NADIA BEN YOUSSEF /// Spreading the Decolonial Spirit of Bandung from Tunisia to Turtle Island


Léopold met with Nadia Ben Youssef during the second Black and Palestinian Solidarity conference in Naarm (Melbourne) on Indigenous Wurundjeri land, organized by Gary Foley and Suzannah Henty in November 2019. In this conversation, Nadia recounts the history of the 1955 Bandung Conference through the perspective of her grand father, Tunisian revolutionary Salah Ben Youssef who was representing Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco in the fight against French colonialism. The discussion addresses the way the Bandung spirit was broken by France’s neocolonial strategies that manufactured new types of dependencies for former colonies in Africa. They conclude the conversation with considerations of what this Bandung spirit can develop in terms of solidarity in today’s struggles.

Nadia Ben-Youssef is the Advocacy Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. She directs all advocacy around issues related to the promotion of civil and human rights. Together with the legal, advocacy, and communication teams, Nadia identifies opportunities for the Center for Constitutional Rights to make strategic cultural and political interventions that shift public narrative and policy on our issues. She has expertise in international human rights fora and mechanisms, and extensive experience developing advocacy strategies to influence U.S. decision-makers. Her work often centers at the intersection of art and advocacy, and she curates exhibits and artistic programming that document key human rights concerns, celebrate social movements, and allow creatives the space to chart the future. Prior to coming to the Center for Constitutional Rights, she co-founded the Adalah Justice Project (AJP), a U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy organization that works to transform American discourse and policy on Palestine/Israel. AJP is an outgrowth of her work with Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel where, from 2010, she led international advocacy efforts from Adalah’s field office in the Naqab (Negev) in southern Israel before coming back to the U.S. to develop an American advocacy strategy. Nadia is a member of the New York State Bar, and holds a B.A. in Sociology from Princeton University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. In 2018, Nadia received the National Lawyers Guild Rob Doyle Lawyer Award for commitment to social and political justice.

Black and Palestinian Solidarity conference


Léopold Lambert: Hello everyone. Today my guest is Nadia Ben Youssef who is a human rights lawyer and the advocacy director at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, as well as a co-founder of the Adela Justice Project, a US based Palestinian advocacy organization that works to transform American discourse and policy on Palestine, Israel. And we are recording this conversation in Melbourne, which is neither of our turf. But we are here at the Black and Palestinian Solidarity conference. Hello, Nadia.

Nadia Ben Youssef: Hello Léopold

LL: Thank you very much for taking a little bit of time to talk with me today. And after we both had our small presentation at this conference, perhaps let’s start with that, like what are your impression of this Black Palestinian Conference, which I guess maybe for our listeners, some of them, we might need to, we might need to say that black, obviously, in the context of Melbourne in Australia is relates to the Aboriginal indigenous population of the continent. Yeah, what are what are your impressions so far?

NBY: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to be here to be in community and to be enlarging our community what I think I’ve been struck by that throughout my life and career that our community is so big, honestly, and community defined as those with whom we struggle for justice, and you look up and you’re surrounded by freedom fighters and warriors, as we’ve heard a lot of and so it’s humbling and it’s inspiring to be among this group of people. It has been said a number of times, it’s a historic conference and convening. And as someone who is not Palestinian, not Aboriginal, but comes to this work in solidarity, and it, it’s really an extraordinary experience to be yet to be learning and exchanging strategies of resistance and histories of struggle and actually very clear visions of liberation, which, which feels really, it feels really good. How about you? How are you feeling?

LL: Yeah, the same thing, obviously shares the same non-Palestinian and non-Aboriginal status and was very honored to be part of part of this, and hopefully, hopefully, my little stone to the building was, was useful somehow. But, so I mean, your presentation blew everybody away. So I wanted to, I wanted to sort of have you almost repeat it, but through maybe a little bit of chaptering through my questions. But so you started with something that we maybe in those kinds of conversation, we tend to hear a lot about it, which is 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned country and countries and sort of creation of the Third World Liberation coalition’s but you, on the contrary of what have many accounts on Bandung, you did it through the through a very personal and I would say extremely beautiful and inspiring and powerful accounts through the person of your grandfather, and I wanted to, I wanted to ask you to perhaps tell it again for our listeners.

