Days are wrapped up in the cold darkness long after sunrise. I fumble around in the kitchen to get myself a cup of tea, as B. listens to the news. A young street-vendor has set himself afire in a remote underprivileged part of Tunisia because the police would not let him sell his fruit. Hundreds of protestors are now taking to the streets. They will be crushed in a matter of days, we know… The brutal repression that followed the 2008 revolt in the mining area of Gafsa is at the back of our minds. We still dare not imagine that the impossible could come true. For years, B. has kept telling me: ‘I don’t think I will see democracy in Tunisia or any other Arab country in my lifetime.’
As time goes by, protests spread irresistibly to the coastal regions and the capital. Our hearts are in our mouths. The regime has set out to quash the protesters and the count of the dead keeps rising as security forces shoot indiscriminately. They shoot them as they walk out into the streets. They shoot them just because they are in the street, no matter if they are just going to work. They even shoot them as they walk to the cemetery to bury their dead. In some places, hospitals cannot cope with the number of casualties. Hospital staff members break down, so unprepared and horrified are they.
Everywhere TVs, radios and computers are now on almost day and night, eclipsing any other interests. Facebook pages, videos on mobile phones, Twitter messages capture our whole attention. More than ever before, I realise that new technologies have introduced different approaches to events, new ways of perceiving them, of experiencing them. They have turned us into first-hand witnesses. They have given us new responsibilities. I had not used Facebook much before the Tunisian Revolution, but I start doing so now, to follow what is going on as closely as possible. At the same time, I notice established newspapers are posting on their sites the messages, the videos they receive, thus acknowledging that protesters are also becoming the reporters and journalists of what we still daren’t call a Revolution.
12 January 2011
Around noon, one of my Facebook friends posts on my wall: ‘I don’t know how I am going to get home for lunch. They are gunning down people in the streets. I am afraid….’ Comfortably seated in Paris, I read her message, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. It takes me a few minutes before I can type one or two lines of support. ‘Hold on, we are all thinking of you!’ This is so little and there is so much I would like to be able to tell her, to do, to help. Several hours later, in the evening, I read on Facebook that another of my friends has directly experienced the cruelty of the regime. Her cousin was shot dead in cold blood as he walked home from the hotel where he worked as a receptionist. He was married, with young children.
13 January 2011
If only we could bridge distances. If only it were just a matter of smashing the computer screen. If this could be enough to give flesh to your voices… We have been talking to you on the phone almost every night since December. So much emotion as events seem be moving at an ever faster pace… As always, we have been very careful not to speak openly. We never mention the protests, we only ask about the weather, the cold, the rain, anything plausibly unrelated to what we are all concerned about, even in our sleep. For decades, restraint had become a second nature for us, and on either side of our conversations. We had all become experts at using coded references.
Tonight we speak, you speak about the country erupting in massive protests, the people who have been brutally killed. As openly as if we were sitting in the same room… For the first time in ages… As if we already knew what was about to happen. Or had we perhaps suddenly got beyond the point of caring, of feeling frightened? Could we possibly know that it was now a matter of hours before the regime fell?
The dictator starts delivering his last speech. Fahimtkum… I have understood you. Yezzi min el kartouch… Enough violence, he drawls. Hardly has he finished when dozens of cars filled with members of his clique start parading and honking down the capital’s main avenue to express their support.
14 January 2011
We sit down in front of our TV and computer screens, both overcome by a sense of expectancy and paralysed by the prospect of more violence against the people. Protests have been scheduled opposite the Ministry of Interior, a place of sinister memory. This is where opponents of the regime were detained and tortured. Crowds of demonstrators have gathered on Tunis’s main avenue opposite the building. Women and men of all ages, all walks of life, calm, determined. I skip from one media site to another, trying to keep track of the messages and videos posted by demonstrators and journalists. It is difficult to form an accurate idea of what is happening. As the afternoon goes by, tension rises to a climax. Streets are now empty because of the curfew. Journalists say an important government statement is about to be made. The army has taken hold of the airport. No plane can take off or land. Horrendous visions run through my mind. More killing… Martial law… Anything but what is finally announced by the Prime Minister. Ben Ali has left the country.
