Jnifen says she remains committed to fighting negative stereotypes about Muslims but laments that progress has been slow. In Italy, she still finds herself patiently explaining that not all Arabs are terrorists, any more than all Italians are Mafiosi. “Sometimes there’s not much you can do,” she says. “If people are prejudiced, I’ll ask them, ‘Have you ever been to an Arab country?’ No. ‘Have you ever read any Arabic literature?’ No. ‘Do you know about Islamic art?’ No. ‘Do you have Arabic friends?’ No. ‘Okay, so where do you get your ideas about Arabs from?’ And they’ll say, ‘Television.’ So I am sad for them. Maybe I will never change their point of view, but I try.” An Italian citizen since 1992, Jnifen says she’s been offered roles within several government parties but doesn’t find the country’s current political landscape very inviting. “So I’m watching,” she says.
Over lunch at L’Avenue in Paris, as a veritable conga line of bejeweled and well-groomed ladies—designer Elie Saab’s wife, Claudine; a Qatari princess; actress Michelle Yeoh—stop by the table to exchange air kisses and chitchat in French, English, Arabic, and Italian, Jnifen tells me of a recent battle that resulted in a particularly sweet victory. Late in 2010, shortly before the revolt began in Tunisia, she got word that her vacation house near Tunis—which is next door to one of Ben Ali’s homes in the exclusive suburb of Sidi Bou Saïd—was being confiscated by the government at the behest of one of the president’s brothers-in-law. (House seizures carried out under false charges of malfeasance validated by corrupt judges were common during the dictatorship.) Jnifen hired lawyers, fought back, and after a few months, won the case. In the meantime, Ben Ali fled the country to hide out in Saudi Arabia. In June, Tunisia’s new regime sentenced him in absentia to 35 years in jail, making it unlikely that he’ll ever again be spotted in Jnifen’s neighborhood.
And whatever happens with Tunisia’s fledgling democracy—Jnifen wasn’t thrilled to see the Islamist Ennahda party come out ahead in October’s election—she’s ecstatic that Tunisians no longer need to leave the country to have the freedom to make choices about their future. “Nowadays when I go to Tunisia,” she says, “I’m smiling the entire time.”