Tunisia just recently became a country of malls, factories, highways, and call centers – the toxically monotonous forms of life that are mistakenly taken for modernity. A shift Western countries underwent a century ago, with an industrial working class tracing its origins to the countryside, is happening still in Tunisia. And only in fits and starts.
The countryside is still present in all manner of divisions of labor and of living. Men work in the urban service sector while their wives remain in the fields. Students in the capital are often from smaller towns or the rural interior, and if not them, their parents or grandparents migrated to the capital or other major and minor cities. The rural world is not far from Tunis, neither in distance nor in time. Garden farms fill the neighboring Cap Bon peninsula. Wild, bitingly bitter orange trees and date palms bloom in the capital’s streets and parks. The Zaghouan and Bizerte breadbaskets are an hour’s drive. Two hours and you are at a coastal greenbelt, where the horizon is made of olive trees brushing the sky. Even amidst a global agricultural commodity price deflation, tumbling almost continuously since the 1970s despite a few upticks, agriculture makes up a large portion of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and its exports – especially olive oil. As a consequence, much of the population still lives in the countryside.
Habib Ayeb’s Couscous: Seeds of Dignity is the Tunisian filmmaker’s fourth film on the country’s agriculture and its problems. The film opens to an image of clouds flickering by fast, casting a play of the day’s shadows over Djebel Zaghouan, an area 30 miles to Tunis’s southeast. That proximity to the capital is not deceptive. It is testament to the lightness of the industrial-metropolitan footprint on a country that still seems very rural.
Ayeb builds the bulk of the film’s narrative through interviews with around a dozen farmers, cut in with shots of labor, land, and daily life. He concentrates on cereal cultivation, which brings his lens to the country’s Central-East, Northeast, and Northwest regions, the latter two in particular composing Tunisia’s granary since time immemorial. His focus is the struggles of direct producers – the environmentalism of the poor – who work in agriculture in a natural world beset by the dislocations and mounting disorders of agro-industrial capitalist farming. 1
Through these interviews, Ayeb assembles an anecdotal yet accurate account of Tunisia’s rural productive system, the role and damaging absence of the state, and the history of the developmental patterns the state imposed and the producers sometimes resisted and sometimes accepted. Food imports, genetic control, the Green Revolution, and input dependency all find their place.
In fact, the film is in many ways the story of Tunisia’s Green Revolution and its afterlives. That program’s court history describes it as a plant breeding initiative to increase Global South wheat yields. But in the words of historian John Perkins, it was in its original incarnation in Mexico, “an alliance between a U.S. foundation [the Rockefeller Foundation] that promoted liberal democratic capitalism and a Mexican government that was struggling to establish a liberal democratic capitalist political economy.” 2 Both sides understood liberal capitalism as bound to a developmental trajectory made up of capital-intensive agricultural modernization and absorption of the displaced workforce through urban industrialization.
The intensification of agricultural production rested on producing wheat cultivars which required a technological package of mechanization and chemical fertilizers, and an agro-climatic package of prime soil and plenty of rain. It was basically oriented towards large farms – in the Tunisian case, those above 40 hectares.
Those wheats were bred for maximum productivity under ideal conditions, including ideal amounts of water. In the case of Mexico, they were designed to subtend Mexican industrialists’ need for labor, and the United States’ need for global social containment through the development project. They were also meant to supply “developing” countries with calories for their workforce without bogging down that workforce in agricultural production on capitalist farms – freeing them for urban labor and freeing large farmers from reliance on fickle laborers. As Perkins continues, “In the long run, probably both the foundation and the Mexican government had no particular wish to improve the lives of peasant farmers in their capacities as peasant farmers.” 3 In Tunisia, government planners certainly did not wish for small farms to be the foundation of the country’s development.
It is not clear if the introduced wheats were more effective in improving yields, in Tunisia or elsewhere, than a breeding program using local landraces would have been. What is clear, in precise communiqués and summations from USAID engineers and economists almost from the program’s inception, is that a foreseeable and accepted effect of the Wheat Project in Tunisia, implemented in 1966 to boost cereal production, was land concentration, rural displacement, and input dependence. And that is exactly what happened.
