Selma Saidane: Transcending Labels, A French-Tunisian in Chicago

A native of Tunisia, Selma Saidane was a teacher in the Chicago Public School system. In the testimonial below, she describes her upbringing in a hybrid family in Tunisia and the values that shape her identity.

I was born into the culture of Tunisia, a country best known for sparking the Arab Spring. I label myself “multi-cultural” for the simple reason that it is the shortest way to explain an identity that is broad and complicated. Born to a French Catholic as a mother and a Tunisian Muslim father, I always saw life as multi-faceted. My parents’ two vastly different cultures and values may have often clashed, the result was ultimately something beautiful and complete. That, at least, is how I see myself.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about “Arab” identity, being a Tunisian is a very inclusive term that reflects the rich cultural and civilization history of my home country. Indeed, my life has been shaped by the multi-cultural environment that I was raised in.

At a young age, I was immersed in French values and way of thinking. From elementary school to high school, I was educated in the French system and therefore develop the mentality of someone of French heritage. My childhood was an eclectic mix of Arab, French, Italian, and Jewish friends. In this context it was natural to have a positive view of integration, camaraderie, and mutual respect for people of all backgrounds and faiths. Growing up in a tolerant environment from a very age has played a vital role in my social, political and religious views ever since. I believe that I am a better person for it.

Because of my globalist view of myself and people around me, I prefer not to be labelled anything. My identity is unique to me – and to everyone around me. I define myself in a way that no simple label can sufficiently apply.

I have been regularly referred to as Muslim because I was born in a predominantly Muslim populated country. But my understandings of both Catholicism and Islam are very limited, and the only thing that I could openly and wholeheartedly adhere to is my multicultural existence. Culturally, I am both a Catholic and a Muslim because of the environment that I am a product of. The same could be said about my cultural affinity for Italians, French, or Jewish values.

In a sense I am a multicultural person that grew up in a tolerant environment with the ability to think openly. For any strict religious or devout following, however, I was too independent, rebellious and iconoclastic to truly follow any stringent faith system or ideology. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in religion as an engaging subject. For a brief period, I learned a good deal about Islam and was influenced by it deeply.

After my senior year in high school, I had to do my first year in a University in Tunisia, which changed my views dramatically. For the first time in my life, I encountered hate. Religious extremists ran over and invaded the university campus I attended. In a violent demonstration, they barged into the classroom I was taking a course in. As most students ran for their lives from the room, I somehow remained inside. The radicals began shouting verbal abuse at me, as I sat there shocked.

A female colleague of mine grabbed my hand out of nowhere and probably saved my life. She dragged me out of the classroom before I was physically attacked. That moment had a deep and everlasting impact on me as a person and my relationship with my family. I no longer saw Tunisia’s bedrock liberal values as safe. My society and culture was being taken over by a dangerous ideology, slowly but surely.

The following year I went to France against my father’s wishes. My father was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to survive without any help in an alien country and environment. I am happy to say that I proved him wrong and pleasantly surprised him. I completed my Master’s degree in Science and pursued self-defense courses in Karate. I was armed with a higher education, the ability to defend myself, and most importantly determination.

Along the way, I started teaching French as a second language and met my future husband. My father initially opposed my marriage to a non-Muslim French guy, but the perseverance of my mother tricked my father into talking to me again. My mother’s love for both me and my father showed up that any gap of differences can be bridged with love and tolerance.

While I was teaching French as a second language in France as well as Karate, my dream of coming to the United States finally came true. Ever since I was in my teen, I was fascinated by the western side of the Atlantic, particularly the United States. Chicago Public Schools were looking for teachers from all over the world and I applied. I was accepted with open arms in the Windy City. I finally realized that United States was truly the country that practiced what it preached. The people of this country has done an amazing job of sticking to their core values. I never encountered any rejection in Chicago, except curious children asking questions about my origin and my background.

Speaking from a personal standpoint, my multicultural background of being both Tunisian and French is an asset. I never let it become an obstacle as I was ready to challenge preconceived notion through my unique identity and free-thinking. My story is about being a world-rounded person. The environment in which I grew up and the education I received have everything do with it. Love is really a path for tolerance and accepting differences. As a committed iconoclast, I firmly believe that limiting education of young minds and forcing a limited perspective on them does harm and limits their potential to be free.