Brownbook No.22: North Africa Rising
Having witnessed the success enjoyed by South Africa and their excellent hosting of this year’s World Cup, it’s nice to see some of the countries from the remainder of the continent thriving. Issue 22 of brownbook concentrates on urban life of Northern Africa; the latest edition features content from a host emerging urban scenes, rising up from Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Also included is an interview with Jean Touitou who was born in Tunisia. For all those interested, subscription is available here.
You were born in Tunisia. Please tell us about your heritage.
It’s a very simple story, but also very complicated. My family was Jewish, and living in Tunisia for centuries, way before Islam arrived in North Africa around 8th century. When I go back, people say I’m a stranger, but I say ‘so are you, and much more than me’. My father’s side of the family was from Algeria, and my mother’s Tunisia. In Algeria, around 1870, the Jews weren’t given citizenship, so the French government took advantage of this, and said that as they had to be something, they may as well be French. This is the only reason I have a French passport. The Jews kept their identity, but became more and more French, discovering French culture.
And how did you end up in France?
When I was living in Tunis, we were speaking partly Arabic, partly French and also a little bit of Italian, because there was also some Italian culture there. It was a bit like New York. Then the French left Tunis, pushed out by PresidentBourguiba and his allies. And suddenly it what like, ‘sorry guys, you’re not with us’ to the Jews. It wasn’t stated like this, but on a professional point of view, I knew that my father, who was importing leather, couldn’t get a license to import anymore. There was corruption and bureaucracy, but when you’re educated in the culture of democracy, which he had, you cannot deal with this. So in 1960 my father decided to move to France. We had the cultural luggage to come, because Tunis was almost a French province, everybody still speaks French there.
Do you ever return to Tunisia?
We went back every summer until the 1970s, and then I didn’t go back for a long time. But I’m returning with my own boat this summer. It’s sad, because all of the beautiful things from the past are forgotten. The art and craft parts of Tunis are not taken care of. Those countries don’t have a culture of sustainability; they’d rather have a white ugly building by the sea making a lot of money instead of keeping the beautiful villas of the 1930s. In Morocco and Tunisia, there was a lot of great modern architecture before World War 1.
Has any element of your heritage crept into your designs?
No, not at all. We’re part of one world, and we have one culture. I’m not going to start doing djellabas. I don’t really have any involvement with Tunisia. The only thing I would say is that when I go back to Tunis, there is a feeling I cannot have anywhere else. I know it is my birthplace. For example, the golf course – there’s the same trees that were there when I played when I was nine years old. When I go back, I’m almost in a trance because it was my childhood. The light in this part of the world, the green blue of the water – despite anything wrong that happened there, it still remains virgin to me.
Do you have any plans to bring A.P.C. to the Middle East?
The thing is, we are totally ignored by the Middle East. We’re very successful in other cultures. If you walk in the West Village in New York, one guy in two will be wearing A.P.C. jeans. But it seems my fashion is considered too normal, too minimalist, not glamorous enough for the Middle East, where they prefer Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, and whoever has the big logo and the big name. I don’t blame that. I’m not making any moral judgements. It’s just the way it goes. We’re very big in Japan and China, but in the Middle East, we’ve never had a request, not even from the stockists. Maybe Brownbook can change this.