Saturday, May 5, 2012

You, Me, and the Ben Ali's

Shit, I thought. The cops are pulling us over.

She laughed, "don't worry", she said to me. And reached for her ID card. I had seen cops in Tunis before, and nobody in a Porche would normally be left peacfully without a serious bribe, the cop must have thought he was in for a good chunk of money.

She didn't look upset about the cops, but repulsed by the mere fact that he dare to stop us on our way to Sindbad - a new restaurant/lounge club in Tunis.

The cop was confident as he approached us, he asked for ID, and she handed it over and simply said - "I'm a Ben Ali girl".

The cop returned her ID in the most panicked and polite manner possible. The power had shifted from the Middle aged police officer, to the twenty-something Ben Ali girl. "My sincerest apologies" he said, "enjoy your evening". It was clear what caused him to leave so quickly - fear. Fear of what would happen to him if he challenge one of the close members of the Ben Ali family, there was no justice back then when that was your family name, just free passes.

We went to the lounge, it was opening night. There was a long line and my students had been complaining that day about how it would be impossible to get in Sindbad. She grabbed my hand, passed the people waiting and led me to the front of the line with her, the bouncers cleared the people and allowed us to pass. There were unapproving grunts and groans from the people who had been waiting in line. "Hey! We're here too, we've been in line for hours!" One guy in line called, the bouncer glared at him, and let us pass.

I went to her house in Menzah a number of times. They were the only family in Tunis I knew of that had English speaking maids from the Phillippines. I felt like I was back in a house in Saudi Arabia. Her mother didn't work, and her father was a pilot for TunisAir. TunisAir pilots do make a decent salary, but not enough for an extravagent home with a pool overlooking Tunis and a garage full of luxury cars. But thats what you got for being the Presidents brother, I suppose.

They gave me fresh imported meals from Italy, took me out to eat at expensive retaurants, took me to the best clubs, gave me a car, and brought me to their private oriental dancing lessons.

Meanwhile, Tunisians were struggling. Walking down the street, getting into a taxi, taking the bus, going to work - all these simple tasks were so frustrating in Tunisia at the time. It was apparent that people were frustrated and tired and needed an out. But nobody could talk about those difficulties, everyone was trained to just talk about Football.

But oh, how the tables turned.

On a trip I took to Paris, I bought a book that was banned in Tunisia at the time about Leila Ben Ali (Trabelsi), I found it funny that the "First Lady" was an ex-hair-dresser. I was in class in mid-December, we had just heard the news about Mohammed Bouazizi, and it was the main topic of discussion everywhere you went in Tunis. I asked my class that day - "Is it true that Leila Ben Ali was a hairdresser?" They froze, shocked that I had asked and afraid of how to respond. It was the most akward moment of teaching I had had. One girl finally told me - "look you can't say things like that here - we wont get you in trouble - but people get arrested and tortured for saying things like that." They all agreed, and it was so apparent what was consuming them in that moment - Fear. The same fear that the police officer felt when he pulled us over.

I remember the night that the protests reached Tunis. I was in another class when one young man in my class was wearing a purple shirt. We were watching the movie Crash and having discussions about treating people with respect. One student made fun of him for wearing purple - it was "Ben Ali's color", it was the first time I heard students mocking Ben Ali. We had NEVER talked politics in class, and we were strictly trained to avoid the subject. The students were getting calls from their parents and friends worried about the protests spreading and telling everyone to go home immediately. But I loved this class, and they loved it too - we all decided to stay together discussing human rights while the rest of the Institute closed down and people went home in fear of protests spreading.

For the first time, students in my class started complaining about Ben Ali, and at this point I too wasn't afriad of losing my job or getting in trouble - this issue was heart felt and some of my students seemed to be on the verge of tears. This was the first week of January and just before everything started in Tunis, and it was the last class I taught in Tunisia before the revolution closed down the school for a month. They told me about people who they loved and respected who were arrested and tortured, and how they just wanted to be able to criticise and talk freely, they felt trapped, frustrated and tired of the injustice. The enitre class was in agreement, they wanted change, but there were two students who were afraid and upset that this issue had been touched - they stood up and left class.

We remained in the classroom for another hour, they opened up their hearts to me, trusting me because I was an outsider who they knew wouldn't get them in trouble . My boss finally called me and sternly told me we needed to get out of the building because protests were coming to us.

Mohammed Bouazizi got Tunisians talking about the problems in their country, and I remember the fear in December just after it had happened - my students didn't want to talk, but two weeks later that fear had been broken. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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