Photo Gallery: A Slap Heard Around the Arab World

Foto: ddp images/AP/ ddp images/AP/

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

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?

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.

'Mohamed Set Himself on Fire Today'

Ridha, Bouazizi's uncle, also a fruit seller, had set up his cart at the other end of the city. He has a bad leg and is unable to run when the police show up, which is why he picks more out-of-the-way locations for his cart. When he heard that something had happened, Ridha hurried to the governor's office, but everything was over by the time he arrived. He took a taxi to the hospital.

The municipal inspector's brother was in his house near the center of town on that day, when his sister came home crying. She said that "Mohamed," a vendor who had always been so quiet, "set himself on fire today."

Hamdi told her brother about the morning's incident, but she said nothing about having slapped the fruit seller. Her brother, Faouzi Hamdi, 52, is a teacher of history and geography. He wears rustic wool sweaters, has a moustache and keeps his gray hair cut short. He comes from a family that has always been on the government's side. His father was chief of police for the region, a civil servant just like his sister.

Faouzi Hamdi was a member of a teacher's union, which meant that he was part of the tolerated opposition in Sidi Bouzid. He was never a radical opponent of the system, but he often joined protests demanding social and sometimes political reforms. Occasionally he would talk to his students about human rights and democracy, subjects which were not on the lesson plan. He had periodic run-ins with the police. When that happened, his father would say to him: "You're working against your sister."

When his sister came to his house in tears, Faouzi Hamdi had to make a decision: He could be for or against his sister. Determined to find out exactly what had happened, he decided to go to the governor's office. When he arrived, a crowd of about 100 people had gathered outside and some were trying to force their way into the building.

'Why Did You Do This?'

Your sister did this, people said to him. You'd better go home, a police officer told him. "Why did you do this?" he asked his sister when he had returned to his house. She swore that she had not slapped Mohamed Bouazizi. He took her to their parents' house in a town about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away. That evening he joined the protesters in the streets. Street riots raged for days in Sidi Bouzid, as thousands of young people in the residential neighborhoods threw rocks at the police. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's dictator, sent more and more troops to Sidi Bouzid every day.

Faouzi Hamdi joined his fellow union members on the streets during the day, and at night he gave water and food to the youths on the street. Some were his students.

On Dec. 28, Ben Ali yielded to the pressure on the street for the first time. He visited Bouazizi in the hospital and invited the fruit seller's mother to the palace. He also sent a special team from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid to reinvestigate the incident. Faida Hamdi, the public official who had allegedly slapped Bouazizi, was arrested and sent to prison three days later. The dictator apparently hoped that using Hamdi as a scapegoat would appease the public. Bouazizi died in the hospital a few days later. Ten days after that, on Jan. 14, Ben Ali and his family fled the country.

The Villain Locked Away

The hero is now lying in his grave, while the villain is still alive, locked up in a group cell at the prison in Gafsa, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Sidi Bouzid. The jail is surrounded by high, white walls and six guard towers.

The visitors arrive in a gray Volkswagen: her brother Faouzi, three other siblings and her father, the former police chief. As part of the old elite, he no longer has any influence. He is forced to look on as his daughter sits in prison without having had a hearing or having appeared before an investigative judge. She has been in this place for two months now, all because of a slap that may or may not have occurred. The father says that she could very well be Tunisia's last political prisoner.

She is only permitted to see her family, and she is not allowed to talk about how she is treated in the prison or how many other people are in her cell.

They have brought her two bags of food, including pasta, apples and couscous. They walk through a small door and reemerge 10 minutes later. Faouzi Hamdi says that it was difficult to see his sister, the proud police officer, in tears.

Spreading the Word Through Facebook

Faouzi Hamdi isn't sure whether to call himself a winner or a loser. As a trade unionist, he says, he is happy that the revolution was a success. But as a brother he asks himself whether the ordeal his sister is going through now is part of the freedoms for which he fought. And as a brother he also says that it pains him to realize that the revolution was founded on a lie.

"And I know who started that lie," he says. "It was Ali Bouazizi." Ali Bouazizi, a supermarket owner, received a phone call alerting him just minutes after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Mohamed was his cousin.

Ali immediately left his shop and ran the few hundred meters to the governor's office. He arrived just in time to see his cousin's charred body being loaded into an ambulance. He pulled out his Samsung mobile phone and recorded what was happening. This could be big, Ali thought to himself. At any rate, he was determined to do everything he could to ensure that it made an impact.

He spent the rest of the afternoon filming the young people protesting in the streets. A friend edited the video, added melancholy music, and posted it on Ali's Facebook page. They called Al Jazeera and the Arab news network broadcast the images that same evening. Ali Bouazizi, using his real name, participated in the broadcast via telephone. He said that Mohamed had been beaten by the police, and he also said that his cousin had a university degree.

The second claim was certainly false. Mohamed didn't even have a high school diploma. But it made his case seem more significant, because it tied in with the story that large numbers of university graduates are unable to find work in Tunisia.

Ali posted a link to the video of his appearance on Al Jazeera on his Facebook page. By the next day, young people were protesting in other cities, and by the time the first protesters were killed the uprising had engulfed Tunis and the rest of the country.

Life After the Revolution

It is now early March, 11 weeks later, and Ali Bouazizi and his friend Rochdi are in a friend's mobile phone shop, sitting in front of the computer they had used to post the first video on Facebook. The large TV set behind them is tuned to Al-Jazeera, which is now broadcasting images from Libya, scenes of battles over oil terminals, of aerial attacks and refugees at the Tunisian border. They are convinced that these images have something to do with them, and with Sidi Bouzid. They felt the same way a month ago when they saw the crowds gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Rochdi says that anyone who calls this a Facebook revolution has no idea. "Man, we spent two weeks being inundated with tear gas!" he says. Ali adds: "The political police know everyone here. It takes guts to put a video like that on Facebook. Without courage we would never have achieved this revolution."

