As a kid growing up in Belgium, photographer Karim Ben Khelifa spent all his school vacations in Tunisia, visiting his aunts, uncles and cousins, enjoying family gatherings in his grandparents’ home, going to the beach. But in the last 20 years, he had been unable to return. Family members in Tunisia warned him that his work covering Islamic insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan would make him the target of the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, described as a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters without Borders. Because Ben Khelifa, 39, holds a Tunisian as well as a Belgian passport, the government of Tunisia could jail him with impunity.
After the ouster of Ben Ali in January inspired demonstrations across the Middle East, Ben Khelifa says, “I managed to go to Yemen and Libya on assignment for Newsweek, Le Monde and Stern,” he says, but his dream was to return to Tunisia. “This is my country. It’s the one I want to work in more than any other.” In September, at the Visa Pour L’Image festival in Perpignan, he convinced editors at Le Monde to send him to Tunisia during the run-up to the country’s elections on October 23. But he asked for a deal: “If you send me back, I don’t want to cover any news. The work is about me going back to my roots after 20 years. They decided to take a different angle on the story.”
In October, Le Monde ran several diptychs by Ben Khelifa: Photos of his cousins, his family home and the site of his grandparents’ grave site, which he hadn’t visited since he was 19, appeared next to images of Tunisians preparing for the elections. The juxtaposed photos told parallel stories, Ben Khelifa says: “One is my story and the other is simultaneously what is happening in the country.”
Though family members had assured him he would now be safe, entering the Tunis airport was nerve-wracking. When he showed his Tunisian passport, an official looked up his name on a computer. Ben Khelifa recalls, “He takes a few seconds and says, ‘We know who you are. We know what you’ve done.’” Then, after an anxiety-inducing pause, the official said, “Welcome to Tunisia.”
Among the photos Le Monde published are some Ben Khelifa shot in the village of Bir Ali Ben Khelifa, named for his great-grandfather, Ali Ben Khelifa, who had lead an uprising against colonial powers in the nineteenth century and died while fighting the French. In Tunisia, “everyone knows that name, everyone knows he was the leader of the resistance,” but the young Ben Khelifa had never been told the story. His father, raising his children in Belgium, “wanted us to be good Europeans,” the photographer explains. Having covered the year’s protests, he says, he felt amazed “learning one of my ancestors was in the resistance.”
Covering the elections was “amazing. I have goosebumps,” Ben Khelifa told PDN the day after the votes were counted. “I was expecting a more jubilant election,” he says, but when he followed his family to the polls, he noticed that people were emotional but calm. “People were waiting three hours, maybe five hours to vote, doing it quietly in the sun while it was hot. They were smiling and they were happy, it was obvious, but full of dignity.”
Now back home in France, Ben Khelifa is busy working on Emphas.is, the crowd-funding Web site he founded, and on other assignments, but he’s eager to return to Tunisia to see how it adjusts to the new coalition formed by Ennadha, the moderate Islamic party which won half the seats in Parliament, and to learn more about the history of his family.
“If you look at the scope of my career, I think I’ve been looking for my Arab roots all over the Mideast. Now I can say it: This is my country.”
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