekaya mentioned that presenting Hannibal Barca in DC was no accident; it was a deliberate expression of friendship by Tunisia to the US. Ayed also spoke to this point went he reminded the crowd of roughly 2,000 that the amicable relationship between Tunisia and the US has been sustained for over two centuries (with a brief interruption during 1980s and ’90s over PLO and Gulf War-related issues). Indeed, according to the State Department,

The United States has maintained official representation in Tunis almost continuously since 1795, and the American Friendship Treaty with Tunisia was signed in 1799.

The night was also filled with references to the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution in particular. Ayed described the joy he (and other Tunisians, by his account) felt when President Obama last year compared the Tunisia’s revolution to America’s own revolution more than two-hundred years ago. In a major speech delivered to the State Department, Obama stated that

Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

Ayed also maintained that Hannibal Barca, in addition to being a celebration of Ayed’s “childhood hero,” was also a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the now-famous young fruit vendor who set himself on fire in public after he was harassed and humiliated by local police and who served as the catalyst for the first revolution of the Arab Spring. This is clearly a post hoc connection to Ayed’s symphony, as Hannibal Barca first premiered in Casablanca in 2009, well before Bouazizi’s momentous self-immolation in December 2010. Nonetheless, comparisons can be made between the two men. After all, as Ayed pointed out,

Both have marked human history. Both come from the same country: Tunisia.

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