From the Editors
Tunis - Saturday, 14 January 2012. This morning I woke up at 8:00 in the Majestic Hotel on Avenue de Paris just off Avenue Bourguiba in the center of Tunis. It was quiet from the time I awoke until the time I left the hotel after breakfast at 10:30. I thought how unusual it was, given that today is the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution and the day President Zin al-Abdin Ben Ali fled the country, "like a coward," as a few of my skeptical Tunisian friends like to put it.
I left the hotel with the intention of heading toward Avenue Bourguiba where I anticipated all the action, if there was to be any. Instead I headed left on Avenue de la Liberté where I knew I would ultimately pass by the former American Embassy where I use to report for country team meetings every Friday while I directed the Foreign Service Institute’s Arabic Language Program nearly twenty years ago.
I was immediately struck by both the normalcy of the pace and noise level of this Saturday morning, as well as of the garbage that littered the streets I remember it as having been very well kept. When I reached the last two blocks of Avenue de la Liberté and arrived at the former compound of our embassy, I noticed that all the buildings were leveled to the ground, and what stood in their place was a vacant lot with a few boulders and some scraggly bushes. When I reached Place Pasteur, I stopped to buy some newspapers and magazines, picking out the ones which featured prominently anniversary celebrations on the front covers, and then headed right on Avenue Mohammed V enroute to return to center city.
Mohammed V, a long and beautiful boulevard with banks, cultural centers, and a few private villas and apartment complexes, was as shockingly littered as the other avenues and side streets I passed. I couldn’t help but notice, swept in piles at the edges of tree trunks, a mélange of Kleenex wrappers and used tissues, soda cans and bottles, orange rinds, cigarette packages, and lots and lots of cigarette butts. Just last night an old Tunisian friend reminded me that perennial labor strikes were among the negative results of the revolution.
Alibaba and the Forty Thieves
Some twenty minutes later I approached the complex that was to become a major cultural center for the performing arts that President Ben Ali was having built to celebrate the splendor and majesty of his presidency, and a reminder to all of his commitment to youth and culture. The huge edifice, combining fantastical structures evocative of an Orientalist imagining of the Arabian Nights, stood eerily intact but far from complete. I paused to look at it, imaging how it would look when finished. As my eyes lowered when I decided to resume my walk, I noticed some graffiti. Spray-painted in black letters against the white-washed wall was: Ma-hla Tunis min gheer Ben Ali Baba wa al-a’rba’iin saariq trabulsi: (How nicer Tunis is without Ben Ali Baba and the forty Trabulsi thieves!)
I took pride in the fact that a Tunisian shared at least some of my thoughts about the building. To inscribe the pillaging and plundering of the country by the former president and his notorious wife and in-laws, the Trabulsi family and this garish monument to the Ben Ali presidency, by evoking the fantastical, strange and unpredictable unrealness of the Arabic Nights was a stroke of genius.
Back on the road and close to the end of Mohammed V, I beheld the massive high-rise banks recently built to accommodate Tunisia’s growing banking sector. I passed a curious new building, monstrous in size and shape, that was to my shock, the "Museum of Money" (Mathaf al-’umla), a crass reminder of Ben Ali’s real commitments. That it stood directly across from the huge high-rise headquarters of the RCD was fitting. The fate of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the ruling party of Ben Ali that was recently dissolved, could clearly be read by the torn off signs on its façade and the two army tanks sitting in front of its entrance.
La ilaha illa allah!
Making my way toward the end of the street I noticed the lines of parked cars getting longer and longer, and the pedestrians increasing in the dozens. Six young men suddenly jumped out of a car waving black and white flags with alternating black and white script: La ilaha illa allah wa Muhammad rasuul allah: "There is no god but God and Mohammed is His prophet." When one of them noticed my staring at them, he flashed a smug smile and I responded in Arabic with: Sallam-u alaykum. He was very pleased and returned a more genuine smile. Then I asked them if I could take a picture, to which they not only agreed but proudly stopped to pose.
