Michael, Live From Tunisia!

Tunis, Tunisia

Dear friends and family,

Egypt has stolen the headlines from Tunisia, where demonstrations along the central promenade of Avenue Bourguiba are gradually giving way to scattered groups of 10 to 15 people each, crowded together in tight circles, arguing publicly for the first time over who should or shouldn’t be in the interim government, or how much money and gold the presidential family got away with when they fled the country. Yesterday, a woman said to me, “We knew they were low, but we didn’t know how low.” Meanwhile, Janet arrived back two weeks ago, and things seem as safe as ever, depending where you go. More post-revolution highlights and rumors:

Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

One month after: ‘la sainte-revolution’

In Tunis, exactly one month after chasing out the Ben Ali and Leila gang, there were Valentine Day plans to hand out red roses to the soldiers on Avenue Bourguiba, just up from the glistening coils of razor wire and a few tanks here and there. Today’s French-language La Presse called it ‘la sainte-revolution’, or the holy revolution, sort of a Valentine’s Day in memory of those who’ve died. Only in Tunisia could they make that connection – a Christian martyr dating from ancient Rome and a modern Arabic democratic revolution. Around noon, I walked up the nearby rue d’angleterre, where street vendors were selling Valentine bears, chocolates and heart-tipped pencils, next to a one-story high pile of garbage, still on someone’s to-do list.

Monday, Feb. 7

On strike

Long lines of cars today at the gas stations (Total, Star Oil, Shell, Oil Libya), in anticipation of tomorrow’s strike, a novel concept here, which Tunisians seem to be enjoying for the moment. Lots of drivers were standing and chatting outside their cars. There have been strikes all week, starting with the police, then the garbage collectors, the bus drivers, the teachers – that one didn’t affect us, since we’re not exactly teaching yet anyway. By the way, the next day, there were several gas stations open, with no lines.

Saturday, Feb. 5

Graffiti Tunisian style

When we arrived in August, it was common to see pop graffiti like “MJ – We love you!” – for Michael Jackson. But now, political graffiti is popping up around Tunis. One of the most common: “RCD Dégage!”, or RCD, Clear Out! That’s RCD, for Democratic Constitutional Rally, Ben Ali’s now banned and burned out political party. Equally popular on the white walls of centreville: “Laïcité (secularism), Liberté, Démocratie”. And of course: “Merci Facebook!”

Thursday, Feb. 3

Where’s my tank?

The tank is gone, that’s the first thing you’d notice on your next visit to our neighborhood. But the soldiers remain on the street, fully armed (made-in-Austria assault rifles). You can catch them sipping coffee or tea from small glasses the cafes provide, or reading the newspaper, smoking, chatting or flirting with passersby now and then. Today, one of them had his 4-year old son with him in front of the little shopping mall where the tank used to be. Last night, as Alex and I walked by, another called out “bon soir” (good evening) from the back of a dark troop truck taking the swing shift back to the barracks – probably one of the guys we gave bottled water to near our make-shift neighborhood barricade three weeks ago.

Tuesday, Feb. 1

School’s a riot

At the small campus where I teach, following a 2-week winter break, end-of-term exams resumed the first week of January, until all schools and universities shut down a week later. The exams are a huge deal here, largely a legacy from the French. They are delivered in sealed envelopes, students sign in and sign out with picture ID’s, and each exam is ‘invigilated’, or proctored, by at least two faculty.

But today at around 10.45am on a rainy morning, after two hours of invigilation followed by a coffee to recover at one of the outdoor student cafes across the street, I walked into a screaming match in the crowded lobby of the building. A guy was yelling and waving around a metal chair, until he lost a wild tug-of-war to several men, and was ushered out. It turns out he had gone to a classroom, exam in progress, and identified two students as members of the despised RCD party, and demanded that they not be allowed to sit for the exam. When the proctor refused, he stormed out, chair in hand. But after he disappeared – possibly in search of the next U.S. Tea Party event – other students jumped onto a table and continued to speak out. An hour later, however, everyone vanished just in time for the next round of exams scheduled for noon.

Sunday, Jan. 30

Rumor of the week

Easily the best rumor this week – that women in bikinis would greet the arrival from London of Rachid Ghannouchi, the banned ‘Islamacist’ leader, in exile since Ben Ali took power from in a bloodless coup over 20 years ago. The bikinis didn’t materialize, but women were there, according to the BBC, with signs reading, “No Islamism, no theocracy, no Sharia and no stupidity!”