It was only by chance that he was in his native Tunisia on the day of the self-immolation, says Rochdi. He has lived in Switzerland for 16 years and runs a crêperie in Lausanne. He has wanted to return to Switzerland for weeks, he says, but every day he realizes more and more that he is needed here.

Now he is free to continue doing what Ali risked his life to do several weeks ago. He took his camera to the hospital in Sidi Bouzid to film the filthy conditions there, the desperate nurses in the neonatal ward, and the decades-old medical equipment. Then he posted the video on Facebook. He says that he wants to do something for his country. He takes journalists to the olive plantations to meet the university graduates who can't find jobs in their fields.

Sometimes he even thinks about investing here, perhaps in an organic olive grove, and exporting to Europe. It's a huge business opportunity, he says, but then he catches himself. "It's too early, man. It isn't the right time yet to spend money here."

He cautiously broaches the subject of democracy, just as the entire town where everything began is now doing. There are hardly any police officers left in Sidi Bouzid. A few officers stand guard in front of the police station, but they never leave the company of the soldiers who are stationed there to protect them.

Growing Fury

Hundreds gather every day on the other side of the street, in front of the gates of the governor's office, which is still surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. They want to talk to the governor, about money, work and housing, and the governor, the fourth in three months, occasionally comes outside with a megaphone in his hand. He says that the people should calm down, and that he cannot see everyone. But they don't calm down. They only grow more furious.

There are women who scream hysterically and throw themselves onto the ground, and there are men who seem to be shouting for no reason at all. Sometimes, when it gets to be too much for them, the soldiers shoot into the air. Then it's silent for a moment.

The fruit seller Ridha, the handicapped uncle of Mohamed Bouazizi, sometimes stops by. He is now allowed to park his wooden cart where Mohamed's spot used to be. This appears to be the only benefit democracy has given him so far.

The public inspectors are keeping a low profile these days. They can no longer harass the unlicensed vendors, who have become untouchable throughout the country. The vendors have started setting up their stands on Tunis's main shopping streets, so the shop owners called for a strike because smuggled goods from Libya are blocking their displays of higher-quality merchandise.

An Electronic Scale as Prized Possession

During the day, Ridha stands behind his wares under the trimmed lotus trees along a street that is now called Avenue Mohamed Bouazizi, only 200 meters from the spot where his nephew set himself on fire. He has boxes of oranges, apples, tangerines and dates, and in the place where his cart once had an awning, there is now a rope with bananas hanging from it.

He is a short man with an open face weathered by the sun, and seems to be always standing with his legs crossed. His right leg is a few inches shorter than his left leg. His profit margins average from 50 to 100 millimes per kilo, or about three to five cents, and it is a good day if he takes in 15 dinars, or about €8. There are no longer any municipal inspectors who want to be bribed, or who fine the vendors and confiscate their wares. This is progress.

A drawback of the revolution is that no one has enough money. The price of oranges has doubled and bananas are a third more expensive than they used to be. Milk and sugar prices have hardly gone down, while bread is just as expensive as ever, except that now the loaves are smaller.

Ridha, after thinking about Mohamed Bouazizi and his own leg for a while, finally says: "It's true. Someone who is less robust than I am could easily kill himself if he were in my shoes."

In the evening, he pushes his cart down the street, pulls it into a shed and unloads the crates, all with only one good leg. Then he takes his electronic scale, his most prized possession, and drags himself up to his small apartment, where there are two mattresses and a TV set with a satellite dish. He places the scale on one of the mattresses and starts charging it.

His nephew Mohamed used to spend the night there sometimes. He too used to keep his electronic scale next to his bed. It was his most valuable possession and the one thing they took away from him before he set himself on fire.

Malicious Gossip and a New Elite

The fact that they are part of the same family, Mohamed, the icon of the revolution, and Ridha, the handicapped fruit seller, doesn't make his life any easier. Sometimes, when Ridha is standing behind his cart, the other vendors come to him and say: "You made a pretty penny with that story about your nephew. We saw how the journalists invited you to their hotels and gave you money. Maybe you can finally afford a prosthetic leg now."

A new spirit has taken hold in Sidi Bouzid, a spirit of envy and malicious gossip. Those who knew Mohamed Bouazizi are seen as profiteers of the revolution, while those who didn't know him ask themselves when they will finally profit from the changes that have taken place.

Ridha sits on both sides of this fence. When he feels the need to defend himself, he talks about his sister, the mother of the victim, a woman whom he thinks has made money from the death of her son. He hasn't spoken with his sister since she was invited to Ben Ali's palace at the end of December. He wasn't allowed to go along, because he wasn't deemed important enough. Mohamed's death brought him a new spot for his fruit cart and brought his sister 20,000 dinars, which the dictator promised her as compensation. Ridha sees no justice in democracy.

His sister is now the new elite in the town, as evidenced by the fact that she is now the target of malicious gossip. There are rumors of rich donors from Gulf countries and tales of her arrogant behavior at the supermarket and in the bank.

Manoubia Bouazizi, the mother of a hero, is sitting on a bench, warming her hands with a pot, in the inner courtyard of her narrow three-room house, which includes a kitchen and an entry hall. She says no one gave her money. A new computer with an Internet connection is visible in one of the rooms. Basma, the 15-year-old sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, is sitting in front of the computer.

She is now a member of Facebook.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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