It is easy to say that such varietals were inappropriate both for Tunisia’s ecology and for its industrial model, which from the onset of import-substitution industrialization could not absorb all the workers for whom a capital-intensive agriculture no longer had a place. Perhaps it is more accurate to state that the introduced varietals were perfectly appropriate for accelerating land concentration to the benefit of the largest landholders. They were likewise appropriate in producing a workforce not tied to the land, prepared to constitute a reserve army of labor in the country’s swiftly overcrowding cities.
Still, nowadays many farmers are uneasy with the choices, or lack of choices, US development practitioners impose upon them. One farmer describes his heirloom varieties, a bequest from his grandparents along with the land he farms. They grow fantastically well during the rainy season, but also tolerate longer intervals where there is little rainfall. The local landraces emerged through selection for drought resistance. The new varieties are Green Revolution semi-dwarf wheats. Local farmers perceive them as a Greek gift, and they don’t resist the dryness well at all.
The question of genetic variety, selection, ownership and power is inescapable. One farmer speaks of planting a variety of wheat subspecies – not merely the imported Karim but local varieties which ensure a more stable if slightly lower yield. They still produce enough, and in a good year, they produce a lot of straw, good for feeding animals. They also need fewer prophylactic treatments.
Another farmer speaks of what environmental activists call terminator seeds: seeds which do not yield seed stock. His grandfather’s varieties made a good hard wheat semolina. But after the United States sent in engineers trained in the Midwestern states, foreign plants replaced local ones, and the seeds could not be sown the next year.
A recurring motif is how Ayeb presents the farmers as skilled laborers or craftsmen, adept not just at producing crops, but also at producing and articulating knowledge about what they do. Lassad, a farmer in Manouba, out beyond the Western suburbs of Tunis, points out that the “fellah is the engineer of his parcels of land. It’s sort of like microclimates. The temperature of the land there is not the same as here.” He speaks a truth known to farmers: farming is not like industry and cannot be made like industry. Even industry, one might say, is not quite like industry, requiring skilled workers to deal with the defects and imperfections of other humans, which are subsequently transferred to machines. Farming is entirely an intervention in living processes, a way of remolding the earth to build a bigger place for humans in it. No two farms are alike, because no plot of land is the same as another. They have different watering needs at different times, different soil compositions, and are suitable for different crops. One must unsustainably burn a great deal of hydrocarbons to sustain the pretense that one plot of land is identical to another and that a farm is identical to a factory in function and form.
So if farmers are engineers, they are also craftsmen (and how unfortunate that the farmers feel the need to compare themselves to engineers in order to make their skills legible to Ayeb and Ayeb’s viewers, when farming was a technology long before engineering was!). As another farmer, Fathi, in Mseken, near Sousse, lower along Tunisia’s eastern coast, points out: “The word fellah has become a sort of insult.” For that reason the film is an effort at restoring pride to farmers and the rural life. Hence the film’s subtitle: Seeds of Dignity.
But this is neither a baneful Romanticism nor gratuitous. It is a necessary component of the filmmaker’s project. It is a pushback to the vision of the founders of the modern Tunisian state, who in the words of the Tunisian popular agronomist Slaheddine el-Amami, used schooling to “dangle the mirage of an urban life” in front of country people, and poured floods of scorn on their world. To counter such an ideological fusillade requires strong counter-measures. They may jar sensitivities which have been the victim, if not the creation, of decades of ideological contempt for the countryside.
For that reason the film will perhaps provoke the usual sneers from many in the metropolis, as representing an antiquarian or nostalgic besottedness with the countryside and the rural. But it is one rooted in material realities, including those which structures of global and local trade allow city-dwellers, especially Global North city-dwellers, to forget: the centrality of farming to human health, wealth, and well-being.
