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An Open Letter to Mohamed Bouazizi

Dear Brother:

I write these few lines to let you know we’re doing well, on the whole, though it varies from day to day: sometimes the wind changes, it rains lead, life bleeds from every pore. To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure where we stand; when you’re up to your neck in war, you can’t tell till the end whether to celebrate or mourn. And there it is, the crucial question: whether to follow or precede the others. The consequences aren’t the same. Some victories can fall short, while some defeats are the beginnings of truly great victories. In this game where death always takes you by surprise, there is the time before and the time after, but only one extraordinarily fleeting moment to make up your mind.

Look at those poor Yemenites, who rejoiced when their miserable Saleh was carted away on a stretcher. They said to themselves: he is dead, now we shall live at last. But the monster came back to life, mad with rage, and he will be without pity. The Westerners hesitate to let him go. There’s no relief in sight, only caciques on the lookout, jihadists lying in wait, and tribes armed to the teeth: you can’t make a democracy with that. Same thing elsewhere: people don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Gadhafi drives humanity to despair, refusing to die; Boutef drives God to despair, refusing to speak his final prayer; and what to say about Assad, he drives Death to despair, killing faster than it does. How long it is, this Arab spring, and how uncertain its days.

I won’t say anything about Tunisia, dear Mohamed; you’re the last person I want to offend. But you know, that’s how the caciques in your country are, indefatigable, clever as chimpanzees, unctuous as insurance agents, giving with one hand what they take away with the other. They get it from the Phoenicians, who were so devious and grasping one wonders how they ever disappeared, if they ever really did. Bourguiba the great shofet was all smiles and smooth manners; he undressed people with his charm. In truth, he only gave them what was theirs already. Women having rights—what could be more natural? That’s what he succeeded in doing, giving Tunisian women what they’d gotten already, from God and from themselves: beauty, intelligence, freedom. In Tunisia, they say, “Bourguiba gave us,” but this is an error, and from such errors dictatorships are born. What someone gives you, another can take back. Bourguiba was in power for thirty years, as long as Mubarak and Saleh, and it was his creature Ben Ali who succeeded him. It’s time to open our eyes: there is no freedom but that we give ourselves. If Ben Ali’s successor promises freedom and democracy, we must drive him out; he is a dictator. The Tunisians have better things to do, don’t they, than explain to him that they’ve given themselves freedom and democracy, and expect from him sound management of the country’s budget, the rest is none of his business. So: no speeches, no religion, no quavering voices, no acts—none of it! And watch out for famous men; they are thieves of revolutions.

The other bandits in the brotherhood—the Bouteflikas, the Mubaraks, the Ben Alis, the Assads and their gang—have tried hard to imitate Bourguiba, but despite him revert quickly to their true natures: murder, torture, robbery.

Jesus once said something like: he who makes the wine is not he who drinks it. You, Mohamed, brave and noble son of Sidi Bouzid: you delivered the spark, your task is done, the task is ours now to finish. Cross my heart and hope to die, we’ll finish it; our children will live in the peace we have made for them.

But let’s take the long view for a moment. Can he who does not know where to go find the way? Is driving the dictator out the end? From where you are, Mohamed, next to God, you can tell that not all roads lead to Rome; ousting a tyrant doesn’t lead to freedom. Prisoners like trading one prison for another, for a change of scenery and the chance to gain a little something along the way. And that, you see, is where I fear for our revolutionaries. They lack perspective. In ‘88-‘89, we drove the dictator Chadli, not the worst bandit ever, from Algeria, and what did we do right after that? Threw ourselves into the arms of Islamists, abandoned ourselves wholly to trabendo, that carcinogenic trade in contraband, and, as little streams feed great rivers, we made ourselves black marketers on a global scale. Did we stop there? No, not at all, we deserted our children, they became fish food or were lost in the cesspits of illegal immigration, with the promise of a short, barren life. And, quite proud of ourselves, we grew thick as thieves with Bouteflika, the worst bandit on earth.

Dear Mohamed, if you can come back, tell them you didn’t set yourself on fire for this, tell them you wanted the dictatorship and its shadows, all its shadows, the straitjackets of clannishness and nepotism, the racism of the State and anti-Semitism as the only way of looking at the world, Islamism or exile as the only hopes—that you wanted all these fatal things swept from our path to make way for a life that is clean, peaceful, warm, and friendly.

Dear Mohamed, dear hero, it is not given to one person to light the fire and make the soup, but it is just that all should dip their bread in it. We must free ourselves of our evils, but also care for the petty, the deranged, the mad imams, the traffickers. Lest we replace an ignorant, corrupt elite with a jargon-ridden elite every bit as profiteering, living mainly in the West where the local democracy accepts them with difficulty, for such is democracy: it recognizes only its own, those who have fought for it. I feel like that’s how things happen in the Arab world, which is trying to wake from several centuries of daydreams and despotism, but it’s true that in the smoke and tumult of suppressions, it’s hard to tell truth from falsehood. Urgency is imperious, and keeps us from seeing very far.

That’s what I wanted to say to you, dear Mohamed. If you could show yourself and enlighten us, it would be nice—from up there you know the future of the world.

Boualem Sansal
Algiers, Spring 2011

Translation of "A Mohamed Bouazizi." First published in Le Monde, June 15, 2011. Copyright Boualem Sansal. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.