The Tunisian Media Landscape in the Face of a Democratic Backslide: A Critical Analysis of the Written Press Coverage of the Anti-Migrant Discourse

By Asma Hedi Nairi

Abidellaoui, J. (2023). Members of rights groups carry banners during a protest, after Tunisian President Kais Saied ordered security forces to stop all illegal migration and expel all undocumented migrants, in Tunis, Tunisia (online image). The Guardian. February 25, 2023,


One of the enduring gains of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia has been the relative preservation of freedom of expression (Farmanfarmaian, 2017). After decades of censorship, Tunisian journalism has become active, diverse, and increasingly critical. However, with the decline in democracy, it is crucial to keep a close watch on the evolution of Tunisian media, particularly when addressing political situations such as the recent presidential discourse regarding migrants in the country.

Tunisia recently made headlines due to a concerning development of events following the country’s president Kais Saied’s discourse about sub-Saharan migrants on the 21st of February 2023. He alleged a “conspiracy that has been planned for years to bring immigrants from the Sahara countries to the country to change the demographic character of Tunisia”, adding that “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations”. Saied called for “stopping this phenomenon” and accused the “herds of illegal immigrants” of criminality and violence. 

This anti-migrant discourse has elicited various reactions and protests both nationally and internationally, with obvious condemnation from human rights institutions and the international community.  What is most intriguing, however, is the position of the Tunisian written media, seemingly undecided between adopting a human-rights-based approach, a supportive discourse to the political agenda, or staying neutral. 

By examining a corpus of sixty-four news reports published by three leading newspapers in Tunisia: La Presse, a Francophone publication; Al Chourouk, the most widely read Arabic newspaper; and Assabah, a third newspaper with a fairly wide readership, we aim to understand the position of the Tunisian written media when addressing human rights and democracy.

This corpus covers a two-month period between 21st of February 2023 – the date of Saied’s address to Tunisia’s National Security Council – and 21st of April 2023. In this article, the collected news items are divided into three main categories, and critical discourse analysis was conducted to examine the implemented representations, metaphors, and themes (Dijk, 205). The first category is negative news, which includes news reports that use racist discourse or present degrading and negative representations of sub-Saharan African migrants. These news items may also have a propaganda aim. The second category is neutral news items, which present incidents and events only, or report on state decisions, leaders’ opinions, and expert perspectives without clear editorial commentary. These news items typically present conflicting opinions and positions related to the issue. The third category is positive news items, which adopt a human rights approach and take a critical and investigative perspective when reporting on the escalation and results of this discourse. These news items call for accountability and respect for human rights.

By organizing the collected news items into these three categories, the study was able to examine the various approaches taken by the media when reporting on this issue. This allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the media discourse surrounding sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia. The findings are presented below, organized in ascending order based on the number of articles included in each of the three categories.

  • A Fading Shadow of Human-Rights Journalism: 

The presence of an active, investigative, and critical voice within a media landscape is a crucial indicator of freedom of expression and a vital safeguard for democracy. As the media’s role extends beyond merely reporting news, it should also shoulder the responsibility of acting as society’s conscience, shedding light on significant issues, and explaining their importance. In the collection of reports we analysed, it was alarming to discover that only four news items were categorized as positive, accounting for a mere six percent of the total corpus. These four articles showcased human rights-based discourse, acknowledged concerns about migrants’ rights and condemned hate speech.

  • A Dominant Xenophobic Discourse: 

Approximately forty-five percent of the corpus contained negative news items, featuring xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse. These articles utilized dehumanizing representations and emphasized the security threats posed by sub-Saharan African migrants in the country. The prevalence of such news items was particularly noticeable in the Arabic-written newspapers, which are widely read and have a greater potential to influence public opinion and reinforce xenophobic attitudes towards migrants.

