In the same month that Tunisia began to mark the tenth anniversary of its “Jasmine Revolution”, SAT-7 aired its first TV programme made by a new Tunisian production company.
Christmas in Tunisia was the first production made by Perpetua, a new Christian TV team in Tunis that SAT-7 has equipped and supported. Ten years after anger over unemployment, poverty, corruption and lack of freedom triggered the first uprising of what became known as the “Arab Spring”, Tunisian Christians are going public in sharing their faith and vision for society.
George Makeen, SAT-7 Arabic Channels International Director, sees this as significant, both for Tunisia and the wider Arab world. “It’s exciting,” he says, “to see a small but active Tunisian Church of believers from non-Christian backgrounds, eager to go on screen and communicate with their society.”
“Tunisia is seen as a model by many in the Arab world,” Makeen continues. “Firstly because, since its uprising, Tunisia has seen a peaceful transition to a multi-party democracy. Tunisia is also more tolerant of freedom of expression and more empowering of women than elsewhere.”
Thanks to this greater equality and freedom, Makeen believes, “Christians coming from this culture can inspire the rest of the Arab world through their messages and faith.”
Tunisia’s history is both complex and paradoxical. In 1956, when it gained independence from France, it became the first Arab state to abolish polygamy. Habib Bourguiba, who led the country until 1987 as prime minister, promoted secular values, education and gender equality, with women gaining the vote in 1957.
Makeen compares his “modernising” strategy and methods to those of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. “Bourguiba was a dictator not a democrat,” Makeen says, “but if he had been, he wouldn’t have achieved what he did.”
The paradoxes continue today. On the positive side, Tunisia’s month-long revolution unseated authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with little bloodshed. Tunisia then became the only “Arab Spring” nation whose protests led to greater democracy and freedom. This continued when a moderate Islamist party, elected in 2011, also handed power peacefully to a newly elected government in 2014.
At the same time, Makeen points out that this is also the country that provided the most fighters for so-called Islamic State. Tunisia’s lack of success in tackling high unemployment and economic inequalities and its resulting inability to give marginalised young men a sense of purpose is an important factor, Makeen believes.
Another contradiction is the high illiteracy rates among women in rural areas – some 40 per cent – while educated women are well represented in parliament and in higher work positions in urban areas. Although new laws have been introduced to give greater equality, for example in inheritance rights, facts on the ground are different.
The new production team who have begun making programmes for SAT-7 bring a new dynamic into the situation. Their faith in Christ offers hope in the face of struggle and disappointment and a far deeper reason for believing in the equality and dignity of all than any secular values can provide. All of the team are from non-Christian backgrounds but want to share their commitment openly – notable in a region where changing your faith from Islam is illegal and can be dangerous.
When a previous Tunisian presenter from a Muslim background hosted a show on SAT-7, he had to do this from Lebanon. Now that same presenter, Imed Dabbour, continues his show on a mainstream Tunisian TV channel. This is perhaps a mark of the growing openness in the country as well as the success of SAT-7 in building trust and respect among Muslim viewers.
Based in Tunis, the new team took its company name, Perpetua, from one of the first North African Christian martyrs, who died in Carthage (on the eastern edge of modern Tunis) in the 3rd century. The team includes a university professor, a church leader and a female presenter. Although without media backgrounds, they are working with freelance media professionals and are “growing and learning” fast, Makeen says. “They come with the passion to produce programmes in different genres and to build capacity for the future. They are ambitious and optimistic!”
In making Christmas in Tunisia the team took advantage of the freedoms to film in public locations that are not available in some Arab states. The programme also shows Christians worshipping in a local church and a couple in their home chatting with guests about their experiences of Christmas over a meal. The aim, Makeen says, was to begin with the well-known externals of Christmas – such as decorations and the buying and giving of gifts – and move on to the meaning behind them.
The team are also producing a new discussion series entitled Standard Talk that will air in the spring. The goal is not to speak to other Christians but to a much wider audience. Episodes will address a wide range of topics, from knowing God to family life, relationships and social issues. Each time they will begin with a context that everyone will know before guests offer a distinct Christian perspective on the topic.
Perpetua now joins SAT-7’s Algerian producers as a second production unit based in North Africa. “It’s the start of a new journey,” Makeen says, “but I see the potential.”
- Give thanks for the Perpetua team. Ask that God will give them the skills, creativity and understanding to produce output that will attract and speak to a wide and growing audience.
- Pray for interactions with freelance media hires who have shown great enthusiasm and willingness to create highly professional shows.
- Pray for the development of SAT-7’s wider programming for North Africa. Most believers there are only first or second generation Christians and most cannot meet openly.