I arrived at the large intersection of Mohammed V and Avenue Bourguiba. What was formally named November 7 Square is referred to as either "Mohammed Bouazizi Square," "January 14 Square," or "Revolution Square," depending on who you ask. This is perhaps Tunis’ most public space, where once stood the famous Mussolini-like statue of Tunisia’s colonial liberator and first president, Habib Bourguiba mounted on his stallion, and then replaced by a gigantic replica of a common alarm clock set to 7 November 1987 when Zin al-Abdin Ben Ali replaced the aging and senile Bourguiba with promises of a modern, democratic presidency.
Shifting my gaze from the glittering tower of the square to the other end of Avenue Bourguiba and toward the famous statue of Ibn Khaldun, I beheld what seemed to be tens of thousands of Tunisians. There were small groups of "Islamically dressed," bearded young men brandishing their black and white flags, chanting Islamic slogans and calling for an Islamic state and the return to the caliphate, with one signing calling it: taj al-furuud (the crown of religious obligations).
Equally enthusiastic and by far more numerous, were young men and women, holding hands with parents and children, smiling ecstatically and shouting revolutionary slogans and rejoices of Tunisia. The crowds were most dense in front of the magnificent art-deco building of Tunisia’s National Theatre (al-masrah al-baladi), built in 1902 and a crown jewel of France’s "civilizing mission" in Tunisia.
Young leaders of what appeared to be university students and young professionals had occupied the steps of the Theatre and were orchestrating chants and responses of the crowds. On the other side of the street, hundreds of Tunisians sat sipping coffee and tea in the outside cafés of the Dar al-Hanna’ hotel. Amid the frenzy of celebration ordinary life flowed like any other day.
In the end, it was the ordinary citizens who came out to celebrate, whose vast numbers, quiet happiness, and gleaming pride spoke volumes above the noisy chants of dueling secular nationalists and Islamists. They waved their Tunisian flags, held up their children, and some were even carrying shopping bags.
It was a day full of celebration and hope, of happiness and pride, a day to forget all the challenges and fears Tunisians all readily admit lie ahead.
[All images by William Granara.]
1 comment for "A Postcard from Tunis: One Year Later"
If you prefer, email your comments to email@example.com.
Hot on Facebook
... around the world, we have seen how tyrants, no longer able to hide behind the empty rhetoric of “democracy” ... have fallen back on brute violence. We are seeing precisely the same thing on our university campuses.click | email | tweet
Jad NavigationView Full Map, Topics, and Countries »
From Jadaliyya Reports
Jadalicious / جدلشس
Latest EntriesView All Entries »
- Tadween Roundup: News and Analysis from the Publishing/Academic World
- Syria Media Roundup (May 23)
- Asfari Institute Inaugural Conference: New Spaces of Civil Society Activism in the Arab World (Beirut, 23-24 May)
- Women's Rights in the Egyptian Constitution: (Neo)Liberalism's Family Values
- مسخ الذاكرة
- New Texts Out Now: Louise Cainkar, Global Arab World Migrations and Diasporas
- Arabian Peninsula Media Roundup (May 21)
- إعادة الحساب الدائمة: إساءة فهم سوريا بعد سنتين
- From al-Araqib to Susiya: Forced Displacement of Palestinians on Both Sides of the Green Line
- كارل ماركس واليسار في لبنان
- Picturing Algeria
- Egypt Media Roundup (May 20)
- Last Week on Jadaliyya (May 13-19)
- Jadaliyya's Occupation, Intervention, and Law Page Resonates
- Al Jazeera Management Orders Joseph Massad Article Pulled in an Act of Pro-Israel Censorship
- سعادت حسن منتو: قصة قصيرة
- Reports Roundup (May 18)
- Injuries, Arrests and House Raids: The Case of a Bahraini Family
- الليبرالية الفلسطينية أمام القضاء الإسرائيلي