Tunisia: not the place I knew
In May and June 2009 I lived in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. I lived in a dumpy apartment in the downtown, took the bus to work every day, and drank mint tea on my time off. My biggest complaints were cockroaches and no laundry machine. Now, I’d be contending with looters, gun fights and police brutality. I can’t believe what a different place it appears to be just more than a year and a half later.
To me, Tunisia was an exciting adventure, but it was not a dangerous place. It wasn’t even a place of unrest. Most people were preferred not to speak much about politics or President Ben Ali, but I also got the sense they accepted the way things were. At least in the capital, most people had decent paying jobs. The people my age were in university. They all had cell phones, let alone enough food on the table.
But clearly that was not enough. The people in Tunisia are well-educated and proud. It’s now obvious those characteristics don’t mix well with a President who lives in a palace. Or a President who blocks YouTube, and periodically Facebook as well.
I’m happy to see Tunisians take control of their country and demand more. But I wonder, why now? The country seemed peaceful and content only eighteen months ago. Reading the news on Al Jazeera, I found an excellent quote the reporter used for an explanation.
It was written by Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasem Al-Shibi. It became part of the Tunisian national anthem. It is:
“When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day … the slavery chains must be broken.”
Sounds dramatic but it probably loses the melodrama if you’re told your university degree won’t even afford you the ability to sell fruits in the street. Makes you wonder what will it take for people living under oppressive regimes all over the work to ‘decide to live’? I wonder.
I keep in touch with my boss from the job I had during those two months. He lives in a suburb outside Tunis, a place where reportedly there has been a lot of looting. He had some money and I know he has a place to stay outside the country so I asked him over an email if he was thinking of leaving. But he said leaving was not an option – these were important moments for democracy in Tunisia and he would stay. I wonder if you or I would willingly stay in a place where we had to barricade ourselves in our homes day and night.
We have no sense of how important democracy is when we have lived under it all our lives. Even travelling to a place where democracy doesn’t exist doesn’t give you the exact sense for how important it is. I always knew I would be leaving Tunisia for Canada after a few short weeks there.
On a lighter note: Although many in Tunisia are wary of the new, temporary unity government’s ability to bring change to Tunisia, I know there is one thing that will be different now that Ben Ali is gone. All over the country, photos of his excellency were posted. On buildings, billboards, framed inside offices, restaurants … too me it was so odd and slightly (ok more than slightly) hilarious. The President always seemed to be making these silly poses, which I guess were supposed to seem regal and benevolent. One of the first things I thought when I heard he had left the country was “Oh my God, it’s going to take them so long to take down all those silly pictures …”
In all seriousness, I am hoping for the best for the Tunisian people, especially for my former boss, co-workers and their families, and also in the name of the dozens of people who have died trying to free the country from its dictator.