End of January 2011
The man briskly walks away, holding Le Canard enchaîné under his arm. He has just purchased a copy of the French satirical paper at a newsstand on Tunis’s main avenue. He is beaming with joy and willingly stops to answer the journalist’s questions about the Tunisian Revolution.
‘I have never been able to buy Le Canard enchaîné in Tunis before; this is the first time, he exclaims. Can you imagine?’
His voice breaks.
‘You are crying, sir,’ observes the journalist.
‘Yes, I am crying,’ the man replies, moved beyond words by such a significant, palpable sign of change in his everyday life.
People now line up at newsstands, as determined as if they were buying bread, eager to read what they were denied for decades.
Not so long ago, only weeks back, some papers just were not available.
‘No copies of Le Monde today.’
We all knew what it meant. We all knew better than to ask what it meant. A look or a faint smile was the only way we could share what it meant.
The Tunisian satirical paper El Gattous, the cat, was still to be born. In August 2011.
20 February 2011
The landscape at the window fades into icy greyness. I barely give it a glance. It is two months since the difference between day and night has vanished, replaced by one long wake. Nothing matters but all the people gathering by tens of thousands, hour by hour, here, there. Voices chanting the same words, fearless, relentless… It was like a mantra, my poet friend in Tunis will tell me, months later. Faces and voices that belied certainties and defeats, instilling in the world the unheard-of, the undreamt-of…. After Tunisia, Egypt, and last week, Libya…
The man’s voice on the internet sounds very close. His anxiety seems to pour into the room. It splashes around the carpet before it takes hold of me. A massacre is taking place in Benghazi. A massacre… Worse than anything you can imagine… Bombs, not bullets… Anti-aircraft weapons against civilians… Please forward my message. The whole world must be informed of what is going on in Libya, in Benghazi. In other cities, like Misrata, they are demonstrating. A faceless, nameless voice… Pain’s burning lava…
I still haven’t met Najat, a resident of Misrata; I will meet her in September, in a Tunis clinic, where war casualties are treated. I don’t know what Najat is doing on Sunday, 20th February 2011. I am only aware that protests are going on in Misrata. Is her fifteen-year-old son in the street too, with the four members of her family who will die, arms in hand, between February and September? So many unknown faces… They crowd here, there. I stare at them. I listen to them. I hear the faceless voice. It breaks. Breaks the glass between people. Breaks what separates them. Then the wave rushes in.
21 February 2011
At the Fontaine des Innocents Square, a light rain is falling from the sooty sky… About a hundred people have gathered, holding up flags and photos of bodies torn to pieces. The night lights of the city keep dancing on the protesters and their banners. One of the rally organizers takes the floor. Anonymous, we know you are here tonight and we thank you for your support. I look around. Where is ‘Anonymous’? Are they wearing the Guy Fawkes mask that has become their emblem for the occasion? But this would be an immediate identifying feature and then they would no longer be anonymous. There’s no better way to remain unknown than to merge into the crowd without a mask. Already last January, they were noted for siding with the Tunisians through their cyber attacks on the former government.
A few steps from me, a young man slips his mobile phone into his pocket. His shoulders fall and he breaks into tears, sitting on the pavement. His head tilted forward in the darkness, he starts sobbing uncontrollably. A phone call from home in Libya someone says next to me, before a circle forms around him.
Dam echchouhada ma yemchich ila lhiba.
The blood of the martyrs will not be poured in vain.
The clamour rises again and again. Like a roaring sea… Waves crashing on the sand burn our eyes and blur our vision. Words, names all seem to melt into one big scream.
Wahid. Wahid. Min el Maghreb ilal Bahrein.
United. United. From the Maghreb to Bahrain…
Eyes search for each other in the darkness. They shine with the emotion shared in the syllables chanted in unison. Moments ago, we were perfect strangers.