Saturday, Jan. 29

How to scatter a crowd

Went downtown today to have lunch on rue d’marseilles with two friends, then walked up Avenue Bourguiba. Between the National Theatre, an art nouveau gem, and the byzantine French Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul, we ran into a group of about 100 women carrying signs in Arabic and French proclaiming تونس تعيش طويلا (‘Tahia Tounes’, long live Tunisia), ‘Egalite’ (equality), and ‘Laïcité’ (secularism). There were people holding balloons, news photographers, everything sunny and festive, until another group, all men, confronted the women, screaming at them to go home where they belong. That’s when the balloons started popping – nothing like the gunfire two weeks ago, but startling. A few more balloons went pop, and suddenly a group of plainclothes police came out of nowhere, running fast and swinging 5-foot long batons, scattering the crowd instantly, me with them. I retreated to the open door of a café where the outdoor chairs had already been neatly stacked, hours ahead of closing time. But just as suddenly as it started, it was over, the goons were gone, and the marchers reassembled and continued on – but without the balloons.

Friday Jan. 28

Display required (or else)

There are still demonstrators camped out, sit-in style, in the square facing the ornate colonial-era Prime Minister’s office, on the edge of the medina, or the old walled city. It’s a maze of covered passages, tiny open storefronts, one after the other, spilling over on the narrow cobblestoned walkways that thread the sprawling souk, or marketplace. They sell everything from bottled perfumes, filled as you wait, to incense, leather bags, plastic shoes, wedding dresses, spicy sandwiches and pastries, fez hats and baseball caps, mint tea and maps. They used to sell framed pictures of Ben Ali, too, but those disappeared in a hurry, as they did from every shop, office and school in the country, where they were required to be on display.

Wednesday, Jan. 26

“La cleptodame”

A headline a few days ago in one of the French-language dailies: ‘Leila: la cleptodame,’ with an article detailing the departed first lady’s corruption. People refer to her and her extended family as gangsters. At my local newsstand, a magazine featured a cover photo of her in her former life as a hairdresser, a head of hair in one hand, a blow-dryer in the other, looking a bit less glamorous than she has in the touched up pre-revolution newspaper pictures, usually at a photo-op charity event. One of those photos, though I haven’t found it yet, was recently pasted over the entrance to the red-light district near the medina.

Tuesday, Jan. 25

Hero’s welcome

Meanwhile, the reclusive head of the army, Gen. Rachid Ammar, who reportedly refused Ben Ali’s orders to fire on demonstrators, finally appeared in public this week, cheered by a large crowd. A magazine cover story lauded ‘L’homme qui a dit non’, or, ‘The man who said no’.

“democracy not anarchy”

No surprise – not all the demonstrators see eye to eye. Today at coffee, I saw a widely circulated text message in French, roughly, “Rally at Municipal Theatre Tuesday 25th at 3:30pm for democracy and not anarchy, to support this government and against these strike calls of UGTT” (the labor union, formerly allied with Ben Ali).

Monday Jan. 24

Wrong turn into a demonstration

Alex back for first regular day at the American school, but my department meeting was cancelled until tomorrow at the university, near the Kasbah district, so I headed into town. From the area known as Bab Saadoun, I started out on foot in the direction of Avenue de la Libertie, got a small shwarma sandwich on the way from a 3-stool walk-up kitchen, with one burner and a small stack of the fresh-from-oven flat breads. Eventually I got lost, and grabbed a taxi, but we took a wrong turn and somehow ended up at Avenue Bourguiba. I jumped out and turned to see a few hundred people heading my way – mostly guys in their 20’s chanting and waiving banners.

But the sidewalk café customers sipping their espressos didn’t seem alarmed, so I stayed and followed the marchers up the street, until I ran into a man on the corner, maybe in his 50’s. He was in tears, cradling a framed picture of a young man in his 20’s, and also holding a smaller photo of the same young man, glued to a small board on a stick, and he was just moaning and muttering to himself and anyone who would listen, and I guessed it was his son, a victim of the violence that has claimed over 200 lives. After that, I caught a taxi with a quiet driver, and returned home via the causeway through La Goulette.

Sunday, Jan. 23

Crunch of broken glass

Had coffee today on the terrace at Café Journal in Gammarth with a couple of Americans and a Tunisian who spent 2008 in Seattle, and was photographed during one of the first Tunis demonstrations hoisting a sign in English, “Yes We Can”. On the way back, we pulled over at the latest tourist attraction: a burned out house near the main road, another Ben & Leila presidential property, now reduced to an empty shell with shattered glass and mirrors everywhere, so much that you heard the crunch of glass constantly. Entire families were walking in and out, taking pictures, checking out the debris in the swimming pool, a discarded Gucci wrapper near the entrance gate, the whole place thoroughly trashed and looted clean, and on the outside wall surrounding the gutted home, slogans in Arabic and English. One said, “Good bye tyranny, hello Freedom”.

The same afternoon, I got text messages from two students: The first, “Yup welcome new tunisiaaaaaaaa!!! See u nxt week sir, with God willing. Bye byyyye”.

Then another, more to the point: “Hell yeah!”

Cheers,

Michael

Michael Stamatios Clark

Institut Superieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis

Mobile: +216.27.333.097

TUNISIA

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