Many news reports in this category have adopted a supportive stance towards the anti-immigrant discourse of the President. Some do so directly by reiterating arguments that the president has already made, while others do so indirectly by denying that Tunisia is ‘racist’ and insisting that the president’s discourse was manipulated. Some news reports also utilize conspiracy theory arguments, which are apparent in the media discourse surrounding recent events. Moreover, this category also includes accusations that civil society and human rights institutions are complicit in foreign conspiracies. In fact, the element of foreign interventions and conspiracy theories was clearly addressed in the frame of this discourse: 

  • Blackmail and frequent European and American statements about immigration… a political pressure card. (Al Chourouk, 2023)
  • The “file” of sub-Saharan Africans: a matter of racism and respect for human rights, or a settlement project and a change in the demographics of Tunisia? (Assabah, 2023)

The written press frequently employs terms such as “file” or “problematic” when discussing the issue of Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees in Tunisia, which represents one of several linguistic tactics dehumanizing these individuals. Titles incorporating water metaphors, such as “the flow of Sub-Saharan migrants“, are also prevalent and bear a resemblance to anti-migrant discourses found in Western media (Charteris-Black, 2006). Other news reports have featured headlines such as “Following the increase in the number of bodies of shipwrecked migrants: Morgues saturated” (La Presse, 2023), which present a clinical and detached description of the situation concerning the bodies of Sub-Saharan African migrants. The focus on the morgue’s capacity and the logistical challenges faced by the healthcare system when handling the deceased fosters a sense of objectification.

For instance, the use of conspiracy theories serves to legitimize anti-migrant rhetoric by adopting a nationalist stance and reinforcing negative representations of sub-Saharan migrants. The presentation of sub-Saharan migrants as a threat to public order, national security, and identity perpetuates xenophobic arguments and was clearly present within the corpus:

‘’The attitude towards Africans today is not a matter of human rights or the rights of mistreated immigrants, as much as it is a matter of confronting a European project that aims to settle Africans in Tunisia and a settlement process for them on our lands […] The situation of Africans in this remarkable way, with these large numbers, is an abnormal situation, behind which is a criminal arrangement that was prepared at the beginning of the century to change the demographic composition of the Tunisian people.’’ (Assabah, 2023)

Such rhetoric reinforces unfounded fears that migrants will alter Tunisia’s demographic makeup and eliminate its socio-cultural characteristics, knowing that the most recent research conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, published in 2021, reveals that the population of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa residing in Tunisia is only around 21,466 individuals, inclusive of students (representing less than 0.2% of the total population). This data refutes the prejudiced, racially charged rhetoric that relies on magnification and securitization tactics when addressing migration-related matters in Tunisia.

On the other hand, some news items specifically reported individual incidents between sub-Saharan African immigrants and police forces, categorizing them under these newspapers ‘crimes and order’ sections. However, only two news reports covered allegations and violations towards African migrants by Tunisian nationals, despite such incidents being clearly reported by human rights institutions and citizen journalists. 

The majority of the news items under this category rely on fear-mongering and stereotypes and reflect a strong xenophobic tone implemented in a supportive stance to the Saied’s political discourse and causing one to reflect on the impartiality of these media channels.

  • A Neutrality Foretelling Evil: 

During the critical period analyzed, a significant portion of the news items collected displayed neutrality in tone, despite the expectation that they take a more proactive stance. In fact, more than half of the corpus, or fifty-one percent, consisted of thirty-two neutral reports. These reports mainly focused on governmental actions in response to the events, such as initiating a ‘’green line’’ phone operator for migrants to receive support from governmental institutions. They also reported on ministerial and political meetings, as well as civic announcements and opinions related to the question of sub-Saharan Africans in the country.

This neutrality could be interpreted as the result of Tunisian written media’s adherence to the principles of objectivity and impartiality. However, it may also indicate a failure to address adequately significant human rights issues, which are inherently tied to the democratic situation in the country. The prevalence of neutral reporting is a cause for concern and highlights the degradation of freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly in the written press.

