Today is January 8, the year 2031. It has been two decades since the great war started. Twenty million people have died and the last of the world’s three governments are on the brink of collapse. Anarchy is the new world order. We read about this day in our holy books when we were young. We were told that smoke and artillery would block out the face of the sun and that every man would turn against his brother for food. It has all come true. One thing is clear though, this is just the beginning. The end is not yet near. In this day, we fear not the threat of disease or natural calamity. We fear war. The war that has caused fathers to rise against their own flesh; blood against blood. In this day, happy are those who die by suicide. Death is indeed a rare commodity. Surely John had seen this day when he wrote “In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them!”
It is winter and the temperatures average at 7 degrees in central Tunisia during this period of the year. An old man in shabby clothing makes his way through Boulevard Mohammed Bouazizi, in the capital of Sidi Bouzid. He keeps to the shadows as he is trying his best to conceal his identity. The last thing he wants is someone to know who he is. A wanted man. It’s been two decades since he was last seen here but people never forget. His name is Habib Ali, an ex-municipal officer with the former Tunisian regime that was ousted twenty years ago, in the revolution of January 14, 2011. He crosses the street and breaks in to a slight run. He is old and his feeble feet can hardly hold pace. After ten minutes, he arrives at the Garaat Bennour cemetery and heads straight to a grave in the far end. Tears begin to well up in his eyes as he kneels beside the tombstone. He is heartbroken and knows heaven will never forgive him for what he did. The grave belongs to Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi the young street vendor who started the revolution.
These are the events that took place on December 17th of 2010.
Habib reported to work early and as usual, he found his boss waiting for him obviously to brief him of the duties of the day. She was upset. He knew why. He had not completed his tasks for the previous day. It was unusual for Habib not to carry out his duties well and so Fedya (his boss) wanted an explanation. You see, Habib had been ordered to arrest and confiscate the wares of illegitimate vendors along the streets in the municipal. Since he had once been a vendor himself, he understood the plight of these vendors so he ignored the directive and hoped Fedya would forget the issue. Habib also felt bad that he knew how such operations ended. Usually after being arrested, a vendor usually had to bribe the municipal officials to be released. Habib didn’t want to be the one to oppress the poor. After all, these were young people who had been forced to their situation by the system. But he couldn’t explain his dilemma to Fedya. He had four children and desperately needed this job to take care of his family.
After enduring a twenty minute verbal hurricane, Habib went out to meet his juniors who were waiting outside in the municipal van. He knew he didn’t have any option but to reel the vendors in. The raid lasted for a long half hour and in the end they had arrested fifteen illegal vendors. They collected bribes from all vendors except one who claimed he couldn’t raise the 400 Dinars demanded for release. The junior officers took this as an act of defiance and immediately set on the vendor with kicks and blows. This escalated when the vendor obviously enraged by now demanded to see the governor and report the matter. Habib ordered his juniors to stand down but it was too late, Fedya was already on the scene.
She had come to complete the work he couldn’t finish. She ordered the juniors to hold up the vendor so she could teach him a lesson. She slapped him hard across the face and spat on him for what seemed like an eternity. She then went on to throw his electronic scales and vegetables on the street as her juniors toppled his cart over. They left him bleeding and whimpering on the street. Habib stood there in disbelief as the crowd also went silent obviously shocked at what had happened. It was later to be stated by a senior official in the municipality that one did not need any permit to sell wares from a cart on the street.
In the afternoon when Habib was back at the office, he got a phonecall from a man claiming the vendor whos name was Mohamed Bouazizi was camping outside the governer’s office in protest. The man also added the Bouazizi was threatening to set himself on fire if the governor did not show up. Habib immediately sensed trouble and called his boss Fedya to brief her. In response Fedya accused him of siding with ‘scum’ and cautioned him against correcting her in future. As Habib put down the phone, he knew deep down that there was nothing more he could do. He had a bad feeling about the whole case.
Bouazizi immolated himself in protest that afternoon while the citizens of Tunisia and the whole world watched. It was the kind of protest that comes after many years of torment and oppression. He had passed his message loud and very clear. He was rushed to the Burn and Trauma Centre in the town of Ben Arous where he died eighteen days later on the 4th of January 2011. In the days that followed, citizens took to the street in protest and on the 14th of January they ousted President Ben Ali who they claimed had led their country to ruins. In a matter of days, the Arab world was rocked by similar protests and immolations. One after the other, the tyrants fell like dominoes. Oil prices shot up and the third great war began. It is funny how money and religion always find their way back into the same bed.
Fedya was captured by the citizens and reportedly executed in an undisclosed location in the outskirts of the capital city. Her family is still looking for her twenty years on. They believe there is a chance she could be alive. As for Habib, he fled to Algeria and started a new family there. He never contacted his first family again for fear he would put them in danger. He still feels he was responsible for the war. He believes that he could have handled it differently and snuffed out the spark that started the fire. At the same time he holds in deep respect, the man Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi. The vegetable vendor who delivered the world from the worst of its tyrants.
It is dark and the sound of gunfire and wailing can be heard in Tunisia. Habib kneels and bows down to pray. He knows he might die tomorrow because he is planning to give himself up to the people he oppressed twenty years earlier. He believes he will find redemption for the things he did in the hope that through his story, the domino effect will stop.
“Inshallah. Thy will be done” he mutters as he stands to leave the grave side.
I hope our governments will learn from the revolution in Tunisia. I dedicate this post to the leader of arguably the biggest revolution in the world, Mohamed Bouazizi (March 29, 1984 – January 4, 2011; Arabic: محمد البوعزيزي)
‘The government drove him to do what he did; they never gave him a chance. We are poor and they thought we had no power. My son is lost, but look what is happening, how many people are now getting involved.’ –Menobia Bouazizi, mother to Mohamed Bouazizi