The Fruits of Mohamed: The Small Tunisian Town that Sparked the Arab Revolution

By Mathieu von Rohr

On Dec. 17, 2010, a fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a dispute with a government official. His act triggered the Arab Revolution. Why did it begin in a small Tunisian city? And how have local residents reacted to their new freedoms?

Photo Gallery: A Slap Heard Around the Arab World Photos
Mathieu von Rohr/ DER SPIEGEL

She kneels at her son's grave in the dust of the Tunisian steppes, a black hijab framing her deeply wrinkled face, as she rocks back and forth and speaks loudly to herself.

"God have mercy on your soul, and may your blood not have been shed in vain." A woman walks up to her and says: "You gave us a son who liberated us all."

It is a simple grave marked by a gray block of cement on the edge of a family cemetery. The grave points toward Mecca, and a Tunisian flag next to it is fluttering in the wind. Her husband, gaunt and silent, has mixed a batch of cement to attach a marble plaque to the grave. The inscription reads: "The martyr Mohamed Bouazizi, born on March 29, 1984, died on January 4, 2011."

When Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller, set himself on fire, he inflamed the entire Arab world. Bouazizi's mother and her husband have come to install a headstone and paint the grave white, as is customarily done after the 40th day after death. They are three weeks late. A lot has been going on in recent weeks.

A television crew drove the parents to the gravesite, she almost never leaves her home without a camera following her. As each day passes, Bouazizi's mother becomes less and less like a real person. She seems to be in the process of transforming herself into a monument of grief, the mother of a holy figure.

An Icon of Freedom

Her son's face appears on banners throughout the country, as an icon of freedom and a symbol of the origin of the revolution that brought down the Tunisian dictator, his Egyptian counterpart, and triggered uprisings in Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Libya.

Anyone who follows Manoubia Bouazizi, the mother of the dead fruit seller, is hoping for answers to questions that all the images of street battles and cheering revolutionaries cannot provide. Why did it all begin in a dusty town in Tunisia? And how does a revolution affect the people in the place where it began? How does it change their lives? What does a democracy in its infancy look like?

Mohamed Bouazizi lived in Sidi Bouzid, a small city of 40,000 people about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital Tunis in the highland steppes. Its residents, who complain that Sidi Bouzid doesn't even appear on the television weather report map, feel forgotten by their country and the rest of the world.

There is nothing in Sidi Bouzid that could have given Bouazizi reason to hope for a better future. Those with connections in his city can get work at the local tomato paste factory. Some sell smuggled Libyan gasoline, while others work at grueling jobs in the central market or in the olive harvest. Many of those who work on the plantations are academics. Sidi Bouzid has many young people and few jobs.

Things Westerners No Longer Want

Bouazizi was 26, about the same age as most of the people who live here. They dream of emigrating to Europe, but until then they live on the things the West no longer wants. They wear "frip," the used clothing that comes delivered in bales. Sometimes Bouazizi would see cars imprinted with the letters DHL or with the name of a car dealership in Hamburg. Some of the cars belong to those who have already been to Europe. They keep the foreign license plates attached to their cars like trophies, as if to say: "I made it."

Bouazizi had little exposure to the world. He didn't know that the prices of some commodities on the markets in London and Chicago had almost doubled in the last six months. He didn't know that the price of a bushel of wheat, which was still being traded at $4.30 (€3.08) in June, had gone up to $8 in December, and that the price of a pound of sugar had increased from 15 cents to 30 cents in the same period. What he did notice, as he pulled his fruit cart through the markets, was that food was getting more and more expensive, and that he was able to buy less and less food for his family with the money he earned.

On Dec. 17 at about 11:15 a.m. Bouazizi encountered Faida Hamdi, a municipal inspector, in the center of the town. He was selling tangerines, apples and pears from his wooden cart, which he operated without a government permit. Hamdi, who works for the municipal police, has a reputation for being strict. When she discovered Bouazizi she decided to confiscate his goods, just as she had done with him and other vendors many times before.

What exactly happened next is no longer entirely clear. Most residents of Sidi Bouzid say that there was a loud argument and a dispute over crates, and that the official confiscated Bouazizi's electronic scale. They also say that Hamdi slapped the fruit seller. But most of this is hearsay, and there appear to be no eyewitnesses to what actually transpired on that day. The owners of the surrounding shops say that all the fruit sellers fled when the police arrived.

The Story of a Slap

It is indisputable that Bouazizi went to the police station to retrieve his scale, that he was turned away, and that he then asked to see the governor and was turned away again. It is also indisputable that about two hours later, at approximately 1 p.m., he took his wooden cart to the street in front of the governor's office, poured a bottle of flammable liquid, presumably gasoline, over his head and set himself on fire.

The fateful encounter between Bouazizi and Hamdi on Dec. 17 turned into the story of a slap that drove the people into the streets. The story became emblematic of an authoritarian state that humiliated its citizens, not even allowing them to work. Bouazizi's story transformed the fruit seller into the hero and the official into the villain of a revolution.

When Bouazizi was on fire, his mother was picking olives in the fields for four dinar a day, or the equivalent of €2. When her boss told her that her son was sick, she knew that something terrible had happened.

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