NBY: Thank you Léopold. That was yeah, it was a, it was quite an experience to tell this story, actually. And as someone who spends a lot of time doing public education and advocacy around systems and structures of oppression, institutions like the law as a—trained as a lawyer and in some ways a bit distant from, even though it’s the structures that we feel on our lives, telling this personal story has a totally different dimension to it. So, I was I was really proud to be able to tell, tell this particular story about my grandfather. So, my grandfather, Salah Ben Youssef, a revolutionary and freedom fighter, in the anti-colonial struggle against France and in Tunisia. And he was the head of the North African delegation to Bandung. And so Bandung is known mostly for the 29 countries that were newly independent, and gathered together on their own terms, to speak against empire and colonialism, and show and embody the power of the Third World. But it was also there were representatives of still colonized places that were there to appeal to their brothers and sisters in struggle and say, we turn to you, not to anyone else, like we’re turning to you to uplift our struggle for freedom, you who have succeeded in upending empire. Rather than pleading for our humanity from the colonizers, we’re coming to you. And it’s such a—I really, I love that.

And I was saying it in the in the talk, I could, these representatives, for me, have such a story to tell about the strength of that movement, the irresistible nature of those forces that said, together, we are the multitude and we have something to say about our condition, and about the condition of the world we are trying to create—a world that we have not yet seen, but we know is possible. And so my grandfather was the head of the North African delegation representing Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco at Bandung, and had been spending the last, you know, five or so years of his work representing the Tunisian independence movement as part of the Neo-Destour party throughout the Third World and going to Indonesia and the Philippines and India and speaking and garnering Third World support for the Tunisian liberation struggle. And so he was there as a representative and there were so many interesting and powerful moments in Bandung that I think exemplify again, kind of the ambitions of the that, that conference, the power of what’s called the Bandung spirit, and why that’s such a beautiful moment of clarity for the Third World and also a really clear moment of choice in the anti-colonial struggle. And so what happened in Ben Dune, and it’s a family tale, but it really feels like it has…

LL: Pretty huge consequences.

NBY: It really does! Because what, for a number of reasons, I mean, one, these, this trio, you know, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in 1954, had signed in Cairo accord saying we’re going to demand independence together. It is all of us or none of us in a really powerful statement of solidarity and beyond a statement, right, a praxis: we are we are committed to each other’s freedom. And so you have this grouping that is going to represent a common cause and their opening statement to then doing so we did a bit of archival research, and something that we can talk about too, that really only became possible to me after the Tunisian revolution, to really dive into our family. Exactly, to dive into this history.

LL: But perhaps just to give a little bit of element of contextualization, because we obviously all know about the Algerian revolution, because it lasted for eight years, killed half a million people, displaced 2 million people—like half of the rural population of Algeria, and was and was really a very, very demanding revolution. But back in 55, when the revolution had just started, and Morocco and Tunisia had been fighting for a few years, and I mean obviously had been fighting for many years, but in an even more intense way. And I remember finding like, I think, maybe December 1954, so two months into the Algerian revolution, French newspaper saying, we really hoping that the situation in Algeria does not become as bad as in Morocco and Tunisia. So, retrospectively it seems like the Algerian revolution was, obviously is a very intense moment of the anti-colonial resistance. But to put us back all in the context of 1955, which I think is very important in what you’re about to describe. the three, were very, were very much intensely involved in this in this resistance, and—