Journalists have a vital role to play in times of crisis by providing critical analysis and investigative reporting that holds those in power accountable. However, the abundance of neutral reporting suggests that journalists may face pressures or threats limiting their ability to report freely and without fear of retribution. This development is deeply concerning for the state of democracy and freedom of the press in Tunisia, and it requires urgent action to ensure that journalists are able to report on issues of public interest without fear of censorship or persecution.


While some academic resources have highlighted the liberal character of the Tunisian local media channels , our analysis of the coverage of the anti-migrant discourse in Tunisia reveals that the Tunisian written media is increasingly adopting a non-participant character, if not playing the three wise monkeys (Bassil & Kassem, 2021). 

The above analysis draws attention to two alarming issues in Tunisian media: the looming shadow of censorship and the concerning presence of racist and xenophobic discourse. The prevailing neutral reporting may signal limitations on freedom of expression, while the abundance of negative and xenophobic content suggests possible racism. This troubling media landscape potentially risks escalating social tensions and spreading racist attitudes. Highlighting a significant human rights concern, it underscores the urgency for a balanced and informative media landscape that not only safeguards the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and the fundamental human right to journalism, but also fosters a harmonious society respecting everyone’s dignity and rights.

Moreover, the accusations made in some reports within the Tunisian written media, suggesting human rights institutions are complicit in foreign conspiracies, threaten to undermine the crucial role civil society and these institutions play in preserving and advancing democratic values. This phenomenon highlights the clear risk to democracy and exposes how the media might be used as a tool to target and attack human rights institutions and defenders, effectively hindering democratic processes. In light of this and Tunisia’s recent history of distress and censorship, it is vital for media professionals and journalists to tread carefully. The industry’s seeming commitment to objectivity might be a mere facade. Instead, Tunisian journalism should place greater emphasis on understanding and critically engaging with issues related to human rights and democracy, including matters pertaining to migrants.


Farmanfarmaian, R. (2017). Media and the politics of the sacral: freedom of expression in Tunisia after the Arab Uprisings. Media, Culture & Society, 39(7), 1043-1062.

Bassil, N., & Kassem, N. (2021). The subtle dynamics of power struggles in Tunisia: Local media since the Arab Uprisings. Media and Communication, 9(4), 286-296.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2015). Critical discourse analysis. The handbook of discourse analysis, 466-485. Charteris-Black, J. (2006). Britain as a container: Immigration metaphors in the 2005 election campaign. Discourse & Society, 17(5), 563-581.

Why is there fighting in Sudan? A brief guide

By Miriam Aitken

Since 15th April 2023, Sudan has experienced an unprecedented outbreak of fighting between the army – the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly referred to as “Hemedti”. Historically, conflict in Sudan has been played out on the periphery, such as the Darfur and Kordofan states, while the greater Khartoum area has been largely spared all-out fighting, serving as a refuge for many fleeing violence elsewhere. Now, the urban street-fighting in the capital and cities across the country has caught millions of civilians in the crossfire. The humanitarian impact of the fighting is disastrous, and the scale is staggering. Millions remain trapped in their homes as soldiers and paramilitary fighters battle in the streets and uniformed men have been reported to raid and vandalise homes and businesses. Hospitals have been damaged and ambulances targeted. Health services still functioning are quickly running out of vital supplies including medicine and blood. Food and water are running short and power cuts are trapping people in over forty-degree heat. Foreign embassies have mostly evacuated their staff, as multiple attempts at humanitarian ceasefires have collapsed. Any that have held – however tenuously – are largely seen as efforts to allow foreign governments to evacuate their citizens, rather than serious attempts to establish a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Sudanese population remains to face the violence alone, fleeing across borders from what risks becoming a protracted civil war. 

What is the situation on the ground?

