From Tunisia to the other side of the Mediterranean. The successful story of the Arab top-model Hanaa


Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, Paris. Ph. Silvia Dogliani

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, Paris. Ph. Silvia Dogliani

I met Hanaa Ben Abdesslem at Img agency, in downtown Paris. She was not a cold, eccentric or “snob” top-model, but a simple and “normal” woman. She arrived without any makeup, wearing tennis shoes and sport clothing. She introduced herself with a sweet smile. I was captured by the way she moved her hands, by her femininity. She is Tunisian, she is Arab and  Muslim. She is also a famous young top model, who decided, few years ago, to drop her studies in engineering in Tunisia and follow her dreams and passions on the other side of the Mediterranean: become a fashion model. Hanaa is now the most quoted Arab woman in top level fashion. I asked her to give some advices to our North African FocusMéditerranée readers, who are searching for a future abroad, especially in these days, when Tunisia (and other North African Countries) is again facing violence and chaos.

You are a Tunisian woman, an Arab and a Muslim. You are also one of the most famous fashion top-model at this moment. Would you explain us what each of these definitions represents to you?
It has more to do with the fact that I am an Arab woman, which means belonging to a certain culture and tradition, historically influenced also by European countries. When I arrived in Europe I was 20 years old and it was my first time here. While approaching younger European teen-agers of 16 years old, I felt they were older and more experienced than me. They knew how to deal with situations and people: how to use a map and walk around a new town, how to buy things … I did not. In my Country the family runs everything. This is something that make things different and sometimes complicated.

Complicated in relation to how Europeans consider a North African woman and an Arab fashion model?
I still don’t have an answer for that. Is there a real difference between North African or European? Maybe it is more shocking for you. When I did my first casting, everybody were asking me: “Is it true? Are you Tunisian? Are you Arab? Do you really have a family 100% Tunisian? It depends more from the spirit of people. In fact some are more open than others. In general I think that still something is missing. Europeans don’t know much of us. Many of them never visited North Africa. And if they did, they just made a touch and go tourist trip. The image of our Country passes through television and on both sides of the Mediterranean we get wrong images, especially when it comes to politics. Is it true what I am watching on TV? When I arrived in Europe, I found that the Countries and the people were very different from what I was expected and from what I have been watching on TV. In my job, for example, there are certain differences that I feel. If I make a Google research and I look at my profile, I see more published interviews and stories on me than on other models and colleagues. I don’t understand why. I did several casting in Italy for the fashion week défilé and I have never been accepted. Why my profile does not work in Italy but it works in France, Great Britain and United States? Maybe it is a matter of my background? Maybe it is because I am not blond? Maybe it is because I am Arab? Or maybe it is because I am not the Italian type?! For the shooting, I have never had problems in Italy: I worked for Benetton, Vogue Italia and Pirelli.  But for the fashion show, yes I had. I really hope it doesn’t have anything to do with my story, my origin, my religion.

How difficult is for an Arab Muslim woman to work for a “Western” company as fashion model and remain faithful to her Country traditions?
The Agency I work for asks us to fill a form in which we decide what to do and what not to do during shootings. I don’t pose nude, for example, and I don’t do certain things. I come from a very conservative family: my mother wears the veil, my father works as construction entrepreneur. Since I was little I had to respect certain rules and values. I don’t like and I don’t want to pose nude. My father never asked me not to do so. For our religion and for our culture it is not good to do so, although many other women do it. I don’t.