NBY: —and engaged with each other. There’s really extraordinary I mean, this is beyond the talk, but really extraordinary strategic work that was happening in particularly in militant uprisings of distracting the colonizer where we needed to alleviate pressure from Algeria. And so there were uprisings that were staged in Tunisia and vice versa, you know, how to, it’s a very interesting and sophisticated resistance and insurgency. But this particular moment in, and it’s an amazing thing that you said, but and by the time you get to Bandung, there’s at least Third World consensus about Tunisia and Morocco, saying, okay, like these two, we’ve accepted and uplifted your freedom struggles and lend our support. And so this press release that the that the delegation wrote, thanked the third world for the support of Tunisia and Morocco, and demanded that that same solidarity be applied to Algeria, which was beginning its armed resistance. And so there was a sense that the Algerians at the moment needed the support, and the Moroccans Indonesians were willing to step back. And it’s such a beautiful moment of solidarity, right? Like, what do you—when you leverage your power and your privilege for another that needs that platform. And so it’s a really amazing press release, just saying, essentially, like, we hope that you adhere to the aspirations of this convening, which is that decolonization has to happen everywhere and by any means, really. And so it’s an amazing moment. So solidarity, I think, was powerful.

Another beautiful moment of solidarity is that in Richard Wright’s retelling of Bandung in his book, The Color Curtain, Richard Wright, a black novelist and public intellectual and thinker who went to Bandung to record it, he saw a newspaper clipping about Bandung, he was like, I have to go absolutely to this gathering. And he traces this in a really interesting travel log, called the Color Curtain. And he describes the moment that the delegation with my grandfather boarded the plane in Cairo. So he’s talks, you know, he wakes up his long journey in Cairo, and these French speaking North Africans board the plane and are talking wildly and he hears them discussing Palestine. And for me, that’s another beautiful moment of solidarity that the North Africans were so concerned with how to bring Palestine into Bandung and the question of Palestinians and the support of Palestine, which ended up in the final communiqué  that of the Bandung Conference in a really important way.

So solidarity [is] key and the this particular, I think, revelatory moment in the anti-colonial struggle happened because when all of these leftist revolutionaries were in Bandung creating and devising this manifesto against empire there was a very different strategy being undertaken independently and unilaterally in Paris between Habib Bourguiba, who was also part was also head of the new distort party and at one point, a political comrade of my grandfather’s. They were in prison together, they had organized together, develop the party together. My grandfather was the secretary general of the new industrial party and Minister of Justice and they were, they were building together but Habib Bourguiba had a very different approach to an independent struggle and at the same time that everyone was in Bandung Habib Bourguiba signed internal autonomy accords with France and these accords essentially agreed to a limited self-rule, limited self-government. France would maintain economic and foreign policy control; French settlers would retain their right to property. A very incremental what’s the…

LL: Withdrawal?

NBY: Withdrawal, incremental withdrawal and an incremental transfer of power to Tunisians at the time that benefited the colonizer. So within the colonizers,

LL: Some troops also stay

NBY: Some troops would remain. The courts would remain in control, the French colonizers would have access to the, to their own courts. It was a really, a very calculated move on the part of the colonizer about how they wanted to offer the colonized their freedom, which we know never happens. Frederick Douglass says power concedes nothing without a demand that powerful will never give freedom it has to be taken it has to be and taken fully. So this happened in April 21 1955. The bending conferences April 18, to April 24. So one week, so few days before the end of the conference this is happening in Paris and my grandfather receives a telegram and Bandung saying that this had happened, a violation of the accords that Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco had signed in, in Cairo in 1954, a betrayal of an independence movement that was seeking for complete social and political transformation, economic control, that had a vision of liberation that was total that was complete. And that was collective critically across Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, that it would be all of us.

And so the one piece of writing that I that we have, as a family in English of my grandfather, is this press statement, like the press statement that was written in response to the telegram that he received saying that this had happened in Paris. And it’s such a, it’s such—you can feel the devastation in the words, just like how, how dare you betray the Tunisian people and the Algerian revolution in this critical moment? And he says, like, he’s, you can feel it, right, like this is in this historic context, where we just have unanimous support of the Third World. So the Bandung, you know, final communique that says, we support Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, they said they did exactly what they had set out to do. They said full self-determination for these people, and we commend your right to freedom and decolonization around the world. And so this had just happened. And so the deep sadness that he must have felt at the time, I mean, he’s writing the statement, just saying that the Tunisian people will never accept a fake autonomy and a fake independence, particularly in this historic moment where the whole world is struggling against colonialism and imagining something far greater than what you, the crumbs that you accepted, on our behalf on whose behalf right. So it’s just a, it’s a powerful moment. And that really is clarifying, I think, for the two paths forward out of colonialism. Sadly, the one that was both chosen and imposed, I think the colonizer and the Empire, had control over the kind of piecemeal independence that it was willing to offer Tunisia knew that it needed to put certain people in power. We talked about the bourgeoisie of Frantz Fanon; I know that he anticipated in the Wretched of the Earth knew the colonized

