The Dartmouth graduate community has always supported an environment of diverse individuals. People come to study here from around the world. They hail from different walks of life and academic backgrounds. Having known and interviewed many students, I’m not often surprised by a person’s background and life story; meeting a playwright, revolutionary, and Fulbright scholar in the comparative literature program was an exception.
Haifa Fersi is a comparative literature student from Tunisia. She is the daughter of the author Mustapha Fersi. If there is a family where writing runs in the blood it is hers. She published two children’s books, as a teenager. One when she was 12, one when she was 16. She failed to convince me that this isn’t a big deal. Haifa has subsequently focused her creative input into playwriting.
Haifa’s focus in the comparative literature program is in Shakespeare and Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote). She sees these texts as linked, as they both express the culture of Europe. Her ultimate goal with her studies is to include the Arabian Nights into her literary analysis. This study would therefore look to the cultural links between Europe and North Africa.
Haifa has been an active playwright for a number of years now. Her love for the medium first expressed itself during high school where she wrote and performed plays in Arabic. Her artistic journey took a turn when Shakespeare inspired her in college. Forming a troupe, she began performing Shakespeare as well as writing her own plays inspired by the man. One such play was a musical inspired by one of his songs. In this Song, Drake’s (the famous navigator and privateer) imaginary daughter was a heroine who fell in love with a commoner. Her plays attracted a lot of interest. During one performance a TV actor from Tunisia recommended the performance to the British Council. A second performance was that was joined by guests from the British Council. If this was not impressive enough, Haifa also ensured that these plays were free. She is passionate about “art for art’s sake” and bringing the theatre to the people.
Haifa’s dedication to art for the people does not end at free theatre shows. In late 2010 and early 2011 a momentous upheaval took place in Tunisia that would shake the world. The Tunisian Awakening, known to many as the beginning of the Arab Spring, began. Bourguiba Avenue is one of the central streets of Tunis. It is home to the Interior Ministry and the National Theatre. On January 14th 2011 it was also home to a huge demonstration. The above photo was taken of Haifa on that day. She was of the countless thousands that took to the streets to protest against her Government. Asked whether she felt fear at the possible reprisals she replied: “the sheer number of people makes you feel invincible”. Thousands of people from all walks of life were crowded on an avenue. Police were out in numbers and had been fighting with protestors for months. On this occasion they were brought to tears seeing their countrymen and women fighting the regime in solidarity.
On January 14th, Tunisia’s dictator for over 23 years was ousted from power. “It was beyond our dreams,” said Fersi. Her dedication to the revolution did not end there. Encouraged by her newfound freedoms, Haifa looked to expand her beliefs of art for arts sake, and bringing art to the people. For world theatre day she performed an allegorical play about the revolution. Despite being attacked and cursed by Islamists, the play was performed outside the national theatre so that their art was accessible to all.
Haifa still remains confident about the revolution and the part that art can play. She describes Tunisia as a mosaic. It has been broken. It is being reassembled into a new beautiful picture; her time at Dartmouth will play a big part in this. After completing her Masters, her aim is to contribute to the development of education in Tunisia. We wish Haifa luck in this episode of her life and look forward to seeing the contributions that Dartmouth can bring to her journey.
Article by Dan Durcan
Photos courtesy of Haifa Fersi