19 March 2011
The November 7 Boulevard, a formerly omnipresent tribute to the dictator’s coup in 1987, has been renamed Mohammed Bouazizi Boulevard. In other places, it has become Revolution Boulevard and leads to territories left unchartered for decades. They only existed on the forbidden world maps of secret dreams. The walls of every town and village have become the pages of a book thousands of anonymous hands are now writing passionately. Power to the people… We want a free press… Bread and water, yes, Ben Ali, no… Where there is a will, there is a way… Hasta la victoria siempre! Liberta! New words ring out everywhere; they suffuse the landscapes, transform perspectives, as far as the eye can see. What are the shepherds thinking of, as they quietly wait by their sheep or their goats, on grassy hillocks? What new world is the fisherman searching for, as he unfolds his nets on the wooden jetty that creaks and sways in the wind? What chords is the barber-musician playing on his lute in his empty shop? The jeweller, scared by a time of uncertainty, has put away all his necklaces, bracelets and earrings; the model’s busts at his window all sit bare, not far from a building torched because its owner was a qawwed, one of Ben Ali’s informers and supporters. At the optician’s, not a single customer will fail to give his opinion to the lady who still does not know which glasses frame suits her best. Does it look better with or without rhinestones? What she will choose has become everyone else’s business.
Mustapha, you show us a house in the middle of an orange grove. Its shattered windows have turned it into a contorted face, its large empty eyes staring at us from among the trees. A gift from the dictator to one of his courtiers… You tell us about the parties they would have at weekends with people from the palace as their regular guests. The owner treated his farm hands brutally. Armed at all hours… Any of them that showed the least sign of resistance, was promptly taken to the police station to be beaten up all night and fired the next morning. How angry the people were with him, with the police commissioner, when the regime fell… I notice the impish look on your face, after too much suppressed resentment, when you mention the police commissioner running away through a back door under the protection of huntsmen with their rifles. You describe his wife’s underwear stolen from the terrace and hung out at the police station’s door for the crowd to see.
We drive through Bou Charray, where Slim Chiboub, one of the dictator’s son-in-laws, had a stud farm. You tell us stories of racehorses fed on pistachios and honey. Imagine, pistachios and honey… Of course, they would not eat the hay the horse thieves gave them. Very soon they had to let go of their booty and leave them by the side of the road, rumours say. What else could they have fed them?
13 March 2011
A dull flapping sound rises in the early morning, louder as it draws near. The helicopter rotors hiss above the street, above our houses; their heavy chop fills the air. The wings of a huge brown insect hovering over the ground beneath… ‘What is this?’ I ask you. Nothing. It’s just the army. They come and patrol from time to time. Looking for members of the former militias, escaped prisoners, still at large. Papers have widely published a call from the Ministry of Justice urging common-law detainees to report to authorities and regularise their situation.
The chairs at the café down the street squeak on the tiling. Squeezed in your parkas, you sit down to have an espresso or a café crème. Cups clatter and spoons clank for a while. This has become your debating club. We are now free to say whatever we want at the café or at our friends’. No one will tell the police. Today you are concerned about the Libyan Revolution. What if it failed, while everyone is so busy talking at the Arab League and in the West, with still no prospect of any agreement? The tyrant’s victory would be horrendous for the Libyans. It would also be a threat to the Tunisians. The question of the transitory committee that will replace the city council and the mayor comes up. Then the conversation shifts, driven by the passion and exhilaration of change. The physician who was trained in the former USSR reads out a Latin quotation. Homo locum ornat, non hominem locus. It’s not the place that makes the people, but the people who make the place.You write the sentence down for me on a page of your notebook. The freshness of March has made your cheeks rosy and your eyes are shining when you proudly present it to me. A beautiful comment on the citizen’s role in his country… And you go on, saying that there are no longer any subjects here. They have become full and equal citizens. Concerned and involved in all city affairs.
14 March 2011
Soumaya, there is a tremor in your voice when you remember the fifteen nights your husband and your son spent watching at the end of the street with the neighbourhood committee. The dictator’s militias terrorized everyone all over the country in the aftermath of 14 January. A young man was shot dead as the neighbourhood watch stopped what turned out to be a false ambulance with three men of the former regime hiding inside. You knew about such stories. You had heard them. At regular intervals, you would brew some tea and take it to the watchmen. The black marks of the fires they lit to fight the cold and the fear are still visible on the asphalt.
