Converse College was set to host a Tunisian activist for an event focused on the international uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring. Instead, the school will honor the memory of the late activist, Nabiha Jerad, and announce a foundation in her honor during a 6:30 p.m. event on Tuesday, May 7 in Montgomery Student Center.
“I wanted her to tell what happened and what the ramifications were for women.”
Jerad, a professor from the University of Tunis, died late last year from injuries caused when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. A two-time Fulbright scholar, she had worked with Converse students for more than a decade after forming a bond with the school following a speaking engagement on campus more than 10 years ago, said Cathy Jones, associate professor of French and Italian at Converse College and director of the women’s studies program.
Students from the Spartanburg college have since traveled to Tunisia, a tiny country on the Mediterranean coast in North Africa, eight times, Jones said, to work with students at the University of Tunis and learn from artists, historians and authors in that country. Students first made the trip shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and were also in the country when protesters began to overthrow the government in early 2011.
The toppling of the Moroccan government marked the beginning of the Arab Spring movements, and Jones said she invited Jerad back to Converse to speak on the subject. “Jerad participated in Tunisia,” she said. “I wanted her to tell what happened and what the ramifications were for women.”
After Jerad’s death, Tuesday’s program was in jeopardy, but Jones and Ali Bourekha instead continued with a new resolve to honor Jerad. “I became somewhat paralyzed and I lost momentum,” Jones said of Jerad’s death. “But we decided we were going to proceed with the program. Ali is more than qualified to speak.”
Bourekha, a native of Morocco who now lives in Hendersonville, N.C., was “disappeared” by the government in the 1970s and spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner for reasons he still doesn’t understand. Part of his sentence was spent at the infamous Tazmamart prison, a secret detention facility with a 50 percent death rate that closed in the early 1990s after pressure from the United States and human rights organizations. His time in prison became the basis of his book, “In the Moroccan King’s Secret Gardens.”
Bourekha’s first-hand knowledge of oppression connects well to the stories of the recent Arab Spring demonstrations, Jones said. “Ali can set the stage,” she said. “The unemployed and educated youth, the frustration building over — Ali’s story tells that so well.”
The two also agreed that an educational foundation was the best way to honor Jerad and keep her memory alive. The foundation, which will be officially announced Tuesday in the presence of members of Jerad’s family, will serve several purposes, Jones said. It will host an annual event named for Jerad that encourages cross-cultural dialogue. It will publish a collection of Jerad’s essays through the help of Converse students, who will translate the works from Arabic to French and English. And it will connect Converse students to a Tunisian orphanage for remote learning opportunities while providing funds for small loans to Tunisian women entrepreneurs.
“It’s important to me that people like Jerad, people who are politically active, not go unremembered,” Jones said.
Bourekha said he never met Jerad but considers himself a kindred spirit and described her as a “very, very strong activist.” Governments “are afraid of this kind of woman,” Bourekha said.
Bourekha said he plans to speak of his own experiences when he and his two brothers were arrested by the government and secreted away from their families. At the time of his arrest, he said, Bourekha was serving as a courier to then-King Hassan II.
From his home in Hendersonville, Bourekha said he paid close attention to the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. He said technology helped created the groundswell that became the Arab Spring movement.
This article was written by Drew Brooks of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.