By Wafa Ben Hassine
Tucked away between Libya and Algeria, Tunisia is a small country, home to a people that have seen empires come and go, each leaving their mark. Although I avoid generalizing, Tunisia’s population is fiery, passionate, hospitable and most of all, free-spirited. It is enamored with very important concepts, among the most important of which are life and love.
I lived in the Maghrebi country from second to sixth grade elementary. The lessons and habits one learns at such an age never leave. But it is not only the lessons but also the memories that live within me. I try my best not to romanticize my time there, yet I cannot help but remember the morning my grandmother woke up at dawn (as usual) to crack open a pomegranate and have it prepared with orange blossom water and sugar, ready for me by the time I woke up. I recall the short walk through the hustle and bustle of the capital from my primary school to my mother’s workplace (an American organization promoting cross-cultural awareness) for my daily lunch money. I remember the scent of freshly baked chocolate croissants and baguettes every morning, and the scent of the streets at dusk – infused with blooming jasmine. I remember the Turkish coffee my uncle made as we laughed and teased each other into the night.
Now, each summer or two, I return to refresh these memories, which are further enhanced with new elements that only come with age—clubs and “classy” restaurants, among other things. Yet, by the end of each vacation, I long to come back to my country of birth, the United States.
“I cannot do this anymore, mama,” I recall saying. “I need to go back. It’s ridiculous. Why do I have to go to eight offices in one day just to get one damn paper signed?”
Every shop had a picture of the seemingly benevolent former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali hanging at the door. Political gatherings were outlawed. Unless you had a connection to the ruling mafia, it was game over. People lived in fear of speaking their minds and of being themselves. The older I got, the more unbearable the situation became.
It was one evening two summers ago that really did it for me. After having sushi with friends in the cosmopolitan el-Nasr neighborhood, I decided to call a cab to drive me home. On our way, the cab was stopped by a police officer for a “regular inspection”—no search warrant necessary. The officer then proceeded to ask for the driver’s registration and insurance. He peeked inside the car and asked for my identification card. Having no other form of identification, I handed him my bright and shiny California driver’s license. First, all I got was a glare, followed by a very rude scolding. Why and how did I not have a Tunisian identification card if I spoke Tunisian Arabic? If I was not lying and was indeed a dual citizen, why was I not carrying my passport with me? His intimidation mortified me. Downtrodden and in tears, I rushed home and sent my mother, still in the United States, an e-mail saying, “I want to rescind my Tunisian citizenship. Now.” I was exalted to be leaving the country in a few weeks.
Still, I now yearn to return to Tunisia. To return to my olive groves, to my orange trees, to the music of the Mediterranean. To return to a country freed from its shackles of repression by an honest and pure popular uprising. The uprising started in mid-December in Sidi Bouzid, where citizens voiced their discontent about high unemployment rates and the rising cost of food. What started with a small group of Tunisians grew momentum and transformed into the largest street protests the country has seen. Many of us believed that the demonstrations would not be sustained and that the repression of civil society would only increase. Yet we were proven wrong. Despite the live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and water cannons, the Tunisian people succeeded in uprooting one of the most corrupt dictators in the region. On January 14th, 2011, Ben Ali fled his fort.
Following Ben Ali’s departure from the country, my conversations with my cousins via Skype have suddenly become far more honest. I asked my 22-year old male cousin living in the coastal town of Soussa about what has changed since then. His answer was, “There is no longer any censorship on the airwaves. We can express and be ourselves. We no longer live in fear.” The rest of my cousins echoed his sentiments.
The million-dollar question is: What’s next? The political climate is delicate and unpredictable. As it stands, several members of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, have resigned from their positions in the interim coalition government in response to more protests calling their legitimacy into question. Rached el-Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of the previously banned En-Nahda party (Renaissance), just landed in the Carthage International Airport today. He was greeted by thousands of supporters. The leftist, communist, and socialist parties are no longer banned from political participation. The future remains a mystery. The Tunisian case has been so fast-paced for academics, observers and Tunisian citizens that nothing can be foretold.
Regardless, Tunisia’s people as I know them would accept nothing less than a government that will tolerate, respect and embrace all trains of thought. Nothing less than a peaceful, free and open society – yes, a functioning democracy. In that same e-mail to my mom, I had dejectedly said, “It is of no use to me to be an official Tunisian citizen.” Looking back, I cannot forgive myself for such nonsense. Today, with our breaths held and our hopes high, we aspire to build anew for comprehensive change. This is Tunisia’s golden chance to defy stereotypes surrounding the region and inspire the rest of the world.
Photos courtesy of Wafa Ben Hassine, president of the Associated Students at UCSD.