You hold out the history book your ten-year-old pupils have been using. Indignant, you leaf through it, pointing out what must now be rewritten, all these chapters with no other aim than to celebrate the former regime. Now we have the right to say no! Your eyes light up as the prospect of boundless horizons to explore makes you dizzy. You tell me how happy you feel when you read “Freedom”, Éluard’s poem, with your pupils. I was born / To give you your name / Freedom….
On television, the nurse in the Tunisian spot writes 14 January 2011 with a pen on the plastic bracelet she slips around the tiny leg of a newborn baby. I have opened my eyes in a world where human beings have won their freedom through the sheer power of words, says a voiceover. She takes the child in her arms, swaddled in a blanket, carries it all the way to its mother, through corridors where women and men, young and old, are seated along benches, waiting. The multiple faces of a new Tunisia… This world I had not imagined, where we would all share the same hopes, where the student would thirst for knowledge, where the patient would give his blood, where justice would exist. On the TV news, gone is the time when the dictator’s actions of the day were recounted with solemn music in the background. The refugees from Libya are flooding into the camps that have been set up in the south of the country. People are demonstrating. People are speaking, expressing themselves. Everyday, ordinary citizens…
15 March 2011
Jihen, you come from the suburbs of Tunis to visit us. You tell me how you stayed on your own with your little girls when the airport closed. It was impossible for H. to come back or for you to leave and join him in Algiers. The ceaseless sound of helicopters and the thick clouds of teargas…. Through the shutters, you could see figures running, jumping from one terrace onto another. You and the girls slept in the same bed, your heart in your mouth. They could not wait for the curfew. Only then did the street become silent. You explain that you had stored food so that you would not have to go out, except once when you had to get medication to soothe Y’s sore throat. It was one of your neighbours who helped you. How frustrated you were not to go and demonstrate on Bourguiba Avenue! Who would have looked after your daughters?
You take us to a seaside resort, enjoying what is your first outing in weeks. People are still reluctant to go out for walks or drive after sunset. There are rumours of cars held up for a necklace or a handbag, former RCD members or militias in hiding in the countryside and false roadblocks. At the table beside us, four young men, two young girls, their heads covered with grey cotton… Are they brothers and sisters? Or cousins? They obviously belong to the same family. Libyans who have come by car… If I were a Libyan mother, I would do everything I could to protect my children from the madness of the tyrant. It is 1500 kilometres from Tripoli to where we are, with the border crossing point in Ras El Jedir, where thousands of migrant workers are fleeing the violence in Libya, unsure how they will be able to go back to their countries.
Inscriptions are visible everywhere on the walls, on the doors of some villas. Honour to our brave martyrs… The truth has come out and injustice has been defeated… Home returned to its owners… Slim Chiboub, the stud farm owner whose racehorses were fed on pistachios and honey, also owned a luxurious villa here.
16 March 2011
Nabeul… I search the streets for traces of winter, eager to decipher on the façades the narrative of what we did not see, because we were still on the other side of the Mediterranean. The post-office has burned down. The doors to the bank have been hastily boarded up. The smashed Monoprix windows have been walled with bricks. A schoolboy is walking along the street, down to a bookshop and stationer, perhaps looking for new copybooks in which to write history in the making. At the entrance to the medina, I stumble upon the dark line of eyes staring from a street café. Images of sharp glass… Did they take part? And what scenes still haunt them as they sit in the afternoon sun? The murmurs of the city encircle me, a wall where I still hope to make out the recent past.
How many steps till we can bridge the gap with the days when we were not here? From the soles of our shoes on the pavement ring all kinds of echoes. They rise in the street all around us.
Is it on the same day? Saif el Islam Qadhafi vowing to a crowd of supporters waving green Jamahariya flags that the Libyan rebellion will be quashed in no time… Forty-eight hours at most. ‘Libya is not a piece of cake and we are not Mickey Mouse.’ His father murderously yelling that the whole Mediterranean has become a war-zone and that no place in the area is off limits for him…
17 March 2011
We are driving towards El Haouaria, at the far north of Cap Bon. As in other towns and even the smallest of villages, walls only speak about the Revolution. Power to the people! RCD get out! The charred ruins of the local office of the RCD party and the police station are a testament to the crowd’s anger. Military vehicles are patrolling on the coastal road.