Hanna Ben Abdesslem for Pirelli Calendar 2013. Ph. Steve McCurry

Hanna Ben Abdesslem for Pirelli Calendar 2013. Ph. Steve McCurry

When I was contacted by Pirelli for the calendar 2013, I was a bit scared. Finally I have been told that I did not have to pose naked and that the photographer was Steve Mc Curry. I was very happy. Pirelli also chose me because I was personally and publicly involved with the NGO Esmaani  (which means “listen to me”) and with the social changes occurring in my Country (since July 2011 Hanaa is the spokesperson for NGO Esmaani, a not-for-profit organization committed in the management of volunteers who bring economic help and psychological support to the hospitals in the most deprived areas of Tunisia).
In Europe I am the only Arab Muslim in the high fashion. There are others, but not in the high fashion. It is really a very important responsibility for me. In Tunisia and in the Arab Countries the modeling career is not well considered. Maybe it is a matter of family restrictions, or of loss of market and opportunities not only in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and in Lebanon as well. Before starting my career, I never found an Arab woman inside fashion magazines or on fashion, but instead I found women from all other nationalities. I decided to start this career with a mission: bring Arab women in the high fashion. Now I am the one, I need to gain an imagine, I need to explain to Tunisians what  this job really means: lots of work, lots of professionalism and seriousness, ability to work on team, flexibility on timing, traveling… When I go back to Tunisia, I try to explain all this on television or through associations, interviews, social networks, friends. I tell myself: “If I am able to explain all this to my family, I am surely able to to explain this to all”.

You left Tunisia to follow your modeling career as in your Country this job is not recognized on an institutional level. After your successful experience and your commitment to modify the perception regarding the modeling profession in your Country, would you suggest to other young Tunisians to follow your example?
Through my website or my Facebook page I received lots of e-mails from Dubai, Kuwait, Tunisia or from United States and Europe. They encourage me: “You need to try to give a nice image of the Arab woman”; “You need to go ahead”. I would like to encourage young people with my example. People really need to understand that if they have a dream, they can succeed. Recently a Tunisian dancer asked me to commit with the association Youth Empowerment & Development Association (YEDA). “You are an example for us”, he said to me. Just after the Revolution he worked with this associations to teach Tunisians how to start a job or a project. I decided to participate with my brother, who is an actor. We went to Tunisia and we met the members of the Association. I explained them who I was and what I was doing. I talked about my dreams and my future projects. There were people who knew me already, others who did not know who I was. Some did not even have a computer or internet. I listened to most of them. I talked to a dancer who wanted to go to Europe before attending schools here. Many asked me: “why are you back in Tunisia. Europe is much better than here!. Most of them were thinking that is much better to leave Tunisia and go abroad to find a job, money and a career.
After my personal experience as well as the YEDA one, my message to Tunisians is: you should try first in your Country and perhaps, if it doesn’t work, leave. You need to know that in Europe it is not easy at all, it is more difficult than in Tunisia. You need to have money to travel and be aware that  there is lot of competition there. If you don’t have the means, why should you go to a Country where competition is very high? Try to experience first in your Country and then, when you are ready, go. But don’t go immediately. It is much better to build an experience and a project in Tunisia, at least if government support it.

Having a future after the Revolution is still possible for young Tunisians? How many chances they have in this moment?
Just after the Revolution, I worked on a documentary with Farida Khelfa: Une jeunesse tunisienne. It was based on young Tunisian artists, who wanted to give their contributions in order to create the future of Tunisia. Each one had a project to develop inside the Country and not abroad. Now, if we would do again the same documentary, with the same people, we would have a complete different result: people don’t have the same energy. The government is now limiting the creativity of these volunteers. The Revolution did not bring anything until now. With Ben Ali it was much better than today. In Tunisia many things are missing now, democracy and freedom in particular. If Ennahda will stay, Tunisia will go “collapse”. The economy is terrible, banks have nothing, no job opportunities, unemployment, no future for young people. Nothing has changed in two years, no dreams, everything is more expensive and there is more stress now. We are waiting this year for new elections, and I hope things will change.

What is to you the future of your Country. Which advises would you give to young Tunisians to go on?
Until now the Tunisian government did not help youth to develop their projects in the Country. In this particular moment I perhaps think that it is better to study in Europe and then, after the graduation, go back to Tunisia to start a project. It is important to make an experience abroad. Even for Europeans, it would be a good thing to travel to North Africa.

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