As the fighting enters its fifth week, neither the SAF nor the RSF seem to have the clear upper hand. While the army is deploying air power, the RSF has occupied residential areas, carrying out guerilla-type warfare. The RSF appears to hold much of Khartoum proper, while intense fighting rages in Omdurman and Bahri, Khartoum’s sister cities. Strategic targets in Khartoum, including the presidential palace, army and RSF headquarters, and the bridges between Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri have changed hands multiple times. News from outside of Khartoum is harder to obtain amid internet blackouts and infrastructural collapse, but the insecurity has already triggered violence in the Kordofan and Darfur states as well as Kassala, Gedarif, Blue Nile and Red Sea states. Notably around West Darfur’s state capital al-Geneina, hundreds have been killed in fighting between the RSF and the army but also between the Darfuri tribes and Arab militias who have been part of Darfur’s twenty-year civil war. 

Multiple attempts to negotiate a lasting ceasefire have failed. Several successive humanitarian truces in the first days of the fighting broke down, many within hours of being agreed. A more sustained ceasefire started on 25 April and was extended several times. While the truce offered some respite, and allowed foreign embassies to evacuate their staff, fighting has continued as both sides accuse each other of violating the ceasefire. The United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as foreign governments, including those of the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and South Sudan, have attempted to mediate the situation. Notably, South Sudan announced it had brokered a week-long ceasefire starting 4 May; however, it was immediately broken with airstrikes and shooting reported in Khartoum. On 6 May, envoys from the SAF and RSF met in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah for “pre-negotiation” talks under a US-Saudi initiative. However, both parties emphasised that they would only engage in talks on a humanitarian ceasefire, not an end to the war. After almost a week of talks, the RSF and SAF signed a ‘declaration of principles’ on 11th May. Falling short of a ceasefire, the declaration includes commitments to provide safe passage for civilians to leave private houses that have been occupied in the fighting and withdraw from vital infrastructure like water and power plants. US officials have said the declaration of principles will be followed by negotiations to secure a ceasefire but acknowledged that the parties remain “quite far apart”. Burhan and Hemedti’s inflammatory rhetoric has been matched with rampant ceasefire violations since the start of the fighting. Moreover, there is increasing suspicion that both the RSF and SAF leaders have lost full command of their forces, with fighting continuing despite Burhan and Hemedti bowing to international pressure and engaging in talks. What is more, civilian forces have expressed concern at their exclusion from the talks and the worry that any negotiations would focus on a power-sharing agreement between the SAF and RSF rather than the transition to civilian government. In what is increasingly cast as a zero-sum game between the two strongmen, a negotiated end of the conflict at this point in time appears unlikely.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is ever deteriorating. The World Health Organisation’s death count as of 9th May reports over 600 killed and over 5000 injured, though the real numbers are likely to be much higher. At the end of April, the Sudan Doctors Union reported that sixty out of eight-six hospitals in conflict zones have ceased operations. Meanwhile, Sudan’s banking system has shut down, preventing the transfer of financial aid. Humanitarian agencies have been forced to cease operations across many parts of the country. The World Food Programme temporarily suspended operations after three of its staff were killed. Towards the end of April and the beginning of May, the first shipments of aid began to trickle back into the country as some agencies restarted operations. However, this is unlikely to represent more than a small relief in light of the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Sudan where a third of the population had been reliant on humanitarian aid even before the conflict. 

Amidst the lack of basic necessities, the collapse of services, and the exodus of foreign diplomats and aid workers, the civilian population has been left on its own. Many of the same youth groups and neighbourhood committees involved in the 2019 Revolution and the resistance movement against the 2021 coup have stepped up to provide life-saving assistance to millions. Grassroots networks have sprung up, using Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp to coordinate the distribution of food, medicine, and fuel, and share information on safe evacuation routes. Medics have mobilized to provide emergency health services as hospitals have been destroyed or forced to shut down. Diaspora networks, who had also played an important mobilizing role during the protest movement, have sprung into action, coordinating fundraisers, providing remote healthcare advice and coordinating relief efforts on the ground.

What triggered the fighting? 

The fighting broke out after days of escalating tensions between the SAF and RSF. On 12 April, the RSF deployed forces in the northern city of Merowe, a traditional army stronghold. The SAF issued an ultimatum for the RSF to back down but despite emergency mediation efforts, fighting broke out on 15 April. It is unclear who fired the first shot but both sides had been manoeuvering troops for days, clearly preparing for battle. 

