The Picture of the Sitting Men

Written by Ramona Schnall

Should it happen that you come to pass a small town in Tunisia, and its name happens to be Zammour, your gaze might be bewitched by the stabbing beauty enfolding in front of your eyes. Sandy mountains softly stretch over the horizon as a sea of golden waves. Only the sunset colours of dark violet meeting orange and saturated blue are competing with the breath-taking view. You might be enchanted by the beige houses caved into the mountain, the water fetched from the dwell in front of them, and the sheep crossing your path on their way to find grass tufts somewhere in the stony hills. Maybe your gaze is satisfied with that, though if you dedicate interest to the people of this town, you might notice men. Men sitting on the side of the street seemingly waiting for the bus into the next town. Men sitting on kitchen tables, on house porches, men sitting in the only café sipping on espresso. Men sitting in silence. Their eyes are fixed on the display between their hands, fixed on their phone.W

I was stranded in this town on avenues dimly connected with the hope of fleeing Europe and practising Arabic and so I took my camera and offered the tour guides Zied and Aymen help with a tourism flyer.  

Instead of practising my Arabic at the breakfast table, I’m observing my hosts hypnotized by their phones. The shrill noises produced by the plastic cases are only from time to time accompanied by a faint smile. Sometimes even a little exclamation flees their lips, leading to the sharing of one or two videos with each other.

The picture of the watching man, I encounter everywhere. The only deviation might be age, or the men working in the field. The latter find their hands busy with other devices while picking olives, while sheepherding or ploughing the field. However, until the age of 50 years, Candy Crush takes great importance in everyday life, and so does the smartphone.

Fatma, the woman in whose kitchen I somehow ended up, is frowning over this trend. She is a very distant cousin of Zied and after one week of spending time in the town, it is Fatma who has taken on to introduce me to her culture I’m here to fill a flyer with. More and more, I find myself in her company, regardless of the flyer or not: collecting the children from school, cooking for her mother, visiting friends, baking bread. Somehow, I’m part of the family, and I begin to witness the women of the town rule differently over their phone. A habit that is mirrored in their children. Her four sons don’t have phones, which she made sure of.

 “It’s an addiction,” Fatma says while observing my soup-steering talents, “and really a bad development in this town.” For that reason, 18 is the age when her boys are old enough to get a smartphone, when Uni starts, and they have to move away, she explains.

Social Media’s drawbacks do not only exist in the West, but it would also be naïve, nearly orientalist to assume differently. Why should the small town of 500 citizens look any different than European Metros where all  seats are occupied with phone gazing commuters?

In Europe, the disrupting character of phones for family life and the relations between friends is well studied. A flood of articles is already minutely pointing to the depressions and lessening of life satisfaction caused by the wall phones built in romantic relationships, others point to the loss of social skills of children with parents where the phone overshadows their life.[1]

In the Tunisian countryside, in Zammour, the phone also claimed a crucial place in the community, and maybe also the same casualties. “Instead of speaking with each other the people often just look at their phones,” says Murat, Fatma’s husband.

But still, in contrast to my left, environmentalist friend-bubble, the phone seems to dominate more social gatherings than I’m used to. During dinner, we talk, and when grabbing coffee, the phone stays in the pocket. To have to compete during dinner with the phone is something I’m not used to.  

Sure the first thing entering your mind when thinking about the smart-phone and the SWANA region (Southwest Asia and North Africa), the Arab Spring is probably the first thing popping up in many minds. The phone played such an empowering role in political mobilisation and activism, in the toppling of autocrats and that the term Twitter-revolution experienced some sort of popularity.  Thus, it seems obvious that the phone has an exceptional position in the lives of Tunisian men. Though, it does not explain the addictive behaviour the sitting men of Zammour seem to display. 

And so, I start to speculate, combined with sporadic questions to Fatma and Murat to help me understand.

Is it education: is it the lack of access to knowledge of the drawbacks of social media and phone addiction?

My friends and their reading circles of Silvia Federici, and Donna Haraway have a certain dislike for phones and social media. For them critiquing capitalism and patriarchy, or emphasising communal life and no-phone-policy are sides of the same coin. How can you resist capitalism when you are the consumption-slave the phone and social media are transforming you in? How can you learn to talk about emotions when your community time is spent on the phone? This dislike of phones is part of the knowledge they were bestowed with. And as we all know knowledge is a privilege. It’s not like Zammour has no connection to a school, you only have to master a four-hour walk to reach it. UNICEF’s report on Tunisian education of 2023 pointed precisely to this long school way and the existing economic disparity between land and city as the major reasons for the higher dropout quote of children educated in the countryside.  I think one can’t presuppose that those men that went through countryside-education are aware of Hyper-capitalism and haven’t learned about the problematics of the smartphone and its effects on them. But still, only education alone can’t be it. The internet with the information about the drawbacks of the phone is still somewhat at their fingertips. 