The purity of the sky will not alleviate the anxiety weighing on us. Over there, east from where we are, another massacre is about to take place, in Benghazi. The anxiety flows in our veins like molten metal. At the restaurant, all eyes at all tables are riveted to the news on al-Jazeera. Conversations have stopped.
Hours go by as we drive along green hillocks and olive groves. I obstinately look east, as if towards a door I cannot wait to see open. At the café in Kelibia, lovers are whispering, not far from where we sit. How can one admire the beauty of the sea or think of romance when the worst has already started a few hundred miles from here? Tonight twilight only conjures up visions of death and deluges of fire devastating the population. B. arrives, rushing up the stairs after a conversation with the waiter who has been watching TV. He has just heard that a resolution may be voted on tonight. Against all expectations… He pauses for breath. The flow of unknown faces over there in the besieged city suddenly seem to be bathed in light. The worst could still be avoided.
20 March 2011
The sky looks like freshly washed clothes hung out to dry on the terrace. Khadija stands at the sink, a tall slim figure in her bronze velvet dress. She tells me about her daughters. She explains how she would go and wait for them every evening outside the factory gates. She did not want them to go to the demonstrations. ‘They are all I have…. I was too scared they would be killed.’ Her husband works as a night watchman. She remembers how she would block her door during the night and sleep with a knife under her pillow and a long stick beside her. Just in case.
She adjusts her beige headscarf with a wrinkled hand. A twinkle comes to her eyes. ‘Erhal kulhum!’ she exclaims. Let them all get out! She bursts out laughing. There is not the faintest shadow of a cloud in the pure morning azure.
19 April 2011
A solidarity rally at the Trocadéro Human Rights Plaza… A young Syrian holds out a flag for me to carry.
Zenga zenga dar dar erhal erhal ya Bashaar!
Alley to alley, house to house – in mockery of one of Qadhafi’s speeches – get out, get out Bashaar!
Slogans burst forth with the jubilation born of hope. They ring high up in the spring sky; they reverberate against the Palais de Chaillot façade in rhythmical echoes. The sunshine floods into the sea of flags where the TNC colours blend in as the crowd makes way to welcome the Libyan rally.
Echchaâb yurid isqat ennidhâm!
The people want the fall of the regime.
The same slogans ring from Tunis to Cairo, from Benghazi to Damascus and Sanaa. With a difference of one word or two… The wave is breaking, irresistible. No matter the price to pay.
La Goulette, north of Tunis
After dark, the main street is aglow with lights and the decorative chains hanging from the terraces of the numerous popular eateries, fish restaurants and ice cream parlours. September is a hot month. Tunisians call this period quweïl errumman, the pomegranate siestas. Then the heat typically comes back with a vengeance, just when the fruit is ripe enough to be picked. Whole families, husbands and wives rolling buggies or holding their toddlers by the hand, strolling up and down, young men hanging out together, are all enjoying the festive atmosphere. After the months when unprecedented events began to unfold, they are going out to take in the new scenes of their lives, to keep track of the prospects looming at the horizon, or simply unwind.
On the ochre walls of the old karaka, not far from the harbour, traces of the spring exhibition remain. Photos of ordinary, everyday citizens were posted on many public buildings to emphasise that the formerly omnipresent portraits of the dictator were gone; the focus was now on the Tunisians. Wedding feasts are in full swing in the neighbouring reception halls, with loud rhythmical music playing late into the night. Ramadan was in August this year. Schools are starting very soon and time is running short to celebrate the newly-weds. Boys are merrily diving from the bridge into the canal, with loud splashes, not far from a wall, adorned with brightly coloured revolutionary graffiti. The fishermen will return at dawn and seize upon the momentary pause to try and catch their prey.
