Karl’s Chronicles. Article 30 Tunisia – Defiance
With life continuing to unfold indoors, the idea of travelling feels as foreign and distant as the places we have in mind. Bail-outs and hand-outs will increase in scope and severity as the lock-down imposes its strangulation on business’s both large and small. The economy will shrink to the measurements compatible with Alice heading into Wonderland while the media struggles to find stories unrelated to the pandemic. We see its devastation, resist its tyranny and endure its intrusion, and like past evil, whether human or natural, we will push through. Such adversity has brought solidarity, generosity, integrity, bravery, and confraternity, human traits to champion and be proud of. They alone will bring us through.
Living under an entity whose power and perniciousness has wormed its way down through every level of life reminded me of a dictatorship. Controlling government, who control the people through fear and reprisals—employing shadowy organisations whose existence is known but rarely seen, wielding total power, infallible and abject. Civilians surviving under a perverse ideology that possesses no meaning or logic, only absolute power from a singular presence. But dictatorships and regimes, whether military or monarch, have eventually collapsed by the will of the people. Revolutions imposed on stronger opponents, attired with more significant weaponry, falling to the continued retaliation of those who want nothing more than rightful freedom.
The decade’s old regimes that gradually fell across North Africa during The Arab Spring were the result of civilian power. Dictatorship had dried the landscape so much that when the first spark took form, it spread like wildfire. Those flames of discontent that ravaged across the Eastern Maghreb were known as the Facebook revolutions. Fanned and intensified by social media platforms that had no leader, no organisation to arrest. All the protests, fighting, rallies and political turmoil could trace its source back to that spark in Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia. Tarek el Tayeb Mohammed Bouazizi, a student, aggressively harassed by the authorities for illegally selling vegetables on the street, soon took his own life from the shame and humiliation. His death became the catalyst for change in uprooting regimes. Not just in Tunisia, but Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Broadening from a national martyr to a global hero for people living under supressive regimes.
A week before events were to change the landscape of the entire North African region, I had just embarked on the first of four journeys to circumnavigate the African continent. Commencing in Tunisia, conveniently located as the central nation of North Africa as well as having the continents most northern point, Ras ben Zakka on Cape Angela, 15 kilometres west of the town of Bizerte. On the first day of the uprising, I had reached the countries oldest Arab city of Kairouan, considered to be the fourth holiest centre in the Islamic world, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The entire place was a UNESCO World Heritage site packed with beautiful mosques, madrassas, shrines, and the Aghlabid pools. Sand yellow minarets punctured the sky, high above a puzzle of narrow, shadowy alleyways within a vast Medina. Leading the devout and the curious to exquisitely tiled mausoleums like Abou Zamaaa el Belaoui, a companion of the Prophet and the tomb of Sidi Sherif Ben Hindu, the architect of the Great Mosque. Warm days could quietly drift past as you lost yourself within the warren network of alleyways and corridors, finding things you weren’t searching for and never locating your actual destination—an ironic essence to the charm of travel.
The first day of unrest came on a cool evening of January 13t.h. The harsh sound of broken glass, the violent manner of which stone succumbed to rubble, and the burning smell of challenge to authoritarian rule like rain on hot tarmac unfolded with surprising rapidity. Conducted by the ebb and flow of Kairouan’s youth as the police tried, rather ineptly to quench the fire of protest. As dispossessed and disillusioned men fed up with unemployment, corruption and the insidious dictatorship of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime went on an evening rampage that collectively and inadvertently steered Tunisia on a new course.
