TUNIS—Walid Al-Zaidi’s path in his education and career makes him a model of success in a region where people with disabilities face a great deal of discrimination.
Al-Zaidi, now 34, lost his eyesight at a young age. Despite the challenges, he obtained a doctorate in rhetoric, has worked as a university professor and, for a brief time this year, was the Minister of Culture in Tunisia, before returning to his academic position.
“Ideas that changed the world were those produced by the mind rather than the senses,” he says. His goal as minister, he said at the time of his appointment, was to make art and culture accessible to everyone.
“My project is basically to deliver culture to the underdogs, to the forgotten, to deliver culture to children who are born in remote areas, and who face obstacles to get exposed to culture,” Al-Zaidi said in a statement. “My bet is that the citizen produces culture, regardless of his/her age or class.”
There are no official statistics on the number of students with special needs in Tunisia’s public universities. However, the Disabled Tunisians website estimates the disabled population at 208,000, of whom 46 percent have a physical disability, 27 percent have a mental disability, 12 percent are deaf, 11 percent are blind, and 4 percent are people with multiple disabilities. Although Tunisian law states the state must protect the handicapped, most people with disabilities suffer from marginalization and exclusion, with an unemployment rate of about 60 percent.
The poor situation of students with disabilities in Tunisia reflects the difficulties of thousands of their counterparts in other Arab countries. (See the related articles “Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities” and “The Blind Side of Arab Education: Disabled Students.”)
“I do not allow blindness to stop my ambition and my passion for exploration and enjoyment of life.”
Al-Zaidi works on research in rhetorical sciences and the psychology of disability. He also produces radio programs on thought and literature on Radio Tunisie Culture and ElKef Radio. Al-Zaidi also enjoys playing the lute, singing and writing poetry.
“I do not allow blindness to stop my ambition and my passion for exploration and enjoyment of life,” he says.
A Drive to Succeed
Al-Zaidi’s personality is characterized by ambition, will, and determination. Born in 1986 in Tajerouine, in El-Kef governorate in northwestern Tunisia, Al-Zaidi contracted a rare kind of eye cancer in 1988, which made him lose his eyesight when he was 2 years old and before he adequately knew his surroundings. Nevertheless, Al-Zaidi excelled in his studies from his early school years right up to his doctoral studies. In his early years, he studied in special schools for the blind. But he enrolled in regular universities without any special means of teaching the blind.
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He was able to study with the help of family members and university colleagues. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Manouba under the supervision of the novelist Shukri Mabkhout. After graduation, he has worked as an attaché professor of translation and rhetoric at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities and as a researcher specializing in rhetorical science.
“I never treated him as a blind person or a person with a disability, but just like any other student,” said Mabkhout. “His ability to study and conduct research is first linked to reason and thought, and then persistence and seriousness, and all of them were characteristics Al-Zaidi really possesses.”
Of course, Al-Zaidi’s experience as a researcher was not without difficulties. Perhaps the simplest of those were related to reading original references, as university libraries usually lack references accessible to people with visual impairment. (See a related article, “A Tunisian Scientist Invents Navigation Aid for the Blind.”)
“I sought help from my younger sister, who used to read what I asked of her from her references in English, I am very grateful to her and also grateful for my father’s support.”
“I sought help from my younger sister, who used to read what I asked of her from her references in English,” he said, “I am very grateful to her and also grateful for my father’s support.” He explained that he was “obsessed with the idea of success since childhood because I was keen to make them proud of me.”
A Month-Long Stint as a Minister
After being the first blind professor to teach at a Tunisian university, Al-Zaidi became the first blind minister in the Tunisian government and the second blind minister in the Arab world after the Nobel laureate novelist Taha Hussein, who held the position of Minister of Education in Egypt in 1950.
Al-Zaidi’s appointment did not last for more than a month, however. He was removed from office after he refused to immediately close cultural events, contradicting the government’s directions regarding stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In any case, his appointment was controversial. Many believed that his appointment was a message of encouragement for all persons with disabilities, while others believed that the position was not suitable for Al-Zaidi’s condition and that he did not have enough experience in political and administrative work to take on the position.
Today, Al-Zaidi aspires to prepare strategic research for the future of culture in Tunisia, and he is seeking to join the Tunisian Institute for Prospective Studies, affiliated with the Presidency of the Republic, to start research on the advancement of culture in Tunisia.
In addition to resuming his work as a university professor, Al-Zaidi expresses a desire to research music and its role in building bridges between people despite cultural differences. He is also working on a book related to “blindness and language” and how one can visualize what one does not see.
Al-Zaidi is a role model for many students in Tunisia, even if they do not have a disability. “When I compare myself to him, I find no justification for failing to study,” said Wissal Al-Barakati, a first-year university student at the Faculty of Sciences of Bizerte, part of the University of Carthage. “Dr. Walid is a fundamental motivator for me and has taught me to make the impossible possible.”
Al-Zaidi believes that will is the basis of success, although a supportive environment is essential to achieving it.
“Through you, I address all students with disabilities in Tunisia and the Arab region, that there is nothing impossible. Everything is possible with diligence and perseverance,” he said in an interview. “Do not give up! Look around for those who support you and do not let physical disability hinder your thoughts and dreams.”