LL: The colonized bourgeoisie.

NBY: C’est ça [that’s right], that is like, we know what’s gonna happen, and we can control that as the Empire and so that’s what we’re putting in place and all of these revolutionaries, I mean, what you see over time is that they’re all deposed, assassinated, overturned, you know, you see, the spirit of Bandung was so threatening, was so threatening to Empire and it didn’t have the control that it wanted. So the two paths forward were a liberal internationalism, that allowed for colonial, the colonial apparatus to maintain its structure and maintain its power in these despite independence on paper, right? Or the transformation of a world order that was that was pursued and that was imagined in Bandung.

LL: And perhaps it’s important for everybody to understand that it happened in every single country that France has colonized on the African continent. That’s such an independence was actually a sort of negotiation with neo-colonial logics, including in Algeria, actually, I mean, mostly in West Africa, where still today there’s something that Pan African activists called Françafrique has still a very, very high dependency on manufactured dependency on France, both in terms of who gets to govern, and how there is still some economic, very high dependency to Algeria that had France leaving a few, some troops as well as continuing its nuclear testing for four years after the end of the four years after the end of the Algerian revolution, to the Comoros where Mayotte, one of the islands of the archipelago, remains under French sovereignty today, to Burkina Faso where Thomas Sankara was assassinated after contesting such neo-colonial logic. Cameroon, where were the true revolutionary movement was suppressed with incredible violence by the new independent, the new independent nation states that was heavily helped by France to do so. The only example I know that, and I don’t know it very in detail. So unfortunately, but the only example I know, of a country that escaped this is Guinea. But Guinea in doing so, in saying, fuck you, we want our independence plain and simple 100% had literally after issuing such a statement like a week later was independent and was subject of a very intense economic war by France that led left the country in in great direness and precariousness. So I think something needs to be understood as well in how in many of those cases, and Cameroon in particular, because Cameron was a UN mandate following the end of the First World War, it was actually sometimes more advantageous for France to have such new colonial agreements and the actual colony too.

NBY: Wow, that’s a powerful statement to say. And I think that’s I think people would absolutely agree given where the countries are, and how global economic structures have paralyzed progress and created an inequality and inequity that is of colonial times, like without fundamentally uprooting the structures and systems. The status quo remains a status quo of colonial hierarchy, human hierarchy. And, and that’s a, it’s a devastating thing. And so what we’re at now, what may I actually I’ll just touch on the kind of the personal implications of that repression and what the silencing has meant for the meaning of the attempt to silence the Bandung spirit and ideals of revolution. And my when my grandfather returned to Tunisia in the fall of 1955, and began organizing militant uprisings against these accords and this internal autonomy and was determined that this would not be the legacy of the anti-colonial movement in Tunisia that he was ultimately ousted from the party in 1955 in a pretty dramatic way, and then fled for his life and resultant we were exiled in Egypt and which is where my dad grew up, exiled in Egypt and my grandfather continued from Egypt and obviously Gamal Abdel Nasser was welcoming revolutionaries at the time, and they had been together in Bandung and organizing and he continued to speak out and to attack these accords and you—and watched it, watch the first can you imagine like, watching five years into a neo-colonial reality in Tunisia? And sort of the propping up of the first dictator, what would become a dictator, they would just be watching that happen and being like, what is this what is this that we fought for?