The fighting comes in the context of negotiations around Sudan’s political transition process following the deposition of the authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and the military coup in 2021 that derailed the subsequent handover of power to the civilians. In the winter of 2018 and spring of 2019, an unprecedented popular protest movement challenged the rule of Omar al-Bashir who had been in power for thirty years. Led by young people, women, professional organisations and grassroots neighbourhood committees, the revolution was the largest and most sustained social movement in Sudan’s modern history. After months of protest, the security forces – including the army and the RSF –  turned against Bashir and ousted the dictator on 11th April. The military quickly took over, forming the Transitional Military Council. Meanwhile, the civilian opposition mounted pressure on the security forces to step down. The turning point came on 3rd June 2019, when the security forces – reportedly with heavy RSF involvement – killed up to 120 protestors during a sit-in in Khartoum. The massacre gave the civilian opposition new drive and sparked international outrage, forcing the security forces to bow to domestic and international pressure. By August 2019, the security forces formed a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council with the main civilian block at the time, the Forces for Freedom and Change, and adopted a roadmap towards establishing civilian rule.

However, the transition period under civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok proved contentious. The international community was slow to lift sanctions on Sudan which would have gone some way to mitigate the crippling economic crisis in the country. Many Sudanese have blamed delay in the US revoking Sudan’s status as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and the West’s failure to provide Hamdok’s government with financial assistance for undermining the transition process from the start. Public discontent and divisions within the civilian block served the security forces. As the deadline for the military to hand over power to the civilians neared, the security forces, under the leadership of Burhan and Hemedti, staged a coup on 25th October 2021, dissolved the Sovereign Council and detained Prime Minister Hamdok. The coup was widely condemned by Sudan’s international partners, including the US, the European Union, the AU and the UN, while even the military’s allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were reluctant to support this violent takeover of power. The coup put a break on international promises for financial assistance and debt-relief negotiations, making the already bad economic situation in the country worse. It also faced strong, immediate, and sustained opposition by civilians, with youth groups at the forefront. Since October 2021, civilians, led by the neighbourhood Resistance Committees, have been staging near-weekly protests, demanding an end to military rule. The protests were violently repressed, with security forces killing over 120 people since October 2021, but failing to quell the mass demonstrations. The UN, AU, and IGAD, under a joint initiative known as the Tripartite Mechanism, attempted to mediate the situation alongside negotiations facilitated by the US, UK, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. 

Neither process made any substantive progress until the military and a major civilian opposition block, the Forces for Freedom and Change-Central Command (FFC-CC) signed a deal, known as the Framework Agreement, on 5th December 2022. While the Resistance Committees and various other civilian groups rejected the Framework Agreement and any negotiations with the military, the process was supported by much of the international community, the UN-AU-IGAD Tripartite Mechanism and was signed by over fifty political and civil groups. The Framework Agreement provided a roadmap for the return to a civilian-led government as well as a set of negotiations around five key issues: transitional justice, the status of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (an agreement signed in 2020 between Sudan’s transitional government and various armed and political groups to address Sudan’s internal armed conflicts), security and development needs in eastern Sudan, the ongoing dismantling of the Bashir regime, and security sector reform. This last point proved particularly contentious as it included negotiations around the integration of the Rapid Support Forces into the Sudanese Armed Forces. Burhan and Hemedti disagreed over the timeline for integration and the leadership structure of the integrated forces. The question of security sector reform further brought to light existing tensions between the two leaders whose power-struggle post-coup had become increasingly apparent. 

Who are Burhan and Hemedti?

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces and Chairman of Sudan’s transitional ruling council. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” is his deputy in the Sovereign Council and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces. The two men command the two most powerful and competing elements of Sudan’s security apparatus. While they were allied in their deposition of Bashir and the coup against the incoming civilian government, their different backgrounds and diverging ambitions have also made them bitter rivals.