Indeed, the question of food dependence is a constant in this project. One farmer in Manouba notes that each year he produces 100 tons of wheat. One ton feeds two families for a year, and one hundred tons feeds two hundreds families for a year, from just one farm. For these farmers, the question is not whether agriculture is valuable. For them, agriculture is the most valuable thing about Tunisia. The problem is that the state does not see it that way, neglecting or simply pretending not to see, the better to not support, the farmers. Thus they put politics into play. Failures of farming and the wayward paths taken by the overall production system were a choice — one politicians have made and forced on the country.
Another related concern is the balance of food imports and exports. This arithmetical puzzle has been a persistent refrain of Tunisian agricultural planning and of farmers themselves practically since independence: the country’s constantly and oddly rising cereal imports, and the treadmill-like effort to try to ensure that exports exceed imports. One farmer, Abd Al Karim, from Gâafour in Siliana governorate, a cereal farming region southwest of Tunis, insists: “Tunisia can feed its population and export overseas. We export dates, olive oil, pomegranates. Everything is exported overseas. And we say that Tunisia is poor! We export oil, pomegranates and dates and you bring us what? Gruel? You buy us gruel from the Americans?”
These organic intellectuals offer a cutting series of insights. First, Tunisia’s tenuous food import balance is a social fact, determined by men and the state, not a natural one dictated by climate and soil. Second, Tunisia produces products like pomegranates, olive oil, and dates, which few other countries can – certainly not in such quantities, so cheaply, and so sustainably, as Tunisia with its rare Mediterranean biome is capable of growing. Tunisia exports such treasures and has to import genetically modified soft wheat from the world market. Its agricultural current account balance often dips into deficit because its own crops do not command a sufficient price. But there is no reason this has to be the case. The farmer’s frustration speaks to unease with an imposed price structure and damaging terms of trade. The market is where such extortions are registered. But the market was made by human choices, and is constantly remade.
The farmers point out that much of this is due to state neglect of smallholders since the 1980s. Al-Karim asserts: “The state must support agriculture,” highlighting the question of state policy and the need for a political scaffolding to support what another farmer calls “a sort of communal house”: the country itself. The farmers see this dynamic as linked to the dependency relationship which colonization instituted – the farmers use that word to describe their oppression. It is a resonant one in a country in which many still frame power and powerless in terms of a lingering neo-colonialism. Some in the South refer to the colonial state, and small farmers or the landless might use the word “colon” as they criticize the largest farmers.
Such dependency is not necessarily, or solely, in terms of agricultural commodities, but also in terms of the technologies which Tunisians have been pushed – coerced – into using to grow their own crops: “He who occupies you has no need to come to you, to keep watch over you and ration you. He does it while remaining in his country by obliging you to buy from him your seeds and even spare parts. If he doesn’t sell you seeds, you remain without anything to plant.” Thus the former and current colonial powers which determine global agricultural policies replace agriculture as a local technology by an agriculture reliant on inputs produced elsewhere. Certainly some farmers have thus seen the technological revolution, or devolution, which went along with the Green Revolution, the reliance on other capital-intensive inputs in the irrigated sector, and the embrace of Western-style capital-intensive agro-industry, a model whose onset dates back to the colonial era.
These inputs have also damaged the soil, the agricultural products, and the people. One farmer notes, for example, that before foreign varietals arrived Tunisia had no cancer hospital. The question of human health touches on another aspect of Ayeb’s film. It is not merely about growing crops, but also about growing people. When older farmers speak of heirloom varieties, they discuss not just differences in resilience, but their taste – from how far away you can smell the couscous made using such varieties. Couscous is not merely a film about the economics of domination, the mechanisms of power, but also the resistant underbelly of power, which is the sensory, olfactory, and tactile world of production and reproduction. The incomparable aroma and flavor of the old wheats gave way to wheats whose value reduces to their exchange value on the market and their raw productive characteristics: how many calories per hectare per day per farmer, how many quintals of wheat, and how many dinars per quintal. These are inescapable questions, of which the farmers are well aware. But not to the exclusion of other questions, nor the rejection of the use-value of the commodities in favor of treating them merely as things to be exchanged for money on the market.