I remember watching like a voyeur from my hotel window a group of women sitting high on the medina wall: their placid faces and twitching heads remnant of a flock of pigeons, peering doe-eyed onto the erupting anger below—a paradox in behaviour with the women emotionally detached from the unfolding event. There seemed a perverse reel of comical animation about it. Downstairs in the foyer, the night manager mimicking the kind of quick thinking found in a Dad’s Army episode had barricaded the doors with a mop and broom. Crossed like spears, it kept the mob out, though the reception floor missed its nightly clean. The manager suggested I return to my room and stay away from the windows. But with such change running rampant on the streets outside, it was a difficult order to obey. I dropped to my knees, crawled across the floor and used the curtain to pull myself up. Backing into the corner and using the fabric as a partial screen. But the windows, protruding outwards, formed an over-hanging box, requiring additional movement to see developments at street level. Discreet viewing was adequate straight ahead but impossible beneath, and absorbed by a mania to look, I failed to realise my presence filled up much of the window. The first rock sailed past, ending up shy of a stationary motorbike, but the second found its mark. Slamming into a crooked blue shutter on the right side, which sent it plummeting down onto an old bicycle. Taking alarm of my foolish position I threw myself back onto the floor, sliding across as if under barb-wire to the far side. The thud of a third rock had fallen short, hitting the wall beneath the box. A volley of shouting and footfall trailed the impact and then abrupt silence. Somewhere further up Rue el Farabi that passed Martyrs square came the whistling pitch of a siren. The rebellion had fled into the Medina, utilising the labyrinth of lanes to out-fox capture. As I flicked the light switch off and plundered the room into darkness, the pulsing blue light of the police van hurtled straight passed, not giving the grand arch of the Medina a second thought.
Dawn slowly exposed a trail of destruction, broken benches, smashed street lights, upturned bins and the occasional car battered and bruised from flying rubble. But, in consideration to twenty-three years of dictatorship, the unleashed anarchy had been conservative towards much higher possibilities. By the second day, a campaign of aggression targeted only government, banks and council offices. The real offenders in the eyes of the resistance. Taken beyond the major cities and into the towns and villages across the entire terrain of Tunisia. From coastal towns that stared across the sparkle of the Mediterranean to the Troglagyte homes in the dry, blistering south. Protest and civil disobedience took ever greater force, endorsed and encouraged by every section of society, fuelled by anger, hope, hysteria, ego, truth, and revenge. On the third day, left without the support of his two closest generals and therefor the army, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled.
I had moved eastwards to the small coastal town Mahdia, once the mighty capital of the Fatimid dynasty. From the small Al Jazira hotel, a cluster of guests huddled around the television like an open fire on a cold winters night. Watching media reports of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali vacate Tunisia and head indirectly for exile. Turned down by France and Malta before finding sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, where all troubled dictators go to escape punishment. Twenty-three years of his insidious presidency came to an end. Outside gunshots pierced the relative silence though none of us was sure it was recognition to celebration or continuation to defiance. The poor manager remained adamant that nobody left the hotel which covered the particular inclusion of disappearing onto the roof. It would take a little longer to uproot the rest of Ben Ali’s cronies who had over the years enriched themselves in the syphoning, embezzlement, corruption and criminal syndicates of such an oppressive political entity. The financial perks and high-class lifestyle too addictive to abandon. It was said in Tunisia that you knew when your business had reached success as the President’s family moved in to claim its share. As quoted in Martin Meredith’s book The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Greed is its own cancer.
Facts: Once the tourism and hospitality industry begins to set forth again, it will undoubtedly uncover many businesses that couldn’t survive the prolonged damage. So any information given is purely speculative. I haven’t presented a review for the Sabra in Kairouan or the Al Jazira in Mahdia despite staying there. As we are turning the clock back to 2011, so anything can have happened in almost a decade. A quick internet search failed to uncover anything on these hotels, but as everything has ground to a halt, it is hardly surprising. It will take guidebooks several years to update all their information concerning accommodation, restaurants, and tour operators, right across the globe. A lot of new information will be born from reviews and blogs of independent travellers who can collectively cover places in forbearance to every budget.
It will be worth checking the FCO before contemplating travel as restrictions in foreign countries could still be in place. Policies with Travel Insurance Companies will have been altered in light of Corvid-19 so any new policy will need to be scrutinised more than usual before purchase.
For now, you can travel anywhere with your imagination, and there’s never been a better time to read about the world and invoke your curiosity.