Burhan rose through the ranks of the military during the conflict in Darfur in the early 2000s. He became chief of staff of the SAF in 2018 and by April 2019, when Bashir was deposed, he was Sudan’s third most senior general. A relatively unknown figure, he was made head of the Transitional Military Council and de facto head of state as a compromise candidate who was seen as unlikely to ruffle too many feathers. 

Unlike Burhan who, like most of Sudan’s political elite, comes from the country’s centre, Hemedti came from a humble camel-trading background, with little formal education. Hemedti rose to prominence during the Darfur war as part of the feared Arab tribal Janjaweed militia that was responsible for many of the atrocities against the state’s non-Arab population. As part of Bashir’s reshuffling of the security apparatus, the Janjaweed were formalized into the Rapid Support Forces under Hemedti’s command. Moreover, Hemedti holds significant economic power, having amassed resources from Sudan’s cross-border smuggling and gaining control over the majority of Sudan’s gold exports.

The men were initially partners, working together to overthrow the civilian transition process in October 2021. However, tensions between the two leaders had become increasingly apparent in the aftermath of the coup. As the negotiations around the transition to civilian rule developed, Hemedti began projecting himself as more closely aligned with the civilian coalition and criticizing the army’s leaders. However, the two strongmen’s rivalry has deeper roots, notably in the structure of Sudan’s security sector under Omar al-Bashir. Bashir, who himself came to power in a coup in 1989, attempted to “coup-proof” his regime by factionalising and playing off different branches of the security apparatus against each other. Suspicious of his generals, Bashir undermined the Sudanese Armed Forces and increasingly funded paramilitary organisations, such as the RSF, which came under direct control of the Presidency, forming a kind of presidential guard. Under Hemedti’s leadership, it became one of the most powerful security actors in Sudan, while the Sudanese Armed Forces were systematically hollowed out. 

What are the risks?

The conflict in Sudan is pushing a fragile domestic situation following the 2021 coup to the brink. While the fighting has so far been mostly limited to a confrontation between the RSF and SAF, it risks drawing in other armed actors. There have already been reports of the Central Reserve Police deploying in Khartoum. The conflict also risks reigniting intercommunal tensions, with the security vacuum created by the confrontation of the RSF and SAF triggering armed clashes between Arab and non-Arab tribes in West Darfur that have killed over 200 people. 

Regionally, the Horn of Africa is also vulnerable to wars, insecurity, and climate-change driven drought that has left millions facing food insecurity. The violence and instability risks spilling over into Sudan’s vulnerable neighbours, especially Chad, South Sudan, and Libya. The fighting has already triggered a large-scale displacement crisis. Tens of thousands have crossed the borders into Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Central African Republic, in addition to as many internally displaced. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said it is bracing for over 800,000 refugees potentially fleeing into neighbouring countries. Moreover, the World Food Programme has warned that the skyrocketing food prices in Sudan and neighbouring Chad and South Sudan could trigger a large-scale humanitarian crisis in the region. 

Furthermore, as the conflict becomes protracted, it risks drawing in external powers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, have important relations with both Burhan and Hemedti. For the two Gulf states, the Red Sea has been a focus point for the strategic control of maritime routes and trade. Moreover, while Bashir’s Islamist regime had long maintained close ties to Iran and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups, Saudi Arabia and the UAE strengthened their support for and influence over Sudan’s generals once they had deposed him. Both Burhan and Hemedti have important personal links to the two Gulf powers which paid for the separate deployment of the SAF and RSF under the leadership of Burhan and Hemedti respectively in the two forces’ intervention in the conflict in Yemen from 2015. On the other hand, Egypt has historically been an important actor in modern Sudanese affairs, dating back to its control over the country in the Egyptian-British condominium. Cairo has reportedly given military support to the Sudanese Armed Forces as a strong national army mirroring its own and fiercely opposing Hemedti and his paramilitary organization. Egypt’s leadership believes backing Burhan best serves its interests, such as negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream on the Nile. However, Egypt’s ally, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, is a staunch supporter of Hemedti whose RSF intervened in Libya on Haftar’s behalf in 2019. Sources have reported that Haftar has delivered weapons to the RSF, which Haftar has denied. Moreover, the conflict risks drawing in armed groups from across Sudan’s frontiers, notably Chad, where Hemedti has links to tribal groups that span across the international border. While there has been no meaningful outside intervention yet, the risk increases as the conflict continues.