As Ayeb moves into food he also moves into household labor – labor overwhelmingly, but not uniformly, performed by women – of transforming olives into olive oil, wheat into wheat flour into mlawi, or durum wheat into semolina into cooked couscous slathered in sauce. Thus we are brought into the inner realm of production, where we also see children. This is also skilled labor: his camera lingers on the kneading and the artisanal transformation of ingredients into food, and captures discussions between women about the character of this work. Here Ayeb raises the gendered dimensions of rural life, but only partially. There are some interviews with women farmers, for instance. But because cereal cultivation is primarily a male activity, we do not see much of the frequent phenomenon of male migration to urban centers or France, which often leaves the women who stay behind to do large quantities of cultivation.
What might be less visible, or seem merely happenstance to someone who knows little of Tunisian agriculture, is a generational problem: the farmers who speak are old. That isn’t poor sampling on Ayeb’s part. Tunisian farmers are old. Farming is not attractive – or has been made unattractive – to Tunisia’s youth. This is the effect of the slow poison of urban-centered modernization. Predominant and unsustainable patterns of city-growth and slumification are not just deprecating rural life, but causing the loss of skills which once lost cannot easily be regained. The shine of city life may be simply the gleam of fool’s gold, catching and reflecting the light of the burning fires of fossil capitalism in its last moments.
It is that conversation and that vision which the film enters and debates. Although one learns a great deal about Tunisia’s rural world, the documentary is less sociology than masterfully sub rosa manifesto – for food sovereignty, for dignified rural life, for countries to have strong, resilient, and sustainable rural sectors, for countries to value their farms and the families living on those farms. “Certain people say that farmers are a burden for society,” observes Ayeb. It is this accusation, a constant in the modernizing ideology of the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD) which ruled Tunisia from 1964 to 1988, which he also aims to rebut.
The PSD condemned small farmers as trapped in the amber of tradition, a remnant from a pre- or anti-Western, antediluvian, mindset. Ayeb defends the rural world against this assault of a half century of planning – a violent and corrosive revolution from above. The crafters of such schemas confidently asserted that one could have farming without farmers. But they remained blind to the farmers whose numbers kept growing in absolute if not relative terms amidst constant drives for depeasantization, in the service of an urban utopia impossible for any country in the long-term and which Tunisia could never accomplish on any terms.
Poverty is not absent from Ayeb’s film, and little of rural life as rural people experience it is hyped amidst the home-spun scenes, bare metal fences, and felt rage at cancer epidemics and poisoned and plague-ridden produce. Still, rural social differentiation is not so present in the narrative. The different sizes of farms, the implications of land inequality for social well-being, and their entanglement with development, underdevelopment, and the ecological question, are somewhat unexplored. These questions were far more visible in his 2014 film, Gabès Lebess – “all is well in Gabès” – which surveyed the spoliation of that city’s otherworldly seaside oasis.
But against those negative values produced in the quest for production and exchange value, Ayeb gives us people who insist on substantive values that are not reducible to quantity and capital, and their ideas for a very different Tunisia. He jokes with a farmer near Sousse, Monji, offering him money for land: “The land is like my children,” the farmer responds.
Many – too many – might respond with ridicule to the sentiment of valuing land as a person. Be that as it may, can such a sentiment possibly match in absurdity the notion that one can forever pollute fields and people, pour money into cancer treatment, grow crops without people, dump human and animal waste far from where it can ever be used as fertilizer? Is it not equally absurd to imagine and bank on turning farming, a closed metabolic cycle for almost as long as humans have lived in settlements, into a kind of production that mimics industry? That one can permanently convert farming from an energy-gathering technology to an energy-dissipating one?
Such is the wisdom the West, with its specific model of development, has tried to impose on Tunisia. There are those in Tunisia who have accepted this counsel. It is also one Ayeb rejects in his film’s supremely effective collage of testimony and analysis. He has spoken to those who do not and have not accepted this counsel, and placed them before us, with a question: can we hear them? We will see.
I thank Lamis Deek for her insights in helping me think through the role of affirmation in defending that which is subject to the attack of Western racism and chauvinism. The reader should also know that Habib Ayeb is on my doctoral committee.