From some nearby direction, there was movement afoot. The sun was up and hearts were in motion, ripples in a glass of still water, dancing to the beat of an underground drum. Thump thumping just below your feet.
The Tunisian people had taken to the streets.
I poked my head out the third storey window and heard the rumblings of protest echoing off the narrow downtown streets. Inaudible chanting trumpeted the faithful to democratic action. People were pissed, I just wasn’t sure about what yet – who even knew anymore? We quickly packed our cameras like vultures in bloodlust, chasing corpses in the promise of a decent meal.
Tunis had worn civil unrest like a facial scar since 2011, and after a certain point, people just sort of got used to it. As we tried to measure the city’s pulse for hints of a direction to follow, masses strolled indifferently along Avenue Habib Bourguiba totting shopping bags. Others sat at packed outdoor cafés, silently staring into shrinking ashtrays and cooling cups of mint tea.
Lines of barbed wire we had seen coiled up along major avenues the day before were now drawn – police checkpoints were being set up a few blocks around the Ministry of the Interior. We heard rumours of a social media blackout. Armed guards and plain clothes police officers stopped us at a makeshift barricade a few hundred metres from the demonstration.
“What protest?” one laughed as he grabbed my arm and shoved me back from the police line. “There’s nothing for you here. Only Tunisians allowed here,” he continued, knowing that he’d failed to assuage determinate curiosity. We tried unsuccessfully for over an hour to get anywhere near the action, but the neighborhood was locked down. With enough practice, security forces had gotten very good at this task.
We settled instead for quiet takeaway shawarma and sat in the shade of Tunis’ looming clocktower at Place 14 Janvier 2011. We would simply wait. There would be another protest.
We found in Tunis a crossroads effigy to antiquity and the digital revolution, where nothing was as it seemed, and often for the strangest reasons.
Maybe a hint of hubris took us here. This was, after all, the world’s newest democracy, the formerly quiet North African nation credited with inadvertently kicking off of the populist Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 that continue to resonate across the Arab World. Longtime supreme autocrat Zine bin Abidine Ben Ali fled the jaws of the people to a haven afforded by the many graces of the Saudi royal family. Three years later, a new constitution ushered in the first democratically elected president. More noteworthy, Tunisia somehow avoided the chaos of its often reprehensibly revolutionary North African counterparts like Libya and Egypt.
But this patch of land had seen its share of great world power balances throughout the ages. Modern Tunis stands historical post as the last resting gravestone of the Carthaginian Empire, great rivals to the early Roman Republic. This is where mighty Hannibal began his ill-fated, yet altogether badass, journey through the Alps with a herd of war elephants, determined to surprise the history books and invade Rome from the north. His failure at the battle of Zuma prompted the Roman senate’s decision to wipe the memory of Carthage from the history books in 146 BCE.
Roman legions razed the city, leaving not one stone upon the other. They left none alive and sewed salt in the fields. Historians interpret this moment as the great coin toss of the ancient world – absolute Roman victory marked the beginning of European political dominance over the lands south of the Mediterranean. Rome would later rebuild Carthage as a colony in its own image, designating it the capital of the province of Africa, from which the continent still takes its name.
To this day, Tunisians are still divided over whether Hannibal’s elephantine trek through the mountains was a smart move. Others debate whether it happened at all. Honestly, who brings elephants up a mountain?
This pessimistic duality in all things historical, political and social would mark my time in Tunisia as I attempted to reconcile two strikingly opposite civilizations that existed in symbiotic conjuncture. Double negative photographs superimposed to create a single image; different yet altogether incomprehensible without the other. There were two sides to every coin here, the trick was figuring out what was still currency in the new republic.
A vulture shadow hovered above Tunis as new leaders figured out how to reshape a political machine that had for so long grown fat on corruption and nepotism under Ben Ali. Western media initially painted Tunisia as the poster child for democratic revolution in the Arab World. The country was to embody the potential for great peoples to stand in solidarity above dictatorship, political religious hypocrisy and silenced voices in the dark.
The nation was centre stage, and amid a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments across the West, everyone secretly hoped Tunisia could hold it together. People in Tunis knew they were living in a global political petri dish under some form of international scrutiny, however bare. But many locals we met felt the revolution’s fabled fruits were not as advertised, and customers wanted their money back.
There was an omnipotent softly unspoken uneasiness in Tunis, like quietly rumbling embers just below a buried bush fire. A quick huff exposed democratic Tunisia’s unfinished revolution, a struggle still undoubtedly under construction. All across the city, sharpened rolls of barbed wire sat coiled in bundles near major intersections. Groups of heavily armed police officers made themselves innocuously visible along main boulevards. A tank sat motionless guard outside a government ministry downtown.
The promise of peace for Tunis was great, but no one seems to be ruling out the plausibility of war. A terror attack at a museum in March hasn’t helped the situation either.
In December 2010, a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural Tunisia city of Sidi Bouzid, inadvertently sparking demonstrations that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Since the revolution, Western media had paraded Bouazizi as the Arab incarnation of Jan Palach, Czechoslovakia’s archetypal sacrificial figure to democracy, the phoenix of a people in rebellion.