While a variety of international actors have stakes in Sudan, nobody wants to see state failure in the country. However, the longer the conflict runs its course, the greater the risk that outside powers will exploit the situation for their own benefit. Meanwhile, millions of Sudanese remain caught in an increasing humanitarian catastrophe. To prevent both the conflict’s escalation and internationalization, and to mitigate the humanitarian fallout of the fighting, a quick end to the conflict is imperative.

An Unusual Tale of Love: May Ziyadah and Kahlil Gibran

By Mrinalini Pandey

Gibran wrote in Sand and Foam, “only an idiot or a genius breaks man-made laws; and they are the nearest to the heart of God” (Gibran, 2019, p. 656). This article examines how a unique relationship between two thinkers – Khalil Gibran and May Ziyadah – questioned societal norms through love and intellect. They were companions who, although separated by thousands of miles, remained intellectually and spiritually united. 

Gibran’s name is not unfamiliar in the Arab World, he was one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, who became immortal after writing The Prophet. Born in Bsharri, Lebanon in 1883, he, along with his family, immigrated to the US when he was twelve years old. While he was already in school, he developed an ardent interest in literature and art. When he was just twenty-two, a renowned Boston photographer, Fred Holland Day, organised Gibran’s painting exhibition. The year 1905 saw the publishing of his first book, Al-Musiqah (Music), by the end of 1908 he earned the reputation of rebel after his book Al-Arwah al-Mutamarridal (Spirits Rebellious) was published. In 1912, his much celebrated book, The Broken Wings was published, after which he got in touch with Ziyadah, and their correspondence lasted until Gibran’s death (Bushrui, 2012, p.11). However, it was The Prophet that overshadowed many of his previous works and people began considering him as the third-best selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Laozi. “The Prophet sold more than 9 million copies in its American edition alone…The Prophet has been recited at countless weddings and funerals” (Acocella, 2007).

However, little is known about his unusual and unconventional, yet platonic, literary  relationship with Ziyadah. It is often believed that when it comes to love, society tends to abide by its own unwritten laws which few dare to defy. Gibran, in describing the courage it takes to break the shackles of convention,  says “What laws shall you fear if you dance but stumble against no man’s iron chains” (Gibran, 2019, p. 594). He shared a special bond with May Ziyadah for over nineteen years, a time during which they never met, keeping their friendship alive through the exchange of letters. 

As if straight out of a fairy tale, May Ziyadah and Kahlil Gibran shared a relationship nothing short of fantasy. In the English translation of Gibran’s Self Portrait, Anthony R. Ferris quotes Dr. Jamil Jabre while writing about Ziyadah’s relationship with Gibran: “it is difficult to imagine a man and a woman falling in love without having known or met one another except by correspondence. But artists have their own unusual way of life which they themselves can only understand” (Ferris, 1959, p.37). “Gibran’s relationship with May Ziyadah differed in many respects. It is impossible to define such a love, though it included spiritual and platonic elements” (Bushrui & Jenkins, 1998, p.208). 

Although Ziyadah’s name is well respected in literary circles, she remains unknown to much of the wider reading public. She was a Lebanese-Palestinian writer and poet and one of the prominent figures of the Nahda (Arab Awakening) in the early twentieth century. Though her  Christian name was Mary, she preferred May, finding it  to be more poetic. She was born in Nazareth but left for Cairo at the age of twenty-two and enrolled herself at the Egyptian University where she studied Classical Arabic Literature. 1911 saw the publishing of her first collection of poems titled Fleurs de reve, published under the pseudonym Isis Copia. 