4 September 2011
We go through the Belvedere park, then up the hill to Montfleury to visit M. at a clinic. Members of the staff are urgently calling for new donors to give blood. With the war casualties in Libya, supplies are running low. Najat walks into the room, a light figure in her loose black gown, passionate and eager to share her experiences. Her husband is here for treatment he could not have received in war-torn Libya. Fear overpowered her as they drove all the way here from Misrata. The journey was long, arduous and uncertain. Relief only came after they managed to cross the border point. Outside I can see several cars with Libyan plates stationed in the streets around the clinic building, some with the thick white pillows used to carry the injured still visible on the seats. Four members of her family have died as chababs. She remembers how all offices and businesses closed in February, when the revolt started. No salaries have been paid since then, but solidarity has worked and people have helped each other. She pauses in mid-sentence, as she invokes her fifteen-year-old son. The brilliant high-school student had never held a gun or a knife before. But he went out to fight, like the other men.
More and more cars, carrying TNC stickers or flags blowing in the wind from their windows, pass by everywhere in Tunis and in the suburbs. Thousands of people are entering the country every day, for medical reasons, or simply because of their fatigue and a need for a break after weeks of war.
6 September 2011
The word thawra, revolution, is omnipresent in the old medina. It is painted on the vividly coloured canvasses exhibited in a madrasa that has been turned into a cultural centre. It appears on bracelets of all styles and shades displayed for sale in an art gallery set up in one of the medina’s old palaces. Che Guevara T-shirts are sold beside kachabias and gandouras in the souk. Crowds cheerfully jostle their way through the narrow alleys. A picket line bars all access to the Café M’rabet. A man tells us that they have been on strike for months but their boss will not hear of any dialogue. Then he kindly takes us to a carpet merchant’s, where we walk up the stairs to the terraced roof. The view over the white-washed houses of Tunis under the noon sky is breathtaking. A clamour can soon be heard rising nearby, somewhere around the Kasbah. A demonstration… The police are holding a sit-in and protesting. Tanjah etthawra… Success to the Revolution, they are chanting. What were they doing during the Ben Ali years?
La Goulette, the Port of Tunis
9 September 2011
B. and the children arrive with fresh bread from the baker’s round the corner, sobered after having seen a group of Salafis. Not a word was exchanged as the men passed with a self-righteous frown. The children now comment on their unfamiliar attire. Men simply did not grow beards before. Neither could women wear a hijab, let alone a niqab, to go to university or work. Recent glimpses of women wrapped up in thick black veils – previously unseen – wearing black gloves in the stifling heat, come to mind. Furtive visions… These are new sights for us.
In the afternoon, we sit under the shade of the tall, ageless eucalyptus trees at a café in La Marsa. The Beys used to have one of their residences here at the time of Ottoman rule. My friend E. mentions fears shared by some that the Islamist party is going to win the October election. It seems improbable to me. Islamists were so conspicuously absent from the streets last winter. Everyone spoke of a young generation of protesters claiming no connection with religious parties. On the other hand, the prospect of so many political parties running makes such a victory less unlikely. Over a hundred have emerged on the political scene in the past few months.
Ever since January, we have looked forward to a different future, we have hoped for a new and better world, confident it was in the making. Liberty, dignity… We are swept along by a general sense of euphoria. Somehow we feel all this is bound to continue. How could it be otherwise?
The cartoonist ‘Willis From Tunis’ has drawn dozens of cats joyfully jumping into a big ballot box. Election day is drawing near. I print her cartoon and put it on my desk.
After the election.
Is this the end of a dream?
The victory of the Islamist party has left us disappointed, quite stunned. We sit by the window beside our laptops and the papers on the sofa. B. turns off the radio. Ever since the results were announced, he has kept bravely pointing out that those are the rules of democracy. It is now the opposition’s responsibility to start preparing for the next elections, he says. ‘What was the fuss all about?’ E. moans. ‘I suppose that’s what a majority of people want and we have to accept it.’ She goes on to express her anxiety about the future, democracy, and the status of women.
5 February 2013
1846, abolition of slavery… 1857, Ahd el Aman – the Pledge of Security – the rights of the citizen… 1861, the first written constitution… Pioneering dates. I read my notes for a talk on the Tunisian Revolution I am giving tomorrow in Montélimar, in the south of France.