So he continued to fight against and to, you know, to challenge those accords and it remains such a threat to this fragile neocolonial reality that Habib Bourguiba was creating in Indonesia and ultimately, in 1961 Bourguiba ordered the assassination of my grandfather when he was in Frankfurt, and he was killed in Germany in August 12 of 1961 and my father was ten at the time and it remains such a mythological story for me for much of my life like this, this a very dramatic murder, he was lured into a place by people that he knew, in this hotel room in Germany, my grandmother found him my father and my uncle were at a camp in the Black Forest. And during most just very recently, it’s a story that I that will turn hopeful soon, but in just very recently, my father described what that was like to see his mother come to the camp without his father, just days after they’d left them there so early on and in the camp and take them away in this like dark car and my grandmother looking so sick. And so they didn’t understand what was going on.

And the story of being a revelation of what had happened to a 10-year-old and it was, it’s pretty, it’s a story that, yeah, I mean, you inherit these, these experiences and these traumas, and as much as we inherit the spirit of resistance and the legacy of these revolutionary ideals. And just recently, sorry for the—just recently, this story, I was saying, you know, as I gave the presentation a couple of days ago, often the story and for our family ended there that I knew the date of the assassination of my grandfather, for most of my life without knowing his birthday, like I didn’t that it was just that was the totality of the story. And but then, after the revolution, the there was this Truth and Dignity Commission that was established to investigate the crimes of the regimes. And in March that Commission released a report and they had done an investigation into the assassination of my grandfather and charged six people including Habib Bourguiba with his murder. And May 16 of this year, there was the first hearing before the transitional justice court and five Tunisian judges gathered, and the courtroom was packed with people and my father was able to give a testimony of and to tell his story to tell our story. And we both traveled kind of urgently to Tunisia and not knowing that it was about to happen. And I we stayed up late, and my father was writing this testimony, and he stopped himself at some point. Because he was, he was documenting, he was trying to tell the story of the assassination and about the murder. And then he stopped himself. And he was like, but that’s one it’s documented, and that’s actually not the, the story is, the story is about what you can never kill. The story is what survives.

And one it’s the ideals that…the Third World movement was putting forward. It’s that and it’s that fundamental choice of like, do we pursue total social, political, economic transformation? Or do we accept incremental reforms? Do we believe in democratizing settler societies? Do we believe in benevolent occupations making jails more livable? Or do we imagine a world beyond borders a world without cages, like what are this choice that Tunisia has that we have as a society? And so he focused on that like, that this is what this person stood for. This is what my father stood for. And he said it a number of times, and I think it was such a cathartic experience to say, Habib Bourguiba killed my father. And I’m telling you, Tunisian judges, Habib Bourguiba is no longer there’s of the six people that were charged one remains, but it wasn’t. It’s not about vindictive, like prosecution, it’s about recovering history, because in recovering history, you recover the choice that we made. And that we can make again, like we have another opportunity to make that choice. And I think the what I, you know, the way that I describe the lectures is that Bandung’s spirit being very present in modern movements for justice, that are linking transnationally across borders, in solidarity and in struggle, continuing that legacy and demanding a fundamentally different world. And it’s so exciting it’s so inspiring and I think that’s, I hope I mean in this in these tragedies in these stories is also just the possibility of, of what I kept saying is an irresistible future and our capacity and responsibility to create that. And so you’re seeing these opportunities, this conference is one of them. And every moment that we show up for each other struggles is, is a moment where we are reclaiming our capacity to imagine something totally different.

LL: Wonderful, and perhaps as a very last chapter. I think you also brought this Bandung spirit to your to your present in Turtle Island in the in the in the US. And citing in particular a movement for black lives and other another movement. Could we perhaps also have a conclusion of the thought from you?

NBY: Yeah, my gosh, I… my grandfather became alive for me in the most real way on the streets of Ferguson. I met I would say I met my grandfather in Palestine. And in fact, the first time I was referred to spontaneously as his granddaughter was by an old Palestinian man in the Naqab in the south of Palestine, who said, Ben Youssef, he said, I know you and I know your grandfather, and had heard him speak. So I met my grandfather in Palestine, he came alive for me in Ferguson. And the movement for black lives and this resurgence of an internationalist perspective and demand from organizers who, particularly at the intersection of black Palestinian solidarity in the United States, but beyond as it touches, as it touches, again, this concept of an ever-growing community, where we’re like, our struggles are interconnected.