Is maybe patriarchy the reason for the absence of communication at the dinner table? No talk about emotions, no “gossip” can be shared at a table – the gendered upbringings of men prohibit that. Instead of learning how to communicate about emotional needs, the gendered roles of men as the sole breadwinner is instilled in Zammour. And with it also the need of being strong, caring the weight of physical work that leaves no room for weakness. This upbringing in patriarchy might be the reason for conversations restricted to work and the weather but no fears and doubts. I guess I would rather reach for the phone than having to talk evening after evening about a blue sky and dry earth. The dismal fingers of patriarchy would also explain why I see women less on the phone. During the dinner-table-situations, they are not the ones silently sitting over their phones. During the tea breaks, weaving or sorting olives women never preferred the words of their phone to the ones of their friends. But it is not like patriarchy has been deleted of western mindsets. Men also in Europe are struggling with the same redefinition of manliness that cannot be based on the subjugation and exploitation of women. In conversations, Fatma asks me curiously about my parents and if tradition is also separating housework as clearly as in her household. I have to tell her: my parents are struggling as well with sharing fairly; my dad is still cooking less, washing less laundry and often only through my mother requesting it of him.  It’s not that the men in Europe are liberated from a patriarchal picture of labour.

Then might it be time? Time the reason, the picture of the men of Zammour is the one of the men on the phone? Do the men of Zammour just have so many  hours available that they can spend them in cafes observing their phones? Women simply don’t have any, their day is eaten by cooking and caring for kids. “It might be true,” Murat explains to me, “that work for men in Zammour is rare.” The only jobs available are sheep herding, farming or working as a hiking guide. Those occupations though are rare, and do not really guarantee a safe income. “If you want to work, you have to find it elsewhere,” says Murat. A lot of Zammours men are thus labour migrating to the close located Djerba, or to Tunis. No work in Zammour itself would mean that those citizens who are not that lucky with finding work abroad would have hours of boredom available, hours they could kill with their phones sitting in front of a Cafe watching reals. But in Zammour the number of unemployed, after Aymen, should not be extraordinarily high. As Aymen says, only around 5 out of the 500 people are without it.

Murat himself also is sceptical about time being the cause of the phoned emic. He traces it back to the little diaspora of young men seeking work outside of their community. So many of the friends have wandered off, to stay in contact with them you have to have a smartphone staffed with the possibility to chat and to call, to send memes. Though, considering that I can relate to that experience as an international student, and still have different habits considering my phone when in company I’m not convinced. Solely Murat’s words are not a sufficient explanation for me. 

Maybe it is the combination of all those reasons that makes Zammour vulnerable to smartphones. Maybe it is an entirely different one.

Whatever it might be, I’m not staffed to draw the result. In the end, I’m not here to extract the knowledge in the function of an anthropologist. I’m only here because of a flyer.

What I feel, however, is that the effects of the smartphone movement in Zammour might have results that my Federici reading circle would mourn for.

Whatever my friends’ values of love as an act of resistance to capitalism, or a consumption-denying everyday life are, in essence, they are still theories. Theories that are struggling to become reality. Despite the phone, in Zammour, communal life has been and is still practised in a different way. Labour is integrated and done in the community. When weaving on the traditional Nool, the huge weaving instrument whose frame and strings fills a room with their size. While weaving the woman is not alone, other women join in with sorting olives, caring for children, and repairing clothing. Collecting the olives, as Aymen explains, is only fun when friends and family come together. For that harvesting is more than an annoying repetitive work but also a communal act of sharing tea and stories. The capitalist individualistic work atmosphere and hyper-individualism, ruling contemporary Europe, as Siliva Federici argued, seem still to have to harden their grip on this town.

Might the phone be another of its disciples to disrupt the old ways of relating to each other?

But maybe awareness about the drawbacks of social media and the phone is also washed up through the open door the internet presents. All the knowledge in the world is at the doorstep of Zammour. It only has to defy the algorithm.

So, might it be women after all, the women who are holding onto traditional ways of relating, of sharing labour when taking care of each other’s children, when cooking for each other and while working in the community, sharing emotions? Might after all women be one avenue to resist this social restructuring of the phone?  

[1] McDaniel, Brandon T., and Sarah M. Coyne. “‘Technoference’: The Interference of Technology in Couple Relationships and Implications for Women’s Personal and Relational Well-Being.” Psychology of popular media culture 5, no. 1 (2016): 88.

Edited by: Joanna Sowińska

Artwork by: Teressa Vale