Throughout her literary career she remained vocal about several issues concerning women, such as their status in society and the women’s movement in Egypt and the broader Arab world. She remained forthright in expressing how women were forced by their families to marry men they did not love (Aytac, 2002, p.72-74). In one of her most acclaimed works, Woman with a Story, she goes into great lengths to narrate the predicament of a woman who falls prey to patriarchal societal norms, gossip, and slanders (Muttairi & Khatri, 2022, p.41). In addition to writing poems, novels and essays, May penned the  biographies of three pioneering women writers: Warda al-Yaziji; Aisha Taimur; and Bahithat al-Badiyya (pseudonym of Malak Hifni Nasif). Bahithat al-Badiyya, Ziyadah’s biography of Malak Hifni Nasif, was especially noteworthy because it was the first book written by an Arab woman about another Arab woman (Mowafy, 1999, p.61). Nasif herself went through a troubled marriage, finding out after her marriage that her husband had another wife, polygamy a common practice at the time. As a consequence of that, she took it upon herself to write about the predicament of women through her writings and continued to raise the issue of women’s rights throughout her career. Ziyadah likened Nasif’s pain to a “sacred fire” which burned within her and motivated her to work towards the cause of women (Kader, 1987, p. 65). 

Despite the multitude of literary guises she capably assumed, what made her even more unique was her relationship with Kahlil Gibran. Their correspondence began after Ziyadah read Gibran’s Broken Wings in 1912. She unabashedly expressed her opinion about the book in a letter that was addressed to him. Though she admired his style of writing, she was unable to empathise with the protagonist of the story:

“…I do not agree with you on the subject of marriage, Gibran… I am in full accord with you on the fundamental principle that advocates freedom of woman. The woman should be free, like the man, to choose her own spouse guided not by advice or aid of neighbours and acquaintances but by her own personal inclinations. After choosing her life partner, a woman must bind herself completely to the duties of that partnership upon which she has embarked… Why can’t a married woman meet secretly with the man she loves? Because by thus doing she will be betraying her husband and disgracing the name she has willingly accepted, and will be lowering herself in the eyes of the society of which she is a member… Suppose we let Selma Karamy, the heroine of your novel, and every woman that resembles her in affections and intelligence, meet secretly with an honest man of noble character; would not this condone any woman’s selecting a friend, other than her husband, to meet with secretly?” (Ferris, 1959, p.37).  

This marked the beginning of a nineteen-year-long relationship which continued until Gibran’s death in 1931 – a relationship that thrived on intellectual companionship and a spiritual connection that transcended any physical aspects. They were never destined to meet, yet their letters are testament to their  emotional proximity. In one letter Gibran writes, “May God forgive you, you have robbed me of my heart’s tranquillity and had it not been my steadfastness and obduracy you would have robbed me of my faith” (Bushrui & Kuzbari, 2015, p.102). Once, when Gibran asked her to visit him in  New York, she refused by claiming that she was not allowed through customs. 

Nevertheless, Gibran stood by her side through all the ups and downs of life. When her father died he wrote to her, “ I learnt today that your father has travelled beyond the golden horizon and has reached the goal towards which we all make our pilgrimage. What am I to say to you? Mary you are far too sublime in thought and in your choices of words, you wish to hear for soothing platitudes of consolation. But in my heart there is a strong desire to stand before you, and a longing to hold your hand in mine in silence, feeling all that fills your soul, inasmuch as he who is near to you and yet still a stranger is able to share in what you feel” (Bushrui & Kuzbari, 2015, p.158). 

The letters Gibran wrote to Ziyadah were compiled and given the form of a book titled Blue Flames, edited by Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari and Suheil Badi Bushrui. Their correspondence embodies the  messages of love, friendship, and the importance of connecting with someone on a deeper level – for when you do so, you embark on a path of self discovery, and “search [for] God in the heart of the other” (Aslani & Amirian, 2019, p.132). 


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