And what has happened since 2014, the United States is this again, deepening connection of struggles for justice, that’s built on slow and deliberate relationships across struggle. So people are fundamentally disengaging from, say, corridors of power, traditional corridors of power to—it’s no longer it’s a fundamental rejection of this idea that you have to demand your rights from the powerful, quote unquote, the powerful, right. Like that each struggle kind of by itself and in silos was appealing to the Empire. And in this moment, in the last five, six decades, maybe you can say like, though, as we’re hearing these stories, this is not new. It’s it just felt like it felt like a resurgence and a recommitment to this idea was that the people would stop appealing to the powerful and just turn towards each other. And say, like, I see you in my struggle, and your struggle is my own and we are etched onto each other. Like what happens in Palestine affects me and I understand my own condition by learning about Palestine or vice versa.

We were organizing, you know, suddenly we were we stopped organizing delegations to DC or to New York to the UN or to Congress. And we were instead going to St. Louis, and we were going to Baltimore and we were going to New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Montgomery, Alabama. And, and it was this fundament—and New Mexico where we met, and we’re hosted by the red nation, and Nick Estes, and Melanie Yazzie and these freedom fighters (hi!) were similarly saying like this is one struggle. This is one struggle to completely transform our world. And when we recognize that we are we are the multitude, and we commit to each other. This like house of cards disappears. It can do nothing but kind of change its orientation to one of like, it has to coexist with the rest of us. We’re done appealing to, we’re done appealing to you and we are committed to holding on to each other. And this has been the most hopeful experience of my life. I think the silos that we operate in, is designed by the Empire, right? We are fragmented, and we are siloed. And we kind of play we have to we play into that because we’re in emergency mode, and we’re fighting with our heads down and it’s exhausting. And you are constantly on your back foot resisting the world that’s coming at you hard and seemingly alone, you seem alone in your struggle. And it’s exhausting. And you find yourself asking for crumbs. It’s really, it’s a replication of, of history, always right. And then the alternative is, you look around and it is immense, our power and immense our strength, because we can learn from each other, we can resist together and we can, we can show up and show our strength in ways that are impossible to do alone. And so it is, it’s immensely hopeful. And I think our task now is to put as much of our, as much as we can, right the intellectual labor of our community, our collective community, to articulate our demands, like affirmatively put forward our vision of the world that we want. The alternative is very clear, the Empire’s very clear, authoritarian, racist, xenophobic, fascist regimes that are all over the world are very clear about the world that they want. And we are very good—

LL: This one. They want this one.

NBY: They want this exact—this one. They want the status quo. This works perfectly for them. And we are very good at saying no, that’s like, definitely not what we want. We’re less, we’re less ready in part by design. I think our imaginations are atrophied because we’re in a process of constant resistance. But we must affirmatively put forward the vision of the world that we want, and that we’re fighting for and that we, that we demand, that is our inheritance from these revolutionaries, and freedom fighters who have come before us and the revolutionaries and freedom fighters that are coming after us. And it’s time and I feel very strongly, particularly after this conference, and maybe you feel the same Léopold, like we have everything we need. We have everything we need to not only articulate that world, but to build it. And I think these opportunities are, you know, the constant affirmation that we need to remind ourselves that we are enough that we have everything that we need, and to bring us in relationship with each other in deep and meaningful ways. So that we build that world together. And I think we’re winning, I think we will win as devastating as it feels now, like we will win. The Empire is trembling. And so now is the time to push.

LL: Oh, wonderful. And as we pay respect to your, to the memory of your grandfather, I think we can also continue doing what we’ve been doing those last three years, which is to pay respect to the people who fought for sovereignty over the land we’re on right now in Australia. Thank you so much, Nadia. It was absolutely wonderful.

NBY: Thank you Léopold.