“A young man has set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid,” B. told me one morning over coffee last December. He could not find a job and the police would not even let him be a fruit vendor. We still did not know his name. B. then spoke of the brutal repression against shocked demonstrators determined to voice their solidarity in the streets. “I don’t think I will ever see democracy in Tunisia in my lifetime,” he added. A sentence he has repeated many times over the years. Mohamed Bouazizi did not survive long enough to see the change he unwittingly started when in despair he chose to die in excruciating pain.
“I don’t think I will ever see democracy . . . ” Years of silence and frustration. Habits so deeply ingrained that you forget exactly when they became part of yourself. As if they were second nature. Like: “No, I definitely can’t take this book or this magazine with me when we go.” Or even in Paris, a writer suddenly whispering to me before a presentation: “Look, there’s someone from the embassy sitting over there. Be sure not to ask me any tricky questions.” He had seemed so relaxed just a few minutes before.
We had been years without going back . . . When did this happen? Maybe on our second visit, after an absence that could almost count as a lifetime. Or was it the third? I am not sure . . . Only the memory remains, still vivid today. We were going back to Paris and had just checked in at Carthage airport. B. casually showed his passport and plane ticket to the sullen-looking officer. We turned pale when he vanished with both documents, bluntly ordering B. to wait on the side. Time went by, as all the other passengers sailed through. I heard the final call for our flight as reports of confiscated passports and people not being allowed out of the country wildly ran through my mind. What should I do if they decided not to allow him out for some obscure reason, even if we had already been living in Paris for what was almost a lifetime? At the very last minute, the man appeared again, handed B. his passport and ticket without a word. I now had a very faint idea of what it felt like when you are not in a democracy.
Six weeks ago, a twenty-six-year-old man, who had been denied any prospect of work and held no hope of migrating to some distant haven of milk and honey, set himself afire, to die a few days later. He was not living in a democracy and what he felt hardly mattered to all the officials in the provincial town where so many were unemployed and struggling to survive. He never saw democracy in his lifetime, although his death undeniably marked its eve in the country.
January 2010, a year ago . . .
B. and I are in Tunisia, visiting the family in the small town where he grew up. Thirty miles away from Tunis and surrounded by orange groves, Beni Khalled is more privileged than Sidi Bouzid. And yet many young women working in local factories have just been laid off. Recession, like everywhere else, but undoubtedly far worse when you are not living in a democracy . . . Clouds flurrying across the sky. Pools of rainwater on rutted paths lined by dusty prickly pears. Greens of all possible shades everywhere. In January, the countryside throbs with thousands of new lives emerging, seen and yet to be seen. Lonely shepherds in their dark kachabias, keeping an eye on newborn lambs and kids wobbling on their legs. Hoopoes calling among the trees.Scores of children, the girls wearing pink, the boys in blue, cheerfully walking to their isolated country schools, undeterred by the mud and the rain. Elderly men sitting at the two main cafés, quietly stirring the spoons in their coffee glasses. Not a seat free at the Internet café, where local high-school students are busily looking for information, sharing remarks, glued to the screens, eagerly taking notes.
The gate squeaks at seven am, when Faïza arrives, after traveling three miles from a small hamlet to get to work. A lean and supple figure, she has swept and cleaned the tiled floors all over the house in no time, impervious to the cold or the drafts that send me shivering to the kitchen by the gas stove. I see her rinse out the floor cloth, hang it to dry outside in the patio, after she has emptied her plastic pail and put it away. Faïza’s husband has been unemployed for so long . . . At home they depend on her for a living. She lost her job at the factory when the German owner closed down. Faïza is strong-willed and quickly seized whatever she could.
Her daughter, a student at one of the local high schools, sits at a corner of the kitchen table busy doing her Italian homework, indifferent to the bustle around her. Her hands are neatly poised as she writes silently. When she puts her books away in her bag and looks up, I ask her about her favorite subjects. She has her mother’s beautiful intent eyes. She says she is so keen on languages. That’s why she is taking French, as well as English and Italian. She shyly adds that her dream is to become a journalist one day.
Faïza’s daughter has gone back to school, hurrying to be in time for her next class. I finish setting the table, while M. turns off the gas. Faïza sits down on the wooden bench and picks up the newspaper beside her, soon engrossed in her reading, as M. and I go on quietly chatting.
We visit Amira’s parents in the afternoon. A. is a schoolmaster. Although she hardly went to school, his wife Z. is an energetic, enterprising person. They both did their best to make sure their children received an education, whatever the costs and sacrifices. Amira sits with lowered eyes, nervously fiddling with the sleeves of her pullover. She is their eldest daughter, born in Yemen, where A. spent a few years teaching and putting money aside to have a house built on their return to Tunisia. Amira graduated in economics three years ago but is still unemployed. Her parents do not have the connections you need to get a job. Having a degree is not enough, when no one will pull the strings for you.
I speak to M. on the phone every night, as events move on at an incredible pace. All this is almost literally incredible. It can be heard through every word we utter, on both sides of the line. Cautious, we had always been so cautious about everything we said. We would think up metaphors, make innuendoes, nimbly avoiding dangerous topics. Then by the middle of what is to be the regime’s final week, our tongues strangely loosen, as if we were already aware that all this is about to end, that the autocrat and his gang are almost finished.
On Thursday, Joujou posts an anguished message on Facebook saying she doesn’t dare drive home from her office, in a seaside resort. The police are shooting. “I am afraid,” she says. “Hold on, Joujou, don’t panic. You are in our thoughts,” I helplessly reply. The same evening, I read on Facebook that the police shot L.’s cousin in cold blood as he was going home from work.
Twenty-four hours later, the autocrat leaves the country and a new era begins. Voices, voices everywhere . . . They had been unheard for so long. Caravans of people marching on the capital from remote parts of the country to make themselves heard as a new government is being set up. Hundreds camping on the Kasbah in Tunis dreaming up a new world where they are the actors of their own lives. The public speaking for hours, round the clock, on the radio stations. Freedom is one huge wave sweeping across the country.
In Beni Khalled, people stormed to the local informer’s house and screamed their long pent-up anger, although he has been dead for several months. The dull, unattractive man had married into a rich family and joined the party, the president’s one, which regularly ensured Ben Ali was re-elected with over 90 % of the votes . . . He would dutifully send his weekly reports on the activities of his fellow citizens. It is said that he had been assigned a special line to reach the top members whenever he deemed it necessary.
We cannot wait to go back. In February, the sky is suffused with a radiant light. I think of Faïza’s expectant look as she leafed through the paper a year ago. I remember her daughter’s pensive eyes, as she told me about her secret dream. I see Amira’s dark eyes staring at the sleeves of her pullover. The local Internet café must be buzzing as ever with new ideas, new perspectives. Or maybe the young have moved to other territories to discuss and build their future . . .