I have searched the past for what could be a signal for hope, desperately trying to clear up the uncertainties now weighing upon us. Anything to obliterate the present, to turn it into a mere parenthesis on the way to democracy…
6 February 2013, 9 o’clock in the morning
I absently open my Facebook page. The words hit me like a slap in the face. I have to read them two or three times before reality sinks in. I immediately switch to Tunisian and French online newspapers. I have now forgotten everything about Montélimar. My notes and clothes are piled on the bed beside an empty suitcase.
Chokri Belaid, a highly respected secular opposition leader, has been assassinated. Shot dead an hour ago. He was leaving home as I was comfortably drinking my morning tea.
In the short distance between his doorstep and his car…
Chokri Belaid had no police protection. He only had his freedom of speech.
What is the use of my notes? What do they mean now? What is the point of going anywhere to talk about the revolution?
Belaid’s widow’s photo has now been posted on Facebook. The vision of Basma Khelfaoui holding up her arm in a sign of victory, marching in the street, will go round the world in a matter of hours, a symbol of courage and determination. Her pink coat and green scarf seem to defy the anonymous killers. She walks on, holding up her head, bravely looking in front of her.
I hastily slip a copy of Moncef Ouhaibi’s 14 January poem in my folder. I will read it tonight in Montelimar in Belaid’s memory before I speak about the past two years.
8 February 2013
The whole country has ground to a halt after a call for a general strike. Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians take to the streets for Belaid’s funeral.
His widow walks alongside his coffin to the cemetery. Thousands of women, some relatives and colleagues, and many ordinary citizens, follow her. Their presence marks a break with tradition. Gone are the days when women stayed away from the cemetery during burial ceremonies. ‘This is the true Tunisia,’ exclaims a young woman.
Days later, everyone is still in shock, struck dumb by what is unprecedented violence. The last time such an event took place was in 1952 when trade union leader Farhat Hached was assassinated.
What has happened to the euphoria of 2011? Where has the enthusiasm gone? Unemployment is as high as ever. Who can afford meat and vegetables? The price of milk has doubled.
Echchaâb sâket, people keep silent… The thick black letters on the walls of the market square seem to blare out. Silent people… Mute, holding their breath, before another social explosion…
Ya hukûmat get ou, government get ou… The last letter is missing, as if the person who painted the slogan were stopped in mid-action. Was he suddenly short of paint or did he need more time to finish?
20 February 2013
You were so cheerful and full of hope, Soumaya. That was over a year ago… You serve us delicious hazelnut tea. You never used to wear a scarf. Over the years, you so often joked about your colleagues insidiously putting pressure on you to cover your head. This, although doing so was against the rules for teachers and those working in state administration… Some headmasters seemed to turn a blind eye. You consistently asserted your independence. You were always so confident. I have rarely if ever seen you with any head covering. This one is of an elegant blue with silver threads. You pause before you explain. ‘Dressed as I am, no one will bother me in the street when I go to work.’ The threats you leave unsaid, I can guess from your eyes.
You resume the conversation, telling me about the little seven-year-old girl in your class whose eyes look so sad. Her father is a fundamentalist and he will not allow her to attend any music or sports class. Nothing will make him change his mind. Neither you, the headmaster nor the way she turns around, staring at the others preparing to attend their next singing lesson…
21 February 2013
A large weapons cache has been discovered north of Tunis. We sit in front of the TV screen, mesmerised by the pictures, an endless show of all kinds of guns, sabres and knives, not to mention bombs and grenades. The camera stops a while on the black Salafi banners. Not a word to comment on what is shown. Just music, the kind you hear in a horror film… It is played over and over again.
A few days later
Driving across the Cap Bon and its wide expanses of green in springtime has always appealed to me. Every time I wonder about the white hamlets perched uphill, apparently remote from the rest of the world. On our way back, we are stopped at a roadblock as we enter Menzel Temime. Another one is posted outside the town. The police don’t keep us waiting for too long. When we reach home, G. tells us a vehicle bearing a French registration plate has been found in the main square of a market town, three miles from here. It was full of weapons.
The following day, the paper runs the whole story. It turned out the owner of the car, a migrant worker who had come from Marseilles on holiday, was a hunter. He had left two or three shotguns on the backseat before going on an errand. On his return, he saw the crowd surrounding his vehicle, got scared and ran away.