But while we hashtagged Bouazizi’s self-immolation as a martyrdom to freedom, most Tunisians we met regarded him as a fool who had accidentally lit himself on fire with a cigarette after a streetside scuffle where a female police officer publically humiliated him and destroyed his fruit scales. To them, Bouazizi was a bum. And even if he was a revolutionary, it was accidental anyway.
I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. The great human catalyst of the online revolution melted away the more we talked to locals. I never saw Bouazizi the same way once we got to Tunisia. We eventually scrapped plans to visit his small town and pay our respects where he died.
The West wanted to see the Arab Spring as the fall of a new Berlin wall, a nicely rounded cyclical history, a fitting eulogy to the War on Terror. Arabic Democracy – what a concept! This was to be the great Twitter revolution, the dawn of the digital political age powered by the people united by technology. It all looked so nice, you could almost tie a bow on it.
But we were duped, and as the cameras turned away from countries like Bahrain and Lybia, Egypt slipped back into madness and military rule. We all moved onto other things and the news machine continued turning indifferently. The Arab Spring became the thing of documentaries, no longer breaking news.
But against all odds, Tunisian democracy had survived.
But if Tunisia was going to portmanteau as the foretold messiah of Arabic democracy, they would need to figure out how to make it work, and quick. The revolution hangover was dragging on and if things didn’t pick up soon, the country risked becoming a honey trap for new waves of extremism sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
All along the tree-studded main avenues, pairs of idle minded fighting-aged males studded streetside cafés, puffing through half-empty packs of cigarettes pretending to look busy. The stench of rampant unemployment ran through the streets, a lingering odor no amount of faux-Gucci neck scarves could mask. Stray cats grew fat off the fruits of garbage strikes. Tunisia was a country so proud of its accomplishments it couldn’t accept the fact that it needed help.
We met guys like Aladdin, a 28 year-old Tunisian in tinted sunglasses sipping espresso at a café off Avenue Habib Bourguiba. In 2013, he took a flight to Miami and burned his passport as soon as the tourist visa expired. After getting caught in a roundup on South Beach, he was sent to a detention facility and spent six months in the system before being sent back to Tunis. With a degree in Industrial Management, he now sells scrap metal with his father. The brain drain was becoming a whirlpool and those who bled for Tunisia on the streets in 2011 were losing hope for the new republic.
“So far, the revolution has been a farce. We got rid of Ben Ali, but we haven’t addressed the real problems that brought us to the streets in the first place,” Aladdin told us over coffee. “Until we start engaging the youth, really getting them to be a real part of this society, there can be no great change, and Tunisia will slide back into chaos.”
Tunisia has set itself on the right track, the only problem now seemed how to make the train run. Part of me feared what force may be waiting to greet the obligation with subjugate glee.
I felt as though there would always be two Tunisias, in one way or another. Tunisian democracy felt like a bad Guns N’ Roses album, loaded with so much anticipation and promise that people refused to point out its blaring faults. Tunisia’s newest phase of self-reinvention would remain a revolution in progress, the sobering after-morning reality to a crazy night indulging in the democracy.
“In our countries in the coming years, we are living in the last battle of our history, between darkness and freedom,” Abdel Basset Hassan, head of the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunis, told us one afternoon. “What started with Tunisia, is not just the road for Tunisia. What started in Tunisia is a new historical moment. We entered a new historical phase in our countries, and this phase is based on the demand for freedom. It will last decades, perhaps, but at the end, I think that we will enter history based on our freedom.”
The ferry to Sicily was more than an hour late leaving port, but no one seemed surprised, least of all the crew. Passengers anticipated the struggle and worked tardiness into their timelines; long after the final whistles had blown, gaggles of stragglers still poured onto the boat, herded in not-so-neat human columns of bureaucratic automotive slow motion.
Lower decks offered fewer consolations. Families lay along the ship’s insides across common-room couches, under tables or sandwiched between hefty roll-up mattresses and multicoloured knit-link blankets. Lonely men slept on fabricated cots under the stairs, faces buried into bent arms cradling plastic bottles of water with the labels ripped off.
The boat tide slowly left in its wake a colourful cresting of waves crashing against the sound of minarets dutifully calling the faithful to prayer. My mind wandered to old Ben Ali, sitting alone in exile on some Saudi Arabian palace balcony, thinking of how the sun used to set across Tunis. I wondered what went through his mind on that final day as he watched thousands of feet stamping along Avenue Habib Bourguiba. What were his final thoughts as the people he for so long oppressed finally rose up against him? The despised curtain call of the dictator. I spat loudly over the railing, hoping he could somehow hear me.
As the aging ferry finally pulled away into the last stray rays of a Mediterranean sunset, the top deck was empty; few bothered to watch the white city fade diligently into the sea. As the sun inevitably gave way to horizon, light split Tunis in two from behind the clouds – the minaret moans made no mention.