Stage play spoofs Tunisians' internet addiction
"Tounisi.com", a new one-man show starring Tunisian actor Jaafar Guesmi, has left its audience questioning the balance between their real and virtual lives.
"The show, comic as it is, left me to play with a number of intriguing questions," said one audience member, student Besma Riahi. "Have we become addicts of the internet? Are we sickened by modern technology?"
The play, written by journalist Naoufel Wertani and directed by Sahbi Omar, is a well-crafted blend of sarcasm and seriousness. The play criticises the alienation of Tunisians who live their life online, Guesmi said.
"Through the show, I meant to lead people to think about what drives Tunisians to head for the virtual world to express their concerns and voice their emotions," he said. "I think too many taboos led most citizens in the Arab world to hide behind their monitors, and with their passwords, to tread away from the supervision of family or society."
In the play, Guesmi pours out his rage against the "mouse that ate up the book" – his reference to the computer mouse that has usurped the role of books in Tunisian society.
The actor admitted that he, too, has deserted books. Guesmi said that he regrets the change, despite his "utter respect for modern technology, which facilitated communication among people, brought them closer together and gave them a wider margin of freedom".
Critic Bechir ben Mansour agreed that the internet has brought freedom to Tunisia.
Tunisians who use the internet "have a health addiction," he said, "because the internet made available to them everything they were deprived of because of politics, ethics, traditions and religion."
"Tunisians are not sickened by the internet," he said. "Rather, they are sickened by repression."
Traditional media also stifled the flow of information, Asma Cheniti said. The show portrays Tunisians who "were given an opportunity by the internet to communicate their ideas as well as political and social trends, especially given the lack of channels of communication. Even opposition papers that claim to be democratic only accept ideas that serve their own partisan agenda".
Facebook is the only medium that Tunisians can use to express themselves, Asma said. Nearly 1.5 million of Tunisia's 10 million people use Facebook, according to statistics released in February.
The internet has nevertheless introduced new social problems, said Tarek Hadded after viewing the show.
"Guesmi has not exaggerated," he said. "Tunisians are indeed torn apart between their actual life, which requires them to abide by rules and restrictions imposed by society, and their virtual worlds through modern technology."
"Chatting online, we are likely to find Tunisians completely different," Hadded said, "either rigorously strict, or zealously liberal, beyond all boundaries."
Playwright Naoufel Wertani said that he hopes his play compels thought and debate.
"I tackled the topic because it has become widely debatable," he said. "The behaviour of most classes of society trigger different questions concerning moral extremism and the inability to accept what is different."
The play was written to avoid "lecturing and advising" the audience, Wertani said. "Alternatively, the show sought to give them food for thought and to pose questions."
"Tounisi.com" coincides with a new Amnesty International in Tunisia campaign aimed at lifting restrictions imposed on the internet.
The campaign asks participants to indicate whether they think the internet "is a tool for freedom and for breaking free from attempts at curbing freedom of expression and the right to assemble. Can the internet constitute new horizons in the battle for one's rights, being a means of disseminating ideas and winning over advocates? Can the virtual world positively impact a milieu dominated by tyranny and blocking?"