23 February 2013
The police control entrances to Hammamet, the renowned seaside resort. They have done so ever since the Revolution. Dusk has fallen when we drive down the streets of what looks like a ghost town. Several hotels have closed because tourists are so scarce. The souvenir-shopkeepers will move mountains to catch the attention of the occasional holidaymakers passing. The restaurant where we stop is empty, except for one other table. Tunisians are philosophical and have a sense of humour. ‘If things go on like this, even barbers will have to close down’, the waiter comments in a bittersweet tone.
24 February 2013
Almost every evening there are debates on television, interviews of citizens in the streets eager to voice their anger and frustrations, a sign that they are not ready to give up. ‘We want a new agenda’, says a young woman in sports clothes just before starting her workout. ‘Politicians in power keep moving chairs around and we, the people, are caught among the chair-legs’, complains an old man. ‘We no longer even watch TV’, comments a mother and her daughter in unison. ‘I am fed up. Fed up’, exclaims a middle-aged man. ‘And please don’t cut what I said’, he adds briskly.
In Tunis yesterday, demonstrators rallied after the new prime minister was appointed, chanting Echchaâb yurîd qâtel Belaïd… the people want the man who assassinated Belaid, denouncing the slow pace of the police investigation. And they will go on taking to the streets, as long as necessary, everybody tells me. They will go on demanding all the truth about the assassination, checking on the new constitution that is being drafted. They will not relent until the next elections are scheduled.
28 February 2013
One of the independent TV channels, el-Hiwar, has been in serious financial trouble for a while. A solidarity campaign was organised to raise money. Bunches of parsley were sold at 20 Tunisian dinars instead of the normal 350 millimes. People from all social backgrounds, rich and poor, stood in line to buy the precious herbs. The bunches sold out within an hour. A sign of hope…. The Tunisian people are still determined to stand up for their revolution, whatever the difficulties.
Tunis-Carthage International Airport
28 February 2013
In the departure lounge, the old pilgrims on their way to Jeddah have not changed. I have known them for countless years, the white cloths they wrap themselves in, their pensive countenances, and their peaceful smiles.
The young women now going on the pilgrimage have neither faces nor smiles. Not even fingers. They show nothing but cloth and gloves.
The little girl stands in front of her mother. She slightly tilts her head forward so that the woman can unfold a scarf over her tiny face and tie it behind her neck. The child then proudly turns to gaze at the world around her from behind the piece of cloth. Like her mother.
Outside on the tarmac, the planes line up before inscribing their silvery wake in the sky. Insidious changes in ways, manners… History has been on the move for over two years already. And many more will come.
Superb, a man who had just arrived from Libya appeared, a huge TNC flag thrown over his shoulders, one September morning at Carthage airport. Two years ago.
Splendid, two young women draped in one large Tunisian flag wept for joy as they held hands and embraced, on a January Saturday in Paris. Two years ago.
Clouds endlessly scuttle across the sky, blown by the wind. Each day brings its lot of contradictory news.
Pictures are shown of the security forces injured while fighting the jihadists entrenched in the Chaambi mountain not far from Kasserine, where the revolution started in December 2010. One had his leg blown off and another lost his eyes. Could we have imagined that violence would erupt again in this way a year and a half ago, oblivious as we were of what could stand in the way of the revolution?
Still, Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of La Manouba Faculty of Arts, has been acquitted this month. In March 2012, he was accused of hitting two veiled students on what were, by all appearances, politically motivated charges. He always stood firm against allowing the niqab inside his Faculty, claiming that seeing students’ faces was a necessity for pedagogical reasons. Several times the verdict of the trial was delayed. Throughout those months, he received wide support through petitions and rallies. The court’s decision has proved that in the end justice can be done.
For over two years we have been living in a state of expectancy, with tension rising further and further towards a climax that seems out of reach. Or have we just behaved as impatient youths, forever obliterating the gap between human time and historical time? Perhaps all revolutions put their citizens on a razor’s edge, demanding their constant commitment and vigilance for very long periods.